If you’re like most music lovers, sometimes you look for songs that you enjoy listening to because of a catchy beat or hook. Other times you’re in the mood to listen to music that evokes deep emotion and songs that tell a story.
Songs that tell a powerful story transcend time and capture our imaginations. Whether it’s a story of first love, betrayal, or determination to overcome obstacles, these songs stand out not only musically, but also for their storytelling.
1. Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
This song is a tribute to one of the original Pink Floyd members, Syd Barrett. If you look closely at the title of the song, you’ll see that it spells out his first name:
Barrett was Pink Floyd’s lead guitarist and penned the majority of their early hits. However, he began to have issues with mental health early on and was removed from the band in 1968, only three years after the band was founded.
Drug use played a big role in Barrent’s issues with mental illness.
Before being removed from the band, Barrett would routinely get on a live stage and play the same note repeatedly or refuse to play at all.
2. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot
Canadian singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote, composed and performed “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as a way of commemorating the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a bulk carrier that sunk on November 10, 1975 on Lake Superior.
Lightfoot was inspired by the Newsweek article published on November 24, 1975 about the ship’s sinking, which was entitled “The Cruelest Month.”
Lightfoot says that this song is the best work of his career.
3. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
Written by Robert Plant and Jimmy Paige in 1971, this song is easily one of Led Zeppelin’s most well-known recordings. In fact, many people consider it to be the best rock song ever made.
“Stairway to Heaven” tells a story about a greedy woman who is unnaturally optimistic about her very unpromising future.
The song is known to resonate with younger listeners, where it opens doors to different realms of spirituality and a mystical life view.
4. Hurricane – Bob Dylan
“Hurricane” is a classic Bob Dylan protest song that was written with the help of Jacques Levy. It was released on the album “Desire” in 1976.
This is one of the best story-telling songs because it details the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer who was arrested in 1966 with his cousin for an alleged triple homicide.
Dylan’s masterpiece compiles the racist profiling that he believed lead to Carter’s false conviction.
5. Stan – Eminem
“Stan” was released in 2000 by rapper Eminem, with backup vocals from singer Dido.
The music video and song detail the musings of a young man named Stan who has become obsessed with the rapper.
Stan’s obsession with Eminem shows through in a variety of ways, including copying the rapper’s look, confessing to harming himself, and eventually recording his suicide with the intent that the recording goes directly to Eminem.
6. Viva la Vida – Coldplay
“Viva la Vida” is a retelling of the French Revolution and the death of King Louis XVI.
The song was written as an interpretation of the king’s final speech prior to his death. It is presented through the point of view of the king himself, as he gives his apologies to his people and accepts his eternal fate.
7. Lovers – Jackie Evancho
Since her 2010 appearance on America’s Got Talent, Jackie has released eight albums while touring throughout the world.
Her song “Lovers” details a simpler time in her life, growing up in her hometown while immersed in a young love that she’s never forgotten.
8. A Day In the Life – The Beatles
“A Day In the Life” is a dispassionate, detached look through the eye of John Lennon’s consciousness during everyday life that he was more content to allow to pass him by.
The song was inspired by a disconnected series of events that included:
- Lennon’s appearance in the film “How I Won the War” from Richard Lester
- The death of Tara Browne, a millionaire socialite
- A council survey that found 4,000 holes in the Blackburn, Lancashire roads
The song is the conclusion to the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
9. American Pie – Don McLean
Did you know that prior to the release of this song, the term “American Pie” didn’t even exist? Don McLean actually created and coined the term when he released the song in 1971.
McClean says the song and chorus are all about America at the time he wrote it.
“I saw the implication of America going bye-bye, since by 1971 we were a horribly divided country with tremendous anger being directed at the government over the Vietnam War.”
However, McLean has never dropped a full “answer key” for the song to tell us everything it’s about. Undoubtedly, his theory is that as long as he keeps his audience guessing, his legend will live on forever.
10. The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel
“The Boxer” was released as a standalone single on March 21, 1969, then later included on their fifth studio album, Bridge over Troubled Water in 1970.
In the song, Simon frequently refers to athletes like Joe DiMaggio. Frank Llyod Wright also garners a mention in the song, who may have been a substitute subject for Garfunkel. After all, he was a student of architecture at the time.
It’s believed that the boxer to which the song refers to is either Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis.
11. Luka by Suzanne Vega
This 1987 rock song tells the story of a boy named Luka that lives upstairs in an apartment building. He at first tries to deny it, but later reveals that the noises that may be heard at night from where he lives are those of child abuse.
The song is from Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing. At its height, “Luka” hit #3 in the Billboard charts.
12. The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band
During a slow period of soul-stealing, Satan challenges Johnny to a fiddle-playing contest in order to gain control of his soul in exchange for a golden fiddle in this 1979 bluegrass song. But Johnny ends up beating the devil and winning the coveted fiddle.
The song is from the Million Mile Reflections album, the band’s tenth. Similar to “Luka”, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” hit #3 in the Billboards.
13. Take the Money and Run by the Steve Miller Band
This 1976 rock song tells the story of Billy Joe and Bobby Sue, two outlaws trying to evade police after they have committed a robbery and murder in El Paso, Texas. A detective named Mack attempts to catch the duo, but they escape down south. The song is from the band’s ninth album, Fly Like and Eagle. It peaked at #11 in the Billboard charts.
14. Thriller by Michael Jackson
Thriller, a mix of disco and funk that features a ghoulish spoken word section from Vincent Price, details a fateful evening when all the creatures of the night are awoken and ready to take on humans.
Turns out that the monsters were all on the movie screen and the man in the song is trying to comfort his date. When the video was released in 1983, it was the most expensive music video ever made at nearly half a million dollars. The song is from Jackson’s sixth album, Thriller.
It was one of seven top singles from the album, hitting #4 in the Billboard charts.
15. 18 and Life by Skid Row
This 1989 heavy metal balled tells the story of Ricky, a young boy whose anger and alcoholism lead him into a life of crime. He eventually shoots another young person and is sentenced to 18 years to life for his crimes.
The song is from the band’s self-titled album, which was their first. It was the band’s biggest song ever, getting to #4 in the Billboards.
16. All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You by Heart
Although from the outset, the song seems to be about an older woman who has a night of passion with a hitchhiker she picked up, it is revealed that the song has a little more meaning.
The woman leaves the hotel room she shared with the hitchhiker with what she intended: a pregnancy, something that the man she was really in love with was unable to give her. This 1990 love ballad is from the band’s tenth album, Brigade. It spent two weeks at #2 in the Billboard charts.
17. Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin
This 1974 folk song tells the depressing tale of a father who just didn’t have time for his son growing up, only to realize that when he is older and finally has the time, now his son doesn’t.
The father discovers that his son has grown up to be just like him. “Cats in the Cradle” is from the Verities & Balderdash album originally, the band’s fourth studio album, but has been re-recorded almost a dozen more times. Chapin’s original version was #1 in the Billboard charts at the end of its release year.
18. Last Kiss by Wayne Cochran
Released in 1961, this rock ballad tells the story of a man who takes his girlfriend out for a date in his father’s car. During a very heavy rainstorm, they come across a stalled car in the road but are unable to avoid colliding.
When the man awakes at the crash scene, he finds his girlfriend, barely conscious, who gives him their last kiss before she passes away. From then on, he vows to be “good” so that he can meet her again in the next world.
While there were many covers of the song, it was Pearl Jam’s 1999 version on their charity album that took the band to #2 on the Billboard charts, their highest-ever position.
19. Jack and Diane by John Cougar Mellencamp
As many of Mellencamp’s songs do, 1982’s rock song, Jack and Diane, takes place in a rural American setting and tells the story of two young high schooler’s romantic escapades while discussing their hopes and dreams for their future lives.
It is from Mellencamp’s fifth album, American Fool. The song peaked at #1 and remained on the charts for more than five months.
20. Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
This 1988 folk-rock song is about a poverty-stricken woman who has high optimistic hopes for her life when she is driving fast in the car with a man she meets.
But as time goes on and their lives do not improve, she realizes that she is just repeating the same cycle of life that her mother did. But she can always fondly remember driving fast in that car. The song is from her self-titled first album. It hit #6 on the Billboard charts.
Songs That Tell A Story Live Forever
This list of songs that tell a story contains songs that never seem to get old. In fact, every time you listen to them you can probably find a hidden gem within a lyric that you hadn’t noticed before.
If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to these classic songs, there’s no better time than now to dive back into them with a fresh ear.
You may be surprised by how powerful these songs truly are.