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Six Amazing Songs That Illustrate What it Means to Be Human

Dylan and friends

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. ~Confucius

I just took a look at CNN’s site and it was, as usual, boasting its favorite palette of troublesome nouns and verbs. Terror, death, murder, destruction, Bush. People do bad things sometimes; it’s not really news, I know. But contrary to popular notions, I think war, exploitation and violence are not the results of our differences. Rather, they are the result of our most pervasive similarity: that we all suffer, and none of us want to.

No, these ‘news’ items aren’t new. They are the same patterns of anguish that have recurred continually throughout all cultures, across all generations: lost love, fear, alienation, self-loathing and jealousy. Being human just hurts sometimes. Despite our surface differences, we’re all in the same boat. We all want the same two things: to fulfill our desires and to avoid suffering. These two motivations, and the behavior they inspire, comprise the human condition. There is nobody on this earth with whom you don’t have at least those two things in common.

Linguistic and cultural barriers keep us from recognizing these two universal similarities in others, but there is a human invention that can circumvent all that. Music has been touted as the universal language, not only because all cultures create and celebrate it, but because music expresses themes that are truly universal: beauty, love, pain, and everything else it means to be human. As a communication medium it is unmatched at conveying emotion.

I find it fascinating, but also completely unsurprising, that music has developed in every single human culture. There seems to be an immutable need in our very DNA for us to find some way of expressing ourselves in rhythm. I am not much of a dancer, but when I hear music I feel a very visceral, physical urge to move my body to it. Whether you believe we’re products of evolution or divine creation, there is no question that there exists within us a deeply-rooted need to let our emotions resonate with rhythm. It’s a language we all know.

Music unites us by telling stories with which we can all identify. We all know love. We all know heartbreak. We all know what they feel like, and what they sound like.  Right at this moment, in every town in every country, there are people tapping their feet, sharing smiles, sobbing into their pillows, and falling in love to the sound of music.

I’ve compiled a short list of songs that, to me, embody the universal theme of what it means to be a living, breathing, loving and hurting human being.

Before you listen I have two requests.

First, I politely ask that you don’t ‘scan’ the songs, listening for a few seconds and then skipping to the next one.  Listen or don’t listen.  If you don’t have time right now, bookmark this post and listen later.  Halfhearted listening is not listening. Pay attention to the words.  These are people’s heartfelt stories.

And secondly, turn up the volume.  This is imperative.

We’ll start off with something familiar.

Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones

A dark testament to the desperate human need for security.  Off 1969’s Let it Bleed, Gimme Shelter is a shining example of that visceral rock beat, and it happens to contain what I think is one of the coolest moments in rock: Merry Clayton’s incendiary vocal solo at 2:44.  If you listen to nothing else on this page, listen to that.  When her voice breaks at 3:03, you can hear the muffled cheer of someone behind the glass in the studio control room.

You can listen here.

Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash

The most amazing part of this song is the crowd.  Recorded in Folsom Prison, you can hear the unabashed gratitude in the captive audience.  They’re elated to be there. Not to be doing time in prison, but to be there in that moment with the Man in Black, as he sings a little vignette of regret and shame.  The rapport between the prisoners and Johnny — certainly no saint himself — is almost tangible in the sound.  What a treat it must have been for an inmate, not just to see some precious live music for the first time in years, but to finally hear someone tell their story.  You can hear it in their cheers: each one knows he’s not perfect, and that he’s not the only one.

You can listen here.

Country Feedback – R.E.M.

A dismal portrait of a burned-out love affair, Country Feedback illustrates the malignant, unhealthy nature of dependent relationships.  Sometimes the clothes just don’t fit right anymore, and you need to be out.  Makes my heart cave in like the plastic-bag kid from American Beauty.

You can listen here.

My Body is a Cage – The Arcade Fire

As I was parting with a friend after having a pint at a bar and grill, he handed me this album and told me to listen to it on the way home, but skip right to the last song.  I was stunned, it blew me away. My Body is a Cage is a haunting portrayal of the agonies of self-consciousness and self-loathing.  Most inspiring though, is the implicit promise that these problems can be overcome.  The narrator knows he has the wisdom within him to escape, but for now he is in prison, locked away from his ability to love freely.

You can listen here.

Lives – Modest Mouse

Singer Isaac Brock opens with a fundamental truth about humanity: Everyone’s afraid of their own lives / If you could be anything you wanted, you’d be disappointed, am I right? He understands the Unhappiness Script; that our own Hell comes from inside ourselves.  It’s hard to remember we’re alive for the first time, and simultaneously we’re alive for the last time. Why fight this?  I like this.

You can listen here.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan

Saved the best for last.  I know I’m prone to hyperbole, but I think this may be the most poignant illustration of humanity my ears have ever heard.  This is not Dylan’s most well-known song, but I think it’s a masterpiece.

With gut-wrenching lines like I met a white man, he walked a black dog, and I met a young woman, her body was burning, a young Bob Dylan revealed his profound insight into humanity’s illnesses.  He just observed human nature at work, and echoed it back in crystal clear poetry.

You can listen here.

Readers, I would love to hear the songs that speak humanity to you.  When I’ve got enough suggestions, I’ll find and embed the songs in a new post.

Rock on friends, our future may depend on it.

If you liked this post, if you can feel the groove, please pass it along. Take five seconds to hit the ShareThis button below and send it to Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon or MySpace. Share the love!

Photos by Shht! and dcasey

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Nadia - Happy Lotus March 28, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Hey David,

I have been fortunate to have traveled the world. Five continents to be exact and it was a great teacher. No matter where we live or what we look like or what religion we follow, we all want the same things. Music and movies unite all of us.

When I lived in a tiny village in India, I walked by a little hut (it truly was the size of a closet) and the husband was watching a James Bond movie, the theme song was blaring for the whole village to hear and his wife was outside doing laundry by hand and rolling her eyes at her husband. So we are all one.

BTW, an example of how funny life can be in terms of minds thinking alike….I am publishing a post on Monday about how we each have a personal theme song. I guess that is another example of how music unifies us all.

Thank you for the music too! I loved them all! :)

nolan September 2, 2010 at 12:01 pm

you forgot damn it feels good to be a gangster!

David March 28, 2009 at 3:00 pm

When I lived in a tiny village in India, I walked by a little hut (it truly was the size of a closet) and the husband was watching a James Bond movie, the theme song was blaring for the whole village to hear and his wife was outside doing laundry by hand and rolling her eyes at her husband. So we are all one.

That made me laugh out loud, Nadia, thank you.

Can’t wait to see your theme song post.

Positively Present March 30, 2009 at 10:45 am

This is a great post. I completely agree with the statement, “Music unites us by telling stories with which we can all identify.” Music is a unifying force and it really does bring people together. Thank you for sharing those songs.

David March 30, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Thank you for reading (and listening.)

Here’s a E.Y. Harburg quote I liked:

“Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”

janice April 6, 2009 at 6:47 am

Great post and I plan on listening to the songs properly after I send this, but I just wanted to say two things now, before I get distracted:

Well done on the seamless, unobtrusive embedding of the play bars into the post. I’d love if you could share this kind of technical knowledge some day as it’s the kind of thing that stops technically challenged folk like me being able to do all the things we’d love to do in our blogs!

And oh, my goodness – how on earth did you manage to narrow it down to a stunning 6? I tried to answer a post at Nadia’s the other day about a theme tune or at the very least a track I enjoy driving along with. My brain nearly fried and I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t access them all or process them.

David Cain April 6, 2009 at 8:31 am

Narrowing it down was hard. But I knew I didn’t have time to do more. In fact, it’s six instead of five because I couldn’t leave any of them out.

As for embedding the players, go to seeqpod.com. Search for any song and a bunch of similar song results will come up on the left side of the screen.

Click on what you would like to hear and it will appear in a playlist on the right. If you hover over it, an Options button appears and if you click it, “Embed” is an option.

It will show you a window with the HTML code you need to embed it.

It is a bit flaky though, sometimes the players just don’t show up.

janice April 6, 2009 at 8:49 am

Thank you! A lot of my favourite ‘life’ songs are Greek so I’m looking forward to checking out if there are international options at seeqpod.

shrinivas borki April 7, 2009 at 10:26 am

Great post and I plan on listening to the songs properly after I send this, but I just wanted to say two things now, before I get distracted:Narrowing it down was hard. But I knew I didn’t have time to do more. In fact, it’s six instead of five because I couldn’t leave any of them out.When I lived in a tiny village in India, I walked by a little hut (it truly was the size of a closet) and the husband was watching a James Bond movie, the theme song was blaring for the whole village to hear and his wife was outside doing laundry by hand and rolling her eyes at her husband. So we are all oneAs I was parting with a friend after having a pint at a bar and grill, he handed me this album and told me to listen to it on the way home, but skip right to the last song. I was stunned, it blew me away.

David April 7, 2009 at 10:53 am


Dayne | TheHappySelf.com July 29, 2009 at 10:43 am

ALL those songs are amazing. I’ve always been a huge fan of REM, Modest Mouse and of course, Dylan. I think each one of those artists really touch on that element of the human condition. One other band you may want to check out is Sigur Ros, especially their album ( ). Absolutely beautiful and to me, it is all about human emotion.

Thanks for the fantastic post and blog!
.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..7 Life Lessons I Learned From Pablo Picasso =-.

David July 29, 2009 at 10:45 am

Hi Dayne. I do love these songs so much. I’ve heard a lot about Sigur Ros, but never sat down to listen to an album, I will check it out.
.-= David´s last blog ..Ethanol Free — 30 Days Without Drugs Update =-.

Shadehawk August 13, 2009 at 4:49 am

I thought of a good song for a number 7 spot on your list, john lennon- working class hero, great list btw.

caente August 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Hello friend, sorry to tell you this, but at least the very music* of those songs are really sad… allow me to send you a cuban rock song of a cuban movie(directed by a spanish director), the song have english subtitles, you might like it:


best of luck!

(*) I didnt pay too much attention to the lyrics since english is not my native language and I have some difficult understanding the spoken english on the fly.
.-= caente´s last blog ..El arte perdido de leer =-.

Jesse August 16, 2009 at 5:43 pm

There were several songs that popped into my head when I saw the name of this post. Gimme Shelter was one of them :). I used to listen to that song every morning when I showered, it is an amazing way to start a day. I really don’t think I can express how much enjoyment I get out of it. I’d love to share some of the other that make my list with you. I ask two things 1.) that you do the same and sit and listen, even if you’ve heard them, please enjoy them again and 2.) Let me know what you think! I’ll keep it to a short list, but I have many more if you would like me to pass them along as well.

I couldn’t figure out how to put a link into the pages so just copy and paste in the address bar.

In This Diary – The Ataris

Always Coming Back Home To You – Atmosphere

Thousand Mile Wish – Finger Eleven

Holy Ground – Kan’Nal, players is on the top right. Space Child is awesome too.

Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Hope you Enjoy!

Shannon March 26, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Oh my yes. Simple Man. Ronnie Van Zant, you wrote my life.
.-= Shannon´s last blog ..My Cognitive Dissonance =-.

Cody February 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm

The first two minutes of “Always Coming Back Home To You” is amazing! “Clouds ran away, opened up the sky, then one by one I watched every constellation die.” It’s a great pick for this list along with the others.

Mojo August 17, 2009 at 7:16 am

Great list… I’ll make my contribution here:
Lead Sail and a Paper Anchor by Atreyu

James September 1, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Another Modest Mouse song that has always spoken to me is Trailer Trash.

although their songs don’t have any lyrics, I think Explosions in the Sky really touches on the sublime side of human emotions. My personal favorite is Your Hand in Mine

David September 1, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Great songs!

I’ve always loved Modest Mouse, and I think you’ve just turned me on to Explosions in the Sky. Beautiful music, it doesn’t need words.
.-= David´s last blog ..What I Learned From My Stint in The Traveling Reptile Show =-.

kyle September 5, 2009 at 2:06 pm

just an idea, i would do it myself but it would be better for this page in particular if you link to custom playlists, say one for spotify for example.

David September 5, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Yes there are probably better ways I could have done it. Spotify looks cool but it is not available to Canadians unfortunately.

gabrielle September 12, 2009 at 12:27 am

was a bit surprised to see modest mouse here, but i’m really glad you mentioned that song because it’s always spoken to me and it helped me in a lower time of my life. it’s just too true.

David September 12, 2009 at 12:24 pm

It really jumped out at me when I first heard it. Great song and great message.

Andres September 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Bob Dylan’s The Times they are A-changin’; is, for me, the most human song ever.

Adam October 4, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Great songs. I’m glad I was given the opportunity to listen to them through reading this blog. Thanks.

I’ve always found two bands to be particularly beautiful and able to express human emotions without words quite well. They are “Mono” and “World’s End Girlfriend”.

Libertarian Girl October 9, 2009 at 11:44 am

These are all trumped by Jackson Browne’s “Sky Blue and Black.” No truer or more heartfelt song about love (what we’re all really concerned about in the end) or just life in general, how things change and you can never get them back, was ever written.
.-= Libertarian Girl´s last blog ..Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize, Just By Showing Up =-.

David October 9, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I’ll check it out, thanks!

Stinger503 December 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Check out Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb from the Wall Live. It tells the story of a person who longs for the feelings he had when they were a child, among other things. David Gilmour’s solo is probably the best guitar solo I’ve ever heard (so make sure its the live version), he really knows how to make a guitar solo speak.

Suzanne October 21, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Comfortably Numb is a good one. My favorite is Time, about how fleeting life can be:
“And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
And shorter of breath and one day closer to death”
For some reason Pink Floyd has spoken to me …for a long time. And there’s no other like Dave Gilmour! He sings and plays as well today as he did 40 yrs ago.

Indy January 15, 2010 at 2:28 am

Check out “No Lies, Just Love” by Bright Eyes. Its a true story of the singers experence with a near suicide, why hes still alive and who its written for.

Greg January 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm

I’d recommend “The Waitress” and “You” by Atmosphere. The Waitress is impossible to hear and not be affected by. Check them both out, You isn’t quite as powerful as The Waitress, but still solid.

David February 1, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I’ve heard great things about atmosphere, I will check them out. Thanks Greg.

Erica February 8, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Added these songs to my extensive To Download list. Let me add to yours:

Maybe Tomorrow by Stereophonics,
If Only You Were Lonely by The Replacements.

I’m particularily in love with the line “somewhere there’s a smile with my name on it”

Randiriel February 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Seeing Bob Dylan’s A hard rain on your list really touched me. English is not my mother tongue. When I was a child, pre-school, my brother who is ten years older played a lot of Bob Dylan. It is part of the music of my childhood. A hard rain was always the song I felt most drawn to. It spoke to me though I did not understand the lyrics. As soon as I begun learning English, when I was 15, I returned to the song and it has been a favourite once again.

Gabe February 22, 2010 at 4:25 pm

These are great songs, but why are they all by dudes?

David February 22, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Heh. A few people have asked that. One even asked me why they’re all white. Someone even wrote in to suggest that I have subconscious racist and sexist attitudes that I have to address.

The answer is I just picked six songs I like, and these happen to be performed by white males. (Except for No Shelter, the best part of which is sung by Merry Clayton, a black woman.) On a different day they might have been different.

I find it to be a bizarre issue to bring up. Music is music to me, I don’t care what kind of genitalia or skin complexion its makers have. I’m surprised so many do.

Andy Parsons February 26, 2010 at 7:13 am

Re. Songs that are meaningful to me, there’s quite a few but off the top of my head how about these.

Seasons in the Sun – Terry Jacks

Interestingly, I just searched for this on youtube and before finding this clip I found another version of the same song, sung by another singer. Although it wasn’t a bad version and the music and lyrics were the same, somehow it just didn’t have the same effect on me that this original version has, and I mean I really didn’t feel ANY emotion while listening to it, even though I honestly tried to.

But listening to the original version in the clip above, I immediately feel the exact same feelings that I felt the very first time I heard it, which was in 1988 when I was 13 years old.

It seems a sad yet happy song and I find it impossible to accurately put into words why it is that out of all the thousands of songs I have heard, this one instantly attracted me back in 1988, and still does now.

I guess it’s comforting in a way to hear someone describe the sort of sadness and grief that I have felt myself, because it let’s me know that those feelings are not unique to me.

Another one I like, and I must admit it’s for almost the same reasons, is “Sing me a memory”. Rather than try to describe why that one appeals to me, I’ll show you why by showing you this video I put together.

When I decided to make this video from photos of my old school in England (which I loved but has now been demolished), I searched for a song to go with it and typed “memories” as a search term and came up with this song.

That was the first time I had ever heard it, but I just instantly knew it was the perfect song to go with the video, and somehow the words just fit perfectly as if the song had been written about my school, and it expresses brilliantly how I feel about the school whenever I remember it.

Every time I visit England, I still go to the site where the school once stood. Just to be there for a few minutes and remember the good times I had there as an important part of my childhood.

Here’s the video.

And finally, in a similar vein, here’s another video I made while reflecting on my childhood holidays at Butlins holiday camp.

The song is “Those were the days” by Mary Hopkins.

Maeve March 5, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Larkin Grimm’s “The Last Tree.” Actually, most of her songs speak to me in a strange, visceral, sometimes manic way. If there is a deeper realization than “sorrows come and sorrows go, that’s all I know,” it’s well beyond me.


The Gaslight Anthem also deserves a place on this list. “Drive” in particular captures weariness and the will to go on, restlessness and brotherhood.


Shannon March 26, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Well, my personal anthem for the pressure cooker that was my college career was “Straight to Hell” by Drivin’ and Cryin’ but if I had to pick one song that screams of humanity and of victories and failures and possibilities, well . . . I have only one word: “Imagine”.
.-= Shannon´s last blog ..My Cognitive Dissonance =-.

Dani March 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm

“What It’s Like” by Everlast and “Ain’t No Reason” by Brett Dennon

chuck October 21, 2010 at 12:52 am

i 2nd brett dennen

Harper Grey April 1, 2010 at 9:25 am

Ah, I love “Folsom Prison Blues”… :)

The two songs that come to mind for me are “Dante’s Prayer” by Loreena McKennitt, and “World Container” by the Tragically Hip.

Cassie April 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm

I think that the line “how strange it is to be anything at all” from Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane Over the Sea pretty much sums it up for me. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I have ever heard.

vic beaudoin April 8, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Recently Don Imus of Imus in the morning fame asked listeners to send in the list of 5 songs, their favorites.

I have over 400 33 1/3 LP albums, and some 400 CD’s so going over this library and choosing 5 was a task that made me think.

I have Jazz and Blues and R & B and Rock N Roll and Classical and Symphony and Opera. If I had to pick 5 songs that would be the only songs that I could listen to, what would they be.

I am 63 and lived through the 60’s and and fond memories and strong friendships from that time, so here goes my 5

IN A GADA DA VIDA Iron Butterfly long version.


Cream Toad long version (Wheels of Fire album)

Pleasures of the Harbor, Phil Ochs.

Bob Dylan’s Dream

Since you chose 6 I will add
Stones Honky Tonk Woman with Cheryl Crow on stage Live

vic beaudoin April 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm

There are a few torch songs out there that make me turn my radio up to the max.

Now just hear me out these songs have the lyrics and the voices to put the whole package together to be a great torch song.

Cher The way of Love

Elvis Are you lonesome tonight

Otis Redding I’ve been loving you too long to stop now.

Golden Earring Radar Love

Meatloaf Paradise by the dashboard lights

Meatloaf 2 outta 3 ain’t bad

Jerry Lee Lewis Great Balls of Fire

Jerry Lee Lewis Whole lotta shaking going on

Bill Evera and the Beaters At This Moment.

Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band Long Lonesome highway

Arretha Franklin Rock Steady.

Toni April 11, 2010 at 1:17 pm

America, by Simon & Garfunkel. I always get chills when Paul Simon sings, “‘Cathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping.” To me, I echoes my own thoughts about trudging through this life, looking for adventure, but a bit afraid of what I’m doing, wanting to share with others to gain reassurance, but afraid of letting people down with my weaknesses.

David April 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Me too! I love that song and that line does that to me too.

Brilliant song.

Thomas May 12, 2010 at 3:14 am

Love that you mentioned Modest Mouse, I love all the others you mentioned (generally lists like these don’t align with my tastes, but I guess the theme was the universality in music). Another great song by Modest Mouse is ‘Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset’, the amazing instrumental at the end of it is heartrendingly beautiful.

Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CH1Tu9-oSU

Sasa June 12, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Really enjoying perusing your archives ^_^* Jut wanted to let you know the first song (Stones) link is broken.

David June 12, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Thanks, should be fixed now.

Enjoy the archives, Sasa.

hZ June 28, 2010 at 11:12 am

spinning plates; radiohead
pyramid song; radiohead
what else is there; royksopp
watching you without me; kate bush
mourning air; portishead
pluto; bjork

David June 28, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Ah I’m a huge Radiohead fan. Thanks for the picks.

Marc July 12, 2010 at 5:46 am

I think discussing mainly the lyrics of the song takes the music out of it’s context, but there’s no doubt popular song has really captured the feelings of generations of people since the 1960s on. i am a musician and was completely mesmerised by music as a child by my brother’s Beatles records. 1 song I ‘get’ more as I get older is ‘Let It Be’, sometimes you just have to, as painful as it is [& before people criticise the ‘mother Mary’ stuff it’s what his deceased mother ‘Mary’ used to say to him.] ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me & My Monkey’ Yeh! ‘She’s Leaving Home…bye bye’ ‘Help me if you can I’m feeling down’ A great song & lyric from Eden Ahbez [1 of the original hippies] in 1948! ;’Nature Boy’ – ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return’ Nat King Cole recorded a great version of that.

evan barnes August 5, 2010 at 1:45 am

hurt – johnny cash, he did this song before he died and after his wife died, i think it gives a good view on how we all suffer from time to time

pieces – sum 41, i know sum 41 isn’t the deepest band but this is a great song about having tried to be something for others

hard sun – eddie vedder, “theres a big, a big hard sun, beatin on the big people, in the big hard world”

the weight of lies – the avett brothers, “lies don’t need an aero-plane, to chase you anywhere” need i say more?

hands – the racounteurs, about having that one person who gets you and can make everything better

drain you – nirvana, what can happen when that one person and what you share with them is warped or distorted

David August 5, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Hurt was actually written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, but Johnny Cash definitely gave it a new twist, knowing his story. He also covered Rusty Cage by Soundgarden, but most people think he wrote it and Soundgarden covered him.

Drain You is one of my favorite Nirvana tracks.

Sigh August 12, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Apparently what it means to be human prettymuch only includes what it means to be a white dude. :-\

David August 13, 2010 at 12:08 am

Way to miss the point. Music is music, who cares what color they are, or whether they have penises? Why should I even think about race and sex when I’m choosing music?

You must like being offended more than you like music.

Merry Clayton, the best part of No Shelter, is black and female. If token diversity is important to you, there you have it.

Carla September 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I have to admit the fact that no woman artist (there are many amazing ones) made it to this good list is a kick where it hurts most. I’m a female and I make music. Clearly my music will forever be seen as soppy chick stuff while the rolling stones get to illustrate the meaning of life. Whatever, I’m going to sleep. Don’t worry raptitude.com I still like you.

David September 16, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Clearly my music will forever be seen as soppy chick stuff while the rolling stones get to illustrate the meaning of life.

Uh, that’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think? What difference does it make?

If I hadn’t included Bob Dylan would you have called me an anti-semite?

These are the six songs that came to mind when I did this post. Why should I make sure a female artist appears on this list? Political correctness? I don’t care what kind of sex organs my musicians have and I don’t know why anyone would.

See 40 Songs I Will Always Love if you want to see a list with female musicians in it for some reason.

Carla October 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

No, you don’t need to include female artists just for political correctness or to make people like me happy.

I don’t think you are sexist. I just think that, without you realizing, male is your norm. Listening to a female band for many people can be compared to listening to a good oriental song. You like it, you think it is pretty amazing… but it will never impact deep enough to be on your ‘favourite’ playlist.

We are not sexists in the way we were in the past. In the past we used to say women shouldn’t do math because their brains couldn’t handle it. Now we (we means society, and includes both women and men) let women do math. We let them ace university. And they can occupy the top math post in the country. They can, but without knowing how and when it happened, we got a man to do it. Over and over again we got a man to do it. This is the shape of sexual inequality in this age. It is an almost instinctive bias – a bias we don’t necessarily realize we have.

Your Bob Dylan/antisemitism analogy doesn’t quite satisfy me because women make up 50% of the population. You’d think that, if all odds were equal, three women would be on that list. But we didn’t even make one out of six.

So no, the odds are not equal. It is not your personal fault of course. I also don’t want your list to include women if you thought these bands were better suited. But I would like to get you wondering why no woman made it to your list, given that you agree that there are many great female artists around.

Thanks and keep up your blog I love it.

David October 2, 2010 at 5:13 pm

I just don’t agree. My norm is what I like and I see no reason to project your dissatisfaction about sexual inequality onto my blog post. I could have just as easily picked a Portishead or Neko Case song if I had come across them in my playlist first.

With respect, you don’t know anything about me but what I write here. My “norm” is what I happen to like, and if, in your eyes, my liking Bob Dylan and the Beatles more than I like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick makes me some sort of unwitting tool for society’s prejudices, then I would say you don’t know enough to say that.

I’m glad you’re liking the blog but I think what you are asserting about me is very presumptuous. My strategy for combating society’s unfairnesses is not to criticize demographic skews on somebody’s playlist, but to treat everyone I meet face-to-face on equal ground. I don’t care for gender quotas, affirmative action, “employment equity” (which is really the opposite) or other strategies that focus only on the result and not the reasons why. So if this is the way you choose to fight the fight, more power to you, but don’t expect me to join you.

Grace August 17, 2010 at 11:20 pm

“My Body Is A Cage” got me through a friend’s suicide. extremely powerful song.

Gaby August 18, 2010 at 2:23 am

I thought this post was amazing and theses artists are great. But I wanted to add a few songs that have always hit a deeper note in me, no matter how many times I listen to them:
– Let Go by Frou Frou
– Sleeping In by The Postal Service
– Sister by Dave Matthews Band
– Your Heart is an Empty Room by Death Cab for Cutie

I don’t think these songs illustrate what it means to be a human, but each has a great significance working towards the general meaning of being human.

Steven S. August 31, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I have to add this song as it captures the absolute best of human emotion I have ever heard in my life. There are many versions of this song done, but non even come close to this version.

“Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah”

I can go on for days as music is a huge passion of mine. Here are a couple more:

“Ray Lamontagne – Jolene”
“Elliott Smith – Twilight”

Carl Thomen September 10, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Hi David.

Thanks for a great site. There is much truth (however you define it) on here.

I think you should listen to Chevelle’s ‘Breach Birth’. It’s about breaking molds, being free to create, and living your own life. Chevelle’s sound is unique too – heavy melodic, emotionally charged and very often wise.


Ambiguity September 18, 2010 at 1:57 pm


I just stumbled upon your blog last night and I am officially a huge fan.

A favorite song of mine which I think you would really enjoy is “Love Love Love” by The Mountain Goats. Listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FyFS5kFZ7w

It actually reminds me of your post about how there is no such thing as good and evil. The references in the song are all examples of how acts commited out of love (especially self-love) are not necessarily what the world considers “good.” Therefore love is not necessarily an exclusively positive force. The song is an illustration of how love is separate from morality – “beyond good and evil,” as Nietszche would put it.

Enjoy :)

Gerardo October 9, 2010 at 3:08 am

Hey David, I just found your site, it’s great that you are writing this articles. In this age even though we are surrounded by information, no one will ever show you how to be human, but yourself, through life experience. Your articles can guide a person in an intimate way to be more aware of these ideas and learn by consciously trying.

I know a song which I believe gives a very important message about being human, and we don’t have it in mind so often.

Handlebars by Flobots

k December 10, 2010 at 6:40 am

thank you for all of this. i listened the right way and appreciate the musiccc! have a lot of new songs to look up..

Lorien December 16, 2010 at 6:03 am

The Arcade Fire-My body is a cage…..Is medicine for me.
I’ve always felt like my mind inside this body is like the universe enclosed in a nutshell.

sam hall January 3, 2011 at 12:13 am

In my humble opinion, all of these major truths are encompassed on a single album……. Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.

Check it out and see.

Blessed Be,

Samuel Hall

David January 5, 2011 at 6:55 am

I know DSotM inside out and backwards

Andy January 30, 2011 at 10:51 am

Hi David, I have just found your blog, loving it!
Since I listen to mostly mainstream music, my picks would probably be put to shame here. But “The River” by Bruce Springsteen gives me the chill every time:
“…is a dream a lie
if it don’t come true
or is it something worse”

Take care.

Simon February 9, 2011 at 9:18 am

Hey David, great blog!

The Sunshine Song by Jason Mraz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mpzzuxpCnU

Amongst other things, it’s about asking for help from others when you’re down. My favourite lines from the song are: “I get hungry for love, and thirsty for life, and much too full on the pain.”

Melissa Warr February 20, 2011 at 7:39 am

I just found this site and am enjoying reading all the articles. I am having a hard time prying my self away to do other things! I wanted to suggest a song to add to your list: Something to Believe In by Poison. It very much speaks of the way of the world and makes me think and grieve for the state it is in.

Steve Shwam February 22, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I can Change by LCD Soundsystem……… The new Kanye West, Runaway.

Tony Compton February 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm

When God Made Me by Neil Young. Great song that makes you think about the human condition and how contradictory we are.

duncan idaho March 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm

I wanna live…. I wanna give. I been a minor for a heart of gold….

Melissa March 6, 2011 at 7:34 am

Song suggestion– Hospital Beds by Cold War Kids. Although perhaps this only came to mind because I’m a nurse cruising the internet while my patients are (by some miracle) actually sleeping.

I also adore how many people have mentioned Atmosphere, I think he’s an expert storyteller in his own fashion. Wish I had more time for a thoughtful comment…

Gene March 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm

My senior year of high school was a great one, and the song “Soco Amaretto Lime” by the band Brand New was the soundtrack to it. The lyrics are so powerful and bring out the best of the teenage years and the want “to stay 18 forever” and never have to grow up or have serious responsibilities. It is just an amazing song

Delores March 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Hi David, I just happened across your blog and love this post. I’m wondering if you’ve done or considered life changing movies? I could certainly suggest some redemptive movies that I love!

Sarah March 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm

I’ve been revisiting John Lennon lately, and I almost dropped the dish I was washing when “God” started. I just believe in me.

Love the blog, thanks for being a constant source of mental reinforcement.

jim April 1, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Stumbled on ya, found 40 Nietzche quotes and that caught my eye. Was thoroughly enjoyin’ diggin’ around when I found 6 amazing songs…found Dylan at the end… now I know you’re my friend! Hard to pick a favourite Dylan song (I have them all), but have to put ‘Blind Willie Mctell’ right up there. Goose bumps every time he’s starin’ out the window of the St. James hotel…great site, I’ll be back.

Matt April 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Check out this one by Shellac: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGmuUV5A6iQ
Raucous and dissonant but ultimately accepting and optimistic.

Hotels in Texas April 22, 2011 at 5:32 am

just bookmarking in order to listen to a few of the track before i make my mind up

Walt May 11, 2011 at 9:57 am

Lots of songs touch me, and I can never reduce it to one (or a few) that stay completely constant. Off the to of my head –
Graceland – Paul Simon – is an amazing song, that can be listened to on many levels
Several by the Boss esp Thunder Road, Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad
Song for Sony Liston by Mark Knopfler, as well as his All the Roadrunnning with Emmylou Harris

Joe May 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Hey David,

For awhile I have been looking for somthing more in my life. I had no right not to be happy, but I was. What it was I was looking for Iwas never quite sure. Ideas began to form, but it was only once I began reading your blog a few day’s ago that these ideas began to coalesce. Through reading your blog and other input’s from my life I began to focus on improving myself. I want to thank you for the incredibly honest and poignant anaylysis of the human condition that your blog provides. Thank you.

Catherine May 16, 2011 at 11:50 am

Gimme Shelter is my favourite Stones song, for exactly the reason you describe – the female vocal solo, with the voice break and all. Never fails to give me shivers up my spine.

My all-time favourite song is “Everyday Sunshine” by Fishbone. It literally saved my life. It’s just joyous, free, and full of happy life. The church-esque breakdown at the end is great. Be sure to try to find the longer album track rather than the edited radio version if you look for it.

Thanks for the very interesting site! I’m a recovering alcoholic and a lot of what you write about ties in with how I live my life.

jeff June 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I want Smog’s “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” to play at my funeral.


Jason June 19, 2011 at 11:31 am

Recently discovered your excellent and inspiring Blog David, have been exploring it with great interest over the past few days.

Always enjoy finding new music (or sometimes pretty old music) that people find extremely moving or meaningful, so thanks for sharing your list.

For me personally I cannot listen to any of these stunning tracks without getting goosebumps and an intense rush of pleasure (with more than a hint of melancholy mixed in)

Teardrop by Massive Attack
Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil
Into Dust by Mazzy Star

Warm regards from London

David June 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Ah I love Into Dust. I put on that whole Mazzy Star album today.

I’ll check out the others, thanks Jason.

Erin August 9, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I think Eleanor Rigby, by The Beatles, is very poignant.

David August 9, 2011 at 6:36 pm
Seth August 28, 2011 at 1:19 am

Trouble by Cat Stevens, during the lowest point in my life, was the first song to make me realize that I wasn’t alone. That song holds a lot of power for me.

David August 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm

In love with this song now, thank you.

Katie Benedetto August 31, 2011 at 11:19 pm

1. Dig, by Incubus
2. How to Save a Life / The Fray

Generally passionate:
3. Never Enough / Dream Theater
4. In the Presence of Enemies, Part II / Dream Theater

co September 25, 2011 at 5:32 pm

My body is a cage is a Peter Gabriel cover
Good list though, just, thought that info should be added

David September 25, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Actually Peter Gabriel’s version is the cover. Arcade Fire wrote it.

Chris February 1, 2012 at 12:18 am

Thanks for these songs. But they’re all sad or bittersweet in some way. Is that all it means to be human? I’ll put up “Better Days” by Springsteen.

“Evey fool’s got a reason to feel sorry for himself
And turnin his heart to stone
Tonight this fool’s halfway to heaven and just a mile outa hell,
And I feel like I’m comin home.
These are better days . . . .”

Jason February 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Stumbled here and read a bit of the commentary…. you might see what happens if you try to pick 5 or 6 that are specifically non-white, non-male, or both. Just for fun.

I too find it interesting that there is a lot of pathos and/or melancholy to these songs. Must mean something.

Some random additions that occurred to me while reading and listening:

I would have picked a different Dylan song… “Chimes of Freedom”

Sometimes it’s not just the song it’s the arrangement or singer:

“Insane Asylum” composed by Willie Dixon… On the album The Singer by Diamanda Galás Ahh what a voice!

Sometimes it’s not the “hit” song, but the concert staple: “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block)” by Bob Marley and the Wailers

If you want songs deeply illustrative of the human condition by a white guy:

try any Robyn Hitchcock album. Good candidates for this category include “Uncorrected Personality Traits” or “Hurry For The Sky”.

Or “New Morning” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Great blog post!

David February 16, 2012 at 7:37 am

Why would anyone pick songs based on the skin color of the musician? I don’t understand why people are so preoccupied with race and sex.

Suresh March 5, 2012 at 2:02 am

Hey David!
Thank you for introducing me to bob dylan ‘s hard rain song . Its awesome.
By the way , I can’t believe all this gender and skin colour thing posted here. These people must be really insecure. Music is Music and that’s it ! I am brown and i am not complaining that there isn’t any brown musicians here. So you have my sympathy in having to deal with this issue here.
Just curious , do u have any favourite genre of songs ? If so what are they?

M March 11, 2012 at 9:14 am

Hi David,

First time visitor – just spent 2 hours on your site – recognize shades of my younger self in your explorations.

I hope that, by now, you have gone to a movie by yourself and ticked that easy one off your list. :-)

I had to laugh about your observation that you tilt your head in photos – and so you do! Sweet.

Just to let you know, the links you give for the Stones song and the Dylan song in this post have been taken off of youtube. Also, the REM song is available on youtube (I was hesitant to “allow” your current link for that song to open a new file on my computer because I was unfamiliar with that site).

I’m going to head away from your site now. I’m not sure if you are already familiar with these writers or not, but I thought I’d recommend:
+ Rainer Maria Rilke (Prague poet) [note: I prefer the English translations of his work by Stephen Mitchell.]
“you are not too old
and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out
its own secret.”
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
“When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home–the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom moody around him, and in the avoided mirror once more the room, and later from the tormenting bed once more: then in the air the voices discussed, beyond comprehension, his heart, which could still be felt; debated what through the painfully buried body could somehow be felt–his heart; debated and passed their judgment: that it did not have love. (And denied him further communions.)
For there is a boundary to looking, and the world that is looked at so deeply wants to flourish in love. Work of the eyes is done, now go and do heart-work on all the images imprisoned within you; for you overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.”
+ Rumi (Persian poet)
“If I had known the real way it was,
I would have stopped all the looking around.
But the knowing depends on the time spent looking!”
“When you eventually see through the veils to how things really are, you will keep saying again and again, This is certainly not like we thought it was!”
“Learn from this eagle story that when misfortune comes, you must quickly praise. Others may be saying, “Oh no”, but you will be opening out like a rose losing itself petal by petal. Someone once asked a great sheikh what Sufism was. “The feeling of joy when sudden disappointment comes.” The eagle carries off Muhammed’s boot and saves him from snakebite. Don’t grieve for what doesn’t come. Some things that don’t happen keep disasters from happening.”
+ William Blake (English poet, artist, iconoclast)
I can’t find any snippets now that ‘want’ to be included here. But he was pretty amazing, especially for his time.

M March 11, 2012 at 10:29 am

Whoops – had to come back half an hour later – was just in the shower, freezing (why the British think it’s optional to have a heat source in the bathroom is beyond me), noticing the hot water’s swift decline into cool water (stupid water heating “system” in this flat is straight from the 1950s – literally), thinking about your tire coupon moment (I have no idea what a tire coupon is, or why you’d have one lying around in your bathroom, ha!), and excusing myself from dreading the moment I turned off the water because it was going to be cold in the rest of the bathroom because I am a slim woman, have hypothyroidism and iron-deficiency anemia (after 16 years of being a vegetarian; so if you are still vegan after your experiment, please read up on the intricacies of iron supplementation), so I really do feel the cold more than the typical person.
Anyway, at that moment it occurred to me that if I won’t be returning here I better give you a couple more suggestions that you might really like, because I loved them:
1. Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham
Please have patience through the first 100 or so pages of the book, which do drag, because after that, it’s great.
There have been a couple of film adaptations – most in the black and white era – most are okay but not perfect. It’s hard to fit the whole book into a 90 minute film. Book prefigured my life in some ways.
2. The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham
Not as good as Of Human Bondage, but taken up more by the 60s hippie kind of set.
You will recognize yourself in the protagonist.
Two films have been made from it – the 1940s one is quite good (see it), but the 1980s one with Bill Murray I found dreadful and not true to the actual story.
3. Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse
Also taken up by 60s hippies a bit.
Great – you don’t even have to be a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis to go with this flow. A quick read.
4. Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Whitman’s other poetry doesn’t do much for me, but somewhere in the middle of this, there were bits of “wow”.
5. Montaigne’s Essays
I better stop; the rare sunshine won’t wait forever this afternoon.
Email if you plan to come to the UK. Or just email.

Marilyn September 11, 2012 at 8:47 pm

LOVE your post about songs that capture the essence of humanity. Music touches the soul. Brilliant post, so glad I stumbled upon this. I’d humbly nominate Modest Mouse’s “Third Rock” as a companion piece to the “Lives.” You can listen on youtube and they’ve just listed the lyrics in red–rather effective. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbqYzArcTqQ

Joy September 14, 2012 at 12:48 am

“Galileo” by The Indigo Girls
“We Are All Made of Stars” by Moby

Anya October 25, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Perhaps a reminiscent sentiment of Arthur Schopenhauer? Great blog, by the way

renée malfaux December 7, 2012 at 5:21 am

Rage Against the Machine, Killing In The Name Of. Not only because of the song itself but the story after. X Factor music unites humans as well. Purpose? Oh well… http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8423340.stm. ;-)

Colleen December 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Incredible wisdom in their music. And it just makes ya feel good… Listening to “Rubber Soul has always been my remedy for a particularly crappy day.

Lizzie January 9, 2013 at 9:47 am

When I was 15 (Long time ago, HA) I painted all the lyrics to Hard Rain on my bedroom in dayglow paint.

Thank you for including this most amazing piece of poetry in your list.


Pppatticake January 12, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I love this post–so happy to meetnew music I didn’t know of. THANK YOU.

For me, one band, like REM had always done, continues to mystify and amaze me–Nada Surf. There are 6 songs by them in particular that can make a perfect list of six songs on humanness, but virtually their whole catalog of music for 20 years has been about being human. Here’s the stellar 6 thathave taken my breath away:

Always Love

The vocals are beautiful, the rock trio bombast is vital and the message is essential human yearning. One of the best anthems I have ever heard live–tis a thrill seeing grown men fist pumping yelling “Always Love” and ending with”hey you good ones!”

Killian’s Red

This song has a GeddyLee worthy bass part that beats like heart in anguish and is about trying to get through all the mire of relationship

“I almost love this town when you’re by my side.. ..”

See These Bones

I don’t even know what to say about this one–I saw a review of it by a British columnist and he said something to effect that he had never heard a song like this in his whole life–I felt the same way when I first heard it–dumbstruck from start to finish

Beautiful Beat

Music as the power to lift us from the “mess ” and “distress” of our lives–brilliant

Blonde on Blonde

Gorgeous meditation on our separateness amidst a city full of people, with Dylan as the soundtrack of our lives–how any person could not fall madly in love with this song is beyond me

Paper Boats

A song that plays like a great foreign film in my head–ahh the human connection, source of so many great songs–this is a good one.

I hope you enjoy these

Matt January 14, 2013 at 4:27 am

Dear David, You talk about a lot of great stuff on this site, but I must say I don’t like it when people discuss music and mainly mention just the lyrics. That’s really like considering only the visible part of an iceberg, as for in any Western music, the real unseen [& generally unheard] power in the music is the underlying harmony, beneath the melody [& lyrics.] Usually in rock music [which this thread seems to be limited to] and most other Western music, it’s the tonic-dominant relationship that brings about most tension & release in music. To speak frankly, you seem genuinely moved by certain pieces of music but dont really understand why. It’s probably certain poignant lyrics/textures/melody juxtaposed on subliminal yet deep & significant harmonies. Write about just the lyrics of a song? It’s similar to just commenting on the facade of a beautiful building. Also, when talking about songs, how about crediting [ie; mentioning] the songwriters/composers, who again are the major part of the ‘iceberg’ of the music. I much prefer your other posts where you seem to communicate a much deeper knowledge of your subject. Matt.

suzy September 13, 2013 at 6:29 am

Listening to Gimme Shelter is transcendent. It reminds me that i’m alive and that life is worth living. Also, Grace by Jeff Buckley. But good list man !!

Connie March 7, 2014 at 10:12 am

Salt Water- Julian Lennon

Carol Gannon June 7, 2014 at 3:11 pm

What about Leonard Cohen? His poetry and musical arrangements deeply touch my spirit. Great list.

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