The Futurist Playlist

Cynthia Wagner's picture

Music can express ideas and feelings both through the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies that evoke passions and through the words that distill complex thought into poetry.

The future has been the subject of awe, fear, hope, cynicism, and inspiration, reflecting our changing relationship with what may be ahead.

So here I humbly submit the Futurist Playlist, a collection of 20 tunes (available for download from, and a few thoughts on why these songs were selected.

View the Futurist Playlist at, Permalink:

Photobucket 01 Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Composed by Richard Strauss in 1896, this theme gave the idea of the future a sense of grandeur in the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the dawn of the space age, it was time for humanity to look back upon its history and ahead to its potential with equal parts of humility and hope.

Photobucket 02 The Times They Are a-Changin’ (written and performed by Bob Dylan)

Bob Dylan’s 1964 release gave voice to the civil rights and war protest movements of the early 1960s, inspiring all who questioned authority and defied the status quo. The driving force for the changes Dylan described was the younger generation, and the song advises the adults not to stand in their way:

Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

Photobucket 03 A Change Is Gonna Come (written and performed by Sam Cooke)

More specifically focused on the changes in race relations, Sam Cooke’s 1963 piece is more personal than Dylan’s.

It's been a long
Long time comin'
But I know a change gonna come
Oh yes it will

But compare Cooke’s mournful optimism with the self-actualizing anger in Curtis Mayfield’s Future Shock.

Photobucket 04 Future Shock (written and performed by Curtis Mayfield)

(Warning, some language may be deemed objectionable by some listeners.)

In 1973, an addition to concerns about civil rights and war came from the “future shock” of environmental degradation. Curtis Mayfield urged us not to “dance” but to take active control:

We got to stop all men
From messing up the land
When won't we understand
This is our last and only chance

Photobucket 05 In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) (written by Rick Evans and performed by Denny Zager and Rick Evans)

Written in 1964 but not released until 1968, this song judges the very long-term prospects for humankind, as technological tampering begins to assert itself in the cultural landscape. “In the year 6565,” they warn:

You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube

Photobucket 06 Imagine (written and performed by John Lennon)

Throughout history, culture feels the pulse of trends and countertrends, so this playlist reflects both pessimism and optimism. Of the latter sentiment, perhaps the most inspiring example I can imagine is John Lennon's Imagine, from 1971:

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world …

Photobucket 07 Space Oddity (written and performed by David Bowie)

We return to the theme of space exploration as the emblematic destination of the human future. David Bowie’s recording coincided with the U.S. lunar landing in 1969, but gave it a personal touch with “Major Tom." Bowie also gave a wink to the celebrity culture surrounding the astronauts of the era:

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

For better or worse, the future now belonged to popular culture; compare the de-glamorization of the astronaut life in Elton John’s follow-up to Bowie, Rocket Man.

Photobucket 08 Rocket Man (written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John)

Though I tend to think this song is more about drug use than anything else (“Zero hour nine a.m., and I'm gonna be high as a kite by then”), the song was allegedly inspired by Bernie Taupin’s sighting of a shooting star. However, the 1971 song illustrates how quickly the future’s heroes became mundane to the general public:

And all this science I don't understand
It's just my job five days a week

Photobucket 09 Tomorrow (from the musical Annie, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin; performed by Andrea McArdle)

An anthem for the hopelessly hopeful, the congenitally uncynical, this scrappy little bit of American inspiration from 1977 was an oasis in the encroaching deserts of globalizing competition.

Just thinkin’ about
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
’Til there’s none!

Photobucket 10 In the Future (written by Ron Mael and performed by Sparks)

For, despite Little Orphan Annie’s cheerful confidence in Tomorrow, society was growing increasingly skeptical of what futurists had been perceived as promising. In this 1975 song, one can almost hear the writer adding, “Yeah, right” after:

The sweep and the grandeur
The scope and the laughter
The future, the future
The future's got it covered
With what will be discovered

Photobucket 11 Road to Nowhere (written by David Byrne, performed by Talking Heads)

A decade later, the cynicism was considerably more overt:

They can tell you what to do
But they'll make a fool of you …
We're on a road to nowhere

Photobucket 12 The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades (written by Pat MacDonald, performed by Timbuk 3)

Like many people hearing this song, I mistook its upbeat flavor for a bright outlook expressed by a young scientist. Superficial research (i.e., Wikipedia) reveals the writer’s view of a more-sinister future during the height of the Cold War: the brightness of nuclear holocaust being the inducement for wearing shades.

Well I'm heavenly blessed and worldly wise
I'm a peeping-tom techie with x-ray eyes

Photobucket 13 Don’t Worry, Be Happy (written and performed by Bobby McFerrin)

Another tick of the countertrend metronome back toward optimism--or numbing complacency, some may argue. The 1988 song is said (by Wikipedia) to have been inspired by late Indian sage Meher Baba, and its laid-back, breezy Caribbean vibe offers a soothing balm against the stresses of the time.

In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double

Photobucket 14 Year 3000 (written by James Bourne and performed by Busted)

By 2002, pop culture seems to have shrugged off the futurists’ “promises” but embraced the fantasy and fun of such films as Back to the Future, which inspired these lyrics.

I took a trip to the year 3000
This song had gone multi-platinum
Everybody bought our seventh album
It had outsold Michael Jackson

A few years later, popular boy band the Jonas Brothers covered Year 3000, substituting Kelly Clarkson (of American Idol) for the Michael Jackson reference in the lyric.

Photobucket 15 The Futurist (written by Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Hudson and performed by Robert Downey Jr.)

Okay, this is just my opinion, but I suspect Robert Downey Jr. titled this song and his album The Futurist to get my attention. :) It worked. I just don’t see what the song really has to do with the future. But he has a lot of fans, and I hope our including The Futurist on the Futurist Playlist will get their attention. After all, the future is now about social networking, right?

That said, I will give RDJ credit for keeping a personal perspective on the future, as the song is about commitment and fidelity:

It'll be like lovers
For the rest of our lives
No run around
Think twice... Twice

Photobucket 16 Falling (written by Martin Hansen, Magnus Kaxe, and Fred Alexander; performed by Clay Aiken)

This 2008 pop-rock song (egregiously overlooked by radio) explores an aspect of futurism that is not often considered, which is the uncertainty and confusion of living in times of rapid change. Unlike Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, the narrative here is a more specifically personal one, but it is no less poignant and urgent:

And I'm falling, I am falling
From the world I used to know
Been trying to hold on
To something for so long
Now this never-ending dream won't let go

Photobucket 17 100 Years (written and performed by John Ondrasik, Five for Fighting)

Here is a reflection on a personal future and the expression of awareness for how short our time really is (though not using the brevity of life as an excuse for self-indulgence).

Half time goes by
Suddenly you're wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone

Photobucket 18 Kids of the Future (performed by the Jonas Brothers; originally “Kids in America,” written by Ricky Wilde and Marty Wilde)

This 2007 remake produced for the film Meet the Robinsons embraces the exuberant spirit of youth, perhaps an “Annie” for the twenty-first century:

There's no time for looking down
You will not believe where we're going now

Photobucket 19 One Child At a Time (written and performed by Nnenna Freelon)

The Nnenna Freelon song that inspired the Futurist Playlist in the first place, the witty Future News Blues (1992), is unfortunately not available as an mp3 download. But I recalled from my interview with her at the time that a sense of the future was very much embedded in her writing. As a mother and an educator, Nnenna knows how much the future matters.

These ideas are even more vivid in the earnest One Child At a Time, written in 2000, urging all of us to take responsibility for the future:

We all have a part to play
Teacher, friend, or mentor
We’ll make it a brighter day
With children at the center

Photobucket 20 Over the Rainbow (written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, performed by Eva Cassidy)

There’s so much I love about this particular version of the song made famous by Judy Garland for the 1939 film, Wizard of Oz. This 1998 arrangement illustrates that what is old can be made new again with a new voice, newly inspired. Tragically, Eva Cassidy died of cancer before this recording was released to British radio and became a mega-hit.

The lyrics, of course, speak to the daydream that inspires us to pursue a better world, even if the journey ultimately brings us back home again, as it did in the movie:

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

Our musical journey to the future takes us through fear, anger, inspiration, cynicism, idealism, and courage. The essential truth is this: There is always hope.

View the Futurist Playlist at

Lyrics quoted and album art posted for illustrative purposes only; ownership belongs to the respective copyright holders.

The Futurist Playlist was compiled by Cynthia G. Wagner, with the input of @WorldFutureSoc Twitter followers: Richard Yonck, Anthony Michel, and John Cashman. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the World Future Society or, to be honest, those of most real music experts. *g*


The Futurist Playlist - bonus

Thanks to a tip from singer Nnenna Freelon, I'll add a plug for her latest CD, Homefree, which contains the very timely "Cell Phone Blues" (track 7):

more Futurist Music recommendations

From Dennis Draeger via Twitter (@dddraeger):
The Futurist Playlist NEEDS: Talking Heads-Nothing but Flowers Laurie Anderson-O Superman and
(links to The Still Lifes - Future in Question).

More recommendations? Submit comments here!