You know the situation: 4th of July or Memorial Day rolls around and you’re scrambling for the best patriotic songs to soundtrack your family cookout. Don’t drop the ball—you and the fam deserve to be living your best BBQ. While some of these songs might work for your funky cookout (looking at you, James Brown), others offer a more reflective take on the ol’ U-S-of-A. There’s room for both. Just don’t forget to watch the grill.
Listen to the best patriotic songs playlist
Best patriotic songs
Simon and Garfunkel's narrative of lovers on a cross-country odyssey manages to capture America in its extremes—the soaring possibility and the crippling despair, the unmatched beauty and the barren emptiness. The willingness to embrace dualities and ask questions is the real source of patriotic strength here: How can we fulfill our potential if we don't understand who we are and where we're going? The song's been used in various media and artistic contexts over the years, but was most recently—and maybe appropriately—the soundtrack to a Bernie Sanders campaign ad.
On The Dick Cavett Show in 1969, Jimi was questioned about his “unorthodox” interpretation of the national anthem. His response: “I thought it was beautiful.” And of course, he was right. His feedback-drenched, cacophonous version updated the anthem for a more ragged, confusing time, but also made use of Hendrix's electric power (both literal and spiritual) to enhance its true-blue glory.
Recorded for the series of jingoistic training montages that comprise the bulk of Rocky IV, “Living in America” is classic Godfather of Soul: walloping, vibrant horns create a funky bed on which Brown yelps and struts until he—and we—can barely take any more. The tune's assessment of affairs is fun and uncomplicated: “I live in America.” That's really all you need.
This sappy but undeniably sincere ballad hits all the soft spots: supporting the troops, loving your neighbor, giving it up for religion. Adorned with a rousing chorus and uncontroversial feel-good message, it's become the go-to track for political conventions, military morale-boosting, and Six Flags laser light shows. The song's been re-released multiple times to coincide with various national events, including the death of Osama Bin Laden. Fact: It has been played during every 4th of July fireworks display since 1984.
John Denver's first and biggest hit pays loving tribute to the gorgeous landscape and easy-living style of the rural South. Name-checking the Blue Ridge Mountains, the entire state of West Virginia and of course, moonshine, the song makes a rosy case for the simple pleasures of home. Ironically, Denver's writing partner, Bill Danoff, wrote the lyrics purely out of imagination. He was a Massachusetts native and had never visited West Virginia.
Toby Keith's ode to opening a can of international whoop-ass got him into a famous feud with the Dixie Chicks, after lead singer Natalie Maines called the song ignorant and asserted that it made all of country music look bad. She wasn't exactly wrong—the song contains not an ounce of nuance. But you don't crack a Budweiser—ahem, an America—and expect it to taste like a Côte du Rhône. That shit is made in France. Turn off your brain and enjoy a hamburger, son!
“Born in the USA” gets all the credit in the Springsteen catalog, its mighty energy fooling the lazy-minded (looking at you, Ronald Reagan) into thinking it's an upbeat anthem rather than a bitterly sarcastic tirade. “Tom Joad” harnesses some of the same anger, and on its hushed acoustic surface is a much more dour outing. But just one listen to the E Street Band's thundering live version proves the track's power as a rise-up hymn rather than a lay-down-under-the-overpass lament.
The Violent Femmes cracked, heartfelt aesthetic shines through on this track chronicling an outcast's search for a USA-minded compatriot. Making the political exceedingly personal, singer Gordon Gano's unpredictable vocal flourishes insist that he just wants someone to share his love of the songbook he likes best, to his own detriment and exclusion. Why no date to the prom? “They didn't like American music, they never heard American music.”
Before she was twerking her way into our collective unconscious and dressing up the Flaming Lips as her deceased pets, Miley was just the awkward girl at the party with the wrong shoes. Her Tennessee roots betray her in the midst of the exotic LA scene, but she's rescued from social isolation by the force that traverses all of America's internal borders: our love for a good banger. Add Miley's own escapist pop gem to the list.
Hip-hop has always had a fraught relationship with the country that birthed it, leaning hard towards social protest rather than celebration. If there's a party happening, the theme is generally success in spite of oppression. Jeezy doesn't resist those urges on his Obama track, shouting out his cars and his money, and decrying the continued state of affairs for black America. But the hope is undeniable: “We ready for damn change so ya'll let the man shine.”