Albums that Give Back
It always warms our hearts when musicians get together, using their talents to raise money for a great cause through the release of a charity album. The charity album trend peaked in the ’80s with all-star releases like “We are the World” and “Do they know it’s Christmas?” but thankfully many artists continue to use their talent and clout to raise funds for those in need.
What’s better than getting some great music?! Giving to great causes while we’re at it! So come with us and sing along in joyous chorus to albums helping build the dream of a better tomorrow…
1: George Harrison – The Concert for Bangladesh
Released in late 1971 by Apple Records, George Harrison’s triple live album The Concert for Bangladesh is widely recognized as the first major record released to raise money for a charitable cause. The record compiles two of Harrison’s live performances at Madison Square Garden that featured appearances by a number of stars of the era including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, and Ringo Starr, among others. The concert and subsequent album were put on to raise funds to aid the displaced refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. This event and record release became the standard template for charity benefits put on by the music industry, directly influencing the hugely popular charity albums of the 1980s. The album itself was a huge commercial and critical success, raising millions of dollars for the cause and even winning the Grammy award for album of the year. The album has since been reissued a number of times and proceeds now go towards the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF, which raised 1.2 million dollars for children in the Horn of Africa in 2011 alone. You can pick up the album today and still contribute to the cause.
2: African Famine relief records of the 1980s
The ’80s were without a doubt the heyday of major artist collaboration charity records. It was the decade that gave us charity projects like Band Aid, USA for Africa, Northern Lights, and Hear ‘n’ Aid, all designed to raise funds for famine relief in Africa.
Band Aid was the first super-group of the charity album trend to come together, and the resulting single “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” was wildly popular across the globe, selling two million copies and raising 24 million dollars to aid in the Ethiopian famine. A laundry list of famous musicians contributed to the track, including Phil Collins, Bono, George Michael, Boy George, and Sting, among many others. Ignoring the condescending, euro-centric tone of the song, it’s actually a nice little cut of 80s pop, complete with pulsing synths and gated reverb. The song was redone in 2014 by an updated group of pop singers like Ed Sheeran, Bono, Seal, Miley Cyrus, Elle Goudling and more.
USA for Africa was the American counterpart to the (mostly) British Band Aid, and their hit single “We Are The World” surpassed the original, both in terms of money raised (a whopping $63 million!) as well as lasting significance. “We Are the World” was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and produced by Quincy Jones, and featured vocal performances from Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and basically everyone else you can think of.
Never one to be left out, Canada had to get in on the fun, and the resulting project was Northern Lights and the single “Tears are Not Enough.” The track featured performances by Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Brian Adams, and Neil Young, among a few others, and raised 3.2 million dollars for famine relief.
Last but certainly not least, we have Hear ‘n Aid, the heavy metal world’s contribution to the charity single craze. The project was organized by Ronnie James Dio and bandmates Jimmy Bain and Vivian Campbell, who noted the distinct lack of representation from the hard rock/heavy metal scene in these charity albums, despite the genre’s huge popularity at the time. Together they wrote the lead single “Stars” and gathered heavy metal’s biggest names from bands such as Judas Priest, Blue Oyster Cult, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, and even Spinal Tap, among so many more. The resulting record raised over a million dollars for Africa in a single year. We may be biased but “Stars” is the real winner of the bunch, and it holds up pretty well.
3: War Child – The Help Album
The Help Album was perhaps the definitive charity album of the ’90s. It was put together by War Child, a UK-based charitable organization focused on providing aid to children in war-torn regions. The album features notable contributions from many of England’s leading alt-rock artists of the era including Oasis, Radiohead, Blur, and many more. Many of these recordings are also quite historically significant, featuring one-time lineups and collaborations. Some standouts include the debut track by supergroup The Smokin’ Mojo Filters (featuring Paul McCartney, Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, and others), who do a competent rendition of the Beatles classic “Come Together.” The album also provided the world with a first time listen of Radiohead’s “Lucky,” which would later appear on OK Computer. While the songs alone stand as an impressive testament to the music industry’s biggest players coming together for a good cause, the recording of it maybe an even greater feat. Inspired by the concept behind the John Lennon track “Instant Karma!” (which was all about putting out music as soon as it’s recorded) the Help Album was recorded on September 4, 1995, mixed on the 5th, and in shops on the 9th. The record ended up raising more than 1.25 million pounds for War Child and led to follow-up albums 1 love, Hope, Help!: A Day in the Life and War Child Presents Heroes.
4: Waxploitation – Causes 1
Back in 2007, Waxploitation (the label that launched the careers of Gnarls Barkley, Danger Mouse and Broken Bells), gathered the best indie acts from the late 2000s to create a benefit album. 100% of the proceeds went to three organizations working in Sudan: Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam America and Human Rights Watch. The war in Darfur was (and still is) one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the decade, with many of the non-governmental orgs (like the ones mentioned above) struggling to receive adequate support. The Causes album was a standout charity record, not only for its timeliness but for its track list as well. Featuring rarities and exclusives from artists like Bright Eyes, the Shins, Spoon, Bloc Party, Animal Collective and more, the album is worth getting both for the conscious consumer and the music lover. With a flood of support that came after, a follow up album was released in 2009 featuring Devendra Banhart, Gnarls Barkley, LCD Soundsystem, and more.
5: Red Hot AIDS Benefit Series – Dark Was the Night
Dark Was the Night is considered one of the best charity albums of all time, or at least one of the most critically acclaimed to be released in the past decade. The record is the 20th compilation release benefiting the Red Hot Organization, a charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. The 2 disc record stands out not only for the many artists involved, but for the cohesive and beautiful sound woven throughout. Americana is the root of the album, from restrained and humble acoustic numbers like Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI” to orchestral pop bursts like Sufjan Steven’s “You Are the Blood.” There are so many standouts it’d be hard to name them all. The most haunting tune may be the Kronos Quartet cover of the title track, composed by the great early 20th century gospel blues singer, Blind Willie Johnson. The track cuts right to the desperation of the times, and translates so beautifully on an album benefiting those that were ignored for far too long. Hearing artists that range as far as Dirty Projectors to Sharon Jones tap into American roots music is a beautiful thing, and so worth listening to. The fact that it raised over $1.6 million to fight AIDS makes it that much more special.