Honorable mentions: there are too many to include here. (Seriously, I had 27 songs that did not make the cut. I started to list them all out, but that made this interminably long post twice as long.)
Here are my favorites. ("Favorites" being defined as what I wrote down/found in my music collection in the last week since I came up with this idea. Very scientific.)
- Tesla - "Edison's Medicine." (1991) The band named themselves after Nikita Tesla for some reason; it seemed like just a cool band name from an 80's metal act until their 1991 release. Lyrics addressed to Edison such as "My jury finds you'll be doing time/When you go straight to hell" make it clear that the band is surprisingly passionate about their namesake. Historical lesson: 1) "They'll sell you on Marconi/Familiar but a phony." 2) Nikita Tesla: "(They) thought you was crazy/You was one of a kind...All along, world was wrong. You was right." 3) Band Tesla: they give a pretty good historical diss. Yes, they clearly skipped grammar in school (or as they call it, "twelve years of hard time"), but they did not skip the School of Hard Rawk.
- Caroline's Spine - "Sullivan." (1997) This song tells the story of the five Sullivan brothers, who enlisted in the Navy in 1942 on the condition that they all serve together. The Navy complied, putting them all on the USS Juneau. It did not end well; in the battle of Guadalcanal, their ship sank and all five brothers were killed. This led directly to the policy that separates family members in the military and protects sole family survivors from service. Historical lesson: the song tells the story of the family tragedy eloquently, and I learned that "turning your blue star to gold" meant that your child had passed away. It's a well-told story with the emotional component intact.
- Morrissey - "Irish Blood, English Heart." (2004) Now, I could have picked about twelve different Morrissey solo or Smiths songs, but I'm partial to this one. It's both personally and historically reflective. Describing his "Irish blood, English heart" immediately announces his heritage and nationality; singing "I've been dreaming of a time when/To be English is not to be baneful/To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial" announces that he won't be accepting it all with a blind eye. It's Morrissey at his best: both literate and indignant. He acknowledges his context while presenting his bonafides, then delivers the barbed, pointed conclusion. Historical lesson: "I've been been dreaming of a time when/The English/Are sick to death of Labour/And Tories/And spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell/And denounce this royal line that still salutes him/And will salute him forever." Well, that about sums it up.
- Les Savy Fav - "The Year Before the Year 2000." (2007) This speaks to some recent history; as you might imagine, they're a bit condescending towards the "sky is falling" crowd. "If you fear, my dear, the end is near/Please do check your frontal hemisphere." Well said. Historical lesson: after the obligatory "I told you so" about Y2K, Les Savy Fav draws an interesting conclusion: there's something that was great about thinking the world was about to end, and something very disconcerting about the seemingly endless vista of time in front of us. "Everybody, please keep trying/Trying to party like it's 1999/Even though we've got so much time/We gotta spend it like it's 1999." Didn't think it was going that way, did you? Very well done, fellas.
- Paul Hardcastle - "19." (1985) Classic. Summary: "In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26/In Vietnam he was 19." This song has a lot facts and figures, lots of different voices, and a beat you can dance to, all about that little conflict in Vietnam. Some will tell you their favorite line was the vet saying, "I wasn't really sure what was going on"; I've always been partial to the female chorus: "All those who remember the war/They won't forget what they've seen/Destruction of men in their prime/Whose average age was 19." It takes a lot of guts to try and pull off the "average age" line when: 1) you're carrying the only true singing part in the song; 2) you're trying to state a fact -- musically; and 3) you're trying to make this sound as if people are walking around actually talking like this. (It's part of the song's charm.) Historical lesson: none of them received a hero's welcome.
- Culture Club – "I’ll Tumble 4 Ya." (1982) Just checking to see if you’re still reading.
- Richard Thompson - "Alexander Graham Bell." (2003) I learned that Bell had 50 inventions other than the telephone – including x-rays, faxes, and respirators. And that he laid the groundwork for television. Historical lesson: “Edison was a thief, Tesla nuts beyond belief.” (Edison takes it on the chin quite a bit, doesn't he?) You'll learn a lot in 3 minutes and 23 seconds - it's literate, clever, and informative. (Thompson has a ton of such songs, including “My Daddy Was a Mummy,” "The Story of Hamlet," and “Madonna’s Wedding.” “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” a reference to Bagdad, is a future history lesson. On a completely unrelated note, here's Thompson covering "Oops! I Did It Again.")
- U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday." (1983) A description of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, focusing on the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry. British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders; Bono got righteous. Historical lesson: war sucks, we would prefer to not have it happen again. Thank you for your consideration. I'll wave a white flag and yell "No More War!" now.
- Anthemic Pop Wonder - "How Great Was Hüsker Dü!" (2002) The answer: pretty damn good. Historical lesson: underappreciated.
- Nerf Herder - "Mr. Spock." (2002) This not only vividly describes nerd romantic frustration by using science fiction (which is like trying to teach a dog to do tricks with trigonometry), but also completely summarizes the Star Trek episode "Arena" in the lyrics. There's a bit about destroying robots as well. Sci fi geeks will play this for their uncomprehending partners, most of whom are undoubtedly blissfully unaware that said geek considers them a "partner" in the first place. Historical lesson: you don't want a boyfriend. What you want is Mr. Spock. (See the song here; make sure you play it at 240p.)
- Night Ranger - "Sister Christian." (1984) With its obscurely plausible religious overtones, this song is quite the mystery, especially when delivered by a band that is used to singing songs about drinkin', rockin', and datin'. Was this "Sister Christian" a nun? Some historical figure? Or should we focus on "Christian" -- does her religious choice matter? Could it be Sister Buddhist? Sister Hindu? Sister Agnostic? Alas... the truth is ultimately far less interesting. The song was originally called "Sister Christy" and written about the drummer's sister. Huh. Well, that sucks. Historical lesson: much like the Black Eyed Peas (whose "Let's Get Retarded" anthem about drinking was changed by an ad agency to the "Let's Get It Started" anthem about car commercials), the truth hurts. Lesson learned: try not to read too much into Night Ranger's lyrics.
- Gang of Four - "History's Bunk!" The message here: “There are no lessons in the past.” They're smarter than I am, so I guess we'll leave it at that. Historical lesson: you say there are no lessons in the past, but if this is a lesson learned from the past, then you did learn it, but you could not have learned this truth except from the past... illogical! Illogical! Please explain! You are human; only humans can explain! Illogical! (Head explodes. This is a basic summary of the Star Trek episode "I, Mudd.")