The birthday song doesn’t quite cut it on the Fourth of July.
It’s a daunting task to bottle up a 241-year-old country’s true essence in a mere 14 songs.
Rather than deliver yet another medley of Miley, Mellencamp and Springsteen (fine, a little Bruce may appear here, too), here is a compendium of songs that tap into the heart of our nation—and us. We recommend playing this at your cookout this Fourth.
1. “Highway Vagabond,” Miranda Lambert: We all dream of hopping in a dusty Jeep and taking off for “the next big city” from time to time.
2. “Graceland,” Paul Simon: The title track off Simon’s 1986 masterpiece is another fantastic take on the road-trip song, and it’s also a compelling post-breakup story, something we all have tucked inside our unwritten memoirs.
3. “My Country Tis of Thee,” Crosby & Nash: You know you’re dealing with musical genius when an otherwise grating song is suddenly transformed. But you’d expect nothing less from two former members of CSNY.
4. “American Teen,” Khalid: This mainstream newcomer is literally a teenager himself and nails the messy wonder of American adolescence.
5. “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” The Postal Service: There’s a certain loneliness to our capital at night, made vivid here by a band that Ben Gibbard needs to reignite.
6. “Empire State of Mind,” Lang Lang & Andra Day: A departure from the same ol’ acoustic guitar cover of every good pop song, this pensive version of Alicia Keys’ and Jay-Z’s grand ode to one of America’s most treasured cities is worth a full listen.
7. “Rhapsody in Blue,” Deodato: Gershwin is said to have written this epic work as a tribute to his country. You’ve never heard a version quite like this, crafted by a Kool & the Gang producer.
8. “America,” Simon & Garfunkel: Is it wrong to include two songs by the same artist in one playlist? Not when said artist is Paul Simon.
9. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Bebe Winans: Also known as “The Black National Anthem,” this James Weldon Johnson piece is exalted by Winans’ sensitive interpretation.
10. “Material Girl,” Madonna: Still relevant today—gotta pay those credit card bills.
11. “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John: A tribute to the city where we drafted our founding docs.
12. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Branford Marsalis & Bruce Hornsby: Take out your handkerchief. No, seriously.
13. “This Land is Your Land,” Bruce Springsteen: Here, the Boss gives us a mini history of this Woody Guthrie folk hit, a song that originally included more controversial verses. Though not as warm and fuzzy as often thought, it remains a testament to American unity and our ideal of equality.
14. “Ashokan Farewell,” Jay Ungar: Employed as the theme to Ken Burns’ Civil War miniseries, this piece seems to encapsulate all our striving, all our strife, all our successes and all that’s left to come.