You might hate your job, but there’s nothing like a good song to make you feel like you’re not alone. (I mean, except when you think about it, and realize that the musicians who performed the song probably no longer have to work in an office, and are most likely drinking Champagne with supermodels in a brand-new Learjet 85, while you’re eating off-brand corn chips you bought from a convenience store that the health department should have closed down a long time ago.)
The point is, labor has been the single most popular subject of pop songs for decades (besides girls, cars, alcohol, parties, religion, and about 10,000 other things). So below, we’ve collected 20 of the best songs about the working life. Think of it as an extremely depressing playlist, like if your local radio station hired a German film director as its morning drive-time DJ. If we missed anything, let us know in the comments! (But be nice, or we’ll tell your boss you’re goldbricking again.)
1. Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons” (1955)
There are hundreds of songs about coal mining, most of which concentrate on what a fun, easy, and awesome job it is. “Sixteen Tons,” written by Merle Travis (or George S. Davis, depending on who you believe), showed the dark side of the profession. It’s a wonderfully sad song, told from the point of view of a tough guy (he was “raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion,” and has “one fist of iron, the other of steel”) who’s been beaten into submission by a life of hard labor. Nobody sang it like Ford — you can hear the desperation in his voice as he laments “Sixteen tons, and what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt.” Even if your job is better than coal mining (which it is), you can probably relate.
2. Sam Cooke, “Chain Gang” (1960)
Perhaps the most upbeat song ever written about forced labor, you can somehow almost see the fat sheriff with mirrored sunglasses holding a shotgun while his prisoners work “on the highways and byways / And wearing, wearing a frown.” In spite of the tempo, it’s a deeply sad song, though not as sad as Cooke’s death at the age of 33. The hotel clerk who shot him to death never went to prison, thus somehow escaping the sad end that befell the prisoners in Cooke’s iconic song.
3. Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (1965)
Dylan was always at his best when he was angry, and with a few exceptions (“Masters of War,” “Idiot Wind”), he didn’t get much angrier than this. Maggie herself seems like a cupcake compared to her sadistic relatives, particularly her father, who “puts his cigar / Out in your face, just for kicks,” or her brother, who “hands you a nickel / He hands you a dime … Then he fines you every time you slam the door.” It’s never made clear what exactly Maggie was farming, but I like to think it’s lavender. For no particular reason.
4. Lee Dorsey, “Working in the Coal Mine” (1966)
OK, so it turns out that coal mines maybe aren’t the most fun place to work after all. Allen Toussaint’s R&B classic was covered memorably by Devo in 1981, but Lee Dorsey’s version is still the definitive version. It reminds us that if your job is hard enough, it can even take over your weekends (if you’re lucky enough to have those): “‘Cause I work every morning / Hauling coal by the ton / But when Saturday rolls around / I’m too tired to have any fun.” According to Wikipedia, the song was co-opted by Walmart for a TV commercial campaign, with the lyrics changed to “Working on the rollbacks, prices going down, down.” (Just when you thought America’s largest retailer couldn’t get any less self-aware…)
5. Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman” (1968)
Let’s just get this out in the open: if this song about a lonesome Kansas line repairman doesn’t move you, you’re probably not human. Journalist Dylan Jones had this to say about Jimmy Webb’s most famous composition: “‘Wichita Lineman’ just might be the best song ever written. At the very least it’s the first existential country song.” Campbell was the first to record the song, and although it’s often been covered (mostly badly, with the exception of Johnny Cash’s version), it’s nearly impossible to think of the achingly bittersweet lyrics (“And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time”) without hearing Campbell’s lonely, hurt vocals. We’re not saying you’re a bad human being if you don’t love this song. We’re just saying you’re probably not a human being at all, ROBOT.
6. Loretta Lynn, “One’s on the Way” (1971)
You don’t think “homemaker and mother” is a real job? Tell that to Loretta Lynn. Then run away before she kicks your ass. Her 1971 hit wasn’t quite as subversive as some of her others from the era (see “The Pill” and “Rated X”), but it’s still a great example of how Lynn projected both bitterness and sweetness with her inimitable, and still unsurpassed, voice. The proto-feminist song is still maybe the funniest and most biting one yet written about the life of a homemaker, but, surprisingly, it was actually composed by Playboy cartoonist and children’s poet Shel Silverstein.
7. Rush, “Working Man” (1974)
Before Rush became fixtures on the soundtracks to a million Dungeons and Dragons games and Libertarian conventions, the future Canadian prog heroes were a pretty standard (though very good) hard rock band. “Working Man” isn’t very notable lyrically (“I get up at seven, yeah / And go to work at nine / I got no time for living / Yes, I’m working all the time”), but it rocks fairly hard — especially the long guitar and bass solos in the middle, which helped make it the band’s first hit in the United States. It might be a mostly standard rocker, but it’s impossible to get out of your head. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m getting fired if I don’t include at least one prog-rock song on this list.
8. Randy Newman, “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” (1974)
I have seriously mixed feelings about Randy Newman. Many of his early songs remind me of a patronizing sociology professor with a piano lecturing his students about why they’re much stupider than him, and his later career has been marked by dumb, sentimental tunes on Disney film soundtracks. Nevertheless, “Mr. President” is a pretty great song, mainly because, for once, he doesn’t talk down to his audience. It’s a little hard to buy Randy Newman as some blue-collar hero, but he somehow makes it work with his sad, gently pleading lyrics: “We’re not asking you to love us / You may place yourself high above us / Mr. President, have pity on the working man.” I still can’t say I’m a fan of LA’s favorite son, but I’ve got to admit, he hit it out of Dodger Stadium with this one.
9. Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977)
Everyone who’s ever had a job has dreamed of going out Paycheck-style: “You better not try to stand in my way / As I’m walking out the door / Take this job and shove it / I ain’t working here no more.” Written by country singer David Allan Coe, who would later ruin his career by releasing an album full of incredibly racist and pornographic songs, “Take This Job” has become the de facto anthem of those dissatisfied with their careers — which is to say, everybody. The song later inspired a bizarre movie of the same name, and a dumb (we’re guessing) career advice book called (sigh) Take This Job and Love It. It’s also what I plan to blast from my car stereo when my editor fires me for not finding a way to work The Wire into this article.
10. The Clash, “Career Opportunities” (1977)
“Career opportunities are the ones that never knock,” sneers the late Joe Strummer on this punk classic. The song contains a litany of jobs that, while theoretically available, aren’t suited to the angry young narrator: BBC secretary, police officer, soldier, civil servant. Over 35 years later, the song remains one of the best anthems of unemployment and disaffected youth.
11. John Prine, “Fish and Whistle” (1978)
You could make a case for John Prine as America’s best living folk songwriter not named “Bob Dylan,” and this song would be a great Exhibit A. The cheerful, almost goofy tune belies the song’s somewhat sad lyrics about the narrator’s early experience with the working life: “My very first job, I said thank you and please / They made me scrub a parking lot down on my knees / And then I got fired for being scared of bees / And they only give me fifty cents an hour.” (This resonated deeply with me at 16, when I had to wash the parking lot in front of the supermarket where I worked. There were bees. I was also scared of them. But I didn’t get fired. I just got stung.)
12. Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″ (1980)
Dolly Parton is so sweet, so likable, it’s easy to miss how bitter, angry, and almost revolutionary the lyrics to her most famous song were. “They got you where they want you,” Parton sings, “It’s a rich man’s game / No matter what they call it / And you spend your life / Puttin’ money in his wallet.” Hillary Rodham Clinton raised eyebrows by using this as a theme song to her 2008 presidential campaign — who do you suppose the line “I swear sometimes that man is out to get me” could have possibly referred to?
13. Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City” (1982)
The good news: your job probably isn’t this bad. This beautiful track from Springsteen’s flawless album Nebraska is told from the point of view of a poor young man with little choice but to take a job with some unsavory businessmen: “I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find … Honey, last night I met this guy / And I’m gonna do a little favor for him.” He’s desperate, and he tries, unsuccessfully, to justify his new line of work: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” It’s a crushingly sad song from blue-collar America’s undisputed poet laureate.
14. Utah Phillips, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” (1984)
Nobody knows who wrote this bitingly funny folk song, but the late, great Utah Phillips has the best version. Sung to the tune of the old Christian hymn “Revive Us Again,” the song is both bitter and hilarious: “Oh, I like my boss, he’s a good friend of mine / That’s why I’m starving out on the bread line.” If you happen to be unemployed, this song is a pretty good rejoinder to anyone who asks you why you don’t just go out and get a job.
15. Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” (1985)
Originally taken as an attack on rock stars by a bunch of blue-collar-at-heart English boys, there’s actually a grudging admiration here. The manual laborer who narrates the song kind-of-but-not-really respects the musicians he mocks: “That’s the way you do it / You play the guitar on the MTV … Lemme tell you, them guys ain’t dumb.” Meanwhile, he’s stuck moving refrigerators and installing microwave ovens. (Which I guess was a thing in the mid-’80s? Were microwaves that big and complicated back then? I don’t really remember. Oh well.)
16. The Bangles, “Manic Monday” (1986)
There’s not too much to say about this song except that it did more for anti-Monday sentiment than anything since Garfield comic strips. (Why the hell did Garfield hate Mondays, anyway? He’s a cat. He doesn’t have a job.) It earns a place here because it’s insanely catchy, and because it was written by Prince, who would later shoot up the pop charts with his hit “2 Sexxxy 4 U 2 Not B Sexxxy 2.” (I just made that up, but admit it, you thought it was a real Prince song, if only just for a second.)
17. Uncle Tupelo, “Grindstone” (1992)
Uncle Tupelo didn’t invent the alt-country movement, but they were its undisputed patron saints, eventually splitting and forming two insanely great bands, Son Volt and Wilco. Much of the band’s early material focuses on the blue-collar life, including this upbeat but sad song about the seeming futility of a life spent working: “Every hour will be spent / Filling a quota, just getting along / Handcuffs hurt worse when you’ve done nothing wrong.” Unfortunately, Uncle Tupelo only recorded four albums before breaking up, but they’re all worth seeking out.
18. Steve Earle, “Telephone Road” (1997)
Earle’s story of a young man who leaves Lafayette for Houston in search of work remains one of the most underrated country songs of the ’90s, despite its infectious bass line and evocative lyrics: “Workin’ all week for a Texaco check / Sun beatin’ down on the back of my neck / Try to save my money, but Jimmy says no / Says he got a little honey out on Telephone Road.” The work is backbreaking, but the weekends make it all worth it — there aren’t many songs about work this upbeat, or this convincingly nostalgic.
19. Robbie Fulks, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night” (1998)
The protagonist of singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks’ song isn’t asking for much — just a chance to “keep a twenty-inch tube / And a fenced-in yard” — but even with a “lousy job” and a “working wife,” he finds it nearly impossible to make ends meet. One of the best modern songs about the blue-collar existence, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night” showcases Fulks’ talent for mordant humor and sometimes bitter observations: “Well, a dollar I make / That’s a buck I owe.”
20. Belle and Sebastian, “White Collar Boy” (2006)
It may be tempting to steal from your employer (unless your employer is Despair, Inc., where all our assets are currently tied up in the nonexistent pork belly futures I unwisely advised my boss to buy — sorry!), but Scottish indie rockers Belle and Sebastian present a cautionary tale for anyone who’s considered dipping into the till. Assigned to community service for his theft, the hero of this song soon falls in with a young woman who, in short order, punches a cop and convinces him to go on the lam with her. Listen to these guys, and don’t steal from work. Or if you do, be real careful of the company you keep when you’re found out.