Here’s a look at 25 of the better ones.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko,” Beatles (1969)
Now, a couple’s wedding and honeymoon is not often front-page news. However, when one half of the couple is also a member of the Beatles, then it’s a worldwide story. Those details were covered in this Beatles song written by Lennon and arraigned with help from Paul McCartney. Auto-biographical, biographical, whichever, this was a big deal and worth having its own song when all was said and done.
“Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
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“Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple (1971)
Known for one of the most legendary guitar riffs of all time, the story behind this hard-rock classic is just as notable. Prior to the band’s recording session in Switzerland, Frank Zappa held a show at a casino theater within the complex Deep Purple was holding those sessions. A fire broke out at the show (after someone shot off a flare gun) and destroyed the complex. The song was about the incident and the title came from a dream bassist Roger Glover had when remembering the smoke from the fire hovering over nearby Lake Geneva.
“American Pie,” Don McLean (1972)
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While the overall theme of this classic is the end of innocence, the frequently sung phrase of “the day the music died” has become one of the most iconic lines in the history of pop-rock music. The reference to that tragic plane crash from 1959, which took the lives of legendary rockers Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, was the catalyst for a song about Americana. Looking back and ahead in life, and giving McLean the biggest hit of his career.
“Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed (1972)
One of the more unique songs on this list. This Reed classic pays homage to a number of real-life figures who touched his life. Mostly prominent New York City personalities, who often visited Andy Warhol’s Manhattan studio known as the Factory, such as transgender actresses Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. Plus, actors Joe Dallesandro and Joe Campbell. For a portion of the 1960s and early ’70s, these people and day-to-day activities had an impact and influence on many lives in NYC.
“30,000 Pounds of Bananas,” Harry Chapin (1974)
The late Chapin was known for his beloved “Cats in the Cradle.” However, perhaps the best story behind any of his songs is this one. About a truck driver carrying a load of several thousand bananas to a Scranton, PA grocery store in 1965. A mechanical failure caused the driver, Eugene Sesky, to lose control of his rig as he sped into town. Sadly, Sesky died when the truck tipped over and the bananas flew onto the streets. He may, however, have saved lives in the process of maneuvering his truck away from any crowded areas.
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As we’ll see, a few of the songs on this list are straight-up tributes to famous or historical figures. In this case, Elton John and his legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin chronicled the life of famed actress Marilyn Monroe — over a span of 3 minutes, 50 seconds. Fast forward 23 years, and “Candle in the Wind” was re-worked by John and Taupin as a tribute to Princess Diana, following her tragic death in late August 1997.
“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)
We touched on Neil Young earlier in this list. This time, two other popular tracks of his — “Southern Man” and “Alabama” — drew fire from Skynyrd, especially late frontman Ronnie Van Zant. As legend has it, Van Zandt and Co. took offense to some of Young’s lyrics from those tracks, which touched on racism and slavery. Essentially putting the down or stereotyping the south. “Sweet Home Alabama” was an “answer” to each song and became a massive hit for the band and remains a classic rock staple.
The first of back-to-back Dylan songs we’ll highlight. Spanning a little more than 8 1/2 minutes (original album version), “Hurricane” chronicles the arrest, investigation, initial trial, and eventual wrongful imprisonment of star boxer Ruben “Hurricane Carter,” and John Artis, for a triple murder in New Jersey in 1966. The song has quite the legacy, and Dylan, himself, became immersed in trying to get the truth about the incident unearthed.
“Joey,” Bob Dylan (1976)
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Like “Hurricane,” this tune about notorious New York City mobster Joey Gallo can also be found on Dylan’s exceptional Desire record. Even longer than “Hurricane,” taking just over 11 minutes of the album, Dylan goes into quite the sympathetic lyrical detail regarding Gallo’s life and 1972 murder at Umberto’s Clam House in the Little Italy neighborhood.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot (1976)
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Arguably the popular 1970s singer-songwriter’s most notable hit. Clocking in at roughly 6 1/2 minutes, the song tells the ill-fated tale of the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank during a massive storm on Lake Superior in November 1975. All 29 crew members died. Lightfoot was apparently inspired to write a track that reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 after reading about the incident in a Newsweek article.
“Bullet,” Misfits (1978)
The macabre world of the Misfits was what many punk fans loved about the band. The lyrical imagery was essentially fantasy, and no song by the band perhaps exemplified that more than “Bullet,” which is only 1 1/2-minutes long. It’s a rather twisted take on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Specifically, calling out Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, in a perverse way. Then again, would we expect anything less from Glenn Danzig and Co?
“I Don’t Like Mondays,” The Boomtown Rats (1979)
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Many critics and fans of The Boss believe Nebraska is his most creative and authentic album. One reason why is the haunting, yet brilliant, title track. It’s a first-person tale about Charles Starkweather, the spree killer, who, along with his young girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, murdered 10 people in Nebraska and Wyoming over a roughly week-long stretch in 1958. Springsteen cited Woody Guthrie as a major influence in his songwriting, and this is the perfect example.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2 (1983)
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One of the band’s most popular songs sits atop a long list of politically and historically fueled singles — especially during the 1980s — that became synonymous with Bono and Co. It tales, mostly, the observation of the deadly Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland in 1972, when British soldiers gunned down several unarmed civil rights protestors. When it comes to political songs, this ranks among the greatest of all time.
“Creeping Death,” Metallica (1984)
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One of the highlights of Metallica’s stellar second album Ride the Lightning. The band has been known to touch on the historical subject matter in its songs throughout the years. In this case, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and the late Cliff Burton took on the tale of the tenth plague of Egypt. The band was reportedly inspired to write the song by watching The Ten Commandants.
“Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” Ramones (1985)
“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel (1989)
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The “Piano Man” didn’t just settle on one historic event, figure, or piece of iconography to sing about, he offered more than 100. In this fast-paced, rapid-fire listicle of some of the most famous — and infamous — moments and people in world history, starting in 1949 (the year Joel was born), the famed pop star scored a No. 1 hit and earned a Grammy nomination. To this day, even the most die-hard fans of the song probably have a hard time getting all the words right
“Polly,” Nirvana (1991)
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“Jeremy,” Pearl Jam (1992)
Pearl Jam is no stranger to delving into politics and other headline news when it comes to the band’s music. This is perhaps Pearl Jam’s most controversial song, and certainly most commercially successful. The tune is based on 15-year-old Jeremy Wade Delle’s 1991 suicide shooting in front of a full Texas classroom and another school-shooting incident in San Diego, with whom the shooter was reportedly an acquaintance of lead singer Eddie Vedder.
“Man on the Moon,” R.E.M (1992)
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Another tribute song. This time to the discombobulated and tragic life of comedian and actor Andy Kaufman, who died in 1984, at age 35 of lung cancer. The song highlights some of the more prominent and controversial moments (remember when he tried his hand at pro wrestling) during Kaufman’s short, but memorable life. The song was a hit for R.E.M. and the name of the 1999 film about Kaufman’s life.
“James Connolly,” Black 47 (1993)
The revered founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, who was executed during the Easter Rising of 1916, Connolly has been praised via song on more than one occasion through the years. However, one of the more contemporary tributes to Connolly came from the underrated, New York City Celtic punk rockers with this early 1990s anthem that was a fan-favorite during their spirited live shows.
“Harrowdown Hill,” Thom Yorke (2006)
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Off the debut solo album of the Radiohead frontman, “Harrowdown Hill” is one of his better solo efforts. The song is about David Kelly, a British weapons expert who reportedly committed suicide after proclaiming that the British government falsely claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Further reporting stated that Yorke felt compelled to write about the incident.
“The Empty Chair,” Sting (2016)
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This is one of Sting’s best solo efforts. And a tune that was nominated for an Academy Award as part of the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story. Written for the film, the song tells the life story of American photojournalist Jim Foley, who was kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS forces in Syria. It’s one of Sting’s darker songs, but certainly powerful enough to be celebrated.
“Darkness,” Eminem (2020)
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Released early in 2020, and the first single off Eminem’s Music to Be Murdered By record. A track about gun control, Eminem takes us into the mind — from his perspective — of Stephen Paddock, the man who shot and killed 61 people attending a concert while he was positioned in a window of a Mandalay Bay hotel room in Las Vegas from 2017. The video is a re-enactment of the shootings, adding to the controversy, yet also brilliance, that continues to build Em’s legacy.