There’s a meme going around comparing lyrics from a Nicki Minaj tune to a Led Zeppelin tune, the conclusion being that modern lyrics ain’t no good. I don’t think that’s entirely true. There will always be good and bad examples and you’ll need to sort through the effluvium on the airwaves at any given time to spot the golden nuggets.
But thinking about that led me to contemplate which lyrics I would consider to have most moved me during my time listening to music. Hence this list.
I will call this list My Personal Favorites because any list of something as subjective as lyrics is going to be very personal and won’t reflect the general populace. This list might not even reflect my tastes a year from now.
Without further ado, and in no particular order:
Beatles – Help
The Beatles can be cited as the folks who most notably changed rock music lyrics from simple themes such as holding hands (they certainly did that too) to more nuanced topics. Their later catalog is rich with excellent lyrics but I’m going to pick one from relatively early on that I think showed a glimpse of what was to come.
John Lennon penned Help around 1965 and it was about this time that the Beatles were turning the corner. Rubber Soul was coming next and that’s arguably when the Beatles first started to really find themselves.
When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone
I’m not so self-assured
Now I find, I’ve changed my mind,
I’ve opened up the doors
Pink Floyd – Time
Dark Side of the Moon came out in 1973 and Gilmour and Rogers were in their late 20s when they wrote this masterwork. I remember listening to Time back when I was 20 and wondering how they could have the prescience to write about something like the longer trajectory of life when they were so relatively young. It’s impressive to me to this day that they could envision so accurately the effects of all the laps around the sun.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say
Sinatra – It Was a Very Good Year
Frank Sinatra is not really from my era. He is from a time when artists typically did not write their own music so I can’t really give Frank credit for the lyrics, just for picking this gem. Likely there is a lot of other music from this time with equally compelling lyrics but it’s not really my ocean. Now to be fair, Frank also did his share of singing “schoo-bee-doobie-doo” but then he gets his teeth into this one in a big way. The theme is somewhat similar to the Pink Floyd tune above, but Frank was at least 50 here so he had a bit more to go on.
When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen
Todd Rundgren – I Think You Know
Todd is not generally well known as he didn’t really have the big hits that some other artists managed. But he’s got some of the all time greatest lyrics. It’s hard to pick a best out of so much good material: Last Ride, Zen Archer, Cliché, and of course his classic written when he was but a spud Hello It’s Me. But I’m going to go with I Think You Know off the Todd double LP (remember double LPs?)
For I would draw a diagram
To signify the things I am
But I think you know
And in the end it all boils down
A useless bit of running ’round
‘Cause I think you know
Police/Sting – Every Breath You Take
Sting and/or the Police are probably not the first thing on the tip of people’s tongue when you think about great lyrics, but Sting consistently came up with them. He had a knack for tapping into the essential element of the human condition, and alas, he sometimes got a little bombastic. But at his best he wrote poetic, clever lyrics that you could relate to. I will pick the widely misunderstood Every Breath You Take. It’s often thought of as a love song but, if I recall, it’s actually a pretty bitter rant about his ex-wife.
Every move you make, every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you
Don Henley/Eagles – New Kid in Town
Don Henley sometimes gets a bad rap for being a little saccharine, but at his best I think he’s had tremendous insight into the our psyches and has put into words things we all could relate to. He’s a guy who’s written so much great stuff it’s really hard to pick a favorite. However I think it takes a particular talent to wrap up fairly deep stuff into a pleasing little pop package, and the Eagle’s hit New Kid in Town is exemplary.
There’s talk on the street, it’s there to remind you
That it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you
They will never forget you till somebody new comes along
Alanis Morissette – You Oughta Know
As I note above, I think a good lyricist writes stuff that puts into words what we’re all thinking. Or at least what we’d all think in a certain situation. Whether or not you’ve been there, Alanis’ bitter treatise on love gone wrong re-wrote the rules for frankness and directness in lyrics.
I want you to know, that I am happy for you
I wish nothing but the best for you both
An older version of me
Is she perverted like me?
Would she go down on you in a theater?
Does she speak eloquently
And would she have your baby?
I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – Teach Your Children, Ohio
These guys spoke for a decade of kids who grew up with the reality of the Vietnam war and Woodstock. This is an example of greater than the sum of the parts because, although all were awesome on their own, together they created some enduring magic. I’ll quote a stanza from Teach Your Children but I’ve got to give some props to Ohio as being a political anthem for a generation.
Teach your children well
their father’s hell did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick
the one you’ll know by
Don’t you ever ask them why
if they told you, you will cry
So just look at them and sigh
and know they love you
I like the way they turn it around to where the children are teaching their parents too.
Hendrix – Angel
Hendrix gets remembered as a ground breaking guitarist but he was an excellent song writer in his own right and his lyrics, while sometimes a little too influenced by the drug use prevalent at the time, could totally stand on their own. Here’s a snippet from Angel from his relatively little-know Cry of Love LP. I particularly liked his more languid pieces instead of just his guitar pyrotechnics, and this was a great example.
Sure enough this morning came on to me
Silver wings silhouetted against the child’s sunrise
And my angel she said unto me
“Today is the day for you to rise”
Joe is another guy who is mostly known for his guitar playing but he’s written a lot of stellar songs. He’s written moody stuff like Wolf and Dreams and Days Gone By but I’m going to cite a stanza from a song that had particular impact on me, Ordinary Average Guy:
And every Saturday
We work in the yard
Pick up the dog doo
Hope that it’s hard
Oh yeah, don’t get much better, huh? Yes, I myself am pretty deep.
Above I tried to pick the folks who delivered time after time but there were a lot of others who either had flashes of brilliance or maybe just didn’t shine at quite the same level (in my mind anyhow). Kurt Cobain, although sometimes a bit inscrutable (Teen Spirit anyone?) had some spectacular moments on Nirvana’s breakout LP. Rodney Crowell is more known as a country guitarist and he’s not always been real consistent with the lyrics, but at his best I really enjoy his stuff. In Crazy for Leaving he says “I throwed rocks at my truck” which is in my mind the single coolest country line ever. Robert Palmer delivered some gems. He’s most known for his MTV-era dance music, but stuff like Wires and Johnny and Mary take me to another place. LMFAO cracks me up. Mike Posner is a current artist who has some great moments. Heck, I’m sure I’ll think of more tomorrow.
P.S. Re-reading this I note several of my selections deal with the passage of time and the seasons of life. When I was younger the love-themed tunes meant more to me. Now I’m apparently finding stuff that resonates in the songs that deal with the longer swath of life. The Joe Walsh one in particular I think sums up the ennui that is the dream that I’m livin’.