RTÉ has launched a week of programming across radio, television and online dedicated to climate change and the environment. It's an issue that has engaged artists for decades, not least singers and musicians. Here are our top five songs about the ecology 

Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell 

If ever a singer was the very embodiment of Mother Earth herself it is Joni Mitchell. Speaking about writing this much-loved (and much-covered) cautionary tale from 1970, she said: "I wrote Big Yellow Taxi on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song." As well as the simple verity of "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone", Joni also appeals for famers to put away chemicals they’ve been using on their land. It’s a warning wrapped up in a joyful pop song.

You Are The Everything - R.E.M.

When R.E.M. finally took the corporate dollar in the late eighties after establishing themselves as America's Greatest Band of the decade, they did so on their own terms. The band’s first album on Warner Bros was Green and right from that front cover and title (as much a comment on the mega bucks deal they signed as the environmental themes that dominate the album)), it was a love letter to nature. Having already scored a minor hit with the eco call to arms Fall on Me in 1986, many songs on Green are consumed with an evangelistic passion for the environment and for this list we chose You Are the Everything, a gorgeous hymn to Mother Nature that chirrups with mandolin and plaintive vocals. A siren song to the firmament and proof, if needed, that R.E.M. was among the most environmentally engaged acts of the rock era. 

After the Gold Rush - Neil Young

These days Neil Young alters his epochal lyric "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s" to "21st century" for a new generation at his concerts. His fragile and impassioned plea for TLC for Gaia is more urgent now than ever. From the very start of his career, Young has been at the vanguard of the environmental movement and his latest album, the very good Colorado, is full of tracks (weeping eco-ballad Green and Blue and the thirteen-minute guitar rhapsody of She Showed Me Love are among his finest songs in years) that mix righteous fury at corporate greed with the devastating realisation that it may be too late. However, it is this 1970 gem that seems to call down the ages. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song in which Young riffs serene on the wonder of it all against piano and a French horn.and ends with a resigned conclusion that we may have already despoiled the planet beyond saving - but also with the hopeful suggestion that our future lies in "a new home in the sun." Proof that it’s not only love that can break your heart.

This Monkey's Gone to Heaven - Pixies

When it comes to existential threats such as the slow death of the planet, Pixies said it with humour. Dark humour. Mixing Darwinism with dystopianism, Black Francis and co tell the tale of an underwater guy who controlled the sea who gets "killed by ten million pounds of sludge From New York and New Jersey." These days we call them fat bergs and they're clogging up our sewerage systems. It’s a powerfully weird track that also brings in God, Man and the Devil and their place in Biblical numerology into the final reckoning. Oh, and also a great big hole in the ozone layer: "And the ground's not cold/And if the ground's not cold/Everything is gonna burn/We'll all take turns, I'll get mine too".

Last Great American Whale - Lou Reed 

David Crosby and Graham Nash and even prog rockers Yes were among the acts who had already written songs about whales in the 1970s but here is Lou at his acerbic best in this moving and tragic song from his superb 1989 album New York. Forget about drifting off to subaqueous whale sounds, here Reed paints a surreal tableau involving Native American legends, the Civil Rights Movement and man's idiotic need for dominion over nature. "Americans don’t care for much of anything/Land and water the least," he rasps in that world weary voice. "And animal life is low on the totem pole/With human life not worth more than infected yeast." It’s damning stuff, bristling with contempt and sad-eyed with despair.

Alan Corr @CorrAlan2

 

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