Telling stories has always been an important part of humanity. Perhaps the most important one.
Stories help us learn, understand, and relate, and music is surely one of the best storytellers.
In this article, we’re bringing you the 30 best songs that tell a story.
Stories about love, society, hardships, and boys with a silly name – we’ve covered it all!
Table of Contents
- 30 Songs That Tell a Story
- 1. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
- 2. Coldplay – “Viva La Vida”
- 3. Amy Winehouse – “Valerie“
- 4. Taylor Swift – “Love Song“
- 5. Bob Dylan – “Hurricane“
- 6. Suzanne Vega – “Luka“
- 7. Pearl Jam – “Jeremy“
- 8. Rupert Holmes – “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)“
- 9. The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby“
- 10. Brandie Carlile – “The Story“
- 11. Eagles – “Hotel California“
- 12. Childish Gambino – “This Is America“
- 13. Beyonce – “Hold Up“
- 14. Johnny Cash – “A Boy Named Sue“
- 14. Janis Joplin – “Me And Bobby McGee“
- 15. Nick Cave – “Henry Lee“
- 16. The Clash – “Bankrobber“
- 17. Dolly Parton – “Jolene”
- 18. The National – “Apartment Story”
- 19. Eminem – “Stan”
- 20. David Bowie – “Space Oddity”
- 21. Angus and Julia Stone – “Old Friend”
- 22. Regina Spektor – “Us”
- 23. The Knack – “My Sharona”
- 24. Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”
- 25. The Kinks – “Lola”
- 26. Iron Maiden – “Alexander the Great”
- 27. Will Smith – “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
- 28. Ed Sheeran – “The A Team”
- 29. Mika – “Happy Ending”
- 30. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”
- Songs That Tell A Story – Final Thoughts
30 Songs That Tell a Story
1. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
We’re starting with an absolute all-time classic.
Originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen in 1984, “Hallelujah” was covered by many artists, but Jeff Buckley’s version definitely stands out.
It’s a beautiful, delicate ballad that tells a story of a broken love, told through the Bible-inspired stories.
And as Leonard Cohen said about writing the song: “There is a religious Hallelujah, but there are many other ones. When one looks at the world and his proper life there’s only one thing to say, it is ‘Hallelujah.'”
“She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips, she drew the Hallelujah.”
2. Coldplay – “Viva La Vida”
Released in 2008, “Viva La Vida” is one of the best Coldplay songs.
And if you pay attention to its lyrics, you’ll see it’s also one of the songs that tell a story.
In fact, “Viva La Vida” is written from King Louis’ point of view and contains many historical references, mostly tackling the French Revolution.
“I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”
3. Amy Winehouse – “Valerie“
“Well sometimes I go out by myself
And I look across the water
And I think of all the things, what you’re doing
And in my head I paint a picture.”
“Valerie” is originally a song by English indie rock band The Zutons, but it became a worldwide hit after Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson covered it in 2007.
The Zutons frontman Dave McCabe allegedly wrote the song about the makeup artist Valerie Star.
Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeous, uplifting song with a story that is still regularly heard on the radio.
4. Taylor Swift – “Love Song“
Taylor Swift is known for telling stories about her past relationships.
“Love Song” is her oldie but goldie, featuring the most popular love story of all time: Romeo and Juliet.
The singer used the famous story to talk about real-life experiences. She was blindly in love with the (wrong) guy, or at least she taught at the time, and her father didn’t approve.
“We were both young when I first saw you
I close my eyes and the flashback starts
I’m standin’ there
On a balcony in summer air
See the lights, see the party, the ball gowns.”
5. Bob Dylan – “Hurricane“
We included this classic in our list of the songs about storms, and we can’t skip it now – “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan is definitely one of the best songs that tell a story.
The song is about the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was charged with a triple murder. Dylan described it as a false conviction and an act of racism.
Therefore, it’s a song with a strong, important message.
“Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in
They took him to the hospital and they brought him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye
Says, wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!”
6. Suzanne Vega – “Luka“
The popular song “Luka” by Suzanne Vega tackles the issue of child abuse.
The singer based the song on a boy named Luka who was playing in front of her building, although she doesn’t believe he was really an abused child.
Although this is a tough topic, it’s an important one, and songs can be a good way to point out relevant problems in our society.
“My name is Luka
I live on the second floor
I live upstairs from you
Yes I think you’ve seen me before.”
7. Pearl Jam – “Jeremy“
Another amazing song with a painful but powerful story is “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam.
The song is based on the true story of Jeremy Dale, who committed suicide in front of his English class in Texas.
“Jeremy” is one of Pearl Jam’s greatest hits, and the story it tells gives it depth and emotion, besides being a musical masterpiece.
“Daddy didn’t give attention
Oh, to the fact that mommy didn’t care
King Jeremy the wicked
Oh, ruled his world.”
8. Rupert Holmes – “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)“
“Escape” by Rupert Holmes will instantly cheer you up.
Released back in 1979, the song was featured in the film “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and many other movies and TV shows (Taub’s ringtone in “House M.D.” also comes to mind).
In a nutshell, the song is about a man wanting to leave his wife, only to accidentally find out she might have been thinking about the same thing.
“I was tired of my lady
We’d been together too long
Like a worn out recording
Of a favorite song.”
9. The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby“
Written by Paul McCartney, this Beatles classic is about two lonely people – Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie.
Eleanor Rigby is described as a lonely woman who goes to church, and Father McKenzie as the pastor who is writing sermons that no one will hear.
Although this story comes from Paul’s imagination, it’s what makes this song so memorable.
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved.”
10. Brandie Carlile – “The Story“
“The Story” was Brandie Carlile’s breakthrough song.
It’s an emotional, personal song that can, in fact, be about many things.
The different ways that stories in music can be interpreted is what Brandie Carlile likes about songwriting, as she said in one of the interviews.
And seems completely right – sometimes everyone will find their own meaning in a song.
“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am.”
11. Eagles – “Hotel California“
“I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.”
Apart from winning the Grammy for Record of the Year, “Hotel California” is a true all-time classic.
The song’s lyrics are very vivid and easy to imagine, so it feels like you’re listening to a story.
However, “Hotel California” is really a song about excess and materialism.
12. Childish Gambino – “This Is America“
The multitalented Donald Glover, in the music world known as Childish Gambino, often makes political remarks in his songs.
His song “This Is America,” along with its striking music video, is a unique and powerful comment on gun violence, racism, and the usage of entertainment as a distraction from real problems.
Popular music should definitely tell more stories about our society, and Childish Gambino surely managed to put the spotlight on certain issues with “This Is America.”
13. Beyonce – “Hold Up“
Without a doubt, Beyonce has made some of the best narrative songs, especially with her album “Lemonade.”
In fact, the whole album is based on telling stories inspired by the singer’s personal experiences.
“Hold Up” is clearly a song about an unfaithful lover, and along with its music video, it’s a true musical and visual R&B masterpiece.
“Let’s imagine for a moment
That you never made a name for yourself
Or master wealth, they had you labeled as a king.”
14. Johnny Cash – “A Boy Named Sue“
If you’re searching for songs that tell a story, the country genre offers plenty of them.
“A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash is a lively, humorous track with lyrics based on a song by the children’s author Shell Silverstein.
The song tells a story about a boy who was abandoned by his father after he gave him the girly name Sue. In the end, the boy learns why his father named him Sue and reconciles with him.
“Some gal would giggle and I’d turn red
And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head
I’ll tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”
14. Janis Joplin – “Me And Bobby McGee“
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New Orleans.”
In March 1971, Janis Joplin topped the Billboard Hot 100 with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
The song talks about two drifters who hitch a ride and drive through American South and then sadly part ways in the end.
The song was written by the songwriter Kris Kristofferson who was inspired by the politician Barbara McKee. In the most popular version of the song, Janis Joplin made Bobby a man.
15. Nick Cave – “Henry Lee“
“Henry Lee,” a famous Nick Cave and PJ Harvey duet, almost feels like a tale.
After all, the song is allegedly inspired by the Scottish folk tale of Young Hunting, also known as Henry Lee.
The tale is about a man who tells a woman that he’s in love with someone else, and the woman gets him drunk and then stabs him to death.
The story is a bit dark, but Cave likes adding something dark to his songs. And that always works.
“Get down, get down, little Henry Lee
And stay all night with me
You won’t find a girl in this damn world
That will compare with me.”
16. The Clash – “Bankrobber“
“My daddy was a bank robber
But he never hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
And he loved to steal your money.”
“Bankrobber” was released as a single in 1980.
It’s a catchy, laid-back track with reggae elements that generally really sounds like a musical story.
The song is about a boy whose father robs banks and doesn’t hurt anyone in the process.
17. Dolly Parton – “Jolene”
“Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you
Dolly Parton’s hit “Jolene” is written from a point of view of a woman who is afraid to lose her lover to another woman.
And it’s not just any woman; it’s a beautiful woman with red hair and green eyes.
As a fun fact, Dolly Parton named the song Jolene after a 10-year old fan she once met.
And another fun (and impressive) fact is that Dolly Parton wrote “Jolene” on the same day as the classic “I Will Always Love You.”
18. The National – “Apartment Story”
The American alternative rock band The National tends to write songs that tell a story about life.
With the appropriate title, “Apartment Story” depicts the story of a couple’s routine and all the complexities it brings.
However, the song has somewhat abstract lyrics, which often makes The National’s music imaginative and distinctive.
“We’ll stay inside till somebody finds us
Do whatever the TV tells us
Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days.”
19. Eminem – “Stan”
When thinking about the best songs that tell a story, Eminem surely comes to mind.
He is undoubtedly one of the best lyricists of his time, and his iconic hit “Stan” is probably the best example of his authentic storytelling.
The song tells a story of a fan who is obsessed with Eminem. After the rapper didn’t answer his letters, he learns that the fan drove off a bridge.
“See I’m just like you in a way
I never knew my father neither
He used to always cheat on my mom and beat her
I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs.”
20. David Bowie – “Space Oddity”
To be honest, David Bowie probably fits on any playlist. But his “Space Oddity” is definitely a song with a story.
It’s an iconic song about the fictional astronaut Major Tom who ventures into space and loses connection with ground control.
Just like most of Bowie’s music, you can interpret this song in many ways.
Also, he wrote the song after seeing the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I‘m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today.”
21. Angus and Julia Stone – “Old Friend”
“Old Friend” is a gentle, indie tune by Angus and Julia Stone.
It was released on the album “Down The Way” in 2010, and it’s one of their beautiful hidden gems.
The song is about love, memories, and life stories.
“You read your fair share of books
You tied your lace a thousand times
And you saw the good in the worst of the crooks
And your story begins.”
22. Regina Spektor – “Us”
“This is not a love story. This is a story about love.”
So, besides being a storytelling song, “Us” by Regina Spektor is a sweet reminder of this quote and the film “500 Days of Summer.”
Us is an uplifting, piano-driven song with a story of a couple, told in Regina’s unique style.
“They made a statue of us
And then put it on a mountain top
Now tourists come and stare at us
Blow bubbles with their gum
Take photographs of fun, have fun.”
23. The Knack – “My Sharona”
“My Sharona” is inspired by the girl Sharona Alperin and the singer Doug Fieger being lovestruck.
Although it wasn’t like that in the beginning and at the time of writing My Sharona, the two ended up together.
After the relationship ended, Fieger and Sharona stayed friends, and Sharona remained his muse and a reason for creating the band’s signature song.
And in case you were wondering, yes, this is the real Sharona:
24. Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”
“I remember you well in Chelsea Hotel
You were famous, your heart was a legend
You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception.”
“Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Leonard Cohen tells the story of a man meeting with a woman in a hotel, insinuating that she’s a famous person.
It turns out she really was famous – it was Janis Joplin.
Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin had a brief affair in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, and this song is allegedly based on their encounter.
Lana Del Rey also did an amazing cover of the song in 2013.
25. The Kinks – “Lola”
“She walked up to me and she asked me to dance
I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola.”
Although released back in 1970, “Lola” is still one of the well-known rock songs that tell a story.
The song is about a guy who meets a girl named Lola in the club. She takes him home, and it turns out she’s actually a man.
The band was inspired by the experience of their band manager who danced with someone he taught was a woman but was too drunk to notice it really wasn’t.
26. Iron Maiden – “Alexander the Great”
When it comes to rock songs that tell a story, “Alexander the Great” by Iron Maiden is surely one of the best.
Essentially, the song tells the story of Alexander the Great and his conquests.
Isn’t this a great way to learn history?
“The battle weary marching side by side
Alexander’s army line by line
They wouldn’t follow him to India
Tired of the combat, pain and the glory.”
27. Will Smith – “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
If you need something to cheer you up, it’s always nice to get back to some old TV shows and their theme songs.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is probably one of the most popular narrative songs created for a TV Show.
It’s all about the catchy beat, young Will Smith, and authentic 90s vibe.
28. Ed Sheeran – “The A Team”
“And they say
She’s in the Class A Team
Stuck in her daydream
Been this way since 18.”
“The A Team” is a nice reminder of Ed Sheeran’s older music.
It’s an emotional ballad that tells a story of a young drug addict.
It’s based on a true story of a girl Ed Sheeran met when he was volunteering in the homeless shelter.
29. Mika – “Happy Ending”
When thinking about different kinds of stories, we always hope for a happy ending.
And “Happy Ending” by Mika will make you believe in that.
The song was released on Mika’s debut album “Life in Cartoon Motion” in 2007.
“This is the way you left me, I’m not pretending
No hope, no love, no glory, no happy ending
This is the way that we love, like it’s forever
Then live the rest of our life, but not together.”
30. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”
If you started wondering where is “Stairway to Heaven” on this list, don’t worry, we didn’t forget about it.
This musical masterpiece seemingly tells a story of a woman who started going through life with wrong materialistic priorities.
However, depending on the listener, the song can have many meanings, as all the best songs do.
“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.”
Songs That Tell A Story – Final Thoughts
Creating this list of the best songs that tell a story reassured us how many great songs tell compelling stories, both real and fictional ones.
Every song has its own message, but some songs could easily pass as poems or short stories.
Although people usually like a certain song because of its beat, melody, and vocals, the storytelling indeed makes music more interesting and meaningful.