10 Great State-of-the-Nation Albums

By
Share:

The new Dan Deacon album was released yesterday, and it’s perhaps the last thing we would have expected from a man once so interested in the idea of music as a purely sonic entity, devoid of any narrative or greater meaning: it’s a loose concept album about America. Deacon has written some interesting stuff about the ideas behind the album, which is entitled simply America , on his website, noting that “The inspiration for the music was my love of cross-country travel, seeing the landscapes of the United States, going from east to west and back again over the course of seasons,” while “The lyrics are inspired by my frustration, fear and anger towards the country and world I live in and am a part of.” The result is a fascinating state-of-the-nation album, a record that’s both personal and also vocal about the country of its creator. In celebration of its release, here are some of our favorite albums that address similar subject matter.

Sly and the Family Stone — There’s a Riot Goin’ On

The narrative around this album has been well-documented: Sly takes a load of drugs, holes up in his Bay Area studio and makes an album that abandons his ’60s positivity for an apocalyptic vision of a country on fire. There’s certainly an argument to be made that There’s a Riot Goin’ On’s bleakness mirrors its era, a time when the free-love ’60s had reached its high water mark, in Hunter S Thompson’s immortal phrase, and the wave had well and truly broken and rolled back.

Sonic Youth — Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth’s enduring masterpiece is less explicit in its descriptions of late-’80s America, but no less effective. There are depictions of the underbelly of the movie industry (“Kissability”), Robert Chambers, and, best of all, wishing J Mascis would run for president (“Teen Age Riot”). The abiding portrait is that of a nation sleepwalking toward bedlam, still clinging to the coat-tails of Reaganism even though the 1987 stock market crash meant that again, the party was well and truly over.

Gil Scott-Heron — Winter in America

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is perhaps more concise, but Scott-Heron’s most complete view of America is to be found on this 1974 album. It finds him surveying his country with ambivalence and sadness, contrasting the false vision of the American dream with, perhaps, a smidgeon of optimism that that vision might one day become reality (even the title, Winter in America, implies some hope for a coming spring.) In the meantime, there’s plenty of sad disillusionment, exemplified by the opening lines from “Back Home”: “They told us that the streets were paved with gold,” he sings, “And some of us believed ’em/ left our home and came looking/ But that was just another story they told.”

Public Enemy — It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

A generation later, there was less ambivalence and more outright anger to be found in Public Enemy’s epochal 1988 record and commercial breakthrough. The album’s view of the plight of black America was made explicit by its title and cover art (Chuck D and Flava Flav in a jail cell, staring defiantly out at the world), and it functioned as a howl of rage at injustice that’s just as potent now as it was nearly 25 years ago.

Midnight Oil — Diesel and Dust

Plenty of my compatriots will shout me down for this, but before Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett became a thoroughly disappointing politician, he was a songwriter with plenty to say about his country. This album was the zenith of Midnight Oil’s career, an all-out assault on Australian complacency that addressed contemporary issues like Aboriginal land rights (“Beds Are Burning” and “The Dead Heart”), the ANZUS pact (“Put Down That Weapon”) and environmental destruction (“Dreamworld”). It was a surprisingly big hit, too — it charted in America and even 25 years later, it has a habit of surfacing unexpectedly in overseas acquaintances’ record collections. It’s just a shame Garrett turned out to be a massive hypocrite. Sigh.

PJ Harvey — Let England Shake

It’s as much about war as it is about England, but PJ Harvey’s 2011 masterwork still has plenty to say about her native land, and not a great deal that’s particularly complimentary. “England’s dancing days are done,” she sings on the title track, adding in the same verse that “indifference has won.” But ultimately, for all that Harvey is happy to point out her country’s flaws, she’s doing so because she loves it: “Withered vine reaching from the country that I love… To you, England, I cling/ Undaunted, never failing love for you…”

The Kinks — Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

A perhaps more nuanced portrait of post-war Britain is to be found on the Kinks’ seventh album, which was inspired by Ray and Dave Davies’ sister emigrating to Australia with her partner Arthur Anning (the “Arthur” of the title). The album depicts a country struggling with the economic and social legacy of war, lost empire and declining global relevance, a country that its narrator both loves and perhaps secretly also longs to leave behind.

Sufjan Stevens — Illinois

Not so much a state-of-the-nation as a state-of-the-state album, but Stevens’ depiction of the Midwest has plenty to say about the country as a whole. It’s a vivid portrait of the state and its denizens (apart from the Jeffrey Dahmer bits, anyway) — and also, it has to be said, it’s a lot less pessimistic than most of the records on this list.

Pink Floyd — The Dark Side of the Moon

Its impact has perhaps been diluted by age and overexposure, but Pink Floyd’s depiction of English life and death and all that comes between is an enduring masterpiece for a reason. It’s certainly the pinnacle of Roger Waters’s lyricism — he never wrote a better line than “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” and his misanthropy and vitriol here are largely counter-balanced by compassion and empathy, which wasn’t always the case on later records. The album’s view of the world has aged depressingly well, too — we can all certainly relate to the contrast between the big-spending fat cats of “Money” and the slowly unravelling salaryman of “Time” and “Brain Damage,” can’t we?

Woody Guthrie — Dust Bowl Ballads

Basically “The Grapes of Wrath” set to music. The state of the nation in 1940? Not so good, to be honest.