What Are Some Noteworthy Songs With Environmental Messages?

Q: I’m an urban environmentalist whom one might consider a “hip, young dude.” I gotta admit I’m eco-trendy from head to toe — from the John Masters Organics pomade in my hair to my Loomstate T-shirt to my hemp Simple sneakers.

But there’s one green thing that’s sorely lacking when I head out the door in the morning ... green tunes on my iPod. Although these days I lean toward indie rock and hip-hop, I have pretty eclectic musical tastes — I’m a child of the ’80s who was reared on MTV — and I’ve dabbled in a bit of everything over the years.

I just can’t seem to find good music with an environmental message. I’m looking for music that’s not too militant or melancholic. I also don’t want it to prompt me to roll out the yoga mat and burn nag champa. I’m just looking for something that will get me to think a bit while taking the train to work in the a.m. And please, no adult contemporary, no John Denver, no Earth Crisis and no whale songs.

Desperately seeking songs,

— Richard, Oakland, Calif.

A: Great question. The first name that comes to my mind is Sting, but he probably falls under that dreaded “adult contemporary” banner. He’s an outspoken environmentalist and recently loaned his classic tune with the Police, Message in a Bottle, to the Prince’s Rainforest Project in the U.K. Another name that popped immediately into my head is Michael Jackson. His best-selling single in England wasn’t Black or White or Thriller but Earth Song, a somewhat maudlin and dated 1995 release that’s still worth a listen if you don’t know it.

If you’re trying to keep true to your “hip” persona, try Stop the Dams by Gorillaz, Radiohead’s Idioteque and Granddaddy’s Nature Anthem and please watch the video for the latter song. Anything from quirky indie-pop outfit Cloud Cult also will appeal to your eco-sensibilities, but if you like things a bit more rockin’, punk-pop group Green Day is, in reality, really quite green. The band has really matured since their snarly, hair-dye drenched days of the early '90s (remember Dookie?) and become involved with environmental issues. I’m not sure if they have “green songs” per say but they’ve been working with the National Resources Defense Council to shed light on climate change since 2006.

Another alt-rock group that may not have outright green songs but has been involved with eco-activism is Guster. In fact, Guster’s Adam Gardner co-founded Reverb, a nonprofit organization that helps musicians make one-off concerts and full-fledged tours more sustainable. Reverb has worked with numerous artists with green-leanings including Bonnie Raitt, Barenaked Ladies, Jack Johnson and the Dave Matthews Band.

If you want to look toward yesterday for quality eco-themed songs, there’s plenty. Check out Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Nature’s Way by Spirit (also covered by the excellent This Mortal Coil) and Don’t Go Near the Water by the Beach Boys.

Don’t want to look that far back? The ’80s were ripe with environmental ditties. I vividly remember watching MTV circa 1988 and seeing videos for the politically charged Aussie rock group Midnight Oil and thinking, “This is what environmentalism is all about.” Turns out, the band’s frontman, Peter Garrett, was appointed Australia’s Minister of the Environment, Heritage and the Arts in 2007.

The always socially relevant R.E.M. also penned environmentally themed songs back in the ’80s including Fall on Me and Cuyahoga. Although it would be tidy if the songs were from the 1988 Green album, both can be found on the 1986 release, Life’s Rich Pageant. My personal favorites from the era? Nothing (But Flowers) from Talking Heads, Kate Bush’s Hello Earth and Monkey Gone to Heaven by the Pixies.

No doubt there’s a lot more out there (as I write this, Bjork’s Nattura starting playing on iTunes shuffle). I hope you find something that agrees with your ears so you can start in on a solid green playlist for your iPod and perhaps even a soundtrack to sorting your recyclables. Happy listening.