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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.

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Photos by Shht! and dcasey

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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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