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The 12 Best Song Lyrics of All Time

Updated on November 21, 2014

Beginning in the early sixties, popular music's blend of riffs, rhythm, and rebellion produced an extraordinary array of poetic compositions. Of course, the music has enhanced the lyrics; but often the words stand on their own. Paul Simon, John Lennon, Billy Joel, and countless other artists inspired by lyrical genius have woven together verbal tapestries of poignant beauty and timeless wisdom.

But there are different types of lyrics. Such classics as American Pie, Stairway to Heaven, and We Won’t Get Fooled Again are appreciated only in their entirety. To extract a single line or phrase is to degrade both the excerpt and the whole. On the other hand, certain musical quotations are so brilliantly wrought that they sparkle on their own. Their poetry should be cherished, and the insights they provide us about ourselves deserve frequent revisitation.

Here, I offer my list of top pop lyrics. Any list of this sort is bound to provoke impassioned argument, and that’s fine. Your own approbations, rejections, and suggestions are welcome. The only condition is that no nominee may be longer than two lines.

Hotel California

12. Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes Benz/ She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends

The Eagles’s Hotel California is consistently voted one of the greatest songs of all time. Frequently critical of the glitter culture of which they are a part (Life in the Fast Lane, Get Over It, Life’s Been Good), their undisputed masterpiece boldly exposes the vacuousness of popular culture and the utter cluelessness of those who worship at the altar of superficiality.

Time

11. Then one day you find, ten years have got behind you/ No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

Every song on Pink Floyd’s classic album Dark Side of the Moon is itself a classic, and Time is no exception. The theme of impaired insight takes center stage in this couplet, which expresses the very human failings of indecision, lack of foresight, and irresponsibility, together with the bitterness of recrimination when it’s too late to do anything but mourn opportunities lost.

This choice eked out these lines from the Eagles’ Desperado, descriptive of the way that fear of commitment masquerades as calculated independence, with similarly tragic results: And freedom, oh freedom, well that's just some people talkin’/ Your prison is walking through this world all alone.

Doctor, My Eyes

10. Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong/ Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?

Jackson Browne tries hard to put depth and substance into his lyrics -- often he tries too hard, slipping into pretension. But in Doctor, My Eyes he hits the mark perfectly, producing a bittersweet elegy celebrating the honesty of seeing the world for what it is while lamenting the inevitable outcome of rendering oneself insensitive to the pain of others.

Let it Be

9. And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be

Possibly the most beautiful musical composition in the last half-century, The Beatles' Let it Be makes its own case for quiet resignation to all that lies beyond our reach with its musical and lyrical simplicity. With far more subtlety and nuance than the giddy Utopianism of John Lennon’s Imagine, this single line evokes all the hope and pain of the human condition while forcing each of us to ponder our own role in finding the elusive “answer” to suffering and injustice.

The Gambler

8. 'Cause every hand's a winner, and every hand's a loser/ And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep

Kenny Roger’s country crossover classic The Gambler made a huge splash when it was released in 1978, with its compelling back-story and ingenious gleaning of life-lessons from the game of poker. In response to the feeling so many of us indulge that life has dealt us a bad hand, the gambler casually posits that there are no winning or losing hands -- success or failure depends primarily on the player. Even so, life is a dangerous game, and to come out even may ultimately prove a greater victory than raking in the pot.

Wish You Were Here

7. Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

With its theme of selling-out and compromised ideals, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here sums up in the title track with this one line. On the battlefield of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and personal integrity versus social pressure, most engagements are skirmishes little noticed by others and invisible to the rest of the world. Ingratiating oneself on the stage of public opinion is indeed imprisoning oneself in a cage, no matter how gilded that cage may be. The true heroes of the world are little-heralded, frequently anonymous, but absolutely critical to stemming the erosion of such vanishing values as character, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

Against the Wind

6. Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then

Although ballads often devolve into melancholy and self-pity, Bob Seger’s Against the Wind wafts back and forth through the branches of nostalgic memory, lost love, and the maturity that brings at least partial redemption.

Bob Dylan struck a similar chord, concluding each stanza of rebellious introspection with the refrain, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. But where Dylan’s reflection is clever and contrived, Seger’s resonates with authenticity, longing for the passion and promise of youth while acknowledging the inevitable loss of innocence that accompanies the wisdom of experience.

The Sounds of Silence

5. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence

The haunting harmonies and disquieting images of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic remain every bit as contemporary after nearly half a century, evoking the plague of social ills, the indifference of society, the ineffectiveness of government, and the helplessness of those who want to make a difference. The image of graffiti not only as a symptom of urban blight but as a symbol of unheeded divine rebuke forces the song and its message to linger on and on.

The interior rhyming in this line (and in the others included in my top 5) make its message that much more powerful.

4. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make

Virtually the last line the Beatles ever recorded, the simple but often forgotten truism contained in 15 words asserts that takers come away with nothing, while givers reap the rewards of giving. How easily we forget that putting the interests of others before our own is the infallible recipe for success in all our relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or familial.

Similarly insightful is this line from the Eagles’ Take it to the Limit: You can spend all your time making money; you can spend all your love making time. No matter how much we manage to grab in the short run, when our entire focus is ourselves we end up with nothing at all.

The Boxer

3. All lies and jest, still, a man he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest

Simon and Garfunkel’s tragic ballad The Boxer plucks the heartstrings of anyone who has ever fought against the odds for a distant dream. We can’t always be sensible, can’t always heed the voice of reason. And the fighter within us that makes us tilt at windmills may end up cut and bruised, but the next dream and then the next forces him back into the ring. Eventually, he may emerge victorious.

Dogs

2. And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around

Does Pink Floyd really deserve three spots out of the top 12? Truth to tell, I could have found a couple more. But this line from Dogs outshines them all. Like my number one, it is completely unexpected, and it balances power and restraint depicting the outcome of a life devoted to excessive self-indulgence at the expense of others.

Year of the Cat

1. She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a water-color in the rain

Al Stewart was more than a one-hit wonder, although he never achieved super-stardom. His lyrics were a bit too cerebral for his audience, but this line from his greatest hit Year of the Cat has no equal for sheer poetic genius. You never see it coming, and its brilliant encapsulation of the blinding but fleeting passion of romantic infatuation in a single phrase leaves us caught between our own wistful imaginings and the cautionary whisper that the fantasies we create for ourselves can never last.

Pick your favorite

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    • Yonason Goldson profile imageAUTHOR

      Yonason Goldson 

      3 years ago

      My friend Linda reminded me that I was remiss not to include this line from John Lennon: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

      Her impressive list of Dylan lyrics, however, left me unmoved.

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