That's OK. Though we may not be the smartest nation-builders, no one writes and records better rock songs than American bands (plus maybe a Canadian act or two):
"America," Neil Diamond. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, this classic Diamond cut was one of a handful of patriotic songs Clear Channel Communications banned from its radio programming. Perhaps the song's refrain ("They're coming to America!") might have suggested something ominous to stressed-out listeners. Regardless, it didn't keep Diamond from performing the song live in concert in the months that followed. He simply changed the lyric to "stand up for America," which is exactly what this tune did during that shattered time, particularly in the line: "Home, don't it seem so far away? / Oh, we're traveling light today / In the eye of the storm."
"American Pie," Don McLean. Released in 1971, this is inarguably the most epic, timeless rock song ever recorded (excepting Led Zep's "Stairway to Heaven"). Literally, academic dissertations have been written about this masterpiece, also briefly removed from Clear Channel playlists following Sept. 11. To hear it for the hundredth time is as rewarding as the first due to McLean's awesome referencing of every significant moment and figure in pop--from Buddy Holly to Mick Jagger. Radio will never broadcast a song this eerie again. "Eerie?" you say. We cite as evidence: "Helter skelter in a summer swelter / The birds flew off with a fallout shelter." Listen to it again, people.
"American Hearts," A.A. Bondy. The titular piece from his dark and lovely 2008 solo debut on Fat Possum Records was recorded in a barn in upstate New York. The song defines Bondy's folk sound, which draws on regionally disparate, equally apocalyptic influences like Nick Drake and Leadbelly. When Bondy delivers the chorus, "And don't tread on her / For she is your sister / She was born with an American heart," you sense he's including every woman, saint or devil--Rachel Corrie and Lynndie England, to name just two--and asking us to consider their flawed humanity before passing judgment. Indie-rock doesn't get any better than this raw yet exquisitely crafted song. Bondy possesses all the power of musical giants like Cohen, Dylan, Van Zandt.
"American Woman," the Guess Who. "Colored lights can hypnotize / Sparkle someone else's eyes," screams frontman Burton Cummings in what many still consider an anti-war, anti-American song. (When the band performed at the White House, it's said that Pat Nixon requested they remove the massive hit from their set list.) But with its huge riff and stomping momentum, "American Woman" is more of a testament to the deadly and wide-ranging attractiveness of U.S. beauties than an explicit critique of our country's foreign-policy blunders. And you know, sometimes it takes a bunch of Canadian rockers to remind us how great American men have got it. Lenny Kravitz's pathetic version doesn't hold a candle.
"American Girl," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty claims he wrote this upbeat, guitar-chiming anthem in California while listening to cars whiz by on the Encino freeway. In his hometown of Gainesville, Fla., however, people swear it's about a college student's suicide. That's the power of this tune, though--it conjures such an aura of mystery and longing that everyone feels they know what it's really about. "She couldn't help thinking that there / Was a little more to life," drawls Petty. Sure, we know that girl: She's just like us. How much more American can you get?
"Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen. Back in the mid-'80s, President Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale both vied for the Boss' endorsement after his album of the same name took off like a roman candle. Springsteen rebuffed both and instead let his music speak for itself. Neither a jingoistic anthem nor a self-lacerating political statement, "Born in the U.S.A." stands as perhaps the best blue-collar American rock song ever devised. The only negative thing we can say about it is that the synthesizers sound dated. On the other hand, they also carbon-date the song: the end of the Cold War, and the tail end of the American postwar dream.