We all know that music has magical qualities. It can help heal, bring people together and evoke powerful emotions. But we oft forget about music’s power to inspire us. We’ve culled twenty of the most inspirational songs written in the last 50 years. They all share a catchy or memorable melody and lyrics that, directly or indirectly, appeal to our better angels. They address hope, love, determination, perspective, connectedness, autonomy and mindfulness. If you ever find yourself needing a bit of an emotional or psychic lift, this page is for you!
More than This – Peter Gabriel
You’ll not see this on many song lists but after the first listen, you’ll be mystified by how this ebullient song was able to remain under the radar…..until now. Found on Gabriel’s Up album, this melodious song is merged with remarkable lyrics about connectedness. “When all that you had has all gone and more than this, I stand. Feeling so connected. And I’m all there, right next to you,” Gabriel sings while a gentle world-beat rhythm pulses life into the words. “Nothing fades as fast as the future and nothing clings like the past, until we can see more than this.” Gabriel urges the listener to look beyond self and see the import of being connected to others….and to a bigger power. If you’ve never appreciated Peter Gabriel’s prowess as a writer, take a moment to read the lyrics to this masterpiece. He shows off literary chops that would make Springsteen and Dylan jealous. When masterful narrative connects to mellifluous melody, you’ve got an inspired masterwork that will inspire the ages.
You Get What You Give – New Radical
This one-hit one-der by the New Radicals resides at the other side of the spectrum. An infectiously catchy tune matched with catchy (bordering on kitschy) lyrics somehow works. Gregg Alexander, who went on to give birth to the songs in Begin Again, shows off some early songwriting skills with this 1998 song. The band didn’t survive much more than a year later, but the song continues to speak to the new generation of listeners. In the September 25, 2006 edition of Time magazine, U2 guitarist The Edge said that this is the song he is most jealous of. And one listen will tell you why – it’s fun! And it’s compelling stuff. “You’ve got a reason to live. Can’t forget, we only get what we give.” Non-smilers be forewarned; smiling is an unavoidable side-effect to this sonic confection. Resistance is futile.
Sitting – Cat Stevens
In his prime, Cat Stevens wrote some magnificent songs. So how does Sitting prevail over classics like Peace Train, Wild World and On the Road to Find Out? It’s all about the lyrics. Stevens exhorts the listener to forge their own path: “I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes, only for that guide I see. Cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave, that’s gonna be the only thing that’s left of me.” His characteristically hummable tune is reinforced by the kinds of insights for which he became famous. He ends this song with “Oh life is like a maze of doors and they all open from the side you’re on. Just keep on pushing hard boy, try as you may, you’re going to wind up where you started from.” As you sit and listen to this song, you’ll feel a calm certainty settle over you and life will seem just a little bit clearer.
Heroes – David Bowie
There’s a reason why Bowie is regarded as a musical genius. This is but one of many of his songs that raise you to a higher plain. Written with Brian Eno while exiled in Berlin, Bowie tells the story of two star-crossed German lovers who meet at the Berlin Wall to challenge their fate and the powers that be. Driven by a pulsing beat, the song could be danceable, but its lyrics are too mesmerizing to ignore. A decade after writing the song, Bowie performed the song at the Berlin Wall on the eve of German reunification. He regarded it as the most emotional performance he’d ever done. East Berliners listened enraptured on the other side of the Wall as he sang what would become a historic anthem for those seeking freedom from any kind of oppression or tyranny. A historic side note: the video for this song premiered on Bing Crosby’s TV show in 1977. It is the same show where Crosby, Bowie and the show’s songwriters conjured up a short duet for the two stars to sing: The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth. This improvised mash-up written just hours before filming has gone on to become its own historic song – a plea for peace and harmony that rivals Lennon’s Imagine.
Hope for the Future – Paul McCartney
Like Bowie, McCartney is widely regarded now as a genius…..although it took becoming the most prolific and successful songwriter in pop history for him to earn that regard. He’s written some of the most well-known songs ever written. Yet, this little known song may be among his most inspirational. More hopeful than Let It Be and more epic than Hey Jude, Hope for the Future is his magnum opus of optimism. Written for an online game called Destiny, in which the player is a guardian of the last remaining city on Earth. McCartney sought to craft a song that was a standalone call to protect the planet and he succeeded in spades. Hope rarely has sounded so magnificent. Backed by a symphony orchestra and lofty ideals, this song reminds you of everything that is good about humanity. “Hope shines brightest in the dark when nothing’s ever seen. Lighting undiscovered places no-one’s ever been”. Indeed, Sir Macca. Indeed.
Learning to Fly – Tom Petty & Pink Floyd
Tom Petty was intrigued by a pilot’s comment that landing, not flying, was the hardest part. This counter-intuitive observation launched Petty and his Heartbreakers, along with Jeff Lynne, into crafting a song of redemption. “Well, some say life will beat you down, Break your heart, steal your crown. So I’ve started out for God-knows-where. I guess I’ll know when I get there. I’m learning to fly, around the clouds.” Just four years prior, Pink Floyd released a song by the same name. Composer David Gilmour was, in fact, a pilot. But he transformed the song into a celebration of breaking free from all manner of restraints. “Across the clouds I see my shadow fly. Out of the corner of my watering eye, a dream unthreatened by the morning light. Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night.” Gilmour’s soaring guitar is checked by an earth-bound rhythm section. The video released to this song shows a young man taking an Icarus-leap from a cliff and morphing into a hawk. Both Gilmour and Petty lead the listener into the sonic heavens, unshackled by fear of failure.
Unwritten – Natasha Bedingfield
Imagine getting a song as a birthday gift. And imagine it urging you to live life to the fullest and being open to the new and unexpected. Well, you need only imagine yourself as Natasha Bedingfield’s 14-year-old brother because he was the recipient of this beyond-her-years wise song. Tuneful and thoughtful come together beautifully as Bedingfield reminds her brother and all other listeners that life isn’t about controlling your fate as much as fully living your fate. Each and every day is a blank page that you get to fill, so long as you keep your eyes open to all possibilities. The song may only be 13-years-young but it is on its way to become a timeless classic.
(What Doesn’t Kill You) Stronger – Kelly Clarkson
The title pretty much says it all. But this power ballad combines killer licks with killer lyrics to produce what has become a feminine dance-hall anthem. Inspired by Nietzsche’s axiom, the song became the rage in the gay and drag communities. The lyrics ooze with empowerment bromides: “Stand a little taller”, “I dream in color and do the things I want”, “Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone” and “What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter.” It is literally impossible to listen to this song without dancing a little lighter….and, on occasion, atop some silver-lined clouds.
Brave – Sara Bareilles
As Bareilles describes it: “I have never felt more open and more raw in my entire life,” said Bareilles. “2012 was a year of deconstruction for me personally. I have been confronting some of my greatest fears in the last handful of months and have been amazed at how empowered I can feel when I muster up the courage to turn and growl back at those monsters under the bed.” Co-written with songmeister Jack Antonoff, this is as much an empowerment anthem as a song. And you literally can’t get the message or tune out of your head. Deconstruction has never sounded so good!
Wings – Little Mix
This pop single finds the girl singing about spreading their wings and flying rather than letting the dissing of haters bring them down. As the songwriters have publicly validated, the song is about not letting anyone put you down and believing in yourself. Accompanied by a bouncy, feel-good melody, this song is irrepressible in every way.
The Show Must Go On – Queen
Aided by a melody written by the other members of Queen, May and the gravely-ill Freddie Mercury worked out the lyrics together. They agreed upon the theme: the need to press on and make the most out of life while you can still enjoy it. It is inevitably a comment on Mercury’s worsening condition, and his attitude towards life, but in vague enough terms that the song maintains its universal appeal. Mercury was so ill at the time of the recording, that May wasn’t sure that he could hit the challenging notes. Yet, May recalls Mercury dispelling his doubts: “ ‘I’ll fucking do it, darling’ — vodka down — and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.” Only David Bowie, in Blackstar, has come as close to making an imminent death so uplifting.
In the End – Linkin Park
This song is about not wasting your time by the clock or anyone or anything and start living in this moment….which, in the end, is the only thing that really matters. The great songs have multiple layers, and this one achieves that greatness. It could be a cry of hopelessness or a surrender to fate. But most people who listen to the translucent lyrics hear a message of being present. It’s all about this moment right now, right here is what matters because that’s where everything is taking place and that’s all that exists. Or as lead singer Chester Bennington sings: “I designed this rhyme to explain in due time all I know. Time is a valuable thing.” Despite his efforts to control outcome, he learns that both failure and success mean little. It’s all about the effort. Powered by a freight-train rhyme and primal screaming, this song stays with you long after the music stops. Bennington may have succumbed to hope-killing depression, but his song urges us to regard time as one of our most precious resources.
Firework – Katy Perry
Like Barielles’ song, Firework is an anthem to girl power. Powered by a strong rhythm, the lyrics talk to overcoming self-doubts by showing off your inner light. “You just gotta ignite the light and let is shine. Just own the night like the 4th of July,” she exhorts. With the final line: “You’rd gonna leave ‘em all in awe”, the listener is predictably left in awe. Some may accuse Perry of shameless pop, but this song displays pop music at its most powerful.
Defying Gravity – Wicked Cast Recording
This show-stopper from the theater musical Wicked, is mostly a solo sung by the main character of the show, Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) in the finale for the show’s first act, Written by the acclaimed Stephen Schwartz, the song talks about how growth requires you to trust your instincts and challenge limits – both self and societally-imposed. There’s no better way to break free than to defy an immutable law of physics. And Idina Menzel’s knows-no-bounds voice takes all of us into the stratosphere where gravity no longer binds our thinking.
Fuckin’ Perfect – Pink
Few artists can match Pink’s ability to inspire her listeners. The music video to this song addresses a girl’s personal demons, but the lyrics go much further. They talk to those who refuse to view their flaws as fatal. Vanquishing fear and hatred is the basic message in this tear-inducing ballad. But let’s have Pink explain the song’s protagonist in her own words: “I want her to be one of the voices in her world. I want her to be one of the voices in her head. It’s a line I wrote in ‘Perfect,’ change the voices, make them like you instead. It’s lifetime work for me. I’ve been doing it all my life, I’m trying to get the voices in my head to like me.” She succeeds in spades in Fuckin’ Perfect.
Shake it Off – Taylor Swift
This infectious sonic confection from her 1989 album is injected with a very somber message: the fear of being rejected by peers. Acceptance is a big deal for most under-40s and Swift takes on this topic with human and songcraft. As Taylor described it: “Kind of taking pride in the fact that you know you are and it honestly doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t want to understand you. We go through these scenarios in so many different phrases of our lives, no matter what it is.” This song, co-written by hit-man Max Martin, tells the listener to do, be and think for yourself. Authencity…..accompanied by a killer dance beat.
Lift Me Up – Jeff Lynne
This song was never a “hit” but it hits upon a crucially important message: the role of communication in any loving relationship. Mixing gospel and pop, and backed by Wilbury bro George Harrison’s legendary slide guitar and vocals, Lynne sermonizes about the power of talking. Love is only possible if it is accompanied with transparency and openness. The song is vintage Lynne, with soaring orchestrations and a beat that won’t quit. But his message is one that rarely makes it into a pop song: a man pleading with his loved one to be vulnerable and communicative in order that they both may be lifted up. Chills!
Girl on Fire – Alicia Keys
This title track to Key’s fifth album was Alicia’s pronouncement of freedom. The remixed version of this song features Nikki Minaj raps about the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. That ghost reiterates Key’s pastiche of female empowerment. With feet firmly planted on ground and head in the clouds, Key describes a woman engulfed in her own power. She doesn’t need to demand r-e-s-p-e-c-t or roar or declare Reddy-womanhood, because she’s on fire and everyone can see it. It’s a great metaphor set to a beautiful melody.
Long Away – Queen
This second Queen entry on the list is a bit unusual. Written and performed by Brian May, it is almost impossible to know this is a Queen song. May has matched a Beatle-esque tune with a search for happiness in the universe. He exhorts the listener to “take heart” in others’ love, in the grandeur of the heavens and in one’s own internal compass. “A million lights above you smile down upon your home.” We could easily get lost in the vast universe, but May encourages us not to lose our way and keep looking for light-filled day of joy.
High Hopes – Panic! At the Disco and Bruce Springsteen
The title has been seized upon by Springsteen, Sinatra and Pink Floyd, but Panic! At the Disco was audacious enough to use it to grace their paean to optimism. The theme of this song is growth and maturity. Panic! frontman Brandon Urie shares the tribulations that he’s faced down in order to finally triumph. In the song video, Urie is seen defying gravity as he walks up a skyscraper. “No matter how hard your dream seem, keep going. You might even have to climb up the side of a building,” he recounted in an interview. “But it’ll all be worth it at the top!”. The exuberant tune echoes Urie’s message of hope and determination to super-charging effect. Bruce Springsteen covered a Tim Scott-penned song that similarly evokes High Hopes. But the Boss added a driving rhythm section and Tom Morello’s nuclear-tipped guitar to add urgency to the song. As a result, he transforms this song from a blues lament into a song that escapes worldly shackles and rockets into the rarefied air of Hope.
Imagine – John Lennon
This bonus song is not so much a song as a multi-generational icon. Since its divine inception in 1971 (aided by Ono’s muse), Lennon’s plea for peace and harmony has become a staple of sing-alongs and solemn occasions throughout the world. This is John’s musical incarnation of a universal dream shared by the hopeful as well as the hopeless. Lennon created a soulfully-soft melody to accompany his “I Have A Dream” sermon of harmony, anti-materialism and pacifism. It may well be as close to a perfect song as may have ever been written; Rolling Stone ranked it as the third most important pop song ever written. It’s been covered by over 200 artists and performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Sure, it’s frustrating to think that almost 50 years later, we are no closer to world-wide harmony. But it’s comforting to think that future generations who do finally achieve peace, harmony and religious inclusion will be singing this song and honoring Lennon’s audacious vision and remarkable songwriting skills. Imagine is the legacy that we all hoped would be achieved in our lifetimes, but take comfort in knowing that it will be realized, someday.