While there are some who believe a country’s national anthem is some sort of uniquely noble, sacred celebration of liberty or equality, most people just think of them as the part of any sports event where the most people are sober. As it turns out, the sports fans are largely correct, since the majority of modern national anthems were composed during the boom in international athletics around the middle of the 19th century, but for some reason no country has ever written an official heroic song about how good they were at soccer (not even Brazil). As we look at some of the world’s best, worst and weirdest anthems, we’ll see that most of these patriotic songs tend to be about war, glory, blood, civic pride, suffering, blood, agriculture, blood and how much of a dick France is — all topics which are generally more interesting than soccer.
MOST DIFFICULT TO SING
America's “The Star-Spangled Banner” is regarded by even professional singers as a sort of musical booby trap. If you can hit all the notes correctly, you’ll forget the words; if you get all the lyrics right, you’ll screech at the worst possible note of the song’s unusually large vocal range. Even if you sing the song perfectly, you’ll wreck your throat on its high-pitched vowels.
However, for all of the famously botched performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it is not considered the hardest to sing. The national anthem of Mauritania (an adaptation of a 18th-century Mauritanian poem by an avant-garde 20th-century French composer) is regularly performed as an instrumental piece because of its extreme difficulty — so often so that many sources claim the anthem is wordless.
LEAST DIFFICULT TO SING
One of the first national anthems to be officially adopted as such, Spain’s “Marcha Real” (Royal March) is also one of only two to have no official lyrics, the other being “Državna himna Bosne i Hercegovine” of Bosnia & Herzegovina. In both cases, the lack of vocals is due to ethnic strife: B&H’s old song was judged discriminatory to the country’s Serb and Croat citizens, and while “Marcha Real” was originally written without lyrics, efforts to write vocals have been stymied by the cultural and linguistic split between Spain’s Basque, Catalan and Galician peoples. Not even a country-wide lyrics competition sponsored by Spain’s Olympic Committee president was able to produce an acceptable result, since even though the lyrics scanned well in all three major languages/dialects of Spain, the song’s emphasis on a unified Spain was still too touchy a topic.
As mentioned, “Marcha Real” is one of the oldest official anthems, being declared the official “Honor March” in 1770, but the UK’s “God Save the King/Queen” was first published in 1744 and may have been performed 20 years previous, although it was never officially enshrined in British law as the official national anthem. The Netherlands have both countries beat with “Wilhelmus van Nassouwe,” a song from the 16th century (although it only became the official anthem in 1932), but the absolute oldest anthem can only really be Japan’s “Kimi ga Yo,” a poem that may have been written as early as 800 CE and first set to music in 1869.
MOST MULTICULTURAL ANTHEM
Not every country has one clearly defined national language, culture or tradition, and most of these have commissioned official songs to reflect their multicultural basis. Canada famously provides a French version of “O Canada” for the Francophones of Quebec and the eastern provinces, and the Swiss national anthem comes in both French and German flavors. Anthems that blend languages are more rare; New Zealand’s “God Defend New Zealand/Aotearoa” is typically performed with one English stanza and one Maori stanza since the 1990s, while South Africa’s semi-nameless anthem is a hybrid of the old Dutch anthem (“Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”) and the newer pan-African anthem (“Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika”) and when sung in its entirety incorporates the five most popular of South Africa’s 11 officially-recognized tongues: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and oddball minority language English.
LEAST APPRECIATED ANTHEM
Australians are generally quite feisty about their national identity, but their official national anthem “Advance Australia Fair” is regarded by many Aussies as duller than Vegemite. New South Wales Senator Sandy McDonald once declared it “so boring that the nation risks singing itself to sleep.” Scottish immigrant Peter Dodds McCormick composed the song in a fit of pique after attending a late 19th-century performance of various national anthems, many quite fresh and innovative, where England’s hoary old “God Save the King/Queen” represented Australia. McCormick pounded out an anthem on the train ride home, which remained mostly the same for the next 80-odd years until the Australia Council of the Arts organized a 1973 contest to determine an official replacement for a hymn about how great the Queen was. “Advance Australia Fair” beat out “Waltzing Matilda” in spite of a now-deleted fourth verse that was all about how if you picked on Australia, Britain would absolutely come rescue it.
MOST SEISMICALLY ACTIVE ANTHEM
Whatever your opinions are about the Israel/Palestine conflict, you have to admit that the nation/state/entity/whatever of Palestine has a remarkably catchy old-fashioned march anthem in “Fida’i,” one that is generally more fun than Israel’s dirge-y “Haktivah” and is also the only national anthem to include the awesome phrase “the volcano of my vendetta.” The song is worth a casual listen, but if you’re still concerned about the geopolitical dimensions of political songs you’ve looked up on YouTube, you might want to check out Laibach’s “Yisra’el,” an industrial mashup of “Haktivah” and “Fida’i” that is guaranteed to make almost everyone who listens to it angry in a unique and interesting way.
Blood is pretty much a go-to topic for composers looking to write a stirring song of national triumph against stupendous odds. The theme is most famously exemplified in France’s “La Marseillaise,” one of the first really catchy European anthems and one that demands that the enemy’s “impure blood will water our furrows.” Italy’s “Il Canto degli Italiani” is a little bit tamer, except for its final stanza that directly accuses the Austrian empire of drinking the blood of Italians, Poles and Cossacks. The Algerian national anthem is the clear winner of this category, though: if it wasn’t enough that the song refers to machine guns and gunpowder, the actual lyrics were written in blood by Algerian rebel Mufdi Zakariah during his imprisonment by French colonial forces. The song is also unique in explicitly calling out France and letting it know that “the day of reckoning is at hand,” something that you would think a lot more post-colonial nations would mention in their songs.
MOST HOSTILE ANTHEM
Composed in 1944 by famous Vietnamese composer Văn Cao, Vietnam’s "Tiến Quân Ca" (“Marching Song”) is simple, catchy, and very clear in its message: “if you mess with us, we will kill you.” A product of the brutal Japanese occupation, it became the official national anthem of North Vietnam in 1945 when it became clear that there was lots and lots more killing that needed doing, but like the song says, “The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes.” After a sufficiently long and well-paved path of foe-bodies had been completed, it became the anthem of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, although not much to creator Văn Cao’s benefit: after a crackdown on artistic freedoms in 1956, he was banned from composing and all of his pieces besides "Tiến Quân Ca" and a handful of other patriotic songs were officially prohibited until 1987.
MOST DEPRESSING ANTHEM
“Himnusz,” the official Hungarian national anthem, is unusual in that it takes the form of a plea to God instead of a celebration of Hungarian pride and martial prowess. This is because the original poem/prayer was written during Hapsburg rule, meaning that themes of independence and military glory weren’t going to make it past the censors, and outside of a few subtle references to ancient victories, the the first three stanzas of “Himnusz” are largely about what a nice country the Austrians were allowing them to live in. The fourth stanza, however, starts with “Ah, but for our sins/Anger gathered in Your bosom” and gets steadily darker, referencing “the plundering Mongols’ arrows,” “the Turks’ slave yoke[s],” and even “Over the corpses of our defeated army/A victory song!” Under officially-atheist Soviet rule, the lyrics were briefly banned and an attempt was made to replace “Himnusz” with the relatively cheerful “Szózat” (although even that song includes the memorable line “A nation wallows in blood”) but the “Himnusz” was widely regarded as easier to remember and sing — apparently being murdered or enslaved by half of Europe is a useful mnemonic for Hungarians.
Next: The Most Controversial Songs of All Time
MOST METAL ANTHEM
Denmark’s "Kong Christian stod ved højen mast" (“King Christian stood by the lofty mast”) is not strictly speaking a national anthem, but rather a royal one. It’s typically sung or played to honor the Danish Royal House or the military, while “Der er et yndigt land” (“There is a lovely country,” a pleasant pastoral song that only mentions the Vikings once) is played at general affairs like sporting events. That’s a shame, because the royal anthem (which includes the lines “His sword was hammering so fast / Through Gothic helm and brain it passed” in the very first stanza) is a hell of a thing to sing to someone before a soccer game. The lyrics deal with Danish naval heroism in general and King Christian at the Battle of Colberger Heide in particular, and when reading Longfellow’s official English translation it’s hard not to imagine it being recited by a guy wearing a bunch of spikes working a double kick drum. Regrettably, the Danes have mellowed out considerably since the 17th century, and Queen Margrethe II is unlikely to be hammering her sword through any Gothic brains unless Swedish death metal band Amon Amarth makes good on its threats to claim the Danish throne.