Tragedy may be a powerful impetus for great art — but September 11, it's sad to say, resulted in a lot more bad songs than good ones. A typical playlist of 9/11 music would be awash in melodrama and overstatement, knee-jerk chest-thumping and maudlin sogginess.
But that's not to say that some artists didn't rise to the occasion — though to come up with a list of 10, I widened the net and broadened the scope. Is a 9/11 song only a song about or prompted by the attacks?
Or can a 9/11 song be something else: a song about the U.S. response to the attacks, or a song about the uncertain new world that was left in the rubble of the World Trade Center, or even a song that was written before 9/11 but came to take on greater meaning and resonance in its aftermath?
I've defined a 9/11 song as all of those things. Some of these are songs, some are albums, some are compositions; some are healing and uniting, others partisan and divisive. Together, they're 10 of the most powerful responses to 9/11 … with a few bonus tracks thrown in for good measure.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEIN: "THE RISING" (album)
You could take the straightforward route and just list the songs that deal most directly with 9/11.
Those would be "Into the Fire," "Empty Sky" and the brilliant four-song stretch that ends the album: "You're Missing," the title track, "Paradise" and "My City of Ruins," the last of which was written before the tragedy but recorded afterwards.
But Springsteen's album, rock 'n' roll's most significant response to 9/11, bears the losses of that day between the lines of nearly every song. Even "Mary's Place," a party anthem of sorts, has loss rather than jubilation at its core; when Springsteen sings "let it rain" over and over, he's clearly trying to wash away the tears.
"The Rising" (live performance):
Bonus track: There's a similar mood to "When New York Had Her Heart Broke," which John Hiatt wrote after 9/11 and just got around to releasing this year — but lyrically, the song is a little too undernourished to stand with the likes of "You're Missing" or "Into the Fire."
JOHN ADAMS: "ON TRANSMIGRATION OF SOULS"
The commission came from the New York Philharmonic, and the text of Adams' 25-minute choral composition came from the posters of missing people plastered across lower Manhattan.
The composer, a former minimalist whose best-known works include "Shaker Loops" and the opera "Nixon in China," crafted a richly layered, occasionally dissonant and challenging requiem (he calls it "a memory space") for a city transformed.
Recorded by the philharmonic with the New York Choral Artists and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the composition won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003 and a Grammy for contemporary composition in 2005.
"On the Transmigration of Souls" (excerpt; user-made video):
Bonus track: Steve Reich, another onetime minimalist who’s long since eclipsed that label, is releasing his work "WTC 9/11" on September 20 in a recording by the Kronos Quartet. There's already been controversy about the now-withdrawn cover — a news photograph of in which the second plane is about to hit the tower — but after one of the handful of live performances, critics have called the composition commanding, terse and tense.
ALAN JACKSON: "WHERE WERE YOU (WHEN THE WORLD STOPPED TURNING)"
The mainstream country music response to 9/11, for the most part, was bellicose and jingoistic, epitomized by Toby Keith's swaggering "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and Trace Adkins "Welcome to Hell."
And while those songs may be rousing and satisfying in their own way, let's face it: they're also kind of dumb. Proudly dumb, maybe, but dumb nonetheless.
More touching and nuanced was country star Alan Jackson's lament for the day that changed things forever; he may succumb a little too readily to easy know-nothingism ("I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you/The difference in Iraq and Iran"), but his gentle ballad is an affecting look at a shattering morning.
"Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" (live performance):
Bonus track: If you must go to the bellicose/jingoistic well, I suppose that "Welcome to Hell" has enough humor to slightly leaven all that righteous vengeance. But only slightly.
MOBY (FEATURING SINEAD O'CONNOR): "HARBOUR"
Moby has said that his album "18" was influenced by 9/11, but this eerie lament deals with the tragedy more explicitly than the rest of the album. "The street bears no release," sings O'Connor, as Moby's music strains for peace but finds only restless ghosts.
"Harbour" (user-made video):
Bonus track: Tori Amos's "I Can't See New York" is Amos at her Kate Bushiest, which isn't a bad thing.
STEVE EARLE: "JERUSALEM," "ASHES TO ASHES," "JOHN WALKER BLUES"
Country-rock iconoclast Earle's "Jerusalem" album was an angry and highly politicized attack on the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. "Ashes to Ashes" is a direct, bitter description of the crumbled towers with a biblical resonance; "John Walker Blues" became the most controversial post-9/11 song because of the way it tried to understand John Walker Lindh, the American student arrested in Afghanistan for fighting for the Taliban.
But the title track is a more generous and all-embracing look at the culture of division that led to 9/11, and one song that allows Earle to take what he surely knows is a hopelessly (but gloriously) optimistic stance: "I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem."
"Jerusalem" (official video):
Bonus track: Similar to "Jerusalem" thematically but wildly different musically, Lily Allen's "Him" is a bouncy, cheerfully blasphemous ode to a deity who can't understand why humans have been killing each other in his name for centuries.
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER: "GRAND CENTRAL STATION"
A song about healing needs more than a touch of grace, and grace is what Carpenter has always brought to her music.
Inspired by a story about an iron worker at Ground Zero who felt as if the souls of 9/11 victims could follow him to the station to "catch trains home," this gentle and beguiling benediction is understated and eloquent.
"Grand Central Station" (user-made video):
Bonus track: Juliana Hatfield's acoustic "Hole in the Sky" is rougher, sparser and more plainspoken, with a beautifully plaintive ache.
Another song that’s more about the aftermath of 9/11, the wars that followed, and the Bush presidency, than it is directly about that day.
It's blunt, it's profane, overstated and as one-sided as Toby Keith's own thoughts on the matter.
What makes this a 9/11 song to me, though, beyond its lyrics about Osama bin Laden and the U.S. responsibility for building him up, is that musically it's so chaotic and rampaging as to perfectly capture the angry, confusing world that was created in the wake of September 11.
"MOSH" (official video):
Bonus track: Of the other hip-hop artists who have tackled 9/11 — a roster long on conspiracy theorists, and including songs like Lil Wayne's "Ground Zero," Cam'Ron's "Welcome to New York City" and Jay-Z's "A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier" — the most commanding might be Xzibit's "Heart of Man," which makes canny use of a Toto sample.
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: "TUESDAY MORNING"
It's easy to slip into melodrama and overstatement, and Etheridge definitely skirts that line more than once in this song.
She's saved partly because "Tuesday Morning" is a completely different take on 9/11: it's a song about Mark Bingham, a gay man who was one of the leaders of the passenger revolt that resulted in United flight 93 crashing short of its intended target in Washington.
But mostly, what makes Etheridge's song moving rather than overdone is the way it's built around a sample from a Civil Rights-era recording by gospel singer Ella Jenkins, giving it a slinky musical feel and a resonance that crosses decades.
The sample is perfect counterpoint to a dramatic moment that somehow avoids melodrama (less so on the live version below), when the music drops away and Etheridge quietly intones, "Stand up America/Hear the bell now as it tolls/Wake up America/It's Tuesday morning/C'mon, let's roll."
"Tuesday Morning" (live performance):
Bonus track: If you want a song built around that United 93 slogan, "Let's Roll," Neil Young has one with that exact title. It's not exactly subtle, but Young's ragged glory pushes it across.
MARK KNOPFLER AND EMMYLOU HARRIS: "IF THIS IS GOODBYE"
You might not know this was a 9/11 song unless you hear songwriter Knopfler talk about it; the lyrics deal with someone bidding farewell to a loved one, but the circumstances are vague.
Knopfler, though, traces the song's inspiration to an Ian McEwan story about all the cellphone calls made from people trapped in the towers to loved ones. That detail makes the song's gentle air of loss and longing more evocative and heartbreaking — and nobody can sell evocative heartbreak like Emmylou Harris.
"If This Is Goodbye" (live performance):
Bonus track: I'd suggest that Leonard Cohen's stark, short "On That Day" is curiously marred by strange boing sounds that surface occasionally, but I'm sure that the brilliant Canadian bard put them there for a very good reason.
U2: "WALK ON"
By all rights, this is not a 9/11 song; the album on which it was one of the centerpiece tracks, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," came out the previous year.
But the week after the attacks, U2 appeared on the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon and performed this song (after using a snippet of "Peace on Earth" as an intro) as a requiem for those who were lost — and "Walk On" somehow grew, absorbed what had happened and worked beautifully as a summation of what we were feeling: "And if the darkness is to keep us apart/And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off … "
Throughout the rest of U2's Elevation Tour, the song was imbued with 9/11 associations; as they performed it near the end of each show, the names of the dead scrolled on huge screens behind them.
It may have been written long before the towers fell, but "Walk On" became as true and as wrenching a response to that event as any of the songs that followed.
"Walk On" ("America: A Tribute to Heroes" performance):
Bonus tracks: Other songs that came to resonate more after 9/11 included Ryan Adams' "New York, New York" and Bob Dylan's album "Love and Theft," which was released on 9/11.