Memorial Day Playlist: Ten patriotic (and vaguely patriotic) songs that don't suck

As we all prepare to take time out from our hurried lives to remember the brave men and women of the armed forces who fought (and continue to fight) to keep us all free to live our lives as we please, we came up with a list of ten tunes to cue up this Memorial Day as you fire up the grill. See which ones we picked for you after the jump.

10. Sufjan Stevens - "Come on! Feel the Illinoise!" Okay, so Stevens' anthem to the Midwest's crown city doesn't actually contain the word "America," and perhaps lyrics like "I cried myself to sleep last night" don't exactly embody that go-get-'em spirit. All the same, Stevens' naïve optimism captures a hint of the sweet pursuit of happiness, and the breakdown around minute two won't fail to get your toe tapping.

09. Merle Haggard - "Okie from Muskogee" Opening with the lyric "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," Haggard pits down-home values against them dern draft-dodger "hippies out in San Fransisco." The song is admittedly "square," but Haggard knows how to craft a catchy hook -- and this one's built upon an oddly Latin-tinged groove.

08. Louis Armstrong - "The Beautiful American" There aren't any lyrics to Armstrong's swinging interpretation of "The Beautiful American," no amber waves of grain, no eagle-lasers--but the vibe comes with a certain patriotic nostalgia, hearkening back to a time when a heroic war was on, crew-cuts were hot, and big bands were mainstream. Besides, as far as genre goes, what could be more American than Dixieland?

07. Simon and Garfunkel - "America" It may be that with lyrics like, "I said be careful, his bow tie is really a camera," Simon and Garfunkel's ode to the motherland is a tad snarky, but it's also gorgeous and melancholy, and it builds to a pretty epic climax. And if America is anything, by God, it's epic.

06. Curtis Mayfield - "Power to the People" Mayfield's iconic funk often has a sharp edge to it, but the major chords and optimism of "Power to the People" soften this song's message for the masses. And lyrics like "We want the power for the people/That's all we ask for our country, dear," and "God bless great America," paired with a mellow groove, make this song one you can nod your head to while you grill hot dogs.

05. Young Jeezy - "My President" Young Jeezy's oddly political album The Recession reaches its apex in "My President," a closing tribute to Barack Obama. Of course, contributor Nas notes that "No president ever did shit for me," but Jeezy's heart is in the right place when he champions good old American materialism in the chorus: "My president is black/my Lambo's blue/and I be goddamned if my rims ain't, too."

04. David Bowie - "Young Americans" David Bowie is not really an American, but he did some fine work with Philadelphia soul on his 1975 record Young Americans, on which the title track was particularly hopeful and innocent. No foreign artist since has captured the heartland vibe so convincingly.

03. Trey Parker and Matt Stone - "America: Fuck Yeah" The theme song to 2004's Team America: World Police was a better skewer of U.S. douchbaggery than perhaps any song ever, building to a list of American things (followed by a chorus of "Fuck Yeah") that cleverly includes "slavery" and "immigrants." Satirical? Fuck yeah, but even as a joke, lyrics like "America, fuck yeah/Coming in to save the motherfuckin' day" can't help but make your chest swell with pride a little.

02. Bruce Springsteen - "Born in the USA" Lyrics like "End up like a dog that's been beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up" make it clear that the Boss's message in this song is not the most positive one. But the bombast of the synth-heavy production, along with the giant drum solo, make this song as integral to the American fabric as foreign wars -- Ronald Reagan even used it as a campaign song. Some might argue, of course, that this song should be excluded from the list on the basis that it does, in fact, suck. But those people would be wrong. Dead wrong.

01. Jimi Hendrix - "The Star Spangled Banner" Probably the all-time best rock-n-roll tribute to la patria ever, Hendrix's interpretation of the national anthem encapsulated everything awesome about this great land: It was huge, it was spontaneous, and it was brilliantly subversive. Although Hedrix's explosive effects in the solo were clearly a commentary on Vietnam, his riffing on our national hymn's well known themes was delicate and affecting, and he brings the whole thing to a gigantic grand finale.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte