So I convened a group of friends and we set out to find the best lyrics ever written…turns out the assignment was HARD. Lyrics don’t seem to be very memorable in isolation of other things.
Inevitably, you think of the music—the melody that plays in your head and the way the song makes you feel. Two good examples that made this point for me were from my brother Hoopes and my friend Ben. Hoopes picked “If I had 1,000,000 Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies and Ben picked “I Feel Good” by James Brown. For melodies and feeling, these songs are among the best, but as for lyric poetry…
You also think of the memories associated with the song: The awesome live concert, the music that inspired you in school, old feelings of love, adventure, friendship. This became especially clear after my friend Craig earnestly professed the best lyrics ever written were: “she wore an itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-yellow-polka-dot bikini.”
The other thing I discovered in the exercise—this about myself—was that if I don’t like the music, I immediately discount the words. Dumb band must mean dumb lyrics. For example, Roy (not supposed to use last names, but – Beaumont) proposed some song by The Thompson Twins…and, okay—no.
Acknowledging all of these dynamics, I still wanted to take a shot at finding the best words. …The phrases which stand alone as poetry; that don’t need melody or memory to be great.
So, I offer this list of what, in my own opinion, are 10 of the very best (in no particular order). Thank you to Eliza, Hutter, Michael, and Ben who gave me some of the phrases I picked – and a quick apology to country music fans: I know there are great lyrics among the catalogue of country songs, but I am not well-versed enough to offer these.
1. I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.
Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel
2. Midnight. Not a sound from the pavement. Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone.
Memory (from the musical Cats), lyrics by Trevor Nunn
3. But my words, like silent raindrops fell…and echoed in the wells of silence.
Sounds of Silence, lyrics by Paul Simon
4. But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity. Like emptiness in harmony I need someone to comfort me.
Homeward Bound, lyrics by Paul Simon
5. You fill up my senses like a night in a forest, like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.
Annie’s Song, John Denver
6. 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
7. How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
Blowin’ in the Wind, Bob Dylan
8. I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.
Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell
9. Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white.
Round Here, Counting Crows
10. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone.
You’ll Never Walk Alone, (from the musical “Carousel”) lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Do you agree? What is on your list?