My friend Allen really got me thinking about songs that I like for their lyrics, so I started trying to make a list of my favorite songs for their lyrics.
Here are some criteria I used:
1. Because I'm not that well-versed on oldies, I just decided to make it 90's and 00's. I tried to eliminate covers. It's come to my attention long after I listened to a song that the particular song might not be original and the original might have been written earlier, but I'm not that well-versed on music that I know them all. Sadly, it made me half to eliminate Big Yellow Taxi and First Cut is the Deepest.
2. Again, the songs are on the basis of lyrics. I didn't do a song that had one line I liked. An example might be Sheryl Crowe's Soaking Up the Sun ("It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got") or Ben Fold's Five's Barrytown ("Don't think I am taken by the story's I have heard, I just read the daily truth and swear by every word")
3. The songs either are things that resonate with me or tell engaging stories. I like to think that everything I selected were well-written. But in terms of engaging stories, I think "Meet Virginia" paints very interesting portrait of a person I couldn't relate to but I wanted to hear more about, I'm not sure I particularly relate to. Ben Folds tells a ton of interesting and very random stories with his style and I was inclined to put more there if room allowed.
4. In the interest of balance, I tried to limit the Matchbox 20, Dave Matthews Band, Ben Folds and Counting Crows selection. In the case of four groups, there are many selections I could have interchanged with the ones I had and the list wouldn't have been any worse (For Matchbox 20: Shame, Last Beautiful Girl, Black and White People, All I Need, Downfall; for Counting Crows Angels of Silences, Round Here, Colorblind, Rain King; for DMB, Space Between, Lie in Our Graves, Typical Situation, Grace is Gone, Pay for What You Get, Raven, for Ben Folds Annie Waits, Barrytown, Zak and Sara, Still Fighting It, Army, Steven's Last Night in Town, etc.)
5. I go on the criteria of what makes it to my ears. I didn't make a conscious effort over the last 20 years to listen to every song ever created. I also make it mainstream. I htink if there's some independent band who's music I like but they don't get a lot of radio play, then the list isn't fun for you either.
So here's the loose 50 with some highlighted:
Dancing Nancies, DMB (1994)-"Could I have been anyone other than me?" is the question Dave Matthews asked himself as he was hitchhiking across the African desert. This song also made me afraid to turn 23 because of the line "23 and so tired of life, such a shame to throw it all away/Images grow darker, still/Could I have been anyone other than me" For all the mind-numbing depression that Matthews ruminates about during the verses, he breaks into an uplifting chorus filled with major chords about looking up to the sky and tasting what's the use in hurrying or in worrying. He then sings about dark clouds hanging overhead but him not being bothered about them.
Mad Season, Matchbox Twenty (2000)-This was my anthem in my freshman year of college as I lost my backpack (which is kind of a big deal), got my password stolen, and started feeling overwhelmed at a certain point in my second semester of college. For me, this song related to that feeling in college where everyone's smiley and happy but that there can be so much underneath that you have to let out. Rob Thomas has written about his mental struggles in a way that few others have and it's not a small statement to say that I've derived a lot of comfort from listening to him over the years.
Let’s See How Far We’ve Come, Matchbox Twenty (2007)-Rob Thomas and crew write this song about the apocolypse (Said pretty explicitly in "I believe the world is burning to the ground"...."I belive the world is coming to an end"). In an interview they said, "There's no reason we can't make the apocolypse sound sexy." I can't tell you how well I relate to this as I tend to catastrophize things and it's at those times, that you try to take a sort of moral inventory into your own life. "Waking up at the dawn of the end of the world, but it's feeling just like every other morning before. Now I'm wondering what my life is gonna mean if it's gone." Maybe the catastrophe being sung about is that the singer has to face himself and his own problems: "I started crying but I couldn't stop myself, I started running but there was nowhere to run to, I sat down on the street, took a look at myself said where you going you could be headed for hell." This echoes Rob Thomas' theme in "Long Day" with the lyrics: "It's me and I can't get myself to go away."
Over my Head, The Fray (2006)-As evidenced by the video, the subject of the song is a kid or possibly a young teenageer and the song feels like it's about an important moment or opportunity that was missed or handled the wrong way, and the pressure one faces in acting the right way in one of those crucial moments. I think this is an underacknowledged sentiment we all have: That saying the right thing at the right time can be hard, nevertheless, I love the song's sense of rhythm in the words and recurring use of certain words, "Let's rearrange, I wish you were a stranger I can disengage, just say that we agree and we'll never change....Let's disreguard as you lose another friend on the discard, as we lose the argument on a cable car." Notice the three "dis"-prefixes there?The other part of the song that's highly relevant to me is the fickleness of friendship he experiences. In the opening verse, he sings "I never knew that everyone was on a cue, to turn and run......I'd rather turn the other way than wait and see the smoke and who's still standing when it clears." He responds to this in the bridge about how for this one person who's friendship he cares about, he can feel the process of breaking off already happening ("Suddenly I become part of your past, I'm becoming the part that don't list, I'm losing you and it's effortless") and he is determined to "not let this go down until we torch it ourselves." The song's subject describes the process of losing touch with this one friend to be "effortless," or in other words, something that is going to naturally happen unless he makes a concerted effort to stop it, hence, torching it.
South of Nowhere, Gin Blossoms (1996)-"Meet me out past the cottonwoods where we ran as kids, straight out past the cemetary where the river turns to ditch." I love the sense of description and the overall fondness the writer expresses for his childhood nostalgia, that he both literally and figuratively wants to escape to. I love the directions to the place as well that serves as the hook in the chorus: "Straight back, far away, a long ways from here, just south of nowhere." I think the question behind the song is: Does this place actually exist?
Bigger than my Body, John Mayer (2003)-Is there anything better song lyric to think of when things aren't going your way and you feel like you're not realizing your full potential? "This is a call to the color blind, this is an IOU, stranded behind the horizon line, tired for something true, yes I'm grounded, got my wings clipped, I'm surrounded by all this pavement, yes I'll stumble while I'm waiting for my fuse to dry. Someday I'll fly. Someday I'll soar. Someday I'll be so damn much more. Because I'm bigger than my body gives me credit for." Like his song "Why Georgia," John Mayer's theme is to not just be passive to where life is taking you to and to stop and openly think about where things are heading.
On Love in Sadness, Jason Mraz (2003)-Jason Mraz has a humongous sense of creativity and can be very spontaneous with his lyrics. I've seen him in concert, and he can make up several different versions to his songs. Hopefully, you can still download an extended version of "Curbside Prophet" somewhere. A lot of his songs relate to me, and his California laid-back attitude to life that I'd like to ideally adopt, but I went with "On Live in Sadness," because it captures romance and love and all that very well. He sets the bar for himself pretty high, with his first line "Sing about that love, oh, it's a bitter madness, sing about it in all my sadness..." as if noone in the history of writing songs has ever sung about love being bitter and sad before. Nevertheless, he captures the rush and adrenaline of it all, as if someone on coke is trying to explain the process: "So inevitably, well it still exists, ok then fine, i won't dismiss it and if I die well at least, I tried...We just lay awake in lust, and rust in the rain, and pour over everything we say we trust, will it happen again....," and I believe he also throws in a reference to 60's ladies man and James Bond knock-off Derek Flint, with the line "and I'm in Like Flint again."
In Too Deep, Sum 41 (2003)-This is the only Sum 41 song I like because in the other songs, the lead singer veers too far across the boundary between singing and yelling at the top of your lungs. Anyway, this is less deep than it is succinct, catchy and well-spoken: "Cause I'm in too deep, and I'm trying to keep, all the blood in my head, instead I'm going under." At the end of the song, the line is expanded to "Instead I'm going under with you." Like "On Love in Sadness" there's an adrenaline and rushed tone to this song, where the singer is almost expressing his feelings at the same rate he's discovering them himself.
Testing 1,2,3, Barenaked Ladies (2004)-Less depressing than the slightly more popular "Pinch Me" but of the same caliber, "Testing 1, 2, 3" continues in the Barenaked Ladies tradition of poking fun at themselves and at the world around them. They are not so much asking existential questions but rather asking if anyone notices them. They ask non-chalantly if they should get a new opinion, break a gold rule or get a little work done and break a sweat. The chorus goes: "Testing 1, 2, 3 can anybody hear me, if I shed the irony, would everybody cheer me, If I acted less like me...." (the last half of the last line changes per verse). I think every artist goes through that feeling. I'm even going through it now. Does anyone even care about my interpretation of these songs? There's also a great rhythm in the words as well: "Kind of like the last time, with a bunch of really fast rhymes, if I can just reverse time, I'd be set"
I’m With You, Avril Lavigne (2003)-I think for the tone of the song Sk8ter Boi also deserves a nod for lyrics that match the music, but if I had to chose one Avril Lavigne song, I would chose this one. It's not just the words but it's hard to ignore how the words match up to the music. The tone is very barren with an odd choice of strings filling in the sound as Avril Lavigne reveals a more vulnerable side of herself. There are two things happening within the song. She's in a specific situation where she's standing all alone somewhere, stranded by someone and on a larger scale, she's reflecting on how on this "damn cold night" she's trying to "figure out this life," and in this state she might be either so vulnerable or more likely so lost that she's willing to have anyone take her by the hand to someplace new singing "I don't know who you are but I'm with you." In the end, it's a cry for help or guidance of some sort.
Green and Grey, Nickel Creek (2002)-At their best, songs don't just express feelings but they tell a story. Nickel Creek and Ben Folds are very heavy into this among the bands that I listen to. Nickel Creek's most famous song that tells a story is The Lighthouse Tale, that tells a first-hand account of a suicide from the point of view of a lighthouse ("and off the edge of me he ran"), but another very interesting choice is the visual imagery of "Green and Grey." The first line: "In a room full of people and hanging on one person's breath/ We would all vote him most likely to be loved to death." What an odd award, not just to be loved but loved to death. It's somewhat nonsensical but gets your attention. Anyway, the story tells of a guy who performs and is adored by large crowds of people but is really very lonely on the inside. The chorus: "Green is color that everyone sees all around me, Grey is color I see around her, she's just a blur." You're tempted to think that the subject of the story is pining for this one girl and is unhappy because everyone likes him except for the one girl, but it might be the opposite. Why would he be pining for this one girl if he can't even see her. He said she was jsut a blur. In a latter verse, the story that starts to reveal he's just plain lonely: "We paid and we cheered. Now we're gone and to us that feels right. But for him every one of those evenings turns into a night. With another hotel room where he lays awake to pretend that he's doing fine with his notebook and discman for friends."
100 Years, Five for Fighting (2004)-This song is the exact opposite of most other rock songs which are modelled after Van Halen's "Right now...it's everything" theme. John Ondrasik is telling us we don't need to sieze the moment. After all, we have 100 years to live and "there's still time for you."
Ones that I have yet to elaborate on:Ants Marching, DMB; #41, DMB; Real World, Matchbox Twenty; How to Save a Life, The Fray; Game of Love, Michelle Branch feat. Santana; It's All Been Done, Barenaked Ladies; Your Winter, Sister Hazel; Angel, Sarah McLaughlin; Fallen, Sarah McLaughlin; Be Like That, 3 Doors Down; Then the Morning Comes, Smashmouth; Learn to Fly, Foo Fighters; Stars, Switchfoot; When I Look to the Sky, Train; Meet Virginia, Train; I’m About to Come Alive, Train; You’re a God, Vertical Horizon; Easy Tonight, Five for Fighting; Here is Gone, Goo Goo Dolls; Broadway is Dark Tonight, Goo Goo Dolls; Wonderful World, James Morrison; Why Georgia, John Mayer; No Such Thing, John Mayer; She Don’t Want Nobody Near, Counting Crows; Mr Jones, Counting Crows; Never Let You Go, 3rd Eye Blind; Selfless Cold and Composed, Ben Folds; Landed, Ben Folds; Speed of Sound, Coldplay; Silent All these Years, Tori Amos; Time, Hootie and the Blowfish; Travelling Soldier, Dixie Chicks; Goodbye is All We Have, Allison Krauss and Union Station; Walking on the Sun, Smashmouth; Stuck in a Moment, U2; When the Stars Go Blue, U2 feat. Coors; Dance Dance, Fall Out Boy; Dani California, Red Hot Chilli Peppers; Wake Me Up When September Ends, Greenday; Your Armor, Charlotte Martin
[Editorial Update: Over the years, I have done new editions of this series but I have not kept to these 50]