There are thousands of awesome songs out there. Thousands! So a week ago when I started thinking, “What are my favorite song lyrics of all time?” it seemed an impossible task. I felt like I might as well attempt to climb Mount Everest rather than compile a list of top ten song lyrics. Impossible!
But you know what? My cousin recently reached the summit of Everest. He is a huge inspiration to me, so I decided to give it a try. Going in, I set up some rules for myself:
1. Context doesn’t matter- These have to be lyrics that can stand alone without hearing the rest of the song to get their meaning. They can’t be self-referencing or story based.
2. Only one entry per musician- This is to broaden the scope. I could sit here and quote Pink Floyd, Pearl Jam and Bob Seger all day, but I want to get the best lines and remove body of work as a criteria. This opens the door for anyone, rather than only the most famous bands and songwriters of all time (although none of my “One Hit Wonder” submissions made the final list).
3. It has to be my list- I could very easily have gone with all the old standbys based on cultural popularity (which I did, in some cases) but instead the lyrics have to make a personal connection with me, enough that I can write a small piece of how the lyrics impact me.
4. The song doesn’t matter- These lyrics all come from great songs, but not necessarily my favorite songs. Sometimes, they don’t even come from my favorite song by the artist I am quoting! In fact, a couple of my favorite bands/singers don’t even show up on this list.
I feel like I did some pretty good work here. Consider today’s blog my own personal Everest. The following is a list of my top ten song lyrics of all time. This list only applies to me, so feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.
10) “You can choose a ready guide from some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill. I will choose a path that’s clear: I will choose free will.” Rush, Free Will
I don’t want to turn this into a philosophical discussion debating the concepts of Free Will versus Calvinism/Determinism. But I cannot deny is there is no better song to crank in the car when I am down on myself or frustrated or helpless.
The way the chorus sneaks out the first few lines as it secretly ascends through its progressions is genius. The final declaration is one any song singer worth his salt can deliver with the deepest of convictions. Just hold the “choose” a quarter of a beat longer than it seems like you should (don’t worry, Neil Pert will take care of you), and announce to the world, “I will choooose free will!”
What a liberating song. I dare you to go out in your car, crank this jam and not emerge feeling like you can destroy small cities with the awesomeness of your air guitar skills.
9) “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life. I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s life. But why, why, why can’t it be mine?” Pearl Jam, Black
This line (and the way Eddie delivers it) has a peculiar power: It creates a make believe person in my past that I actually can feel strong emotions for. I have to come clean; I have never been through a messy break up. Sure, I’ve been dumped and I’ve probably broken a heart or two along the way, but I don’t have that person in my past that makes me wonder “what if?” Somehow, this line from this song invents such a person in my past. It builds a feeling of longing and despair that there is someone who you just couldn’t work it out with.
(It doesn’t hurt that Eddie Vedder could sing the ingredients on an Altoids tin and make it sound like there is pain behind the lyrics)
8) “We’ll make the air with music ring, shout praises to our God and King!” -Mormons, Come, Come ye Saints
Sorry, you know I had to get all Mormon up in here at least once, right? I can’t imagine being an early pioneer. I can’t imagine being forced out of my home and made to trek west in a great modern day exodus, searching for a resting place and a place to escape the religious persecution they faced. I can’t imagine the hardships, the death, the lost children and loved ones, the despair... I don’t think I could do it.
That’s why this line gives me chills when I hear it. It starts off with what sounds almost like a marching beat, as if you can feel the resolve to get through the sentence. And just as poetically, it ends with immediate self-fulfilling prophesy; rather than sing the line, one quite literally shouts praises to God and King while describing their intentions to do just that. Thrilling.
7) “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are, now entertain us.” -Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit
From one religion to the next, we review the most famous work of demigod Kurt Cobain. This line somehow speaks volumes of mine and probably most teenage generations. It is not what lurks in the shadows that scare us, but the monster of reality staring at us in broad daylight. I hear this line, and I am reminded of the relative anonymity that exists when the light go dark.
Simultaneously, isn’t the second line the epitome of teenage hypocrisy? Indicating that “here we are” as if they are forced to be there (and let’s face it, teenagers feel forced to be anywhere), and now it is the world’s job to provide entertainment. How do people write this stuff? I can’t break down in two paragraphs even one portion of what Cobain said in 13 little words.
6) “The best thing you’ve ever done for me was to help me take my life less seriously. It’s only life, after all.” And “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line. The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine
I’m breaking a lot of rules here. First of all, most of you bigots are going to probably accuse me of “lezzing out” with this pick. Secondly, it is a scientific fact that women are not as good at writing songs as men are, so the Indigos shouldn’t even be on this list. That’s a given. And finally, I broke my own rule by putting two separate lines into one pick. Bush League, it is Bush League all around.
Having said all that, I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand here and let you disparage this song, and especially these lyrics. We all go through moments where we want to give it all away and become free spirits, glowing nymphs dancing in a moonlit forest. And if I’m honest? This song does just that for me. No matter how I feel before this song plays, afterwards you can bet I will always feel more content and at peace with myself and the world.
And I’ll be even more honest with you: I had a tough time narrowing it down to only two lines from this song. It is so freaking good.
5) “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our mind.” Bob Marley, Redemption Song
This is my go to song quote. If I were to get a tattoo of a song quote on my ribcage, it would most likely be this one. Obviously it is a beautiful quote and deep and poetic. But even more than that, for some reason knowing this line makes a perpetually nerdy white guy like me feel somehow a little cooler. It’s like, by knowing this quote, I can scoff at all the poser Rastafarians who don’t truly understand what Marley was all about, man.
Also, the song itself fills me with a generous helping of white guilt, so it keeps me honest.
4) “Here comes the sun and, I say, it’s alright!” Beatles, HereComes the Sun
Are you getting to see a bit of a pattern here? I like feel good tunes. And there is no better feel good song than Here Comes the Sun.
Did you know George Harrison wrote this one? Did you know it is him singing? Did you know he wrote it while wandering around the garden at Eric Clapton’s house? Did you know he wrote it after a winter when he did a brief stint in rehab, and this song is quite literally about the sun breaking through the clouds on a wintery spring day?
So I’m sorry if I don’t clap along to it like a barking seal when I hear some peppy, generic version of the song.
3) “I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue. I’d go crawling down the avenue. There ain’t nothin’ that I wouldn’t do to make you feel my love.” Bob Dylan, To Make You Feel My Love
Bob Dylan wrote it, Garth Brooks mastered it, and Adele devoured it. It was written sweet, made perfect with cowboy sadness and then belted out by the best songstress of this generation. Pretty timeless hit, and one that is particularly special for me. The Garth Brooks version of this song is what my wife and danced to for our “first dance.”
As we swayed back and forth, the emotions and dreams and visions for our future swirling all around me, this line penetrated into me, and at the time I thought there might not ever be a better moment of my life, and there might not ever be a better description for the way I was feeling for my wife that night.
Even now, typing this, I reflect on the enormity of creation and wonder how I found her. I have a lot of cool things, a great job, and the best friends in the world. But I would give it all up at once if it meant staying by her side.
2) “I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right. I don’t need to be forgiven.” The Who, Baba O’Reilly
You know how people will describe to you those “A-ha!” moments they’ve had in their lives? Well, this line provided one of those moments for me. I was on my motorcycle, it was cloudy and nearing dark, and I was listening contently to the best of The Who.
I won’t go into detail, because the moment is mine and I wouldn’t share it with the world, but it certainly has stuck with me. I feel it has made me less prone to anger, less of a fighter, more peaceful and more whole with my existence. Thanks a lot, Who guys.
(For any of you worried about the legacy of the Chambers boys, relax. You still can’t mess with one Chambers brother without facing the wrath of the other. We are like a tiny little two-man Mexican family)
1) “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” -Bob Seger, Against the Wind
This is the greatest song lyric of all time. I’ve never met anyone this didn’t resonate with. The line has been often duplicated and borrowed by other musicians, simply because of the purity it maintains. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and all of us like to look back at who we were and use it as a guide for who we are and who we want to be. This line invokes the opposite greed; it is directly opposed to using knowledge as power. It speaks to the majesty of wide-eyed wonder and the optimism the future holds for all of us.
Each time I hear it, I remind myself to be happy, knowing that even the hardships we have coming up will be valuable to us. They will teach us things we probably don’t want to know, so we might as well go blindly forward, because not knowing is the only thing that keeps us trying.