There are many kinds of writing in the general consciousness, with novels, screenplays, and non-screen plays generally taking the limelight. That said, many songs bear writing of equal or superior caliber to their non-musically inclined brethren. Since I started out with a deep dive into poetry writing before I got into novels, I’ve always had a soft spot for lyrics that transcend the musical form to simply become poetry. The best examples reverberate with or without backing tracks, instrumentals, and the notes they were crafted to fit. Or they’re just clever. Or moving. You get the idea.
Side note, except where specified, I am not referring to the lyrics of an ENTIRE SONG. Just a snippet that nails it entirely.
Here are my Top 10 Lyrics, #10-6:
Song: “Stressed Out”
Artist: Twenty One Pilots
“Out of student loans and tree-house homes we all would take the latter”
Honestly, this one makes the list for being true and clever. I am a sucker for great wordplay, and this little riff toward the end of “Stressed Out” scratches the itch. As a young professional working to get a career, money, life things, etc., I empathize with the idealistic dreams of my younger self. I remember every hope and wish that seem so far-fetched now, in an adult world full of challenges and difficulties. Of course, I would take the childhood dreams―the “tree-house homes”―over that.
But the best part? How do you get into a tree house? A ladder.
Man I love wordplay.
Song: “The Temptation of Adam”
Artist: Josh Ritter
“We could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead.”
I love all of this song. Josh Ritter has an incredible gift for telling a gripping love story about characters in unusual situations with a single song (see this or the also amazing “The Curse”). While many of the lyrics in this track are sublime, this stanza takes the cake. A character trying to convince his love to stay in the missile silo describes a beautiful scene they could make together: an adaptation and riff on the classic romcom scene of laying together and looking at the stars. The circumstances and details, though, make a WORLD of difference.
You can feel the character’s hope and desire to make the best of the lot they’ve cast. And, moreover, when I hear these words, I see it. I can see a couple lying on the metal catwalk surrounding a nuclear missile, staring into the unlit dark behind which lies a world at war. As the camera pans up and out from them, it spins to show a heart crudely scratched into the nuclear missile’s plating bearing their names.
Artist: Sleeping At Last
“Still I’m pinned under the weight
Of what I believed would keep me safe.
Show me where my armor ends,
Show me where my skin begins”
Sleeping At Last writes beautiful tracks that drive toward our emotional and spiritual heart. This track, from the lovely album Atlas: Space, conveys the difficulty of living with anxiety and depression better than any other track I’ve heard. We often do things to “help” ourselves that only do more harm because we’re afraid of being hurt or hurt more. Eventually, those choices can pile up and bury us, making things so much worse than they otherwise would have been. In the battle to be “happy” and avoid suffering, we can wind up becoming so focused on the fight, that we lose track of who we really are in the process.
This album came out when I was working through personal challenges, and when I heard these lyrics, I broke down and wept. Because it got me. Straight through the heart. I had buried myself under things that were supposed to save me. For that, I will always adore these words.
Song: “Who Do You Say I Am”
Artist: Pas Neos
“It’s not like we hadn’t thought it before.
It’s not like the signs had escaped us;
every day was a wonder and a question to be answered for.
It’s not like we hadn’t had the long conversations when He went off to pray―
It just became clear, just became clear,
It struck us all in turn
When the answer appeared and our spirits burned.”
I like to consider how people reacted to circumstances that we’ve only ever thought of from one perspective. In this track, Pas Neos goes through the thought process of the disciples of Jesus Christ as they grapple with the revelation that He is the Son of God. The tight rhyming pattern allows the words to flow rapidly when read or performed, driving the feeling of anxiety, surprise, and shock.
What really pushes me over the edge with these lyrics, though, is the final line. Up until then, it’s a group of people admitting that they had been questioning, wondering, trying to deduce what was true. The finale, however, describes in a flash the moment of realization and how that instant felt. I love the perspective, the focus on tight wording, and the rhythm. But that feeling described―“our spirits burned”―lingers in my imagination.
Song: “Leave The Light On”
Artist: Chris Smither
“These races that we’ve run were not for glory―
No moral to this story―
We run for peace of mind
But the race we’re running now is never-ending―
Since space and time are bending
And there’s no finish line”
Let’s just get out of the way that this song is full of terrific wordplay and you should listen to it. Go on, click the link below. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! This song follows the life of a 67-year-old man, and his observations are poignant, funny, and fascinating. This stanza, though, ponders a wider question that I find interesting: why do we do what we’re doing? Why do we fight, strive, love, live, die?
Maybe it’s just for peace of mind. Or maybe something more. Either way, I love the way this song gets me to ponder those concepts.
That’s the first half of the list! Come back next week for my favorite lyrics of all time! Some of them are classics and some of them I hope you’ve never heard before. After all, little is more fun that discovering something good and new.
Before you go, make sure to let me know in the comments what your favorite lyrics are and share this with anyone that loves great wordplay in music. I’d love to hear their thoughts, too.
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Thanks for reading and see you next week!