A Bunch of Good Songs About Being a Good Person

Update, 11/10/2014: I’m reposting this today because, for some reason or another, it continues to be one of the most popular posts on this site three years after I wrote it. More importantly, I’ve modified it to replace the Kirsty MacColl track at #5 with a much more appropriate song that I should’ve included originally. You can also now listen to this playlist without leaving the page.

Mr. Ted LeoJanuary 18, 2012 – Maybe it’s just been my spending a couple of years unemployed, but I’ve noticed a subtle, glacial shift in the assholism of our culture. It feels like sometime not too long ago we crossed an invisible line on this side of which it’s ever so slightly more probable that people will act like assholes than not.

We choose to just be a tiny bit lazier and not return that email. We decide to spend just a little bit more time on our own stuff instead of doing that thing we promised to do for someone else. We quickly jump on Twitter to badmouth other people instead of spending just one moment to stop and think about whether or not we should, let alone an additional moment to judge ourselves. And we all seem to have finally agreed that it’s probably okay to screw someone else over a little bit if it’s not personal, just business.

I’m a lazy, grumpy contrarian, which makes it difficult for me to spend a lot of time actively fighting to make the world a better place. So at some point I decided that a way I could contribute to that struggle is to be a proactively nice person. So I’ve adopted a sort of aggressive version of the golden rule: whenever there’s something that I wish someone would do for me, I’ll do it for someone else. It’s usually just small stuff like letting a friend know I’m thinking about them, telling someone I like their work, or buying a stranger lunch, but my hope is that it’ll subconsciously rub off on people and they’ll eventually behave nicely toward others. 1This doesn’t make me a good person and certainly doesn’t make me better than anyone else. None of the stuff I’m doing even requires any sacrifice or effort on my part. I’m just being the kind of person my mother taught me to be and that I thought we were all taught to be. If anything it’s kind of selfish of me, since I’m doing it because I don’t like assholes, and I want to live in a world full of good people.

Okay so in addition to all of the above, I spent the better part of nine years creating content for, and directly interacting with, an audience of teenage girls. And one thing I noticed over and over that delineates teens and adults is that the girls have a great eagerness to allow their lives to be changed by art. They model their behavior on movies, books, and TV shows that affect them, and they especially pay great attention to song lyrics they find meaningful.

When we grow up, we tend to see that kind of alacrity as naïve. But in an era when are lives are more saturated with entertainment media than at any other point in history, we if anything need to be more willing to let art affect our lives. We need to think critically about the media we’re absorbing and learn from it. We should imitate the good we see and condemn the bad. A thoughtful, hopeful person embraces doing that; it’s obstinate and cynical to call it immature.

So with all that in mind, here are a bunch of good songs about being a good person. I feel the need to emphasize that first “good,” because so many of the apolitical, positive-message pop songs out there are corporate fructose that sounds like audio greeting cards. These tracks, I hope, can be appreciated by people who actually like music. You can listen to most of them for free via this Spotify playlist. The others have individual links.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for songs to add to, so please comment away.

1. “The News” by Carbon/Silicon – The Last Post
This 2007 collaboration between Mick Jones (of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite) and Tony James (of Generation X) cruised kind of under the radar. A shame because it has a few great tracks, many of them about where society’s headed and what our individual behavior has to do with it. “The News” is a ridiculously optimistic dancer about what might happen if we all got our shit together. (A much less optimistic track later on the album, “Caesars Palace,” wonders why that’s so hard to do.)

2. “Wasted Life” by Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material
Stiff Little Fingers were a bunch of punks in Belfast in the late ’70s, when the Troubles were boiling hard and young men were expected to take to the streets for either the Catholic Republicans or Protestant Unionists, and maybe kill a few of the other side while they were at it. Jake Burns and the guys in the band said no, and showed that being good sometimes means being selfish. In this case, it meant refusing to kill or be killed at anyone’s orders.

3. “Gratitude” by Beastie Boys – Check Your Head
Has any other band worked harder to improve themselves and make up for their sleazebag youth than the Beasties? This song, from one on the most important albums of the ’90s, is just about shutting up and saying thank you.

4. “Meanest Man” by Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue Vol. II
From the second album of Woody Guthrie lyrics unearthed by his daughter and set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco, this is a tongue-in-cheek testament to my Proactive Niceness Theory.

5. “The Hardest Word” by Kirsty MacColl – Electric Landlady (added Nov. 10, 2014)
When I originally compiled this list, I included both Kirsty MacColl’s lament at betraying a friend, “Caroline,” and here battle cry for the victims of war, “Children of the Revolution.” But driving across Los Angeles today on a perfect autumn afternoon, out of my stereo came another of Kirsty’s songs that sounds just like a perfect autumn afternoon, “The Hardest Word” from her nearly perfect 1991 album Electric Landlady. “The Hardest Word” exists to be put on a list like this, a beautiful poem reminding us to be kind to each other because we are each other, put to an arrangement like light filtering through leaves. 2Here’s the text of the original version of this post.

“Caroline” by Kirsty MacColl – From Croydon to Cuba.

You can’t hear this one on Spotify, because it never got an album release (Actually, I’ve since found out that it was originally released as part of the 1995 Kirsty collection Galore, now out of print.) and is only available on the import-only multi-disc Kirsty anthology, From Croydon to Cuba. It’s really one of her best pop songs and definitely one of the most interesting. Kirsty said she wrote it from the point of view of Jolene from Dolly Parton’s classic (“Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”) to try to turn her into a sympathetic character. “Caroline” is all about doing something awful to someone you care about and not being to undo it no matter how much you want to.

To fill Caroline’s spot with something Spotifiable, I chose “Children of the Revolution” from Electric Landlady. It’s too political to include in the list otherwise, (“Children of the revolution, sold out by the banks / Who swapped the green upon the dollars for the green upon the tanks”) but a song about not killing third-world children, directly or indirectly, counts as being about kindness.

6. “When Not Being Stupid is Not Enough” by The Very Most – Congratulations Forever
I wanted to include the original version of this number by Built to Spill from their team-up EP with Caustic Resin. 3Which by the way includes a spectacular screaming-guitar track, “One Thing.” It’s not on Spotify, but I almost prefer this cover by fellow Boise band The Very Most. It sacrifices six minutes of Doug Martsch jamming but boils the song down to its pretty essence and its point that being good requires trying to be smart — and a lot more.

7. “Long Time Comin'” by Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust
I couldn’t put together this list without a Springsteen song, but it’s a lot harder to find one that fits the theme than you might expect. Most of Springsteen’s characters are so lost that the question of how to be good gets mixed up with the question of how to exist, or at best how to exist without hope. But “Long Time Comin’,” from 2005’s forgotten Devils & Dust, is all about a guy trying to make up for his shit past. He promises he “ain’t gonna fuck it up this time,” but you know he will.

BONUS TRACK! I decided to include “Long Time Comin'” instead of my favorite song from The Ghost of Tom Joad, “Straight Time.” That’s because the narrator of “Straight Time” obviously doesn’t really want to be good, no matter how hard he’s trying. But it’s still one of Bruce’s most under-appreciated recordings.

8. “Wrong ’em Boyo” by The Clash – London Calling
“Quit being an asshole!” sayeth The Clash.

9. “The Final Word” by Stephen Yerkey – Confidence, Man
I mentioned this song when I wrote about Stephen a year or so ago. Unfortunately neither this original, acoustic version or the full-band recording from Stephen’s LP Confidence, Man are available on Spotify, Unfortunately the original, exceptionally moving acoustic rendition still isn’t available on Spotify, but the full-band recording from Stephen’s LP Confidence, Man now is. Written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “The Final Word” is about the importance of using love and dignity to face down tragedy. You can buy the acoustic version on iTunes. It’s worth $0.99 just to hear how Stephen howls, “Our brothers are dying in the Mission / And our brothers are dying in the Haight.”

10. “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song” by Constantines – Kensington Heights
This song inspired this playlist. The version you’ll hear on Spotify comes from a fantastic band’s best album, and it’s a nice, ballady rendition. But the one I really want you to hear is from Constantine’s 2010 studio session for Daytrotter, which you can listen to for free by signing up for a trial membership to that excellent site. That alternate rendition is a full-on, blow the doors off, punk smash up. And is there anything better than hearing a great loud band screaming about not being hateful? The line from this song that I have to tell myself every single day when I’m on Twitter is: “The last sound that I make / could be the last sound that I hear / I will not sing a hateful song / Though it’s in me to sing.”

11. “Walking to Do” by Ted Leo + Pharmacists – Shake the Sheets
To be fair Ted’s not so much directly singing about being a good person as he is about always remembering to have respect, hope, and trust. But you can’t be good without those. If you find a person who doesn’t like this song, it’s a person I don’t wish to know.

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1. This doesn’t make me a good person and certainly doesn’t make me better than anyone else. None of the stuff I’m doing even requires any sacrifice or effort on my part. I’m just being the kind of person my mother taught me to be and that I thought we were all taught to be. If anything it’s kind of selfish of me, since I’m doing it because I don’t like assholes, and I want to live in a world full of good people.
2. Here’s the text of the original version of this post.

“Caroline” by Kirsty MacColl – From Croydon to Cuba.

You can’t hear this one on Spotify, because it never got an album release (Actually, I’ve since found out that it was originally released as part of the 1995 Kirsty collection Galore, now out of print.) and is only available on the import-only multi-disc Kirsty anthology, From Croydon to Cuba. It’s really one of her best pop songs and definitely one of the most interesting. Kirsty said she wrote it from the point of view of Jolene from Dolly Parton’s classic (“Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”) to try to turn her into a sympathetic character. “Caroline” is all about doing something awful to someone you care about and not being to undo it no matter how much you want to.

To fill Caroline’s spot with something Spotifiable, I chose “Children of the Revolution” from Electric Landlady. It’s too political to include in the list otherwise, (“Children of the revolution, sold out by the banks / Who swapped the green upon the dollars for the green upon the tanks”) but a song about not killing third-world children, directly or indirectly, counts as being about kindness.

3. Which by the way includes a spectacular screaming-guitar track, “One Thing.”

Kindly Provide Mr. Madej With Your Viewpoint

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