Throughout human history, artists have always reflected on the passage of time, and indeed, the annals of pop music in our own cultural era are filled with songs about time, whether it’s through lyrics that tell stories, revel in nostalgia, show determination, or linger in regret.
Here are our picks for the best songs about the passing of time, and why listening to these wonderful tracks can be a life-changing experience for the better.
Pink Floyd’s seminal “Dark Side of the Moon” album is filled with observations about the way in which life can often pass us by, but the song “Time” is a true standout in the band’s catalog. Lamenting the way in which opportunities often disappear as we grow older, “Time” also shows us that it is human nature to feel regret.
As a song, “Time” is also justly regarded as a classic for its revolutionary approach to songwriting and music production; ensconced in the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London during the heady days of 1972 and 1973, Pink Floyd utilized many ideas from the musique concrète movement to build an unforgettable atmosphere on songs like “Time.” The song opens with a flurry of clocks ticking and ringing to remind us that time is passing even while we’re listening to the song itself. Music doesn’t get much more meta than that!
As Steve Miller was fond of demonstrating, the era of pop psychedelia in music wasn’t over by the mid-1970s. His band’s hit song “Fly Like An Eagle” was a slice of pure pop-surrealism when it was released in 1976, and Miller’s meditations on the passage of time still hold true today.
Accompanied by an eerie synthesizer track run through a cascading echo effect, Miller tells us that time is constantly slipping away from us. The song’s brilliant use of studio wizardry also cemented Miller’s reputation as one of the most creative musicians in rock history.
Undoubtedly one of singer-songwriter Sandy Denny’s most tender performances, “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” sees British folk-rock band Fairport Convention at their most reflective and nostalgic. The band had a gift for performing stunning ballads, but this song is a highlight within the group’s extensive catalog.
The lyrics here are also deeply poetic: Watching birds fly south for the winter as autumn closes in all around her, Denny compares her observations of the changing seasons to the passage of human life and the development of new friendships. Among diehard folk-rock fans, the song remains one of Fairport’s best and most celebrated tunes.
Another lament for the changing of life’s seasons, “Landslide” is undoubtedly one of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest tunes. Accompanied by spare acoustic guitar playing, Stevie Nicks observes that even nostalgia for childhood can’t stop time from passing. This is Fleetwood Mac at their very best; “Landslide” remains a definite fan favorite to this day. First released to wide acclaim in 1977, The Dixie Chicks made the song a hit again in 2002.
By the end of his songwriting career, Nick Drake could often be found looking back on his life with a reflective and melancholy air. A standout track on Drake’s final album, “Place To Be” sees the singer wondering how the freedoms of childhood can so quickly slip into the responsibilities of adulthood. Many of us have asked the same question; thankfully, Nick Drake’s music can often sweep us off our feet and help us celebrate the joys of the present moment.
At some point or other, most of us will feel out of place in our own time. We may even wonder what life would have been like had we lived in a different age or place.
Head Beach Boys songwriting genius Brian Wilson understood this feeling well and expressed the concept beautifully on this “Pet Sounds” standout track from 1966. Rarely has a whimsical contemplation of time ever sounded so sweet: Songs like this constituted Wilson’s greatest work as a songwriter and composer, and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is certainly one of the musician’s best tunes.
At certain times in our journey through life, moving on to new pastures can definitely begin to feel like a positive outcome. In this vein, Gentle Giant’s tender “Think Of Me With Kindness” acts as a fond farewell to our past selves and welcomes the excitement of turning a new leaf. While the group still retains a dedicated fanbase in the UK for its prog-rock explorations, Gentle Giant never quite got the attention that it truly deserved in the United States.
A lament for the England of John Lennon’s youth, the emotions behind “Strawberry Fields Forever” should be familiar to anyone who has ever pined for the lost days of childhood.
Truly groundbreaking when it was first released in 1967, “Strawberry Fields” still retains its capacity for surprising the listener with unorthodox sounds and lush melodic strains. Lennon wrote many genius-level tunes over the course of his career as a songwriter; as Beatles songs go, however, “Strawberry Fields” remains one of the musical visionary’s very best works.
Peter Gabriel was never one to shy away from the use of mystical imagery in his songs, and “Solsbury Hill” still has the power to engage listeners with its profound explorations of childlike wonderment.
Describing a surreal place where time seems to stand still, Gabriel casts his whimsical eye over his most cherished memories of childhood. Like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the song is one of the most evocative expressions of nostalgia ever committed to tape.
In the United States, the celebration of the Fourth of July is especially meaningful for children. Taking place during the height of summer vacation, the holiday often takes on a magical air during our schooldays.
“Saturday in the Park” sees the band Chicago look back on their childhood memories of summer with fondness, and listeners will undoubtedly be delighted to tag along on this musical adventure through time.
Released in 1998 off their second album, Feeling Strangely Fine, “Closing Time” is mainly about what you think: closing time at a bar. As the song instructs, “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
However, the band confirms that it is also about impending parenthood. By far their most popular, it charted when it was released, and then again thirteen years later, when it was featured in the movie “Friends with Benefits.”
Back in 1991, Will Smith was just starting out on TV and still known by most as the Fresh Prince. While this ode to summer hip-hop jam from their fourth album Homepage was their second Grammy win (“Parents Just Don’t Understand won in 1998”), it is their most popular and successful single.
Highly awarded (Oscar and Grammy win) and highly requested, this 1987 duet was written specifically for and used as the theme for Dirty Dancing. The song is unique in that it begins with the chorus (which is slowed down in the beginning); this was so that song’s intensity could build-up to the ensemble dance routine at the end.
Originally recorded (instrumental and very limited lyrics only) in 1963 by Kai Winding, this song was covered not once, but twice, only one year later by both R&B singer Irma Thomas and the Rolling Stones.
For the Stones, this single about not worrying about a lover returning, which appeared on their second studio album 12 X 5, was extremely important, as it marked the first time that the band had a song enter the US Billboard charts. It was also one of the songs performed on their first-ever appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Cher had released an impressive number of albums (19) by the time Heart of Stone came out in 1989. But it was this lead single, despite Cher’s initial distaste for it, that brought the singer back into the mainstream, charting in the US, the UK, Australia, and Norway. The album was her first to sell over three million copies.
This love ballad came off Lauper’s first album, 1983’s She’s So Unusual. It was only the second single released, but it was her first number one hit. The title is actually from a 1979 science fiction movie that Lauper saw. Its impact on music remains enduring as it has consistently been part of most Best Love Songs countdowns since its release.
1974’s Verities and Balderdash was Chapin’s fourth album. It contained nine folk-rock songs, but the most popular, memorable, and not to mention the only number one hit from Chapin ever, was “Cats in the Cradle.”
The heartbreaking song about losing touch with a child was based on a poem Chapin’s wife wrote. It has been covered many times over (most notably by Ugly Kid Joe in 1992) and been used many times in pop culture, including three episodes of the longest-running TV show, The Simpsons.
The “Time Warp” is not only the name of the song but also the dance, both of which poke fun at other instructional dance crazes like “The Twist” or “The Hokey-Pokey.” It was originally sung in the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s first stage production in London in 1973. It is one of the most well-known, popular, and audience-participated songs from the show. It’s also become somewhat of a standard at many weddings.
Released in 1992 from Jackson’s eighth album, Dangerous, like the name suggests, this song is about fondly remembering falling in love. And just like many of Jackson’s songs, the accompanying video was extremely elaborate, clocks in at over nine minutes, and stars not only Jackson but also Iman and Eddie Murphy.
Although written and first performed by Prince in 1984, the most popular and well-known version was released on Sinead O’Connor’s second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Billboard named it as the #1 World Single of 1990, and it is widely believed to be one of the greatest love songs ever written. Its peculiar spelling is a signature Prince move.