We know. Every song means something. Even the most overproduced glossy pop song has SOME meaning, although sometimes it may not be immediately obvious what that is, and what it is may be very shallow. So how did we approach the compilation of this list? These songs deal with the real, raw stuff. They hit the listener on a deeper, more profound level, touching on universal topics of love, loss, and what it means to be human.
We’ve paid particular attention to those songs that, while they have touched us, have also gone on to sell millions of copies, thereby proving that meaning and mainstream need not be mutually exclusive. So, take a breath, grab a tissue if you’re feeling particularly emotional today, and let us guide you through 10 of the most poignant songs ever penned.
10. “I’ll Be Missing You” by P. Diddy
Commencing our list is the poignant hip-hop slow jam “I’ll Be Missing You” by P. Diddy. Released in 1997, this composition serves as a heartfelt ode to the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., who fell victim to a drive-by shooting earlier that year. Through the voices of P. Diddy, Faith Evans, and 112, the song encapsulates the theme of loss, acknowledging grief and the bittersweet comfort of the memories of those now gone.
Repurposing “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, an oft-misunderstood “love” song that perhaps shouldn’t appear on your wedding playlist, “I’ll Be Missing You” is made all the more poignant for featuring Diddy and Evans, Biggie’s longtime collaborator/producer and wife respectively. It truly launched Diddy’s career in the spotlight and marked hip-hop culture’s path to world domination.
9. “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa
“See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa, featuring Charlie Puth, is a variation on the same theme. This time, Wiz Khalifa pays tribute to gone-too-soon actor Paul Walker of Fast and Furious fame. The song was composed for Furious 7, the last chapter in which he appeared. Through the song, the singer bids farewell to a cherished friend and reflects on the transience of life, which in turn encourages him to cherish the loved ones still with him.
8. “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys
A song described as “the greatest ever written” by no less a critic than Paul McCartney, and one of the centerpieces of Pet Sounds, one of the greatest albums ever recorded, “God Only Knows” is Brian Wilson’s thesis on fraternal love. This song is the band’s mature sound in distillate, and lightyears away from their surf-pop roots of yesteryear. It features ethereal harmonies that only the Beach Boys can muster and stands as a timeless classic both for its proclamation of love and its studio artistry. Released in 1966 the song remains one of the finest lyrical testaments to the complexity and uncertainties of love. Framed around a simple, introspective hypothetical “God only knows what I’d be without you,” the song beautifully captures the enigmatic and transcendent nature of deep affection.
7. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
Our next entry, “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John, is both a tribute and a bid farewell. Originally penned as a eulogy to Marilyn Monroe, it assumed new significance when Elton John altered the lyrics and performed it at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. The song, with its poignant melody and heartfelt words, became a beacon of collective mourning and an emotional outlet for people to express their love and sorrow. “Candle in the Wind” underscores the transient nature of fame and the profound impact one individual can have on the world.
At first pass, it may seem odd that a song can pay tribute to two disparate icons. But we see it as a tip of the hat to Sir Elton and fellow songwriter Bernie Taupin, who managed to scribe a song with such universal themes that it can lend itself as a memoriam to two women who died decades apart. It’s this universality that led to it becoming one of the bestselling singles of all time.
6. “Imagine” by John Lennon
There are few songs more timeless than John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Part ballad, part thought experiment, part peace treaty, the song has for nearly 60 years now transcended time, continuing to speak to generation after generation. It is an anthem for peace, unity, and a world devoid of conflict, the only shame being that it is as relevant today as it was when released in 1971. The song’s simple lyrics nevertheless impel us to work towards a better future, unburdened by the constraints of religion, nationality, and material possessions. “Imagine” possesses an otherworldly quality that inspires us to contemplate the possibilities of a harmonious world and will continue to serve as a source of motivation for generations to come.
5. “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield
Protest songs are as varied as the causes that influenced their creation. From thrashy punk invective through to more soulful introspection, songwriters and musicians have used their craft as a calling card to highlight injustice for untold generations. Rarely has a song been as synonymous with ‘the good fight’ than Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, born out of the tensions surrounding counter culture in 1960s L.A. and taken up by anti-war protestors as a musical rallying cry. It reminds us to pause and consider the world around us, encapsulating the spirit of a generation in search of meaning and change. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a certified classic, with its distinctive halting rhythm, blues-psych guitar lines and folk-troupe melodies, the composition has become an anthem for resisting injustice and finding one’s voice. It stands as a timeless testimony to the potential of music as a tool for social commentary and a catalyst for positive change.
4. “The Show Must Go On” by Queen
The late Freddie Mercury was more than a vocalist, more than a singer. He didn’t just add melody to the lyrics nor was his voice just another instrument. He was the frontperson, the bandleader of Queen, who personified the band’s perspective and aesthetic. He was a showman, whose unparalleled abilities went undiluted even in the face of his own impending death.
Released in 1991, six weeks before his passing, this song provides a poignant insight into Freddie Mercury’s unwavering resolve in the face of his battle with AIDS. Its lyrics, with lines like “My makeup may be flaking, but my smile still stays on,” serve as a powerful reminder of the inner strength we possess to persevere in the face of adversity.
The last word on this one goes to the song’s writer and guitarist, Brian May; May recalls; “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is going to be possible to sing.’ And he went, ‘I’ll f**king do it, darling’—vodka down—and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.”
3. “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
R.E.M. were the college rock band’s college rock band. With trademark oblique lyricism, instrumentation that remained inventive and explorative through 30 years of activity, and underpinned by the singular vocals of Michael Stipe, R.E.M moved from alternative darlings to world beaters and, unlike some of their peers, kept their musical souls in the process.
They achieved a lot, and did a lot. What they did not often do, is make much sense, or speak directly.
This song, proved how powerful they could be when they did. In guitarist Peter Buck’s estimation, it was important to keep this one simple, because it was aimed directly at teenagers and young people. Released in 1993, this song reassures us that it is acceptable to experience pain, sorrow, and vulnerability. It reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles and that there is hope even in our darkest moments. With its gentle tempo, soothing melodies, and Stipe’s empathetic vocals, “Everybody Hurts” has become an anthem for resilience. It conveys the message that reaching out for support during challenging times is a sign of strength, not weakness.
2. “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens
Fathers cast long shadows over their children. With “Father and Son” Cat Stevens took that notion, set music to it, and turned it into art that is both beautiful and unique.
In the song is a conversation between two generations. It captures that tension that exists between parents and children, as the younger man chafes against constraint and wishes to begin his own life. Stevens’ distinctive voice and the heartfelt lyrics create a touching exploration of the generation gap. It reminds us that the wisdom of experience and the impetuousness of youth can sometimes clash, but it is all part of the journey of growing up. Though released in 1970, “Father and Son” remains a reflection on the complexities of family relationships and the enduring love that binds us together.
1. “My Way” by Frank Sinatra
Speaking of universal truths, here’s another one: Sometimes the hardest person in the world to understand and accept can be yourself, warts and all. Step forward, Ol’ Blue Eyes.
At the summit of our list is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. Released in 1969, this song is an anthem for individuality, self-expression, and the power of living life on one’s own terms. The song’s powerful lyrics and Sinatra’s iconic voice have transformed it into a personal declaration for countless individuals. It is a reminder that life is too short to conform to others’ expectations and that true fulfilment arises from pursuing one’s dreams and passions. “My Way” is not merely a song; it is a philosophy embraced by those who choose to chart their own course.
#11 She’s Always A Woman – Billy Joel
#12 Heroes – David Bowie
#13 What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
#14 I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
#15 Landslide – Fleetwood Mac
#16 Born This Way – Lady Gaga
#17 Hey Jude – The Beatles
#18 I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
#19 Cat’s in the Cradle – Harry Chapin
#20 What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
We warned you. Music is of course one of the most immediate forms of art and expression. You do not need an education in baroque violin to be able to listen to and understand pop music, for one example. And that is a big part of what carries these songs through, their universality and immediacy. All you need is an open mind and about four minutes.
|1||“My Way”||Frank Sinatra|
|2||“Father and Son”||Cat Stevens|
|4||“The Show Must Go On”||Queen|
|5||“For What It’s Worth”||Buffalo Springfield|
|7||“Candle in the Wind”||Elton John|
|8||“God Only Knows”||The Beach Boys|
|9||“See You Again”||Wiz Khalifa|
|10||“I’ll Be Missing You”||P. Diddy|