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The Foreign Policy Wonk’s Best Songs of 2016

From Filipino folk to Ukrainian pop to the Rolling Stones, it was a turbulent political year, with a soundtrack to match.

SANTIAGO, CHILE - FEBRUARY 03:  Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs live on stage during the America Latina Ole Tour 2016 at Estadio Nacional on February 03, 2016 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Carlos Muller/Getty Images for TDF Productions)
SANTIAGO, CHILE - FEBRUARY 03: Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs live on stage during the America Latina Ole Tour 2016 at Estadio Nacional on February 03, 2016 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Carlos Muller/Getty Images for TDF Productions)

Foreign-policy wonks like Beyoncé and Rihanna as much as the rest of us, but they also deserve a year-end “songs of 2016” list of their own — something to honor the tunes that never made it to commercial radio this year but claimed a different type of power over the past 12 months than the latest Radiohead or David Bowie album. These are songs that helped elect presidents, radicalize extremists, and reignite diplomatic disputes. They symbolized, and fueled, everything from nationalism in India to the uncertainty Thailand faces under a new monarch to the election of the next U.S. president.

Freddie Aguilar, “Para sa Tunay na Pagbabago”

Freddie Aguilar has long been one of the Philippines’s biggest stars — a folk-rock artist often labeled the country’s Bob Dylan. But that comparison seems less apt when you listen to his most recent hit: a theme song for the presidential campaign of hard-line strongman Rodrigo Duterte. “Look around you / Crime’s everywhere,” he bluntly sings at one point in “Para sa Tunay na Pagbabago” (“For Real Reform”). “Rape, drugs, and robbery / Should be stopped.” The chorus gets straight to the point: “Come Philippines / Come and change.… You and I / We are all Rodrigo.”

The song was played at most of Duterte’s campaign events, and Aguilar even performed it at Duterte’s inauguration. It is still apparently getting regular airings, giving an inappropriately gentle soundtrack to Duterte’s rule and his administration’s unlawful killing of thousands of suspected drug addicts and criminals.

The Islamic State, “Les Éternelles”

The Islamic State may have lost some propaganda experts to drone strikes this year, but its team dedicated to producing jihadi chants, many whose purpose is to inspire attacks, seems to have survived. That team is still demonstrating its global ambitions by producing songs in multiple languages. The group’s latest effort came out in November and is a French song called “Les Éternelles” (“The Eternals”), a reference to the virgins promised to martyrs in paradise. “If I fight on burnt land / It’s because I’m ready to be assassinated,” it begins.

YouTube has taken down multiple clips of the song, but it is still on other sites like Soundcloud, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if French fighters in Iraq and Syria have been listening to it on their phones as they head into battle.

Rabindranath Tagore, “Jana Gana Mana”

If you want to witness the full extent of nationalism in Narendra Modi’s India, just go to a cinema. At the end of November, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that all cinemas must play “Jana Gana Mana,” the Indian national anthem, before screenings; that everyone must stand for it; and that doors must be shut so the spectacle goes ahead uninterrupted. A few days later, the court clarified its ruling so that disabled people were exempt and cinemas did not bolt their doors shut and create a fire risk. At least 19 people have since been arrested for remaining seated, suggesting the law could soon have the opposite of its stated effect, by making India’s national anthem a song that accentuates the country’s divides rather than healing them.

The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

Donald Trump’s campaign rallies featured many strange musical choices, songs apparently picked solely because Trump likes them rather than because they have a political message. Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” a song about a groupie in Los Angeles, was a favorite, for instance. But the one song most associated with the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. It was played at rallies, after Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, and after his victory speech — and each time it came across like one of his classic trolling tweets, an incitement to his detractors to shout, “No, you’re not what I want!” (The Rolling Stones, who asked him not to play the song, seemed to count among them.) Many Democrats may no doubt have preferred it if YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” had actually turned out to be the song of the election.

Jamala, “1944”

The Eurovision Song Contest is meant to be a nonpolitical celebration of music’s power to unite and an opportunity to gawk at some extravagant costumes and campy dance numbers. But this year’s event was different thanks to Ukraine’s winning entry, “1944.”

Jamala, who represented Ukraine in the contest, insisted it was a song about Joseph Stalin’s deportation of Tartars from Crimea for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. But to anyone watching, it sounded more like a devastating personal critique of Russia’s ongoing occupation of the region. (Most of Jamala’s family lives in Crimea, and she told journalists that she had been too scared to visit them.) “The strangers are coming / They come to your house / They kill you all, and say, ‘We’re not guilty,’” the songs starts. “You think you’re a God / But everyone dies / Don’t swallow my soul / Our souls.”

Russian politicians were not amused by Jamala’s victory, threatening to boycott next year’s event. NATO, in contrast, publicly congratulated her. It did not help that Russia’s own entry had been the pre-contest favorite and came third.

Sergei Roldugin, The Cello Side

In April, cellist Sergei Roldugin found himself hitting levels of fame that few musicians — and even fewer cellists — can dream of. He was on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Unfortunately for him, it was not due to his music, but for being one of the most prominent tax dodgers revealed in the Panama Papers leak, with apparently more than $100 million in assets. That’s an unusual fortune for a classical musician to have earned but makes more sense in the context of Roldugin’s widely known status as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s best friend.

But the scandal did actually give several boosts to Roldugin’s music career. Just after the papers were released, a German record label put out an album of Roldugin playing works by Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi, called The Cello Side. Putin also ensured Roldugin played at Russia’s concert in the Palmyra ruins after they were liberated from the Islamic State. Given those ruins are now back in the militant group’s hands, Roldugin may soon get a chance to play there again if Russia recaptures them — assuming, of course, that Putin still believes classical music is a useful way to promote Russia’s reputation as the defender of Western civilization.

Beethoven, “Ode to Joy”

This isn’t a song of the year so much as a performance. Back in May, as the U.K.’s Brexit vote loomed, one British politician decided to bravely stage an abbreviated public rendition of the European Union’s anthem, “Ode to Joy,” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unfortunately for the EU, it was Boris Johnson, the man many blame for the U.K.’s successful “Leave” vote. He sang it at a press conference to prove that he wasn’t a “small-minded xenophobe,” although it seemed more an attempt to turn one of the EU’s symbols into a comedy routine. It was clearly a tactic that worked.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, “Candlelight Blues”

In October, the world lost both its longest-serving and its most musical leader: Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. King Bhumibol was an accomplished saxophonist and clarinetist who wrote almost 50 songs, played concerts on live radio, and once jammed with jazz greats like Stan Getz on a visit to New York. His songs were as inoffensive and popular as his reign. The country’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not appear to have inherited his father’s musical talent — which is a shame, as writing jazz hits could be an easy way to increase his popularity and allay fears that his rule will be a source of instability in the country.

King Bhumibol’s death means the world’s most musical leader is now, arguably, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. He helped write the country’s national anthem and has written pop hits for Kazakh boy bands. But before Nazarbayev joins the short list for 2017 songs of the year, it’s worth enjoying King Bhumibol’s first ever song, from 1946, “Candlelight Blues,” a late-night number that sounds more like it was written by a drink-soaked jazz band than a monarch. (He was apparently not responsible for the romantic lyrics.

Photo credit: CARLOS MULLER/Getty Images

Alex Marshall is the author of Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems (Windmill Books). He blogs about these songs at republicordeath.com.

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