Looking to build the perfect playlist for your Fourth of July celebration?
You could always go the patriotic route, from Chuck Berry singing the praises of "a corner cafe where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day" in "Back in the U.S.A." to Jimi Hendrix squeezing out real fireworks on "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Those are both great records.
This playlist is made up of songs that actually mention the Fourth of July. It's right there in the title of half these songs, from Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys to Fall Out Boy and Sufjan Stevens.
The Bruce Springsteen song we picked is not, it should be noted, "Independence Day." That song is more about declaring independence from your folks. Our pick is set on the 4th of July.
Fall Out Boy, “Fourth of July”
Fireworks as a metaphor for the sparks romantic feelings can ignite between two lovers? It’s the underlying premise of countless songs that mention fireworks. This one looks back on the Fourth of July, when “you and I were … fireworks that went off too soon.” It’s over now and he’s left pining in the afterglow while sighing, “May the bridges I have burned light my way back home on the Fourth of July.”
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Better than Ezra, “Good”
In which a dude who’s pining for the live-in love who took her things and moved away looks for a reason to believe. “Well, maybe I’ll call or I’ll write you a letter,” he sings. “Now maybe we’ll see on the Fourth of July.” Why, the Fourth of July? He doesn’t say. Could be an anniversary. Could be a small town where you end up seeing everyone you know at some big festival with fireworks and hot dogs. Could be a random detail that had the right numb of syllables (in which case Memorial Day would also have worked, but not Easter).
Ryan Adams, “New York, New York”
Adams earned a Grammy nomination for this song, in which he memorably sets the scene with “Well, I shuffled through the city on the 4th of July/ I had a firecracker waiting to blow.” There’s also a verse about Christmas but, you know, life happens all year long.
Grateful Dead, "Jack Straw"
A collaboration between Bob Weir and Robert Hunter, this jam-rock classic made its first appearance on an album as a live recording on "Europe '72." It made our list by virtue of a single verse: "Leavin' Texas, fourth day of July/ Sun so hot, the clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky/ Catch the Detroit Lightnin' out of Sante Fe/ The Great Northern out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea."
Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July”
This song was written as a conversation between Stevens and his mother, Carrie, while she was dying in the hospital. In the opening verse, he sets the scene with “The evil it spread like a fever ahead/ It was night when you died, my firefly/ What could I have said to raise you from the dead? Oh, could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?” It’s the sort of line that’s open to interpretation, but it sounds to me like he’s comparing the fleeting nature of life itself to the temporary beauty of a night sky lit by fireworks, leaving only memories.
Tom Waits, “This One’s From the Heart”
A duet with Crystal Gayle from the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart,” it sets the scene with a bittersweet opening verse of “I should go out and honk, it's Independence Day/ But instead I just pour myself a drink/ It's got to be love, I've never felt this way/ Oh baby, this one's from the heart.”
Shooter Jennings, "4th of July"
This song rocks with all the bombast of '70s Who as Cheap Trick would have played it. And yet, it's twangy enough to qualify as country-rock. But he covers that seeming stylistic dichotomy in the fist-pumping singalong chorus: "You were pretty as can be, sitting in the front seat/ Looking at me, telling me you love me/ And you're happy to be with me on the Fourth of July/ We sang 'Stranglehold' to the stereo/ Couldn't take no more of that rock 'n' roll/ So we put on a little George Jones and just sang along." This was Jennings' first single, as featured on 2005's "Put the 'O' Back in Country," and remains his only charting country hit.
Chicago, "Saturday in the Park"
Released in July 1972, this richly textured pop gem peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100. After grabbing the listener right out of the gate with a jaunty Beatlesque piano intro, Robert Lamm sets the scene with "Saturday in the park, I think it was the Fourth of July." The following verses offer subtle variations on the theme: "You'd think it was the Fourth of July" and, finally, "Every day's the Fourth of July."
Azure Ray, "4th of July"
This haunting, slide-guitar-fueled ballad was among the many highlights of the dream-pop duo's self-titled 2001 debut. It's a wistful love song with one verse recalling a memorable Independence Day: "I'm thinking of the Fourth of July/ Holding hands looking up at the sky/ I remember the Fourth of July so well."
Michael Dean Damron, "Spit"
I did my best to steer as clear as possible of politically sensitive waters here because it would have been a drag. And yet, this richly detailed story song proved too inspired to ignore. It sounds like something Drive-By Truckers might have done, its lyrics are based on a true story about Damron's friend Lin Newborn, a Black activist who campaigned against racism and was killed on the Fourth of July by White supremacists in 1998.
Aimee Mann, "4th of July"
Elvis Costello singled this song out when he included Mann's "Whatever" on his shortlist of 500 albums he felt were essential to a happy life. It's not about a happy life, though. Mann, in fact, is at her bummed-out best here, effectively setting the scene with a sigh of "Today's the Fourth of July/ Another June has gone by/ And when they light up our town I just think/ What a waste of gunpowder and sky." A waste of gunpowder and sky?! That's just the pathos talking.
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Galaxie 500, "Fourth of July"
This feedback-laden 1990 dream-pop single sets the scene with a cryptic verse of "I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ And your dog refused to look at it/ So I got drunk and looked at the Empire State Building/ It was no bigger than a nickel." It doesn't get to the Fourth of July until the second verse, where Dean Wareham reveals, "I stayed at home on the Fourth of July/ And I pulled the shades so I didn't have to see the sky/ And I decided to have a Bed-In/ But I forgot to invite anybody." The opening track on "This is Our Music," wears its debt to the best of the Velvet Underground like a very noisy badge of honor.
The Band, "Tears of Rage"
This emotionally devastating ballad is blessed with lyrics by the poet laureate of U.S. rock and roll, the great Bob Dylan, and a tortured melody by Richard Manuel. Toss in Robbie Robertson's weeping guitar, Garth Hudson's soulful organ and Rick Danko's aching harmonies and the fact that this song's only real connection to the Fourth is the opening line, in which a father tells his wayward child, "We carried you in our arms on Independence Day/ And now you'd throw us all aside and put us on our way," is good enough for me.
Paul McCartney, "4th of July"
This unplugged solo track was tacked on as a bonus track when the Wings album "Venus and Mars" was reissued in 2014. And like most songs on this list, it juxtaposes the sadness of one individual against the celebration going on around that individual because it's the Fourth of July. "Sunset's painting up the sky," McCartney sings. "There's something in my eye/ Why am I crying?/ It's the Fourth of July."
Beach Boys, "4th of July"
Drummer Dennis Wilson wrote this outtake from the "Surf's Up" album with the Beach Boys' manager, Jack Rieley. But Carl Wilson sang it, investing the lyrics with the raw emotion they deserve. It's a questioning song that sets the tone with a vulnerable delivery of "Born of the age/ Flagged hopes/ Censored rage/ The black clad box/ Bombs bursting in air/ Bleed white red and blue/ Cried dawn's early light/ For the hope." And Carl's vocal couldn't be more beautiful.
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Martina McBride, "Independence Day"
Bruce Springsteen's "Independence Day" is all metaphor: a young man leaving home, declaring independence from his father. In McBride's song, a woman declares her independence from the man who's been abusing her by taking her child and burning the house down with the worthless bastard trapped inside. On Independence Day. And it's sung from the perspective of the 8-year-old daughter, who sings, "Well, she lit up the sky that Fourth of July / By the time that the firemen come/ They just put out the flame/ And took down some names/ And sent me to the county home/ Now I ain't sayin' it's right or it's wrong/ But maybe it's the only way/ Talk about your revolution/ It's Independence Day."
Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Born on the Bayou"
John Fogerty was born in Berkeley, Calif., which is nowhere the bayou. That makes him what literature geeks would call an unreliable narrator. Which means we'll never know if he's telling the truth with "I can remember the Fourth of July runnin' through the backwoods bare." But he certainly puts it out there with conviction.
X, "4th of July"
Dave Alvin of the Blasters wrote this song and brought it with him when he took over lead-guitar duties in X for the 1987 recording of "See How We Are." It's pretty depressing stuff. Yes, she's waiting for him when he gets home from work. But things just ain't the same. She's crying in the dark while kids outside are shooting fireworks and he's pleading "Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July." X bassist John Doe sings this version. Alvin's original version is also well worth tracking down, but there's an urgency to Doe's delivery that gives this one the edge for me.
Meat Puppets, "Lake of Fire"
"Where do bad folks go when they die?/ They don't go to heaven where the angels fly/ They go to a lake of fire and fry/ Won't see 'em again till the Fourth of July." Is he saying the souls of the damned are powering our fireworks? Or is he saying they'll return to walk among us? Either way, the chorus is delivered in a tortured warble while the distorted guitars do their best imitation of Neil Young in "Rust Never Sleeps" mode. If this is playing when I get to hell, I can deal with eternal damnation.
Bruce Springsteen, "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
The second track on Springsteen's second album, 'The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle," starts with Springsteen pointing out the fireworks hailin' over Little Eden, "forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July." It's Springsteen, the youthful romantic, pleading with Sandy to "love me tonight for I may never see you again" while spinning vivid Dylanesque descriptions of his fabled Jersey boardwalk. And by the time the song is through, he's grown a little weary of the late-night Boardwalk hookups, looking for something a bit more meaningful from Sandy and changing his tune to "Oh love me tonight and I promise I'll love you forever."
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Top 20 July 4th songs for your Independence Day BBQ