After 12 years, it’s still hard to process the events of 9/11, despite the hours of debate and kilometres of literature written about the attacks. Musically speaking—especially if we’re talking about pop music—it was an undoubtedly fascinating time: No less than 165 songs were banned, ranging from Peter Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jetplane,” to Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” to R.E.M.’s “The End of the World as We Know It.” Jimmy Eat World’s breakthrough LP, Bleed American, was rechristened as a self-titled album. And the conspiracy-minded, like writer Chuck Klosterman, were convinced that Kid A predicted 9/11.
But the music created in the aftermath of 9/11 was more fascinating still: It documented a nation, from all angles, reacting to collective trauma. There was sentimentalism. Anger. Calls to arms. And on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, we’ve collected a list of songs that remember the attacks.
1. Yellowcard, “Believe”
If there were a posterchild for a milquetoast 9/11 song, it’d be Yellowcard’s “Believe.” Which isn’t to say it’s insincere, but it does possess the rosy sentimentality common of early ’00s emo: It talks of “love inside,” “strength of heart,” and describes the heroism of the day, before erupting into a feel-good chorus of “everything is going to be alright, be strong, believe.”
2. Sleater-Kinney, “Far Away”
While George Bush’s approval rating soared following 9/11, the then-prez didn’t escape Sleater-Kinney’s scorn. “Far Away” might’ve been one of the most scathing songs they ever wrote: “The president hides / while working men rush in to give their lives / I look to the sky / and ask it not to rain / on my family tonight.”
3. Wheatus, “Hometown”
It’s strangely moving to hear the band that wrote “Teenage Dirtbag” reminisce about pre-9/11 New York. The song’s effective because of its simplicity—Wheatus doesn’t go high concept with “Hometown.” Its opening lines sum it up best: “I’d trade all my sunshine / For twin towers to hide behind.”
4. Wu Tang Clan, “Rules”
While KRS-One and Jadakiss publicly turned their rage towards the Bush Administration (with Jadakiss plainly blaming G.W. and crew), it’s easy to forget that plenty of rappers were plainly outraged by 9/11. Take Ghostface’s verse from “Rules,” from Iron Flag: “Who the man behind the World Trade massacres, step up now / Where the four planes at huh, is you insane bitch? / Fly that shit over my hood and get blown to bits! / No disrespect, that’s where I rest my head / I understand you gotta rest yours, true, nigga my people’s dead / America, together we stand, divided we fall / Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” Outraged, indeed.
5. Sage Francis, “Makeshift Patriot”
As a single, Sage Francis’s “Makeshift Patriot” was delivered two months to day after 9/11. Unlike Wu Tang’s “Rules,” Francis’s rage was directed towards the popular public reaction to 9/11: He decries the rise of questionable journalistic ethics, militaristic xenophobes, and the fabrication of “dark-skinned Disney villains.”
6. Ryan Adams, “My Blue Mahattan”
“My Blue Manhattan” is the melancholy underbelly of “New York, New York,” and it perfectly captures the sombre good will that emerged among New Yorkers post 9/11. “It’s you against me most days / It’s me against you / Making snow angels in the gravel and the dirt,” he sings, “Crawling like a spider / and I’m somewhere inside her.”
7. Tori Amos, “I Can’t See New York”
“I Can’t See New York” is one of the most haunting songs to emerge after 9/11. “I can’t see New York from the other side,” Tori Amos sings, at the song’s conclusion. Eerily, it’s a song written from the perspective of a passenger aboard one of the planes that would strike the Twin Towers.
8. Iced Earth, “When the Eagle Cries”
Tampa power metal act Iced Earth provide the first, and not the last, militaristic track on this list. Though the track possesses raw anger—”How could they? Why would they?” singer Tim Owens croons—the song eventually moves onto uncut indignation, before ending on a vengeful (and certainly threatening) note.
9. Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue”
Country singer Toby Keith is no stranger to patriotic themes, and he was never shy about writing about 9/11 either. “Red White and Blue” retains some of Iced Earth’s militarism, but here, it’s delivered even less artfully. “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” Keith cries. And he’s not kidding: He threatens to drop bombs on 9/11 perps. “And the eagle will fly and it’s gonna be hell / when you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell,” he sings. “And it’ll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you / Ah, brought to you, courtesy of the red, white and blue.”
10. Slayer, “Jihad”
The most famous song written from a Taliban perspective is undoubtedly Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues.” But Slayer wrote one, too, and their foray into the jihadist’s psyche was less nuanced, more focused on uncut evil: “War of holy principles / I’m seeking God’s help in your destruction / Slit the throat of heathen man / And let his blood dilute the water / Bury your dead.”
11. Dead Prez, “Know Your Enemy”
If there’s an antithesis to Toby Keith, it’s New York rap crew Dead Prez. But while they’re famously combative, they chose to tackle “Know Your Enemy” with grace: While they understood that the event was fraught with fear, they argued that 9/11 was ultimately not an attack on American citizens, but rather U.S. foreign policy. “They wasn’t aimin’ at us, not at my house / They hit the World Trade, the Pentagon and almost got the White House / Now everybody walkin’ ’round patriotic / How we gon’ fight to keep freedom when we ain’t got it? You wanna stop terrorists? Start with the U.S. imperialists.”
12. Bruce Springsteen, “You’re Missing”
If there were a comprehensive, nuanced reaction to 9/11, it was the Boss’s 2002 album, The Rising. With “You’re Missing,” Springsteen translates the horror of 9/11 into raw pain—especially on “You’re Missing,” a song told from the perspective of a spouse whose partner was lost in the attacks. Taken at face value, “You’re Missing” is a simple rumination on death, but it’s given extra gravitas when put in the context of The Rising (which contains many more songs on the topic).