Having a bad day, bad week, bad year even? You’re not alone.
But here’s the thing:
Music has the power to uplift you from the darkest places. Through music, we can motivate humanity to do better and be better.
Here we’ve compiled a playlist of the best songs about hope ever recorded. If you’re feeling down and there’s no superhero to help you, try one of the songs. Get ready to feel inspired!
‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ by Bobby McFerrin
Worrying is seldom useful, and most of the time it’s downright destructive! This song reminds us that worrying makes the problem double.
McFerrin spotted the phrase ‘Don’t worry be happy’ on a poster for Indian guru Meher Baba and was so taken with it that he made a song about it.
It’s the only ‘a cappella’ song (meaning ‘without instruments’) to reach #1 in the US. A Capella was big with doo-wop groups in the ’50s and ’60s but had fallen out of vogue until this resurgence in the ’80s.
‘Smile’ by Nat King Cole
An instrumental song made famous in the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times in 1936. Lyricists John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics to it, and the majestic song we know as Smile was born.
Covered by just about anyone who’s anyone (though Nat King Cole’s version is the most famous), and was one of Michael Jackson’s favorite songs (he recorded a version of it on his 1995 album HIStory).
‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
Originally written for the movie The Wizard Of Oz and sung by Judy Garland, the song Somewhere over the Rainbow took on a new life when it was covered by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (known as ‘IZ’) in the ’90s.
This version, a ukulele medley with Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, made him a national icon in Hawaii. So much so that when he passed away (due to a respiratory illness), his coffin rested in the capital building in Honolulu – typically only politicians get this honor.
‘I Got You’ by Michael Franti & Spearhead
Activist, environmentalist, and force-of-nature Michael Franti makes some of the most uplifting and inspiring music of recent times.
‘I Got You’ is a song about how we can support each other and learn to ‘love deeper and fly higher’ through all of life’s highs and lows.
Franti reminds us ‘we can swim oceans, climb mountains, dance like nobody’s watching, live life like we never did before’.
‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers
Many people have found solace in the words of Bill Wither’s Lean on Me.
It reminds us the pain we’re going through is only temporary: ‘there’s always tomorrow’.
There’s also a strong sense of brotherly love, so it’s a great song about friendship too.
It’s been covered by many of the greats, including Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, and Sheryl Crow.
‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ by Monty Python
Sometimes we take life a little bit too seriously, and what we need is a little humor to lighten the load. It’s a great message.
Eric Idle of Monty Python fame wrote and sang Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life for their controversial Life of Brian movie.
It’s a song about living optimistically, however bad things are going: ‘when you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle, and this’ll help things turn out for the best.’
‘Mr. Blue Sky’ by ELO
Considered one of the happiest songs ever, Mr. Blue Sky is one of the best Electric Light Orchestra (aka ELO) songs. Lavish, grandiose, you might even call it ‘cinematic’.
We all know the feeling, especially if we live in the UK where writer Jeff Lynne was from: it’s been raining, and finally (yes, finally….) the sun comes out and the sky is blue. The feeling that evokes can be euphoric.
The lyrics can be interpreted literally (as above), or figuratively (‘I can see clearly now’). Either way, it’s a superb song that’s full to the brim with positivity for the future.
‘One Love/People Get Ready’ by Bob Marley
First released (as a ska version) in 1965 by The Wailers, it was this 1977 re-issue that became the definitive version.
The song is a request for unity, universal love, brotherhood, and peace. The words remind us that we as a people are one, and that social unity and peace is possible if we come together. It’s a strong message.
There is also a lot of talk of retribution in the biblical sense, and a warning to sinners that they’ll pay for their evil deeds in the end.
‘We Shall Overcome’ by Joan Baez
We Shall Overcome started out life as a gospel song and was first said to have been sung by tobacco workers during a 1945 cigar workers strike in Charleston, South Carolina.
It was then picked up by Pete Seeger and other famous folksingers in the early 1960s (notably Joan Baez) who sang it at rallies and folk festivals. As such, it became a key anthem of the American civil rights movement.
It has since been used in a variety of protests worldwide.
‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong
Sometimes you have to stop and appreciate how wonderful the world is.
When you consider the vastness of the Universe and the odds-defying evolution of the human race, it’s incredible we’ve even made it this far.
So forget your troubles, and as Armstrong sings, marvel at the ‘skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night’.
‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel
A song about providing comfort to a person in need, writer Paul Simon considered the song ‘a little hymn’ and too long and slow to be a hit. Boy, was he wrong!t hit
It turned out to be not only one of Simon and Garfunkel’s biggest hits, but one of the biggest hits in the ’60s by any band, topping both the US and UK charts at the same time.
One of the best songs about hope, it starts with the comforting opener: ‘when you’re weary, feeling small.When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.’
‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey
We all have issues, that’s part of life, unfortunately.
But, as Nazi Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl famously wrote, how we react to hardship is completely down to us. What he calls the ‘last of the human freedoms’: to ‘choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
Believing things will get better is one of those attitudes. Life ebbs and flows, and with the rough will come the smooth, you just have to be patient and ‘play the long game’.
That’s the essence of this song.
‘Imagine’ by John Lennon
It’s not often that a song as powerful as Imagine comes along. Once in a generation perhaps.
Imagine is simply one of the most powerful songs about hope ever written, and one that has written itself into the fabric of modern culture.
In part inspired by the writings of Yoko Ono (from her book Grapefruit), Lennon urges us to imagine a better world when there are no religions (imagine there’s no heaven), no countries (nothing to kill or die for), and no possessions (no need for greed or hunger).
Finally, he asks us to join him for world peace: ‘I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world can live as one’.
‘Wind of Change’ by The Scorpions
This anthem is not only a song about change, it’s also a song about hope for unity and peace.
Released around the same time as the falling of the Berlin Wall (that happened on November 9, 1989), it became the unofficial anthem for German Reunification.
As a German band who grew up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, The Scorpions knew all about this wall that divided their countrymen.
The video shows historical footage of the wall’s building and final demise.
‘Beautiful Day’ by U2
In the vein of What a Wonderful World, U2’s Beautiful Day urges us to marvel at the beautiful day we have in front of us.
Inspiration for the song came in part from an Australian preacher called John Smith who Bono had befriended. Smith was a big advocate of being thankful for and finding the meaning in everything, even pain (pain is a reminder that things aren’t right in your life, and that a better life is possible).
Bono described this as a song about “a man who has lost everything, but finds joy in what he still has.”
‘I Won’t Back Down’ by Tom Petty
This little 3-minute song has helped many a person get through a tricky period. At the time of writing the song, Petty had been a victim of an arsonist attack on his house while he and his family were inside. He was also in the midst of a legal battle with an advertising agency.
I Won’t Back Down was a defiant protest song written by Petty as a reaction to these events. Since its release in the late ’80s, it’s been an anthem for people who’ve gotten trodden and beaten up – but who won’t back down.
‘Better Together’ by Jack Johnson
Hawaii’s most famous singer-songwriter has a habit of writing poignant, heartfelt love songs, and Better Together is one of the best John Johnson songs.
The essence of the song is that life is hard and, like many guys who find it hard to speak from the heart, can’t express what his girl means to him: ‘there’s no combination of words I could put on the back of a postcard’.
Nevertheless, he admits things are ‘always better when we’re together’.
‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield
If you’re facing a big challenge that’s making you question yourself (those are always the best challenges), then Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up might give you the shot of confidence that you need.
It’s a song about striving for better, optimism, and positive thinking. Mayfield urges us to remember our dreams and keep on pushing.
Times will be hard though: ‘you may find from time to time, complication’. But have faith: ‘if you put your mind to it you can surely do it’.
‘When You Believe’ by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey
Pop music legends Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey joined forces to create this gorgeous song for the movie The Prince Of Egypt.
The lyrics are about the power of belief. The message is: when you believe you can do something, mountains move. This reminds me of the famous quote by the founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t –you’re right.’
‘Who knows what miracles you can achieve, when you believe, somehow you will, you will when you believe.’
When you Believe works as a religious song (‘believing’ in God) but equally works as a song about believing in yourself (much like Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up).
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke
One of the most famous opening lyrics ever (‘I was born by the river’), Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come was a protest song written to support the civil rights movement for black Americans.
Cooke had a tragic life that ended with him being shot by a motel owner. In his short life, he found the strength to write this song with it’s powerful message about moving forward and seeking a brighter day.
Just listen to his vocal performance, its staggeringly good too.
‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba
If you wanted a modern anthem for not giving up, look no further than Tubthumping.
The chorus repeats the line over and over ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna get me down’.
The verse reels off the drinks he’s had: ‘he drinks a Whiskey drink, he drinks a Vodka drink’ etc. – making this the perfect song for a booze up.
‘Not Afraid’ by Eminem
If you’re down on your luck and need someone in your corner, this song by the brilliant Eminem might be just the ticket.
Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem) is a true survivor. He made a phenomenally successful music career for himself despite an impossibly tough upbringing in a dysfunctional home (for more on this, check out our article songs about family where we feature his track ‘Mockingbird’). The guy deserves a lot of respect.
In Not Afraid he shares his troubles and woe in his usual lyrically acrobatic way, and reminds you he’s there for you. ‘Come take my hand come (come take my hand), we’ll walk this road together, through the storm’.
‘Don’t Stop’ by Fleetwood Mac
As we’ve seen throughout this article, many of the best lyrics come from times of adversity. Here is a case in point.
Don’t Stop was written by Christine McVie during her breakup with bassist John McVie. In fact, most members of Fleetwood Mac had relationship issues of some description. It didn’t stop the album Rumours becoming one of the best selling albums of all time!
The song is all about forgetting about the past ‘yesterday’s gone’ and reminds us to focus on tomorrow ‘It’ll be, better than before’.