25 OF OUR FAVORITE SONGS
Selected by the American Songwriter Staff
The older one gets, the more one looks back at those years now gone. American Songwriter’s reached the ripe age of 25 and the best years are ahead. But as happy as turning 25 makes us, we decided to look back at all the songs we’ve found and loved since 1984, the year the magazine started.
Coming up with a list of favorite songs spanning a 25-year spectrum is far from easy, but it’s also a lot of fun. Thinking about songs we listened to on the radio (when we turned 16, before CD players were standard and before satellite radio), songs we danced to (sometimes with someone special, sometimes completely solo), learned how to play on guitar (not deftly by any means) and songs we sang along to (words memorized and belted way out of tune) ushered in countless memories. The process brought us together as a staff, just sitting around talking about the songs we love, while at the same time it affirmed the amazing songwriting that’s taken place between 1984 and the present.
Garth Brooks (1989)
Written by Tony Arata
Brooks’ delicate vocals match the tone of the poignant lyrics. The song’s got love, dreams, loss, pain, hope and life in one tight package; it can leave you crying for all the right reasons.
Tracy Chapman (1988)
Written by Tracy Chapman
The song that put Ms. Chapman on the map blends the hard-knocks realities of poverty in America with a timeless sense of urgency and hope.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
Guns N’ Roses
Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Written by W. Axl Rose, Michael McKagan, Steven Adler, Saul Hudson and Jeffrey Isbell
What started as a joke, with Slash noodling on his guitar, turned out to be ‘80s rock songwriting gold. Axl’s ear-splitting vocals put “Sweet Child” over the top.
“When Doves Cry”
Purple Rain (1984)
Written by Prince
A dance-pop masterpiece that’s spurred a generation of awkward white kids to attempt to dance and sing falsetto-don’t go off to college without it.
Old Crow Medicine Show
Written by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor
The best way to co-write with Dylan: find the scrap of an unreleased song and turn it into something wholly your own…well, Dylan still owns 50 percent, but you get the picture. Secor and Old Crow created a classic song that never gathers dust in our office.
“Sticks that Made Thunder”
The SteelDrivers (2008)
Written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton
A somber, chilling bluegrass number about…well…a tree. To be specific, a tree observing a Civil War battle-not many folks can pull a song like this off.
Mellow Gold (1994)
Written by Beck Michael Hanson and Carl F. Stephenson
Remember trying to memorize the words to this? Remember trying to figure out the chorus when the song first came out? If Beck is a loser, we don’t want to win.
“First Day of My Life”
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
Written by Conor Oberst
Oberst’s song is a wonderful, plain-spoken poetic statement on modern love. It’s simple, delicate and feels new every time you play it for that special someone.
OK Computer (1997)
Written by Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway and Thom Yorke
Radiohead bring the paranoia and chaos in this creepy classic. But the song’s life-affirming coda (”for a minute there, I lost myself”) is like a shot of adrenaline.
August and Everything After (1993)
Written by Steve Bowman, David Bryson, Adam Duritz, Charlie Gillingham, Matt Malley
We all wanted to be big stars, and who among us doesn’t want to be Bob Dylan? An inescapable hook and chorus just never lets this song grow stale. Sha-la-la-la-la indeed.
For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
Written by Justin Vernon
An eerie, lyrically vague number that swept us off our feet and dropped us in the Wisconsin wilderness. Vernon’s DIY recordings from his cabin in the woods resonate and inspire.
The Way That I Am (1993)
Written by Gretchen Peters
Our kind of patriotic song! It gets you all fired up about standing up for yourself in the face of something wrong-behind closed doors or in the streets. It’s a must for any jukebox.
Armchair Apocrypha (2007)
Written by Andrew Bird
Not only does he whistle and play the violin like a mofo-Bird writes beautiful, endlessly unfolding tunes that make your soul ache with their loveliness.
Love and Theft (2001)
Written by Bob Dylan
Leave it to Bob Dylan to stay in Mississippi a day too long, write a song about it, and have said song be as deep and as powerful as the river it shares a name with.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Written by Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic
Whether it’s a lightning rod anthem for apathetic youth or one the best frickin’ rock songs ever (or both), this tune will forever be one of our faves. Cobain ushered in the Grunge era with these contradictory lyrics, howling screams and potent guitar fuzz.
Full Moon Fever (1989)
Written by Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty
The early dreams of westward expansion meet the not-so-happy reality of the present in Petty’s tune, which namedrops L.A. streets and landmarks while echoing an urgency to flee. Doubt and heartbreak chased with a new dream of escape.
A Lot About Livin’ (and a Little ‘Bout Love) (1992)
Written by Alan Jackson and Jim McBride
This devilishly straightforward song preaches the gospel of learnin’, lovin’ and livin’ in the South. It’s one of those songs in which lines unsaid are as important as those sung. It remains one of our favorites to crank up on a summer Friday afternoon.
“Forever and Ever, Amen”
Always and Forever (1987)
Written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz
Travis’ singing can’t be beat, while the songwriting team of Overstreet and Schlitz nail the earnest down-home sentimentality of a country boy on this one.
My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves (2003)
Written by Jim James
The guitar rambles and trots while James’ vocals softly glide over. The lyrics about bars, concerts, and rock stars, delivered by James’ alpine falsetto carry you off to a better place like a folk-rock lullaby.
“It’s a Great Day to be Alive”
Down the Road I Go (2000)
Written by Darrell Scott
An American anthem about taking things day by day and enjoying the simple, offbeat things in life. The optimism lifts us up, gets us thinking about going to get new tattoos, and growing facial hair.
Copperhead Road (1988)
Written by Steve Earle
Earle’s song is a country-rock storytelling gem that’ll always shine through. His musing on a descendant of bootleggers turned dope-grower in the Tennessee hills after two tours in Vietnam is bittersweet and blood-boiling-and butt-kickin’ good.
Time (The Revelator) (2002)
Written by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch
Sparse and elegant, “Revelator” has been hailed by some as one of greatest folk songs written in this century-we cannot disagree. The desperation, the wandering, and the abandonment found within are reminiscent of the mood and setting of a William Gay or Cormac McCarthy novel. Rawlings’ picking on his archtop adds to the stumbling visions of moving westward, leaving the world behind. And here, especially, Gil and Dave’s subtle vocal harmonies never fail to shiver spines and lift neck hairs.
“Ashes of American Flags”
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Written by Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy
Wilco are like an ATM machine of good songs. This one is filled with hundreds and twenties. For a small service fee, you too will come back new.
“Born in the U.S.A.”
Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
Written by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s career reached critical mass with the Born in the U.S.A. album. The title song, deceptively simple yet decidedly complex, lodged him into our national consciousness for good, and helped turn the man from New Jersey into an American folk hero and protector of the people. Ronald Reagan famously misunderstood the intentions behind the Boss’s lyrics. But just because the chorus wasn’t meant to be patriotic doesn’t mean you can’t sing it with pride. As an electric rave-up or an acoustic blues, “Born in the U.S.A.” resonates almost as deeply as the American Dream.
Written by Paul Simon
Paul Simon considers this the greatest song he’s ever written, and he’s written a lot of great songs. Dealing in divorce, the holy road trip, and the ghost of Elvis, “Graceland” is based on a real journey Simon took with his young son, Harper. The song’s sad center anchors its optimistic exterior, and the music blends different cultures (South African, American) into a joyous cappuccino of sound. “There is a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I am bouncing, falling, and tumbling in turmoil, I say oh, so this is what she means. She means we are bouncing into Graceland.”