Pop music always has a way of reminding us what matters most. It’s worth remembering that some of the most hopeful, enduring protest anthems have come from especially tense moments in history. With that in mind, we’ve collected some of the most inspiring peace songs for International Day of Peace.
While the 60s were ripe with songs of peace (and protest) the list spans all eras and genres. These are the songs that have helped stop wars, fueled the fight for racial equality, and inspired the world to keep reaching for higher ground. Some of these songs are tied to specific issues, others are more universal; some are angry, while others are healing. But every one of them has a message that the world could still use.
Read on for the most inspiring peace songs and let us know your favorite tracks in the comments below.
25: Queen Latifah: ‘U.N.I.T.Y’
Queen Latifah’s Grammy-winning song (for Best Rap Performance in 1995) is generally about unity, but specifically about the everyday harassment that women have to endure. While it offers support both for women and for the evolved men, it’s by far the best unity anthem to include the line “You put your hands on me again, I’ll put your ass in handcuffs.”
24: Kendrick Lamar: ‘Alright’
Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 landmark single is the modern equivalent of the civil rights anthems on this list. Its verses dive deep into social and racial injustice, but the song’s indelible hook (provided by its producer, Pharrell Williams) makes it an inspiring song for anyone fighting the good fight. And indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement has adopted it as an unofficial anthem.
23: Kenny Chesney: ‘Get Along’
Modern country music often gets knocked for its conservative leanings, but Kenny Chesney sneaks a progressive message into this 2018 hit without letting down his good-time image. His goal here was to avoid saying anything explicitly political, and instead to encourage a divided country to get past its differences.
22: Bruce Springsteen: ‘Land of Hope & Dreams’
This anthem made its debut on the 2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band, and gained resonance in the years ahead. It’s partly a rewrite of Woody Guthrie’s “This Train,” but with a difference: Bruce Springsteen’s train has room for the gamblers and lost souls, and promises that everyone’s faith will be rewarded. At the end of a good night – which is when it’s usually played – it can bring shivers. As the next three songs bear out, trains are a running theme on this list of peace songs.
21: Gladys Knight & the Pips: ‘Friendship Train’
Motown’s message songs could be as powerful as Edwin Starr’s “War” or as dark as the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” – or as uplifting as the Pips’ “Friendship Train,” which topped the charts two months before the 60s ended. Ace Motown writers Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield wrote the tune, and the Pips’ arrangement is straight out of the church.
20: The O’Jays: ‘Love Train’
Philly soul maestros Gamble and Huff delivered an even smoother and friendlier train to ride. And the O’Jays’ smooth harmonies made this an enduring get-together peace song. The group definitely had its nitty-gritty side; however, this was the follow-up hit to the far less loving “Back Stabbers.”
19: Yusuf /Cat Stevens: ‘Peace Train’
Completing our train trilogy is this classic by singer-songwriter Yusuf/Cat Stevens, who’s no stranger to penning peace songs across generations. Set against a Greek-inspired riff, the anthem became Stevens’ first U.S. Top 10 hit in 1971, and the healing power of the song has endured.
18: Patti Smith: ‘People Have the Power’
Patti Smith would probably tell you that this empowering song is one of the most important ones she ever wrote. Co-written with her late husband Fred Sonic Smith, “People Have the Power” first led off the couple’s one album together, Dream of Life, and has since been played by a roll-call of socially conscious artists: Springsteen, U2 and Joan Baez have all sung it with her.
17: The Rolling Stones: ‘Gimme Shelter’
History tends to remember “Gimme Shelter” as an apocalyptic warning, which it certainly was. But it’s easy to forget that it also offers a choice: After warning you for five minutes that war is just a shot away, Mick Jagger reminds you that “Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.” See, The Rolling Stones weren’t kings of darkness all the time.
16: U2: ‘One’
The Achtung Baby-era is remembered as U2’s conceptual, image-shattering time. But it also produced their most proudly anthemic track. On the surface “One” is a love song, but its pleas for connection and understanding eventually go worldwide (“Brothers and sisters, we got to carry each other”). Their later live performances upped the ante, with a taped intro from Nelson Mandela.
15: War: ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’
Sometimes you can grab more people with a jolly singalong than an angry protest song. War certainly managed it in 1975, with one of the most good-natured peace songs you’ll ever hear. Each group member gets a verse, which ranges from profound to downright goofy: “I know you’re workin’ for the CIA/ They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-eye-ay!”
14: XTC: ‘Melt the Guns’
On the other hand, sometimes an angry protest song can really hit the spot. XTC was in peak form when this track was cut for English Settlement, and everything about this track – from Andy Partridge’s righteous lyric to the stripped-down, coiled-up rhythms – seethes with urgency. They were thinking of John Lennon’s murder when they wrote it, but the song has only become more relevant in recent years.
13: The Allman Brothers Band: ‘Revival’
Peace and love weren’t usually the Allman Brothers’ style; they were far too tough for that. But this Dickey Betts-written track from Idlewild South finds them leading a joyful “Love is Everywhere” singalong with a few touches of gospel. Though it was a minor hit single, they seldom played it live before the 90s.
12: Stevie Wonder: ‘Heaven Help Us All’
Stevie Wonder wrote more than his share of songs about changing the world. While he didn’t write “Heaven Help Us All” (Motown staff writer Ron Miller did), it became one of his key singles. It’s delivered in a gospel style and sung like a prayer, but some of its statements on racism are forceful as it gets: “Heaven help the black man if he struggles one more day/ Heaven help the white man if he turns his back away.”
11: Sam Cooke: ‘A Change is Gonna Come’
One of pop’s first great civil rights anthems, the inspiring “A Change is Gonna Come” came out of uninspiring circumstances; when Sam Cooke was refused entrance to a whites-only motel. Cooke only sang the song once in public and had doubts it could ever be a hit; but it has since become an oft-covered landmark and one of the most enduring peace songs in history.
10: Friend & Lover: ‘Reach Out of the Darkness’
Sixties sunshine pop at its absolute sun-shiniest, this Top 10 hit is so open-hearted that it’s impossible to resist. Friend & Lover was actually the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Cathy Post, whose marriage and musical partnership ended soon after this splendid single.
9: The Youngbloods: ‘Get Together’
By now, “Get Together” is recognized as the definitive 60s brotherhood anthem; it’s been in a few films (most recently Ken Burns’ Vietnam) and Louis Armstrong even covered it. The lyrics will likely go down in history, but let’s not overlook the silky-smooth vocal performance by Jesse Colin Young, who made this song a hit when others (including Jefferson Airplane and the song’s writer, Dino Valente of Quicksilver) had missed the charts.
8: Elvis Costello & the Attractions: ‘(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding’
Originally written by Nick Lowe and recorded by Brinsley Schwarz, this single started as an easygoing country-rock song, but in Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ hands (with help from producer Lowe) it turned tough and edgy, becoming an anthem for the ages. Neither he nor Lowe is likely to perform a show without it.
7: Jackie DeShannon: ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love’
Nobody could make a peace song more persuasive than Burt Bacharach, whose most idealistic song found its perfect voice in Jackie DeShannon, no slouch of a songwriter herself. She only got the song after Dionne Warwick turned it down, but the California lilt in her delivery is just what it needed. She returned to the well four years later for “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” her biggest (and last) hit as a singer.
6: Plastic Ono Band: ‘Give Peace a Chance’
Rather than rising out of the streets, this 1969 protest anthem was born out of John and Yoko Ono’s “bed-in” peace campaign in a Montreal hotel room. The message of “Give Peace A Chance” was clear, but Lennon was not trying to preach to the public, but rather, he was offering an ambitious alternative to the world.
5: Marvin Gaye: ‘What’s Going On’
An eternal plea for love and understanding, this title track led off the Marvin Gaye album that revolutionized the Motown sound, bringing in jazz and extended suites. Less often noted is that the lead songwriter was one of The Four Tops, Obie Benson, who wrote it in response to an act of police brutality that he witnessed at a peace march.
4: The Impressions: ‘People Get Ready’
“People Get Ready” has become so familiar that many people assume it’s traditional gospel, but Curtis Mayfield wrote it in 1965. As one of the first hit songs to embrace the Civil Rights movement, The Impressions made an impression: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played the song at rallies, and Bob Marley and Bob Dylan were among the greats who covered it later.
3: Bob Marley & the Wailers: ‘One Love/People Get Ready’
Bob Marley improved the already perfect Mayfield song by reworking the words and writing a new chorus around it. Though the chorus of “Let’s get together and feel alright” make it one of reggae’s ultimate feel-good peace songs, the lyrics address a grittier reality. This was originally a 1969s Wailers track, but the 1977 Exodus version is the definitive one.
2: Louis Armstrong: ‘What a Wonderful World’
While the original of “What A Wonderful World” remains Louis Armstrong’s best-loved track, the version you need to hear is his 1970 remake, on the album Louis Armstrong And His Friends. It adds a spoken intro, asking how the world can be wonderful when we have pollution, hunger, and “all them wars.” Then he advises you to “listen to old Pops for a minute,” and says it’s all up to us: “Love, baby, love – that’s the secret.” Not only is it truly endearing, but it also proves that Satchmo was paying attention to the hippies.
1: The Beatles: ‘All You Need is Love’
The Fab Four’s 1965 album track “The Word” was one of the first great songs about love as a universal concept, far more than just a relationship. But this classic single was the grandest statement of them all. Originally released in 1967’s Summer of Love, just a month after Sgt. Pepper, “All You Need is Love” gave the world a message that’s never felt more necessary than it does right now.
Looking for more? Discover We Shall Overcome: The Power Of Protest Songs.