1. Various Artists, "Voices That Care" (1991)
How many voices are necessary to prove that we really, really care about soldiers fighting overseas? Ten? Screw that. Twenty? Not even close. As "Voices That Care" shows, it takes at least 110 singers, actors, and athletes singing and swaying en masse to properly capture the appropriate level of caring. Recorded in 1991 to boost the morale of troops fighting in Operation Desert Storm, the single—along with its hilariously dated documentary video—proves that quantity always beats quality when it comes to schlocky, celebrity-choir-driven charity ballads. It starts out typically enough, with a cadre of then-A-list musicians—Bobby Brown, Celine Dion, Michael Freakin' Bolton—trading fist-pumping sentiments like "Lonely fear lights up the sky / can't help but wonder why you're so far away." But after an awkward rap breakdown from the Fresh Prince and a smooth sax line from Kenny G, the care-ball busts open, unleashing a flood of painfully earnest actors (Sally Field! Jean-Claude Van Damme!), comedians (Whoopi Goldberg! Jon Lovitz!), athletes (Michael Jordan! Wayne Gretzky!), and, um, other (Don King?) emoting their hearts out to the chorus, "Stand tall! Stand proud! / Voices that care are crying out loud." Only one thing could cap off such a tremendous, garish outpouring of support: Warren Wiebe, a nondescript session singer tapped by one of the songwriters to belt out the final lines, just before the surrounding celebrity army breaks into self-congratulatory applause.
2. Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City" (1985)
Multi-artist benefit songs are undignified and embarrassing by nature, but Steven Van Zandt made an almost†credible stab at†turning the genre against itself by using it to chastise his fellow entertainers for performing at a South African luxury resort. Van Zandt backed off a plan to name names—thereby letting the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart off the hook—but otherwise, "Sun City" offers a surprisingly cogent critique of the Reagan administration's tepid plan for dealing with apartheid. The single actually topped the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll for 1985, but that was more a political gesture—both a statement against apartheid and an appreciation of Van Zandt's attempts to fuse rap and rock. In retrospect, for all its good intentions and all-star cast—including Bruce Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron, George Clinton, Bono, Bob Dylan, Afrika Bambaataa, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, Ruben Blades, and Kurtis Blow—"Sun City" is leaden as a rap track and over-earnest as a rocker. It's the best of a bad lot, which isn't saying much.
3. Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, "What's Going On" (2001)
Remember the part in "What's Going On" when Marvin Gaye breaks it down at the end and wraps his velvety voice around the classic couplet: "Everybody want to live, don't nobody really want to die, you know you're feeling me, right?" Oh wait, that line isn't in Gaye's 1971 original, it's an ad-lib made by noted humanitarian "rapper" Fred Durst on the cover of "What's Going On" by Artists Against AIDS Worldwide. "What's Going On" was conceived by Bono and Jermaine Dupri as, presumably, a selfless act of artistic altruism intended to benefit AIDS programs around the world. What it ended up being, however, was yet another self-congratulatory, celebrity-bozo circle-jerk, with the likes of Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, the Backstreet Boys, and the bald tub of goo from Staind somehow failing to conjure Gaye's graceful gravitas.
4. Band Aid, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (1984, 1989, and 2004)
The almost cosmic tackiness of Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?"—a project that gathered Britain's top music stars to combat famine in Ethiopia—has been catalogued exhaustively since the record became a phenomenon in 1984. And it's still a brain-melter. The song's video is a rap sheet of staggering crimes against tact: Shots of chart-topping millionaires walking around in fur coats and signing autographs. A close-up of Sting singing the line, "the bitter sting of tears." Bono delivering the direly embarrassing "Thank God it's them instead of you" in the original, then repeating the lyric in 2004 when Band Aid 20 reprised "Do They Know?"—a low-key but equally smug take on the tune. Surprisingly, the least annoying version of the song came courtesy of Band Aid II, the overlooked 1989 sequel; then again, it's easy to keep egos in check when Kylie Minogue is by far the biggest star in the room. Underlying Band Aid's sense of self-importance, though, is the song's basic ignorance: Ethiopia, a country that's more than 50 percent Christian, probably doesn't need to be schooled about Christmas by Boy George, Lisa Stansfield, and whoever the hell Sugababes are.
5. Hear N' Aid, "Stars" (1986)
Is "Stars," by mid-'80s heavy-metal charity group Hear N' Aid, overblown? Let's see: In the very first line, Ronnie James Dio sings softly, "Who cries for the children? I do!" And that's the subtlest part of the song. So yes, "Stars" is a touch on the bombastic side. Inspired by the lack of metal-heads on USA For Africa's template-setting "We Are The World," Hear N' Aid's rockin' shot across the bow of African hunger is, as the title suggests, more about supporting the massive egos of its participants than supporting starving children. With Rob Halford, Don Dokken, Kevin DuBrow, and other distinguished headbangers of the time gamely trying to out-shriek and out-ham each other, "Stars" does a stage-long knee-slide straight into the waiting arms of self-parody.
6. The West Coast Rap All-Stars, "We're All In The Same Gang" (1990)
Thanks to producer Dr. Dre, "We're All In The Same Gang" is at least better musically than most heavy-handed cause songs. Ignore the words, and you can almost imagine it's another prime-era N.W.A. track about blasting motherfuckers in the face with a sawed-off while bitches lick your enormous balls. The problem with "We're All In The Same Gang" is context. Sure, rapping about ending gang violence is noble, but can one song outweigh the blood-soaked and bullet-riddled gangsta mythology that West Coast rap was built on, especially when the video looks about as cool as an episode of Family Matters? While Straight Outta Compton didn't necessarily influence youngsters to grab guns and start shooting people, "We're All In The Same Gang" definitely never convinced them to stop.
7. The King Dream Chorus And Holiday Crew, "King Holiday" (1986)
The combination of hard rhymes and soft R&B; has proven surprisingly potent in recent years, but this 1986 single doesn't know how to balance the two. A tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. written by Kurtis Blow at the request of King's son Dexter Scott King, "King Holiday" finds an all-star cast of mid-'80s rap and R&B; stars trading unmemorable verses against the blandest of synth-heavy backing tracks. Any song that brings Run DMC and Whodini together with New Edition and Ricky Martin-era Menudo can't be all bad. And it's fascinating to revisit a time when a healthy-looking Whitney Houston only warranted a little more screen time than Lisa Lisa. (Though based on the video, she was excused from socializing with either the Dream Chorus or the Holiday Crew.) But the noble sentiment soars above an execution so dull that not even the Fat Boys' Human Beat Box can make it funky.
8. Michael Jackson & Friends, "What More Can I Give" (2001)
There's arguably no bigger fuck-doggle in the history of charity singles than Michael Jackson's "What More Can I Give," which was intended to raise money for assorted charities providing aid in the wake of 9/11. Jackson's label balked at releasing a new song while they were still trying to promote the poor-selling Invincible, and the trouble mounted from there: Right-wing commentators griped that one of the charities the single was benefiting was sponsored by The Church Of Scientology, then noted that producer Marc Schaffel had been involved in gay porn. And Jackson didn't help matters with the song's video, which alternates between close-ups of attractive young boy singers and Jackson-worshipping testimonials from kitsch-pop legends like Celine Dion. Self-promotion and child-love… What more can Jackson give?
9. Various Artists, "Come Together Now" (2005)
Undaunted by the "What More Can I Give" fiasco, some of the same artists—including Celine Dion and the Carter brothers—answered Sharon Stone's call to take part in a song to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami. The inevitable video follows the inevitable pattern: Disaster footage sprinkled between shots of the be-headphoned superstars of yesteryear, singing one insipid inspirational line after another. Hang tight, New Orleans. Ruben Studdard is doing his part.
10. Northern Lights, "Tears Are Not Enough" (1985)
After the Brits and the Yanks had their say on Ethiopian famine relief, the Canucks, led by raspy rocker Bryan Adams, got in on the act. Northern Lights' "Tears Are Not Enough" and its accompanying video are like a roll call of "Hey, I forgot that guy's Canadian!" moments, as strange bedfellows Gordon Lightfoot, Geddy Lee, Anne Murray, Wayne Gretzky, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Corey Hart, Paul Shaffer, Eugene Levy, and that dude from Loverboy each take their crack at lines like, "It's up to me and you to make the dream come true."(Plus the inevitable French verse: "C'est l'amour qui nous rassemble / D'ici l'autre bout du monde.") So many mullets. So many moustaches. So much heart.
11. Dionne Warwick And Friends, "That's What Friends Are For" (1985)
In what is surely one of the strangest origins of a charity song ever, the Carole Bayer-Sager and Burt Bacharach-penned "That's What Friends Are For" began its life in the 1982 comedy Night Shift, where Rod Stewart offered a touching tribute to the joys of running a call-girl service with your best buddy. Yet somehow the association with hooker-related ha-has didn't dissuade Dionne Warwick And Friends—a group featuring Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and later Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston—from recording it and releasing it as a charity single for AIDS research. That version became the number-one single of 1986, so it was an admirable bit of philanthropy—it earned more than $3 million for the cause. But that doesn't save it from being one of the schmaltziest, most insincere performances of all time: Those too-big smiles, that shameless mugging, the palpable tension that arises whenever divas are forced to share the stage—something tells us that if Dionne Warwick really had a problem, Elton might not be "for sure" the one to count on.
12. Various Artists, "Tears In Heaven" (2004)
The 2004 tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, and no expression of sympathy could convey the shock of losing more than 225,000 lives. But that still doesn't explain the rationale behind producers Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell turning Eric Clapton's very personal, elegiac ode to his late toddler son into an awkward emote-off between the strangest group of celebrities ever assembled. Glurge veterans like Elton John, Rod Stewart, Mary J. Blige, Josh Groban, Phil Collins, Ringo Starr, and even Andrea Bocelli are understandable. But once tabloid terrors like Steven Tyler, Velvet Revolver, Pink, Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale, and Robert Downey Jr. show up, the whole thing starts to feel like an act of compulsory community service. Then there's the shameless plugging of the Osbourne clan: Ozzy slips a little taste of his own "No More Tears" into the chorus, and duets prominently with daughter Kelly—whose makeup and lighting might be the most charitable thing about the video.
13. U2 And Green Day, "The Saints Are Coming" (2006)
What do an Irish band, a Bay Area band, and a Scottish song have to do with New Orleans? They were all united in grief, of course: Following Hurricane Katrina, U2 and Green Day decided to join forces to record a benefit single—a cover of "The Saints Are Coming," a 1979 song from Scotland's The Skids, the punk band that would eventually give birth to Big Country. Adding a dash of blues to the gumbo, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong—a man so empathetic he apparently mussed his hair as a show of solidarity with New Orleans' trammeled cityscape—begins by quoting "The House Of The Rising Sun" before Bono comes marching in (on water, one would assume). The video tries to make a strong statement about the federal government's failure to aid Katrina victims, but viewers have to piece it together themselves from the two-second clips of soldiers and bombers that pop up between all the onstage prancing and preening.
14. Westboro Baptist Church, "God Hates The World" (Hateful Non-Benefit Bonus Track)
The Westboro Baptist Church—you know, that sunny group of protesters behind godhatesfags.com—didn't really create "God Hates The World" to benefit any particular charity. They're more interested in teaching the children about the irredeemable evils of mankind. The Church did, however, appropriate the melody of "We Are The World" for this kick-ass single, "God Hates The World." In it, a group of tone-deaf frumps explains how it's already too late to save yourself, using such expressive lines as "fag beasts and bloody flags." (They hate gays and the military!) They do explain, too, that "It's too late to change His mind," so in a way, this song encourages sinning. "You'll eat your kids, you hateful people!"
15. Special Bonus Track