Typically when we come across a song that captures our attention, it's usually the result of a beat or maybe even a catchy hook. But what about those times where you want to be immersed in a song that not only sounds good but that challenges you emotionally and profoundly through a story. The best songs while conveying deep meaning and lessons at the same time.
“Love is Blind” By Eve featuring Faith Evans
Song year: 1999
Eve broaches a topic that we all are familiar with in some capacity: domestic violence.
Eve the Ruff Ryder discloses all the pain she has experienced having to watch a close friend survive an abusive relationship. In a bold display of friendship and loyalty, Eve confronts the boyfriend to tell him she'd kill him herself. Soon after, she gets retribution by shooting and killing him with her handgun.
“Lights Please” By J. Cole
Song year: 2009
“Lights Please” is a self-contained story relegated to the bedroom without speaking on sex exclusively. Cole is making commentary about two different topics simultaneously within the song.
For instance, the song is simply about him and a girl on the micro-level. But on a macro level, the song is about the woman's small-minded worldview and what it intrinsically says about the culture.
“Just a Friend” By Biz Markie
Song year: 1989
“Just a Friend” is perhaps Biz Markie's greatest hit to date, and it contains a story about blooming love. He meets a woman at a show and invites her backstage to chat. He then inquires about her relationship status.
He asks whether she has a boyfriend, and she responds that she just has a friend. A game of cat and mouse ensues whereby Biz tries to persuade her to be with him. And in her hesitancy, he reminds her that she said he was just her friend, leaving you to wonder if he ever gets the girl.
“My Summer Vacation” By Ice Cube
Song year: 1991
Ice Cube's summer vacation is a story about how he contrived a plan to alleviate ongoing harassment that he, as a gang member, experienced from the police.
This song grants insight into the influence of the crack epidemic and the gang violence which grew together. It provides personal testimony about how the epidemic plagued disenfranchised communities in the '80s.
“Kick, Push” By Lupe Fiasco
Song year: 2006
This song explores what it means to be viewed as eccentric and aloof. Not accepted for having an odd hobby in a neighborhood like this, the boy in the song seeks different places to engage in his passion, though he always seems to be told to go somewhere else.
As the song unfolds, his love of this sport allows him to meet a girl who shares the same interest in skateboarding.
Moreover, near the song's end, his journey comes full circle. Now he assembles his own crew of skateboarders and they go where the wind takes them. The chorus seems to suggest that we should continue to push forward in life, despite obstacles that may deter us from our goals.
“Stairway to Heaven” By Led Zeppelin
Song year: 1971
Stairway to Heaven is, without question, Led Zeppelin's most well-known song. More accurately, it's safe to say that many people regard it as the greatest rock song ever created.
Succinctly, the story is about a greedy woman that represents a materialistic society that is arrogant enough to believe that anything, even a stairway to heaven, can be obtained with money. This song also encourages spiritual exploration.
“Hurricane” By Bob Dylan
Song year: 1976
Bob Dylan's Hurricane is one of the best protest songs of its generation. The song details Rubin “Hurricane” Carter's imprisonment.
He was a boxer arrested along with his cousin in 1966 for committing a triple homicide allegedly. This song enumerates the racist profiling that Dylan believed led to a false conviction for Hurricane the boxer.
“Viva la Vida” By Coldplay
Song year: 2008
Cold Play's Viva la Vida retells the story of the death of King Louis XVI and the French Revolution. The song speaks from the point of view of the king. The king issues his final speech as he apologizes to his people and willingly accepts his grim fate.
“Luka” By Suzanne Vega
Song year: 1987
“Luka” is a song that talks about child abuse from the perspective of the victim. Luka is a young boy that lives on the second floor of an apartment building, and details that he prefers not to be asked about loud noises or fights that others may hear.
He gives reasons as to why the abuse occurs, like being clumsy or talking too loud, but he doesn't necessarily acknowledge the acts as abuse. Throughout the song, he mentions that they'll only hit you until you cry, and after that, you don't press the issue. It's a heart-wrenching song that captures the essence of a child's potential reaction to trauma.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” By Charlie Daniels Band
Song year: 1979
The song's premise is that Satan makes a wager for Johnny's soul. The challenge is a fiddle contest whereby if Satan wins, he gets his soul, but if Johnny wins, he receives a golden fiddle.
In the end, Johnny is the victor and wins the fiddle that he so coveted. Additionally, he dares Satan to come back for another challenge, leading to another song in the future.
“Thriller” By Michael Jackson
Song year: 1982
Thriller is perhaps one of the most popular songs globally, and it's a mixture of funk and disco. Vincent Price tells a story in an eerie voice detailing when all the night creatures awaken to challenge the humans.
The twist is that the monsters were actually just a part of the film that the man and his crew were watching, and he's simply assuaging his date's fears.
“Travelin' Soldier” by The Chicks
Song year: 2002
This song is about a young soldier who stops at a Café with his army uniform, waiting for the bus to take him to Vietnam. A high school waitress beams a smile his way, and this causes him to ask her if it would be ok if he were to write to her while he's away.
She agrees, and they exchange sentimental letters as the young man transitions from army camp to war. However, the song ends tragically when the girl, who's a band member, is left crying under the bleachers as the names of all the local Vietnam deceased get read aloud.
“Jeremy” By Pearl Jam
Song year: 1992
A young and quiet boy named Jeremy was mentally distraught. However, everyone ignored the signs or didn't care enough to intervene. He was often picked on in class until one day; he snapped as someone pushed him a bit too far. He was truly unleashed, and he bit the recess lady and finally said his first words in class.
This song is based on the unfortunate case where a high school student shot himself in front of the class in 1991.
“Someone Like You” By Adele
Song year: 2011
Adele hasn't gotten over her past lover, and the breakup is proving to be rough. This is especially true when she hears that her former lover is now married. She makes it up in her mind to show up out of nowhere to say “hi.”
She tells him that their relationship has not run its course just yet. She reminds the man of the things that he once said to her and pleads with him not to forget her.
“Papa Don't Preach” By Madonna
Song year: 1986
This song is on the controversial side, as it tells the story of a teenage girl who becomes pregnant and isn't married to her boyfriend. Her friends urge her to get an abortion, stating that she's too young to make such a big commitment. Faced with a tough decision, she turns to her father, hoping for love, support, and mature advice instead of judgment and disappointment.
“Fast Car” By Tracy Chapman
Song year: 1988
This song uses a fast car as a metaphor for escape. The narrator's family is a mess. Her mother has left, and her father is an alcoholic, demanding that she stay at home to care for him. It turns out that she has a lover with a fast car that can get the two of them out of this undesirable circumstance.
She vividly tells a hypothetical of what could be. She is uncertain if they'd be successful, but she is also confident that change has to come now, or they will succumb to their circumstances and die.
“4:44” By Jay Z
Song year: 2017
This song is that of a man grief-stricken from his poor choices in a relationship. It's an apology song that displays his regret while being humbled, sincere, and honest about his feelings. Jay-Z takes everyone on a journey that ultimately tells the tale of not losing out on true love by gambling on the gain of something fleeting and artificial.
“Terrible Things” By Mayday Parade
Song year: 2011
This compelling song by Mayday Parade starts as a seemingly beautiful love story that a father tells his son. He seems to be describing how he fell in love with the boy's mother from the moment they met until he proposes.
You eventually realize that the mother is dying and has little less than a couple of weeks left to live. This love story turns tragic as the father instructs the son not to fall in love if he can help it so that he never experiences so great a pain as losing a spouse.
“The House That Built Me” By Miranda Lambert
Song year: 2009
Miranda Lambert speaks from the soul on this one. When she was much younger, her family had difficulty staying afloat. They became homeless and stayed with friends and family until coming across an old house on the verge of being torn down.
They could live in one room of the home as they slowly but surely fixed it up. The song talks about her visiting the house as an adult, and the memories flood back.
“Concrete Angel” By Martina McBride
Song year: 2008
Concrete Angel speaks about a seven-year-old girl, Angela Carter, that suffers abuse from her grandmother. Though neighbors, teachers, and friends speculate what's happening, no one reports their suspicions.
Sadly, the song ends with Angela dying at the hands of her grandmother during an abusive episode. The hope is that Angela went on to be loved in the afterlife.
“Austin” By Blake Shelton
Song year: 2001
Austin is a song that many can relate to. It tells you about a woman leaving for Austin, TX, after breaking up with her boyfriend. Unable to cope with the loss, the now ex-boyfriend leaves recorded messages for her on his answering machine. In a little under a year, the woman decides to reach out to him.
She calls dozens of times, and she always receives his answering machine, where he details where she might be able to find him. He always ends the message by telling her that he still loves her, referring to her as Austin.
“Fatima” By K'naan
Song year: 2009
This beautiful song is about a young boy that experiences the loss of a love that never took off the ground. The artist K'naan was born in Somalia, and he remembers a girl he'd met when he was 12 years old.
She was beautiful and intelligent, but he found out that she was tragically shot and killed just a few days after his family had arrived in the United States (NY). The girl he'd loved was a casualty of the Somali Civil War.
“Fortunate Son” By Creedence Clearwater
Song year: 1969
The Fortunate Son discusses the social milieu during the Vietnam War. Often, members of the lower and middle-class were the ones chosen to go out and fight during these times.
Those in favor of the war were far away from both the fighting and the loss of life that the war brought. Many listeners view this song as a culturally and historically significant contribution to American history.
“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” By Toby Keith
Song year: 2002
The Angry American is the type of song that makes you feel patriotic. It details the feeling many felt on September 11, 2001. It starts out talking about a man's family history and how he hopes for the well-being of his family.
He then reminds everyone of the tragedy that everyone experienced together on the fateful day that brought citizens to their knees in anguish.
“Take the Money and Run” By Steve Miller Band
Song year: 1976
This rock song takes you through a bank robbery committed by a couple of fugitives, Bobby Sue and Billy Joe. They're trying to escape the hands of the police and prison after the robbery turned into a murder in the city of El Paso, TX. A witty detective whose name is Mack tries unsuccessfully to apprehend the outlaws as they escape to the south.
“Last Kiss” By Wayne Cochran
Song year: 1961
The Last Kiss tells the tale of a man that starts off his night by taking his girlfriend out on a date in his dad's car. They're driving through a tumultuous rainstorm when they cross paths with a vehicle in the middle of the road that isn't moving. They try to avoid a collision, but their attempt is unsuccessful.
The man wakes up still at the crash scene and sees his girlfriend is slowly dying. He shares one last kiss with her before she does, and he makes a promise to himself to do good in this life so that he can meet her again in the next.
“Listen” By Beyonce
Song year: 2006
Listen speaks from the depths of a woman that has consistently been repressed by her lover. She yearns to reach her full potential and fulfill her wildest dreams, but he won't allow her. He views her as little more than property.
She continues telling the story in the song to let him know that she'll be breaking free from his hold since he won't listen to what she wants out of life. The woman concludes that she will find her own way now.
“A Horse With No Name” By America
Song year: 1972
The song takes you on a kind of coming-of-age journey. This literal journey of discovering oneself leaves the narrator back to one conclusion: your troubles don't go away simply because you run from them.
During the video, the singer uses symbolism like rain and water to represent troubles and disturbances throughout his life. This song details what many regularly feel as they try to find balance in life.
“Afire Love” By Ed Sheeran
Song year: 2014
Ed Sheeran's grandfather had Alzheimer's for nearly 20 years before losing the battle in 2013. Sheeran mentioned that he finished the lyrics to this song while he was in attendance at his grandpa's funeral.
It speaks of the agonizing journey that so many people experience when a loved one no longer recognizes who they are. In this case, Sheeran recollects his memories leading up to that moment.
“All Too Well” By Taylor Swift
Song year: 2012
Taylor Swift wrote this song about her for her boyfriend, Jake Gyllenhall. Throughout the song, she takes the listener along for the emotional breakup between the two.
Her emotions change from grief to happiness numerous times, similar to how it can be for any other person going through a tough breakup.
“All-American Girl” By Carrie Underwood
Song year: 2008
This unique song talks about a man who anticipates having a son when he realizes he and his wife are welcoming a child. He desires to have a son to take fishing and teach sports, but he ends up with a little girl instead.
He's upset at first, but she quickly becomes the apple of his eye. When she gets to high school and becomes romantically involved with a football player that she decides to have children with, he prays that it's a little girl that's just like her mom.
“7 Years” By Lukas Graham
Song year: 2016
Lukas Graham tells about all of the life lessons he has learned on his journey through adulthood and his new lifestyle. He talks about things his family and friends have taught him, what it's like to be a dad, tidbits about his kids, how he became famous, and more.
He even apologizes to people that he has to leave along the way. This song represents a sincere revelation of how he has processed getting older and what he wants to achieve.
“Hotel California” By Eagles
Song year: 1977
Hotel California examines how chaotic it was to love in Southern California during the 1970s. The Eagles discuss the pitfalls they experienced, like having money and access to countless women, drugs, and a hedonistic lifestyle that Hollywood often provides.
“How to Save a Life” By The Fray
Song year: 2006
The Fray made this heart-wrenching sound that told the story about one of the singers that volunteered at a camp for troubled teens and came across a 17-year old that was also a musician.
The boy was sinking deeper into his depression and losing friends in the process. The singer airs his tries on how he would have been available for a friend that commits suicide had he known how to save a life.
“Roller Coaster” By Luke Bryan
Song year: 2014
Roller coaster takes you through the ups and down, soft loving someone and trying to maintain a romantic relationship amid your emotions being all over the place. There are great times, and there are horrible arguments. It's hard to navigate love when trying to process these contradictory feelings.
Top Songs That Tell a Story, Final Thoughts
Songs with powerful stories are transcendental, timeless from generation to generation, able to capture the imagination of every listener. Whether you're listening to the level of someone's first love, tragedy, growing up, betrayal, or sheer determination in life, the mark of a good storytelling song is instant relatability.
Including songs from all genres can expand your tastes and give you something new to try when you're looking for something more profound than a beat.