Looking for enlightenment? Here’s 24 classic songs that pack sage advice on how to live your life, featuring the Beatles, David Bowie, NWA and more.
“The more money we come across, the more problems we see” – The Notorious BIG, ‘Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems’: Taking the Beatles’ timeless reminder that “money can’t buy you love” to an even more damning conclusion, this Biggie chorus (arguably his most famous) carries a potent warning: cash can be morally crippling, creating more problems than it solves.
“Love is not a victory march/it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen, ‘Hallelujah’: The most chilling line of Leo’s much-covered 1984 classic is a lesson that love is no fairytale – you have to work hard at it, and those sacrifices can leave scars.
“If you wanna make the world a better place/Take look at yourself and make a change” – Michael Jackson, ‘Man In The Mirror: Change begins within, as the old saying goes, and didn’t the King of Pop know it, harnessing it into a glimmering 1980s aspirational classic.
“Anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain/Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders” – The Beatles, ‘Hey Jude’: This Paul McCartney pearl of wisdom is an important one: there’s no point carrying burdens and losing yourself in worry, echoing another of the Fab Four’s finest: ‘Let It Be’.
“Express yourself” – NWA, ‘Express Yourself’: From 1988’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’, this Golden age boom-bap classic saw the hip-hop collective drop their usual tales of inner-city violence to urge fans to embrace freedom of expression. Whether that means painting, breakdancing, ballet or beat poetry – there’s nothing more liberating and soul-cleansing.
“Shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” – The Smiths, ‘Ask’: If you don’t ask, you don’t get, warned Morrissey on this sparkling 1986 anthem: a reminder, served over chiming guitars and a bouncy bass line, that life is there for the taking if you’re brave enough. Well said, Moz.
“Thunder only happens when it’s raining” – Fleetwood Mac, ‘Dreams’: In other words, there’s no smoke without fire, and you need to keep your wits about you in life: if you sense someone’s trying to take advantage of you, they probably are, advised the ‘Rumours’ hit-makers on this iconic Stevie Nicks-penned 1977 tale of romantic paranoia.
“Don’t put your life in the hands of a rock’n’roll band/They’ll throw it all away” – Oasis, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’: Noel Gallagher isn’t exactly renowned for his modesty, but had the smarts to tell fans on this defining Britpop anthem that idol worship will only leave you disappointed.
“White lines go a long way/either up your nose or through your veins/with nothing to gain ‘cept killin’ your brain” – Grandmaster Flash, ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’: Pretty simple, really. Drugs: don’t do ’em, kids.
“There’s still time to change the road you’re on” – Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway To Heaven’: Somewhere in Zeppelin’s most iconic song’s maze of cryptic lyrics lies one striking bit of advice: it’s never too late to change your ways and you’re never too old for redemption.
“And so, become yourself, because the past is just a good bye” – CSNY, ‘Teach Your Children’: Don’t cling onto so-called better days, Graham Nash’s ‘Deja Vu’ standout track seemed to suggest in this 1970 release: better to be who you are now, and pass on everything you’ve learned to younger people around you.
“Here I go, it’s my shot, feet fail me not/this might be the only opportunity I got” – Eminem, ‘Lose Yourself’: The theme song to Mathers’ semi-biographical 2002 Hollywood vehicle centred around a nervy rap battle, but its message resonates far beyond that setting – when life throws you an opportunity, it’s up to you to step up and take it.
“Work it harder, make it better, do it faster… that that don’t kill me will only make me stronger” – Kanye West, ‘Stronger’: Ain’t that the truth, Kanye. The song’s pulsating electronics, borrowed from Daft Punk, expertly reinforce the song’s sense of empowerment.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – Neil Young, ‘Hey Hey My My’: You only live once: might as well give it your all, hey? We’re with Young on this one.
“You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes you might just find you get what you need” – Rolling Stones, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’: Advice as timely as it was 45 years ago on 1969’s ‘Let It Bleed, Jagger hit the nail on the head here, in this jangly ode to the virtues of hard graft.
“All that money you made will never buy back your soul” – Bob Dylan, ‘Masters of War’: Bob knows where it’s at. A searing suckerpunch to the heart of capitalism, this Zimmerman classic is a reminder that financial greed can wreck you spiritually.
“Everything is everything/after winter must come spring” – Lauryn Hill, ‘Everything Is Everything’: Whatever will be, will be, explained the former Fugee on 1998’s wise and soulful ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’.
“We’re just a million little gods turning every good thing to rust” – Arcade Fire, ‘Wake Up’: Humans have a tendency to ruin and corrupt everything around them. Stay wise to this fact, Win Butler and co’s breakout single seemed to suggest, and you might just avoid the same fate.
“Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult, ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’: We all gotta go some time, right?
“Losing love is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you’re blown apart/Everybody feels the winds blow” – Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’: Don’t worry about hiding heartbreak, is the lesson to be learned from this warming Paul Simon lyric – it’s a universal part of life. There’s no shame to be felt in a failed romance. Better to have loved and lost, and so on…
“If you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough” – Radiohead, ‘Optimistic’: Be the best you can be, urged Thom Yorke over sublime, muted electronics on 2000’s ‘Kid A’.
“What’s the point in being rich if you can’t think of what to do with it ‘cos you’re too bleeding thick?” – Pulp, ‘Mis-Shapes’: Amen, Jarvis.
“You gotta fight for your right to party” – Beastie Boys, ‘Fight For Your Right (To Party)’: On one hand, it’s a dumb lyric about rebelling against your parents. Taken a little more philosophically, it’s a reminder that the right to get drunk to loud music till you pass out is an important freedom that doesn’t exist everywhere in the world. Saviour it.
“Though nothing will keep us together/We can be heroes/Just for one day” – David Bowie, ‘Heroes’: Bravery’s not just the preserve of caped comic book crusaders: it’s up to each of us to make a difference in the world, advises arguably Dame Dave’s most timeless hit.