There are a number of songs that I like, not necessarily for the music, but for the lyrics… the story the song tells, and how well it tells it. Much music (to me, anyway) is just noise, and the lyrics often play the role of another instrument, that allow people to sing along, but mean little or nothing in reality. The best songs are the ones that provide a story along with the tune.
So, what are your favorites?
I’ll start the list with 5 songs, in no particular order. I have always been curious if other people listen as closely to lyrics as I do.
They can be from any genre (they must have words!)
Lyrics are of supreme importance to me in music as well. I can’t tell if you’re soliciting songs based on appreciation for their meaning or appreciation for the quality of writing. A lot of my favorite songs, lyrically, aren’t necessarily the best written, they just happen to perfectly express some thing I feel. Other songs I love have amazingly well-written lyrics about otherwise mundane topics.
If you’re talking about lyrics on the force of quality alone, I’d nominate:
Rush - Freewill. Obviously it comes with a brilliant message.
Eve 6 - Promise. Eve 6 is one of those vastly underrated bands who really know how to turn a phrase.
This is one of my favorite love songs because it captures so well that bewilderment and elation and anxiety and confusion that is falling in love.
For more well-written lyrics by Eve 6, try Girl Eyes, which invents the marvellous word, ‘‘Vodkareening’’ to describe reckless drunkenness. This song sounds like being drunk. In a good way.
Atmosphere - Trying to Find a Balance
All Atmosphere does is turn out lyrically amazing songs. Most of their stuff reminds me of beat poetry. This one has more of a mainstream feel, but I love how palpable the frustration is.
Finally, another lyrical genius, Tori Amos, with Mother.
This song kills me. Full lyrics here. If you want good storytelling, you must hear Amos’ album Little Earthquakes. Every song is like a chapter in a book of short stories.
I could keep going. My entire music library is basically artists whose lyrics I love.
I used to bawl my eyes out every time I heard this song. Talk about powerful story telling! Full lyrics below, because I love them so much:
Ajam lives in the steppe
he loves the rolling hills
the warm dry winds
but his wife’s love touches
his heart the most
her grace surpasses even
the brightness of the stars
her gentle voice soothes his mind
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
Yeah well, we made all the hot spots, my money flowed like wine
And then that low-down Southern whiskey began to fog my mind
And I don’t remember church bells or the money I put down
On the white picket-fence and boardwalk of the house at the edge of town
Oh, but boy do I remember the strain of her refrain
And the nights we spent together and the way she called my name
The last one is a rare example. The lyrics are a poem by a bona fide master - Patrick Kavanagh, and it’s been sung by the mighty Luke Kelly. This confluence of legends has to be unusual, in any genre of music. One of my all time favourite songs.
Hallelujahby Jeff Buckley. Haunting, beautiful, moving. I listened to it almost non-stop after I miscarried a few years back. It’s about breaking up, but something in the song’s lyrics touched me at that time.
Everything by Joe Pernice, whether it’s him as the Pernice Brothers, Big Tobacco/Chappaquiddick Skyline, or solo always gets me with his lyrics. Somerville is a good example of how he wrings gold from the mundane:
‘The Moon’ by Cat Power
‘So Misunderstood’ by Wilco
‘Kiss With a Fist’ by Florence + the Machine
‘Time’ by Tom Waits
And for when I just want to bawl my eyes out, all of the album ‘Electro-Shock Blues’ by the Eels, especially ‘3 Speed’: ‘…I looked into the mirror last night/and I thought I saw a bomb/Why won’t you just/Tell me what’s going on?..’
‘I Don’t Know How to Post Links and I Don’t Care’, by Pandoranoid
Two songs leapt immediately to mind when I read the thread. I think they’re absolutely great songs, and a major part of that is because they have interesting lyrics: Lola, by The Kinks, and You’re So Vain, by Carly Simon.
The Supremes: “Love Child” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IluVWcNtR8
None of the “Poor, pitiful me” glurge that race hustlers devolved the Civil Rights movement into. This one makes the rare statement that “I’m going to learn from my own and others’ mistakes, and take responsibility for my life.” The message a lot of poor kids ought to be hearing, but it would leave no room for the power-mad to push in and take over.
Lou Christie: “Lightnin’ Strikes” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyRqdzF8swY
The most honest and accurate depiction of male - female relations that I’ve ever heard. I don’t have to like it–and I don’t–but it really is just this way.
The Beatles: “Revolution” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrkwgTBrW78
So clever and articulate an encapsulation of 1960s political consciousness that I can scarcely believe John Lennon really wrote it–a supposition backed by his addition of “and in” to most versions subsequent to the original 45 rpm release. No one who had written those lyrics could possibly be ambivalent on the topic.
Joni Mitchell: “Both Sides Now” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcrEqIpi6sg
Brilliantly structured as she moves from the quotidian to the profound, finding the parallels. Carefully selected imagery for the most compact possible illustration. But you have to listen to the composer’s own recording, and not the hit Judy Collins had with it, because Collins fluffs the lyrics, blowing the sublime triplet of “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, / From up and down” / “I’ve looked at love from both sides now, / From give and take” / “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, / From win and lose.” Mitchell does something very similar in “Marci” with the “red and green” imagery, and I almost chose that song, but “Marci” is one person’s story, and “Both Sides” covers all of existence. (Almost all–I wrote a fourth verse to cover religion, but that one seems to get no mention in the official canon . . .)