There’s a unique type of song that many of us don’t think about that often – songs that tell stories. Often, these are called ballads and sung slowly and sweetly or explored in a sonorous speak-singing method like Bob Dylan and many others.
Whatever genres you love best, here are the best songs that tell a story that will let you enjoy a good yarn in just a few minutes!
Rocky Raccoon – The Beatles
‘Rocky Racoon’ from the Beatles is sung to us by Paul McCartney as a storytelling/singing song in a classic folk-country style. The story traces the life of a guy named Rocky Racoon and the romantic trouble he carries through life. The song inspired the character Rocket Raccoon in the Marvel comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy). So, sit back and listen to this ballad of country woes and cock-eyed optimism from the Rocky Raccoon.
Related: Enjoy our playlist of animals songs.
American Pie – Don McLean
A nostalgic song about those good ol’ days, ‘American Pie’ is probably one of the most well-known storytelling songs. The song was originally written and recorded by American singer-songwriter Don McLean in 1971. The song also appears on the album of the same name. The popular song tells the story of a man looking back on “the day the music died,” which refers to the plane crash in 1959 when rock stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens passed away, among other memories of the past. The song is filled with cultural references (like James Dean) and much more from the early days of a rock n’ roll era world.
Related: Hear more America songs.
A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash
‘A Boy Named Sue’ comes from one of music’s most legendary ballad writers and singers, Johnny Cash. It was written by Shel Silverstein and made famous by Johnny Cash when he recorded it live in San Quentin Prison in 1969. The song’s about a young boy who turns into a man still angry with his father for naming him Sue. Eventually, the man sees his father again, and they fight, and then he understands why his father named him a “girl’s name.”
Related: This song features on our playlist of karaoke songs for men.
The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel
From the album Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel’s song ‘The Boxer’ tells the story of a man looking for relief. In an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1984, Paul Simon revealed that the song was actually about himself when he was undergoing a lot of criticism for his work as a songwriter. The lyrics certainly tell this story, but most folks who’ve been through periods when they’ve felt “beaten up” by those around them can certainly relate to the narrative.
Related: Find more underdog stories on the best songs about underdogs.
Hurricane – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan, one of the greatest ballad writers of all time, tells the tale of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who did time for a crime the songwriter felt Hurricane didn’t commit. The complex legal case calls to question racism, injustice, and much more. Dylan pulls no punches in the song, calling out against injustice. Let the tale take you through this based on a true story ballad of a man falsely accused and ultimately had his conviction overturned (years after the song was released).
Related: You can hear this song on our playlist of hurricane songs.
Puff the Magic Dragon – Peter Paul & Mary
If you grew up in the 80s, you likely remember the partially animated film ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ The sweet, folk fantasy song of the same name inspired the film (released 1978) and told the story of the adventures of Puff the Magic Dragon and his companions as “Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.” The movie takes the concepts from the story and turns it into a half-animated, half-live action film starring lesser-known actors like Philip Tanzini as Jackie Paper and Burgess Meredith as Puff.
Related: Poof! Here is our magic songs playlist.
Stan – Eminem
The many times nominated song ‘Stan’ by Eminem, an American rapper, samples ‘Thank You’ by Dido as its hook. The song itself tells the story of an obsessed fan sending letter after letter to Eminem, which go unanswered. The letter writer becomes agitated and eventually snaps and does dangerous things. The song ends with Eminem writing back—but too late. The rapper realizes the young man he saw in a news story with Stan, the obsessed fan.
Related: Listen to more abandonment songs.
Cats in the Cradle – Harry Chapin
‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ is a folksy rock song about a father who reflects on missing out significantly on the growing up of his son. The story tracks the years from verse to verse. Each phrase moves the story forward while referencing all the childhood milestones like playing catch with your dad, coming home from college – and your dad saying, “I’m proud of you.” And then the page flipping as the dad has no time for the kid, and now the kid has no time for the dad.
Related: Here are the best songs about cats.
Jack and Diane – John Cougar Mellencamp
This well-known musician wrote and performed this love song, which he included on his 1982 album American Fool. The song was his second single from the album and was later named one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. The song has been covered and sampled many times since, as singers like Jessica Simpson celebrate the sweet love found in the lyrics. For more, head over to our list of Mellencamp hits.
Related: Clap along with more great hand clapping songs.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot
The hit song ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ was released in 1976. The song tells the story of a real-life ship that sank in Lake Superior the year before. A storm that night caught the ship and destroyed it, breaking it in half and sinking it in winds between 25 and 52 knots, with waves as high as 35 feet. The rhythmic song has a flow that repeats throughout, with lines similar in melody throughout. The evocative song breaks for guitar solos and occasionally features some interesting use of synthesizers. If you enjoyed this, see our curated list of Gordon Lightfoot’s most popular songs.
Related: Sail away with these songs about sailing.
Viva La Vida – Coldplay
Possibly one of Coldplay’s most well-known songs, ‘Viva La Vida,’ hails the joy and boldness of the life lived by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who painted the phrase in her painting Sandías con leyenda: Viva la vida. The phrase translates to “the life lives” with a connotation similar to “long live life!” The vibe is about embracing life and its changes as you lose control. The lyrics reference multiple who experienced vast tragedy, such as Jesus before his execution or King Louis XVI in the French Revolution.
Related: Start your day with these cheery wake up songs.
Escape (The Pina Colada Song) – Rupert Holmes
If you’ve watched The Guardians of the Galaxy or listened to rock stations, chances are you’ve heard the Pina Colada Song, officially entitled Escape. The story takes listeners through the romance of a couple that’s grown bored with their romance. The song is about a personal ad one partner takes out, and funny events unfold after the couple discovers they have much more in common than they ever thought. “If you like pina coladas and gettin’ caught in the rain, come with me and escape.”
Related: You’ll hear this song on the Guardians of the Galaxy playlist.
Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
A country-vibe ballad by Grateful Dead, ‘Tennessee Jed,’ actually began its life in Barcelona, Spain, not the hills of Appalachia. The song was written when Robert Hunter was “topped up on vino vinto” according to Hunter. He had a jaw harp and started composing the song during a late summer twilight in the city as he stood between buildings with great reverb. The song didn’t appear on an album record but first showed up in live performances in 1972 when the band was in Europe. It seems likely the song was inspired by some homesickness felt since it keeps repeating, “Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee.”
Related: Hear this great song on our list of the best songs about Tennessee.
Apartment Story – The National
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, all the band members of The National, an American rock band, formed in Brooklyn, New York, in 1999. The band is a “family” band with a pair of twins, a set of brothers, and the final member married to the sister of the twins. “Apartment Story” is a love song by the band, filled with romantic phrases and intriguing lines that leave just enough to the imagination you can insert yourself into the song.
Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ by Pink Floyd is a moving storytelling song that relates the story of a lost band member, Syd Barrett, who’s been dealing with deteriorating mental health for a few years. The song is on the Wish You Were Here album, deeply reflecting the titular theme in emotive, evocative songs with intriguing guitar solos, touching lyrics, and heart-breakingly beautiful synthesizers. The band felt guilty over ousting Barrett and regretted the break of fellowship, and the song was their honoring of the longtime friendship they’d all had, despite the many ups and downs over time.
Related: Check out more shiny diamond songs.
Space Oddity – David Bowie
From one of David Bowie’s most well-known and most beloved alter-egos, Ziggy Stardust, ‘Space Oddity’ tells the tale of space exploration of Major Tom, a fictional astronaut Bowie created. The character cuts off contact with ground control and instead floats in space. While many folks at the time thought the moon landing inspired the song, the song was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey—the song title being a play on the film title. The song did coincide with the moon landing as a part of the album of the same name.
Related: Blast off to our playlist of songs about the universe.
Chelsea Hotel No. 2 – Leonard Cohen
From the stylings of the gravely, sonorous Leonard Cohen, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ transports listeners to the place where the story of what has assumed was Cohen and Janis Joplin’s brief affair at the Chelsea Hotel. Cohen has said the song isn’t actually about such an event but rather about the place where he met people “of his own kind.” The real-life hotel is famous as an incubator for creative musicians and artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Many stunning works have been composed within the walls of this song-inspiration.
Related: This classic tune is on our list of songs about moving forward.
Devil Went Down to Georgia – The Charlie Daniels Band
Maybe one of the most famous storytelling songs ever to be sung is ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia.’ The fiddle-rich song by the Charlie Daniels Band is a speak-sing piece about a fiddler named Johnny who meets the devil and wagers against him. If Johnny beats the devil, he keeps his soul. If he loses, well, the devil wins his soul forever more. The song wound up being the band’s top hit of all time.
Related: If you like this song, you’ll love our playlist of classic country music.
Goodbye Earl – The Dixie Chicks
Written by Dennis Linde (known best for his Elvis Presley hit ‘Burning Love’) but made famous by the Dixie Chicks, ‘Goodbye Earl’ tells the story of a woman looking to get revenge on the man who abused her for years after they were married shortly after high school. The song is one of many written by Linde that mentions this character, Earl (and, yes, fans of the TV show My Name is Earl, this is the Earl who inspired that character!). The song is a bit controversial with some because of the content and the approach to spousal abuse. The controversy resulted in several male radio programmers banning the song from their airwaves.
Related: Even the score with these vengeful breakup songs.
Ol’ Red – Blake Shelton
A country song by Blake Shelton on his self-titled album, ‘Ol’ Red’ is the story of an imprisoned man who was ultimately sentenced to caring for the warden’s dog, Ol’ Red, a bloodhound. The dog is well-known among the inmates as an incredible tracker of escaped prisoners. And, of course, as the man set to care for Ol’ Red doesn’t want to stay, he uses the dog to plot his escape.
Related: Grab your pup and enjoy these fun songs about dogs.
7 Years – Lukas Graham
Written and performed by Danish soul-pop band Lukas Graham, ‘7 Years’ is a storytelling song about kids who push the limits to learn reality as all kids do, and into adulthood, as the narrator grows and explores the world around him. Lukas Graham (singer for the song and band) reflects on his life in the song, life growing up in Copenhagen and trying all the things kids do, including all the emotional exploration of the nostalgia reflecting on the loss of his father and the advice his parents gave him in life.
Related: Life must move forward, so here are some growing old songs.
We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel
A stream of consciousness song by Billy Joel, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ tells the stories of a generation via lists of cultural references like Doris Day, Richard Nixon, Princess Grace, and Elvis Presley, among many others. The lyrics reflect that Billy Joel’s generation didn’t cause any of these things, but rather that all the things—good and bad—are no one’s causation but rather a result of humanity in and of itself. “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning. We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.”
Related: Listen to this song on our list of the best songs about burning.
Romeo & Juliet – Dire Straits
Probably everyone knows some version of the love story of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. Dire Straits updates the tale in their song by the same title. The couple is in love, but it seems there’s no way they can be together. The guy is particularly heartbroken and tries to make sense of it all. Why would they be in love if they can’t be together? Ultimately, he decides that the timing was all wrong – but he’ll always love her.
Recommended: Our curated list of Dire Straits classics.
El Paso – Marty Robbins
A western ballad about a true Old West cowboy. Robbins wrote the song while he and his family traveled by car back in the 1950s. The western saga tells the story of a romance, a shoot-out, and a loss. The narrator falls in love with a Mexican woman named Faleena, but she isn’t sold and is seen with another man. The narrator tells his tale of woe, danger, violence, and loss. The song was the first to win a Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance.
Related: Yee-haw! This song is on our playlist of cowboy music.