One day a few months ago, I was listening to my iPod on the DC Subway. I’ve loaded a sufficient number of songs on there that I forget a lot of what I have. A song called “Whatever,” by a particularly filthy-minded band from Austin called the Asylum Street Spankers. The top of the song is uncharacteristically high-minded:
“I’ve got to save the world, liberate, eat the food that’s on my plate, recycling is really great”
Then you realize the singer’s just listing the things he needs to do to score. Here are 20 somewhat more high-minded songs that have delivered an environmental message the world can dance to:
20. "Traffic Jam": A very un-James Taylor like riff about being stuck in traffic and pondering the impact of fossil fuels.
19. "The Almighty Dollar" by Ozzy Osbourne. Bet you didn’t expect to find him on this list. “Burn into the air and atmosphere/Watching the rain come down/Turn your head away, ignore the fear/Watching the ice crash down.” (Full disclosure: I had to look up the lyrics, since Ozzy and I do not speak the same language.)
18. "Don’t Go Near the Water": After a decade of cheerful invites to have fun in the surf, the Beach Boys changed their minds. This was around the time that Brian Wilson went off the deep end.
17. "Calypso": One of the more tolerable songs from the late John Denver, it’s actually a great tribute to a 20th Century hero, Jacques Cousteau.
16. "To the Last Whale: David Crosby & Graham Nash. Enough said.
15. Excuse Me, Mr. by Ben Harper: “Excuse me, Mr. but isn’t that your oil in the sea? And the pollution in the air, Mr., whose could that be?”
14. Danger Zone by Percy Mayfield. Sorry, no video link to this one, but look at the lyrics. Old 1950s blues legends usually didn’t spend this much time freaking out about nuclear war. Here’s a link to a version of it by a gospel singer named Marion Williams.
13. Paradise by John Prine: “The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel, and tortured the timber for thirty-odd years.”
12. Blackened by Metallica. If Ozzy can make the list, so can Beavis and Butt-Head’s favorite band. “Death of Mother Earth/Never a Rebirth/Evolutions End/Never Will It Mend.”
11. New World Water by Mos Def. If we can have green head-banging, we can most definitely have green hip-hop (with blue language). “New World Water make the tide rise high/Come inland and make your house go bye.”
10. Where Do the Children Play? by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. He stopped performing after his conversion to Islam, but the man now known as Yusuf Islam has begun to perform his old tunes again, mostly for charity.
9. Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me: Like Percy Mayfield, jazz legend Charles Mingus freaked out over the Cold War and originally recorded this in 1961.
8. Before the Deluge: Jackson Browne has worked long and hard for environmental causes; this is the best of many songs that touch on the topic.
7. Dead Heart by Midnight Oil: Peter Garrett, the lead singer for the band, has changed jobs. He’s now Australian’s Environment Minister. On an honorable mention note, John Hall, the lead singer of the 1970s band Orleans and a headliner in the No Nukes concert, is now a Congressman from upstate New York.
6. My City Was Gone by the Pretenders. A mournful tale about the destruction of a city (Akron, Ohio) and the creation of soulless suburbs. I’ll never figure out how this became Rush Limbaugh’s radio theme song.
5. Tapestry by Don McLean. The guy who is often only remembered for “American Pie” also wrote this beautiful, foreboding message: “We’re poisoned by venom with each breath we take/from the brown sulfur chimney and the black highway snake.”
4. Big Yellow Taxi, originally by Joni Mitchell and covered by many, including the Counting Crows. “You pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”
3. Nothing but Flowers by the Talking Heads is a wistful view of development in reverse: “There was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered with flowers.”
2. Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) by Marvin Gaye: “Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our sea, fish full of mercury.”
1. Dirty Water by the Standells. Over 40 years ago, this band from Los Angeles sang a love/hate song for the water in a city 3,000 miles away. Boston’s dirty water became an issue in the 1988 presidential race, and the song became a theme for the city’s sports teams. The Standells are a lot older now. The water’s a bit cleaner now. And the Red Sox rule.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit.