Our Daily Bleg: What Are the Greatest Lyrics of the 21st Century? No Stairway Please …

Our resident quote bleggar Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, is back with another request. If you have a bleg of your own, send it along here.

Enough with 21st-century movie lines. Let me now move on to 21st-century popular song lyrics. Here we face the same issues of qualitative decline as with movie lines, I believe.

In earlier eras lyricists like W. S. Gilbert, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein II, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, and Jagger & Richard saw themselves to some extent as working within a literary tradition and were interested to some extent in lyrical sophistication and experimentation.

I suspect today’s popular songwriters have different attitudes or different levels of success in achieving lyrical goals, although my son tells me that the best hip hop is politically savvy, and certainly hip hop is a highly verbal art form where the words are less subservient to music than in the past.

I would welcome suggestions of memorable quotations from 21st-century popular songs, from hip hop and from other genres. It should be kept in mind that songs that are great musically may have mediocre lyrics (such as, from an older time period, “Stairway to Heaven”), and I am interested in the lyrics here rather than the music, however good that may be.

mary lynch

I thought this was a list about the 21st century?
i guess not many people read the Times anymore.
but no one has mentioned Antony and the Johnsons.

The Atrocities

God visits all lost souls
To survey the damage
We noticed a bonfire
Burning in his eyes

He whispered
"It's the atrocities of your story
Of your story"

God visits all lost souls
To survey the damage
And holding his bleeding heart
A tear comes to his eye
He whispered
It's the atrocities of History
Of History

The he falls to the floor
For there's many more tears on the sunrise
And now we must eat those tears
Now we must eat our fill
Of the Atrocities
The Atrocities
The Atrocities
The Atrocities

Mike in DC

Pink Floyd - Time

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but its sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but youre older Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Chad Shiira

I love the simplicity of Adam Schlesinger's "Stacy's mom has got it going on," from Fountains of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom", which is hands down, the best chorus of the 21st century. Teenaged lust, plain and simple, succinctly put in ten words or less. Kathleen Edwards' "In State" opens with "I can spot your kind a million miles away/Buckle down boots and a bloodshot gaze/You talk so sweet until the going gets tough/The last job you pulled was never big enough, a song about lovers on the lam. These four lines sets the stage beautifully. And finally, from the late-Grant McLennan, on The Go-Between's "The Statue", he writes, "I blow the dust from your lips and beg forgiveness/But there's too much moonlight on your skin/I rise and face the day/Another weary sinner/I can't feel your touch in the blaze of noon. If Steven Malkmus' "Stereo" came out in the past eight years, the greatest lyrics of the 21st century would certainly be, "What about the voice of Geddy Lee?/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?/I know him and he does/And you're my fact-checking cuz.



"Intruder Alert" Lupe Fiasco

Famine stricken his home
Land and no social standing
In the economic pecking order
Emergency relief
Distribution systems is in disorder
He's checking water making sure
It's safe enough for his
Daughter to float across in
The boat he built
Hopefully strong enough to support
Praying border patrols
Don't catch her
And process and deport her
Before she reach the shore
Of the land of the free
Where they feed u
Treat u like equals
Deceive you
Stamp u
And call you illegal


We'll find another way to dance
If you get the chance
You must dance, dance, dance
My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
Till then I walk alone.
... I ain't promiscuous.
And if you was suspicious,
All that sh*t is fictitious...
I'm Fergalicious

Fergalicious def
Fergalicious def def def def def def def def def def def def def def def def
Fergalicious definition make them boys go crazy
They always claim they know me
Comin' to me call me Stacy [Heyyy, Stacy]
I'm the F to the E, R, G, the I, the E,
And can't no other lady put it down like me.

I'm Fergalicious (so delicious)
My body stay vicious
I be up in the gym just working on my fitness.

the above are as good as "she loves you yeah yeah yeah" I think.


Jorgen Graboskycz

El Paso, by Marty Robbins - While not everyone's cup of tea, a staggering amount of versology all of which rhymes...I can never remember what the song is about, though.

T.C. Moore

Everything by Vienna Teng.

Bob Snyder

My vote would be COUNTING CROWS...

I was down at the New Amsterdam staring at this yellow-haired girl
Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation with this black-haired flamenco dancer
She dances while his father plays guitar
She's suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
I wish I was beautiful
So come dance this silence down through the morning
Cut Maria! Show me some of them Spanish dances
Pass me a bottle, Mr. Jones
Believe in me
Help me believe in anything
I want to be someone who believes

Mr. Jones and me tell each other fairy tales
Stare at the beautiful women
"She's looking at you. Ah, no, no, she's looking at me."
Smiling in the bright lights
Coming through in stereo
When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely

I will paint my picture
Paint myself in blue and red and black and gray
All of the beautiful colors are very very meaningful
Greg is my favorite color
I felt so symbolic yesterday
If I knew Picasso
I would buy myself a gray guitar and play

Mr. Jones and me look into the future
Stare at the beautiful women
"She's looking at you.
Uh, I don't think so. She's looking at me."
Standing in the spotlight
I bought myself a gray guitar
When everybody loves me, I will never be lonely

I want to be a lion
Everybody wants to pass as cats
We all want to be big big stars, but we got different reasons for that Believe in me because I don't believe in anything
and I want to be someone to believe

Mr. Jones and me stumbling through the barrio
Yeah we star at the beautiful women
"She's perfect for you, Man, there's got to be somebody for me."
I want to be Bob Dylan
Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky
When everybody loves you, son, that's just about as funky as you can be

Mr. Jones and me staring at the video
When I look at the television, I want to see me staring right back at me
We all want to be big stars, but we don't know why and we don't know how
But when everybody loves me, I'm going to be just about as happy as can be
Mr. Jones and me, we're gonna be big stars..

AND, Rain King as well...



'Bill Bones knows what I mean
There are fewer more distressing sights than that
Of an Englishman in a baseball cap
And we'll die in the class we were born
But that's a class of our own my love'

All of 'Time for Heroes' and 'The Good Old Days' by The Libertines, who are widely recognized in England as great lyricists. Surprised they hadn't been mentioned yet. Oh, and...

'And if lust and despair are two bullets in the same gun
Well we've been playing Russian roulette for far too long'
(Breck Road Lover)

I appreciate Doherty's ability to express abstractions using concrete, understandable and relatable images, rather than further abstractions. It's refreshing to get a new take on the things you see every day.

Adam Green also has a good take on nonsense lyrics...

'Bob Dylan was a vegetable's wife' (Hey Dude)

His recent albums especially have an off the meter tongue-in-cheek value.

For social commentary: The Young Knives
For quaint folk twists of syntax: Johnny Flynn



All these poses of classical torture
Ruined my mind like a snake in the orchard
I did go from wanting to be someone
Now I'm drunk and wearing flip-flops on 5th avenue
Once you've fallen from classical virtue
You won't have a soul for to wake up and hold you

from the album of the sane name by Rufus Wainwright

Callie O Farrell

For me it would have to be:

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
but now it's come to distances and both of us must try,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.
I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time,
walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
it's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea,
but let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

Any of Leonard Cohens lyrics will do........

T.C. Moore

"Music is my hot hot sex", by Cansei de Ser Sexxy (CSS), a Brazilian band.

The song was featured in a commercial for the new iPod Nano. "Music is my boyfriend, Music is my girlfriend..."

It's simple to say the least, but I think the metaphors in the song are quite resonant in today's culture. Also, the last verse in Portuguese is actually poetic. There's a couple translations in the comments of the URL:



Lay down your guns
All you daughters of Zion
All you Abraham sons

-U2, "Love and Peace or Else"


Derek Webb - Mockingbird
(A great singer-songwriter and insider critic of American Christianity. Perhaps heavy-handed at times, but on point.)

"Peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication; it's like telling someone murder is wrong and then showing them by way of execution."
- My Enemies Are Men Like Me

"There are two great lies that I've heard:
'the day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die,'
and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class Republican,
and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like him."
- A King & A Kingdom

"I can't afford to pay /
for most of what I say /
so it's a lucky thing /
that the truth's public domain."
- Mockingbird

chris goodwin

I choose this among Morrissey's many excellent lyrics of the 21st century:


I was a good kid
I wouldn't do you no harm
I was a nice kid
With a nice paper-round
Forgive me any pain
I may have brung to you
With God's help I know
I'll always be near to you
But Jesus hurt me
When he deserted me, but

I have forgiven Jesus
For all the desire
He placed in me when there's nothing I can do
With this desire

I was a good kid
Through hail and snow I'd go
Just to moon you
I carried my heart in my hand
Do you understand?
Do you understand?
But Jesus hurt me
When he deserted me, but

I have forgiven Jesus
For all of the love
He placed in me
When there's no-one I can turn to with this love

Monday - humiliation
Tuesday - suffocation
Wednesday - condescension
Thursday - is pathetic
By Friday life has killed me
By Friday life has killed me

(Oh pretty one, Oh pretty one)

Why did you give me
So much desire?
When there is nowhere I can go
To offload this desire
And why did you give me
So much love
In a loveless world
When there's no one I can turn to
To unlock all this love
And why did you stick me in
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Jesus - do you hate me?
Why did you stick me in
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Do you hate me? do you hate me?
Do you hate me? do you hate me?
Do you hate me?



To number 291:

That song title (as well as other lyrics in that song) are bits and pieces of phrases found in books by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. I give P!atd zero credit for that song.


My favorite current lyricist is Ben Gibbard of the bands Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. (Honorable mention to Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.)

I'm hard-pressed to think of a better line than this one from Death Cab's song "What Sarah Said":

"Love is watching someone die."


It was christmas eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, wont see another one
And then he sang a song
The rare old mountain dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
Ive got a feeling
This years for me and you
So happy christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
Its no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold christmas eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of new york city
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the nypd choir
Were singing galway bay
And the bells were ringing out
For christmas day

Youre a bum
Youre a punk
Youre an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy christmas your arse
I pray God its our last

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Cant make it all alone
Ive built my dreams around you


Dash R.

everybody wants to go forever
I just want to burn up hard and bright
-ryan adams

there's only music so that there's new ringtones
-arctic monkeys


sufjan sufjan sufjan

perhaps I'm just a rabid fan

but every time I hear "thinking outrageously, I write in cursive..."


"on tuesday night at the biblestudy
we took our hands and prayed over her body"