After carefully, bravely listening to every song ever recorded in any language, I have compiled an objective list of the world’s 50 greatest lyrics. This ranking is definitive. I will not heed your laments.
- “There’s so much beauty around us, but just two eyes to see:
but everywhere I go, I’m looking.” (Here in America, Rich Mullins)
- “I try to stay awake and remember my name, but
everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same.” (Everybody’s Changing, Keane)
Keane wedded adolescent melancholy with U2-style hooks and won the hearts of awkward, sensitive teens everywhere.
- “Albert Einstein trembled when he saw that time was water
seeping through the rafters to put out this burning world.” (Lake Geneva, The Handsome Family)
The Handsome Family, a husband-and-wife folk country duo from New Mexico, deserve to be better known. Their lyrics combine Night Vale-style weirdness with realistic, Flannery-esque characterization. “Lake Geneva” describes a woman losing her husband to religious mania and mental illness while “raccoons in the darkness” drag off their hot dog buns. The story pauses briefly in the middle to discuss the nature of time. Somehow, it all works.
- “There is another world
there is a better world
there must be.” (Asleep, The Smiths)
For a band that often trafficked in sarcasm, the Smiths achieved a new threshold of greatness when they decided to go earnest.
- “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation
of the sequel to your life!” (Shady Lane, Pavement)
- “Walk till you run, and don’t look back
for here I am.” (The Unforgettable Fire, U2)
The creepiest Bono lyric ever. Play it on a dark road late at night and try not to be afraid that he’s walking behind you.
- “She’s well-acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand like a lizard on a windowpane.” (Happiness is a Warm Gun, The Beatles).
Ultimately I have to go with Paul as the better songwriter, but John’s hallucinatory turns of phrase were exquisite.
- “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
crying like a fire in the sun.” (It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, Bob Dylan)
Nothing about these lyrics makes any sense, and yet somehow they are… perfect? Dylan had gone deep into Rimbaud and the other great French poets when he wrote this, and it shows.
- “And you always had it, but you never knew.” (Flesh and Bone, The Killers)
Early Killers lyrics were biting and melancholy, but as they’ve matured they’ve included some uplift among the sass and sadness. People will break your heart, Brandon assures us, but they won’t break the fight inside of you.
- “We lived in the shadows
and we had the chance and threw it away
and it’s never gonna be the same
‘cause the years are falling by like the rain.” (Hello, Oasis)
Oasis is so rambly and self-indulgent that when one of their songs resonates, it almost seems like an accident. Yet Noel Gallagher is actually a master of crafting lyrics rooted in the deepest of human feelings.
- “We said we would never fit in
when we were really just like them;
does rebellion ever make a difference?” (So Long, Astoria, The Ataris)
This nostalgia-tinged ode to childhood and The Goonies is one of the better songs to emerge from the post-grunge era.
- “She says, like, literally, music is the air she breathes…
I wonder if she even knows what that word means,
well, it’s literally not that.” (The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment, Father John Misty)
Father John Misty’s lyrics are typically cleverer than they are good, but they are very clever.
- “Suspended clear in the sky are the words that we sing in our dreams.” (Let There Be Love, Oasis)
Oasis has been high for at least four or five albums, and at this point I don’t even think they realize they’re still recording music, but at least it’s given us some striking lyrics.
- “We know the true death, the true way of all flesh;
everyone’s dying, but girl, you’re not old yet.” (Step, Vampire Weekend)
The rare “memento mori” song that manages to both encourage and break your heart.
- “She said the hardest thing in the world to do
is to find somebody who believes in you.” (Sad, Sad Song, M. Ward)
- “Maybe you’ll find life is unkind and over so soon;
there is no golden gate, there’s no heaven waiting for you.” (Perfect Symmetry, Keane)
Keane addresses terrorism and religious extremism, suggesting that those who kill others in the name of God may not find heaven waiting for them. It’s also possible to read these lines as a lament for the hopeless dreams of one’s youth.
- “You were right about the stars:
each one is a setting sun.” (Jesus, etc., Wilco).
- “Looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but
evil don’t look like anything.” (Westfall, Okkervil River).
This is maybe the best song about a gruesome Austin killing ever written, St. Augustine by way of a murder ballad.
- “And in my best behavior I am really just like him;
look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” (John Wayne Gacy, Sufjan Stevens)
The most chilling moment in Sufjan’s wistful song about a famed serial killer is when he turns the mirror on himself and us.
- “And I have used your unbelief to set them free
so die now, die now, My Judas.” (Iscariot, Bison)
This song seems to have disappeared from recent versions of the folk band’s first album, perhaps because Jesus seeming to taunt a dying Judas was too creepy for some tastes.
- “Got to be good-looking ‘cause he’s so hard to see.” (Come Together, The Beatles).
Like a good Simpsons joke, the best Beatles lyrics work on multiple levels.
[tie] 30. “Kathy I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping:
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” (America, Simon & Garfunkel)
[tie] 30. “Half of the time we’re gone and we don’t know where.” (Only Living Boy in New York, Simon & Garfunkel).
Many prefer the youthful poetic posturing of “Sounds of Silence,” but for my money these are their best and saddest songs.
- “They will never forget you till somebody new comes along.” (New Kid in Town, The Eagles)
The Eagles came dangerously close to writing the definitive statement on moving on and being forgotten by those you loved.
- “And now that it’s over I promise you I’ll go
and wander in the night, and never come home.” (Med School, Dry the River).
Dry the River understood better than most bands how it feels to be young and lost and weighed down by your mistakes.
- “I can’t stand all the things she sticks into her skin
like broken ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings:
she says it hurts but it’s worth it.” (Your Little Hoodrat Friend, The Hold Steady).
A single Hold Steady song contains more and sharper characterization than most novels. In a typically Flannery-esque touch, the song goes on to describe the woman’s two tattoos: one says, “Jesus lived and died for all your sins,” and the other says, “Damn right, you’ll rise again!”
- “It burns being broke, it hurts to be heartbroken,
and always being both must be a drag.” (Your Little Hoodrat, The Hold Steady).
Yeah, this is from the same song. I DON’T CARE.
- “Tuesday night at the Bible study
we lift our hands and pray over your body
but nothing ever happens.” (Casimir Pulaski Day, Sufjan Stevens)
This guitar-and-banjo song from Sufjan’s best album is a lot of things: a gently devastating portrait of bone cancer and first love; a Job-like deconstruction and reaffirmation of faith.
- “Now and then I’m wishing I’d never
let you let me disappear.” (Blue Skies, JayMay)
- “The trouble with talking is it makes you sound clever
and the trouble with waiting is you just wait forever.” (Here It Is, Over the Rhine)
It goes on: “There’s a love of excuses that plays in your mind // and makes the truth even harder to find.” The best part is, this is a CHRISTMAS song.
- “You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
contemplating a crime.” (Year of the Cat, Al Stewart)
But really, any line in this song.
- “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies one day comes back.” (Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen)
The rare song to make the resurrection sound like a warning.
- “Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance.” (Hey Ya! OutKast)
It’s a toss-up between this and “Nothing lasts forever // so what makes love the exception?” but I love the casual bleakness of this admission, in the middle of the most infectiously groovy dance tune of the 2000s.
- “While her disappointed sister looked on quiet as the snow
knowing well that those who know don’t talk
and those who talk don’t know.” (Goodbye, I! mewithoutyou)
On this album of animal fables, it’s the disappointed sister who sticks out.
- “On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned
‘cause there’s something in a Sunday
that makes a body feel alone.” (Sunday Morning Coming Down, Johnny Cash)
Johnny Cash was a Christian and a country-music legend, but it’s hard to imagine half his songs being played on country or Christian radio today.
- “Democracy is coming…
to the USA.” (Democracy, Leonard Cohen)
A Canadian singing about democracy one day coming to America might be the greatest trolling Leonard Cohen has ever done.
- “I was told the streets were paved with gold
and there’d be no time for getting old when we were young.” (The Dying of the Light, Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds)
In his recent, post-Oasis albums, Noel Gallagher has taken the trademark angst of his youth and transplanted it to middle age.
- “We’re burning down the highway skyline
on the back of a hurricane
that started turning when you were young.” (When You Were Young, The Killers)
I don’t know what this means. Friends have tried to draw it for me on the backs of napkins. I still don’t get it.
- “Slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball.” (Champagne Supernova, Oasis).
- “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away;
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.” (Thunder Road, Bruce Springsteen)
Bruce was so young, his dreams were so huge, this album is so perfect.
- “And if you think you see with just your eyes, you’re mad.” (The Model, Belle & Sebastian)
In this quirky tale of two blind people who find love at a party, Belle & Sebastian attained a depth that was rare even for them.
- “Climb on your tears and be silent
like a rose on its ladder of thorns.” (The Window, Leonard Cohen).
Leonard Cohen is and has been for many decades the world’s greatest lyricist. From the same song: “Oh, bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh.”
- “Half the town are underground and half are halfway there
and we’re the only good ones left.” (Alarms in the Heart, Dry the River)
Over the last five years, the late, lamented Dry the River crafted a handful of perfect albums that managed to capture the apocalyptic angst of early Keane and The Killers.
- “Should rumor of a shabby ending reach you
it was half my fault and half the atmosphere.” (The Traitor, Leonard Cohen)
I could quote all of Suzanne or Famous Blue Raincoat, but I love this underrated gem from 1979’s Recent Songs.
- “I made a lot of mistakes.
All things go, all things go.” (Chicago, Sufjan Stevens)
When you’re young, the fact that all things are passing away seems like a curse. The older you get, the more grateful you become.
- “Darkness fills the eastern sky and street lights stretch for miles
through the spring and the winter and the morning.” (Waiting for the Moon to Rise, Belle & Sebastian)
Whether they were sketching indelible characters or painting landscapes with words and music, Belle & Sebastian seemed to possess a beauty that was not of this earth.
- “Another head aches, another heart breaks
I’m so much older than I can take.” (All These Things That I’ve Done, The Killers)
Baby-faced Brandon Flowers penned this lyric when he was all of 22. With every year that passes it gets more relevant.
- “When I look at the television I want to see me
staring right back at me.” (Mr. Jones, Counting Crows)
Counting Crows missed a golden opportunity by not having Adam Duritz watching himself on TV in the music video.
- “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see
trying to learn how to walk like the heroes
we thought we had to be.” (Backstreets, Bruce Springsteen)
As close to a personal anthem as I have (and the opening quote of my forthcoming book).
- “Sometimes I feel like it’s all been done
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one
Sometimes I want to change everything I’ve ever done
I’m too tired to fight and yet too scared to run.” (Stop for a Minute, Keane featuring K’naan)
We’ve all had those moments when we feel like the guys from Keane are the only ones who get us.
- “I’m not sure any of it mattered
but all of it was music.” (All of it Was Music, Over the Rhine)
There are those songs you only play once because their beauty breaks your heart.
- “We’re all gonna die.” (Fourth of July, Sufjan Stevens)
As Rainbow Rowell pointed out on twitter, it’s not even the saddest line on the album. The more I listen to it, the more I wonder whether it was meant to be sad at all.