There are so many amazing songs out there that speak simple truths about how to live a good life.
Songs that capture the essence of life here on Planet Earth, or share observations or ‘nuggets of wisdom.’
So, here are the best songs about life, written by some of the greatest songwriters of our time.
‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ – Nina Simone
It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and get consumed with thinking about all the things you don’t have, rather than the things you do. In this amazing song by Nina Simone, she teaches us something simple but profound. Take a listen.
She lists all the things she doesn’t have: home, shoes, money, class, friends, schooling, wear, job, father, mother, children, sisters, earth, faith, touch, god, etc.
But the one thing she does have, that nobody can take away, is her life:
“I got my arms, got my hands, got my fingers, got my legs, got my feet, got my toes, got my liver, got my blood. I’ve got life, I’ve got my freedom, I’ve got life.”
‘Once a Day’ Michael Franti & Spearhead ft. Sonna Rele and Supa Dups
Here’s a song about unexpected moments in life. You think you’ve got it all sewn up, (“you think you got a million days”) – then life throws you a curveball.
Franti’s advice is to hug someone, kiss someone, love someone once a day. That way, we all can rise up.
Michael Franti is such an uplifting musician, it’s really a travesty his music isn’t more widely known. For more of his wonderful vibe, check out ‘The Sound of Sunshine’ (on our songs about sunshine mixtape), or ‘I Got You’ (from our songs about hope list).
‘Life is Life’ – Opus
You’ve probably never heard of the Austrian band Opus (I hadn’t either), but you’ll definitely have heard this song.
With its infectious, reggae-infused rhythm, sing-along “la la la la las,” and positive message about everyone working together (“when we all give the power, we all give the best”), it’s pretty hard to pick fault with it.
Except, perhaps, the singer’s oversized blue suit and ’80s style mullet and mustache. But each to their own. And besides, this was the ’80s remember. This look was all the rage back then (remember Diego Maradona?)
You can’t knock the song for pure joie de vivre, either. It’s a bit like a bar of chocolate. You know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help yourself 🙂
‘Slip Slidin’ Away’ – Paul Simon
Paul Simon is one of the world’s best songwriters, not many will argue with that. Not only are many of his songs simply beautiful pieces of art, but they’re often pretty deep.
We hear about the man so devoted to his wife that he fears he might disappear at any moment.
The housewife who sometimes can’t get herself out of bed in the morning, “a bad day’s when I lie in bed, and think of things that might have been”.
And the father who longs for forgiveness but can’t manage it when the time comes (“he kissed his boy as he lay sleeping, then he turned around and headed home again.”)
The message is clear: we’re all “gliding down the highway” (living our lives) like we have an infinite amount of time when time is really “slip slidin’ away”.
‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ – John Lennon
It’s well documented how turbulent John Lennon’s life was growing up. When he had Sean in the ’70s, he decided to be the best possible dad he could be.
This song is about his absolute devotion to the little boy, giving him the love he never received from his own dad (breaking the cycle of absent parentism, nice job JL).
The song also includes this pearl of wisdom: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
However, that line is often wrongly credited as Lennon’s. It was American writer Allen Saunder who first uttered it (or a variation of it) in 1957.
‘Once in a Lifetime’ – Talking Heads
Ok, there are a few ways to interpret ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ Take a listen, and then I’ll tell you what I think.
I think it’s about truth vs. ignorance and how people spend their everyday life ignorant of what’s happening around them. As such, it’s a song about time and our misuse of it.
We have moments of clarity (or awareness), but most of the time, we fumble our way through life “letting the days go by,” without questioning hardly anything other than ‘what’s for supper?’.
This song reminds us not to let life slip by while we obsess over trivial things (and yes, oh lover of the boxset, I’m talking to you :-)).
If your only focus is on material gain (‘keeping up with the Jones’) – and you never question why – you may well find yourself “in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife.”
Then, in a blind panic, you’ll think, “my God, how did I get here?”
‘In My Life’ – The Beatles
Lennon described this as “a remembrance of friends and lovers of the past.”
There’s also something else going on – it’s about rebirth too.
In the second verse, he sings, “of all these friends and lovers, there is no one that compares with you.” So it’s not purely about nostalgia.
It’s about the hope of a new day, and isn’t that what makes life worth living sometimes?
Note: I had a friend (Lucy, thank you) read the lyrics to this song out at my wedding years ago. I don’t recall seeing any raised eyebrows at the time, but some friends may have thought, ‘wow, how charming, Ged. I’m glad we didn’t buy them that expensive jug from the wedding list now.’
The fab four’s other notable, life-related songs are ‘A Day in the Life’ and ‘Got to Get You Into My Life.’
‘Circle of Life’ – Elton John
Tim Rice and Elton John wrote this song for the hit musical The Lion King. It’s easy to overlook it as ‘yet another’ song from a musical, but it’s rather good.
It talks of “the path unwinding” and the sheer abundance in front of us, “there’s more to be seen than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”
It also includes pearls of wisdom, such as “you should never take more than you give.”
Interestingly, it’s one of Elton’s favorites and often includes it in his setlist.
‘That’s Life’ – Frank Sinatra
No list of songs about life is complete without ‘That’s Life’ by the one and only Frank Sinatra, one of the best songs about fighting and never giving up.
He’s had up and downs (he’s been “a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a king”) but, like a prizefighter who’s been knocked down, always gets up again (“I pick myself up and get back in the race.”)
This song captures a universal truth about navigating life: you have to take the rough with the smooth, sometimes “you’re riding high in April” but get ready to be “shot down in May.”
When you accept that fact, you think differently about everything.
Recommended: Our special on the best Frank Sinatra songs.
‘What Is Life’ – George Harrison
Another Beatles song? Yup, afraid so (well, it’s a George song). Nevertheless, those guys reached a pinnacle of songwriting and acquired an astute awareness of life with it.
George, especially, turned into a sort of wandering guru character who had an appreciation of the deeper, ethereal side of life.
While most others (including, at times, other members of the Beatles) were busy writing scathing attacks on each other, he was busy thinking about life and what it means to be alive.
This song, with a mesmerizing video and choreographed dance, is so good.
‘Imitation of Life’ – R.E.M.
A song from R.E.M.’s later period, but it’s vintage Stipe and co.
This great little video, set at an L.A. pool party, is just 20 seconds of film.
It was then replayed and zoomed in to highlight different people, a bit like a Where’s Wally.
There’s a guy on fire, a moody teenager, a kid jumping in the water, all while singer Michael Stipe does a dance that’s reminscent of Mr. Bean. It’s totally insane!
There’s also guitarist Peter Buck playing the ukulele with a monkey on his lap. Ok, normal.
The meaning of all this? The superficiality of life, especially in Hollywood.
Those R.E.M. fans out there will notice the title of this article is a nod to one of their songs, ‘Life and How to Live it.’ 🙂
‘Life on Mars’ – David Bowie
Bowie described this song as a song about “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Like Roald Dahl’s Matilda character, she’s looks on with disdain at the “sailors fighting in the dance hall” and the “the lawman beating up the wrong guy.”
In the sleeve notes to the album Hunky Dory (where this track resides), Bowie states the song is “inspired by Frankie,’ that’s a reference to Frank Sinatra.
There’s a curious bit of pop trivia here. In the late 60s, before Bowie got famous, he worked translating lyrics. He was given a French song to translate called ‘Comme d’Habitude’ by Claude Francois.
However, his lyrics were never used (understandably so, they were terrible), and instead, Sinatra used a translation by a guy called Paul Anka. His words were ‘My Way’ – yes, the Frank Sinatra song that’s now a favorite Karaoke choice!
A disgruntled Bowie got his own back and used the same chord progression for ‘Life on Mars.’ ‘My Way’ and ‘Life on Mars’ are almost identical if you put them side by side. Crazy, right.
Seu Jorge’s version in Portuguese (for Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) is great too.
‘First Day of My Life’ – Bright Eyes
Here’s a great song about new love, and that feeling of ‘rebirth’ that comes when you really connect with someone for the first time.
“I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been, but I know where I want to go.”
Understandably, it’s a popular song at weddings.
We also included it on our songs to put on a playlist for your boyfriend article (or girlfriend, either way, works.)
‘This Life’ – Vampire Weekend
You know something else that’s part of life – albeit on the ugly side? That’s cheating. This is one of the best songs about cheating you’ll hear.
It appears they’ve both been cheating on each other, “you’ve been cheatin’ on, cheatin’ on me, I’ve been cheatin’ on, cheatin’ on you.”
Rather than accusing his partner, he admits he’s “been cheating through life and all its suffering.”
‘I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like)’ – Michael Franti & Spearhead
Here’s one of the most joyous affirmations about life you’ll ever hear, by the marvelous Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead.
It’s a love song (“I only want to be with you”), but it’s also a celebration of being alive.
‘Cos, lets face it, we’re only here a short time and it’s a miracle we’re even here in the first place – the odds were stacked against homo-sapiens (that’s us lot) making it this far.
Well done, humans. Can we manage not to destroy the planet now?
‘Lust for Life’ – Iggy Pop
This timeless Iggy Pop / David Bowie collaboration just doesn’t age (much like Pop) and sounds as fresh now as it did back in the ’70s.
The verses are pretty sordid, with several references to drugs and ‘adult activities.’ Johnny Yen (as in, “here comes Johnny Yen, again”) was a character from the book The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs.
Rather amusingly, the cruise business Royal Caribbean used the song in their advertising to appeal to a younger demographic (they cut out all the risque bits, though).
Well, I’m sure Pop laughed all the way to the bank.
‘For Once in My Life’ – Stevie Wonder
Many people think this song is about finding new love. However, the word on the street is that Ron Miller (who wrote the words) referred to his daughter’s birth.
So it’s a song about the love you feel when you have a newborn baby (it’s true, that love is immense.)
When you bear that in mind, the lyrics make a lot of sense, “For once in my life I have someone who needs me” (one thing is for sure when you have a child, they need you.)
“For once I have someone I know won’t desert me” (again, there’s no way a baby can desert you.) Then the final clue, “Oh baby, Lord baby.”
For more parent-related songs, check out our playlist of songs about family love.
‘Dear Life’ – Beck
Here we see Beck pleading with life to cut him a break, “Dear life, I’m holding on.”
Despite the somewhat desperate message, it’s an uplifting song with some gorgeous instrumentation.
In an interview with Vulture, Beck said, “‘Dear Life’ is about how you can go through really rough periods, and there’s a certain point where you say, “Life, just take me, show me what I’m supposed to do. I surrender.”
‘The Good Life’ – Weezer
Appearing on Weezer’s controversial Pinkerton album (and released on their E.P. called ‘O.Z.’), ‘The Good Life’ is about Rivers Cuomo’s experience after having corrective, leg-lengthening surgery (he’d been born with one leg roughly two inches shorter than the other.)
There are references to the cane Cuomo had to walk around with (“without an old-man cane I fall and hit the ground”).
And his longing to get out again, (“it’s been a year or two since I was out on the floor, shakin’ booty, makin’ sweet love all the night).”
The drum fill at 1:32 is a standout moment too.
‘The Perfect Life’ – Moby ft. Wayne Coyne
Here’s a collaboration between Moby and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne about drugs.
Anyone who’s taken substances (including alcohol, that’s a drug too) will tell you the feeling of intoxication makes everything feel ‘perfect’ – that’s what makes some of them so addictive; they create “the perfect life.”
“Spoons and foil are all he needs, a bed and some china, a lighter and some speed.”
‘Lead a Normal Life’ – Peter Gabriel
The incredible songwriter Peter Gabriel often sang about people who feel alienated from the rest of the world (‘Through the Wire’ and ‘I Don’t Remember’ are two other examples.)
Despite the slightly disturbing subject matter, this is a beautifully delicate, atmospheric piece (it’s about being committed to a mental hospital).
‘The Smokey Life’ – Leonard Cohen
No list of songs about life would be complete without something from arguably the best songwriter of the lot, Leonard Cohen.
Cohen’s lyrics are a thing of beauty. He was a poet who happened to make music – so his words are not to be taken literally (treat them the way you’d treat a poem).
I interpret this as a song about accepting change (“the scenery fading”) and resisting attachment to anyone or anything (keep it “light enough to let it go”).
If that sounds very Buddhist, it’s no surprise – Cohen was ordained as a monk in 1996.
‘Life Without You’ – Stevie Ray Vaughan
Part of life is sadly about losing people. Here’s a touching song from the incredible SRV about losing his friend and mentor, Charley Wirz.
It’s a gorgeous song about old friends, “fly on fly on….fly on my friend, go on… live again… love again.”
Vaughan had a tragically short life (he died in a helicopter accident at the age of 35). Unfortunately, there’s no rhyme or reason sometimes.
There’s a great moment at 6:02 when Stevie Ray talks to the audience about looking out for one another – “we have to learn to love everybody else and treat them just like ourselves.”
“You with me?” he says, and then follows it by one of the best guitar solos you’ll ever hear.
‘Love of My Life’ – Queen
Here’s another beautiful song about long lost love by Freddie Mercury.
It’s not entirely obvious who this song is about (if it’s even anyone.)
The obvious theory is that it’s about Mercury’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Mary Austin (who he broke off with when he admitted he’d been seeing guys.) He stayed close to Austin until his dying day and bequeathed many of his possessions to her.
He admitted he could never love a man the way he loved Mary. “Simply impossible,” he said.
All this is depicted in the brilliant biopic about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody.
‘There Goes My Life’ – Kenny Chesney
Here’s a tale about how life priorities change quickly, sung by Kenny Chesney, the singer of some superb country songs.
This growing up song is from the perspective of a man who gets his young girlfriend pregnant. Despite the unplanned pregnancy, they settled down, and his daughter became his life.
In a touching moment at the end of the song, his daughter flies the nest. “There goes my life.”
‘Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life’ – Monty Python
Optimism. Positive thinking. That’s what it’s all about, right.
Well, yep. Pretty much is.
If you adopt a positive mental attitude – even if the odds are stacked against you – you’re more likely to succeed than if you don’t. This song reminds us to take a ‘glass half full’ approach to life.
We include this classic on our songs about hope playlist.
‘Float On’ – Modest Mouse
Here’s another life lesson in a song: don’t sweat the rough times because sometimes bad news is a blessing.
“Bad news comes, don’t you worry even when it lands, good news will work its way to all them plans”
For example, “a fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam,” but he still learned something (“It was worth it just to learn some sleight of hand).”
“We’ll all float on okay,” singer Isaac Brock reassures us. It’s a beautiful life, enjoy it.
For more Modest Mouse, check out their track ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’ on our songs about losing someone playlist.
‘Moment in Time’ – The Pharcyde
Here’s a little-known gem from The Pharcyde. It’s one of the best hip-hop songs about life, “I be damned if this short life ain’t heavenly.”
As we go round and round the sun on this tiny planet in an infinite Universe, remember “life is just a moment in time.”
One life. Live it!
‘The Nights’ – Avicii
It’s so important to keep reminding yourself that life is short, and you need to make the most of every moment, as you never know how much longer you have. Here’s one of the best songs about living in the moment by the late, great house DJ, Avicii.
More great songs about life
- ‘All My Life’ – Foo Fighters
- “Man in the Mirror’ – Michael Jackson
- ‘What a Wonderful World’ – Louis Armstrong
- ‘Fifteen’ – Taylor Swift
- ‘The Life of Riley’ – The Lightning Seeds
- ‘Over the Rainbow’ – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
- ‘Skyscraper’ – Demi Lovato
- ‘It’s My Life’ – Bon Jovi
- ‘Don’t Stop Believin” – Journey
- ‘Redemption Song’ – Bob Marley & The Wailers