When we feel at our weakest, sometimes the best pep talk can come from a song. This coronavirus pandemic is testing our will power, and we’re not even sure how long we have to endure these circumstances. People are feeling dejected and powerless, and it can be easy to just hang our heads and wallow in sorrow. But we’ve been tested before, and previous generations will certainly credit music as a guiding light during their struggles. If you’re looking for some music with a bit more lived-in wisdom and durability than your average songs of today, look no further than this list. This isn’t a time for the trite theatrics of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” or the overwhelming garishness of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” We need the riches of gospel and soul music and heartfelt, melancholy classic rock—music that’s been bruised and lived to tell the tale. We’ll allow one exception to this rule, and that’s a Queen song, but it’s only because they recruited David Bowie, and it’s genuinely poignant as opposed to those two previously mentioned tracks. Dig into 25 classic songs about the resiliency of the human soul.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify right here.
Finding solace in the music of someone who has passed away is a meaningful experience. It means the works of an artist have outlived their physical consciousness, and that seems like the highest bar someone can reach in the creative fields. With the recent passing of Bill Withers, his songs certainly resonate even more deeply than normal, and there’s no doubt that they will have a near-infinite life span. Considering he died during a global pandemic and his most famous song is called “Lean on Me,” it’s almost as if the world is nudging us to fall back on Withers’ music.
If executed properly, vocal harmonies can sound like a chorus of angels, and as demonstrated by their song “Carry On,” David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young definitely figured out how to squeeze ample radiance from their shared vocals. “To sing the blues you’ve got to live the dues / And carry on,” they sing, and that sentiment might sound like a bit of a downer, but unfortunately, we live in a yin and yang world.
On “Move on Up,” singular soul great Curtis Mayfield warns us that “There may be wet road ahead” and “You may find from time to time / Complication,” but it’s easy to forget about hardship when jubilant horns meet funky hand drums and Mayfield’s impossibly high and joyous chorus yelps. This is one of those all-time great songs to get lost in your own invincibility on the dance floor.
De La Soul’s 1989 LP 3 Feet High and Rising is a good album to put on in any scenario, but especially great when you’re feeling down. It’s about as whimsical as hip-hop albums come. Track 12 “Tread Water” features talking animals like a hungry squirrel and a crocodile in a flower-covered hat, and each of these zany creatures agree on the same life advice during their conversations with Trugoy the Dove and Posdnuos: to tread water.
Des’ree wants us to be a number of things: bad, bold, hard, tough, cool, calm. One of her biggest hits “You Gotta Be” might set the bar high, but it’s good to remember that fixing our problems often comes down to the same basic things, albeit easier said than done. It’s easy to be mentally and emotionally swallowed by our own circumstances, but in her writing and vocal delivery, Des’ree embodies all the qualities she wants us to strive for, and it’s nothing short of inspiring.
Blues standard “Trouble in Mind” has endless renditions. You can actually find the extremely scratchy, first recorded version from 1924 on Spotify, along with others by Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and Sam Cooke. However, Dinah Washington’s 1957 version was the first to chart, and it captures a wonderful range of jazz, blues and pop. But on any version, this lyric still stands up as one of the most touching and universally felt lines ever written: “But I won’t be blue always / ‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”
Eddie Kendricks released a chart-topping single just a few years after he left The Temptations. “Keep on Truckin’” is not technically about overcoming a personal struggle, but it is an anthem of romantic persistence, and determination against the odds is what we’re trying to celebrate here. So when Kendricks sings, “I’m duckin’ / For your love through sleet and snow,” just pretend that said “snow and sleet” is depression and anxiety, and the chorus will probably apply to your current situation.
Nashville-born and Cleveland-raised singer Edwin Starr highlights some of humanity’s cruelest hurdles on his 1970 album War & Peace. Unsurprisingly, one of them was war, which was discussed on the track of the same name, and the other was time, also explored on the song of the same name. In a time of global quarantine, we’re perhaps more aware than ever of the passage of time, particularly the slowness of it when everything around us comes grinding to a halt. On “Time,” Starr is repeatedly told to wait things out and that better days will come, and just like the song implies here, time will help, but it’s going to take a deliberate effort to improve things as well.
Motown titans the Four Tops released one of the greatest songs of the 1960s with “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” This Holland-Dozier-Holland classic masquerades as a life preserver. Here, Levi Stubbs asks if our “hope is gone,” “life is filled with much confusion” or if our “world around is crumblin’ down.” In this scenario, we’ll say yes to all three—to which, Stubbs lovingly replies (yep, you guessed it), “I’ll be there!”
“I Will Survive,” easily the most lip-sync-worthy song on this list, may be one of the greatest anthems of resilience we have—at least in terms of popular music. “Do you think I’d crumble / Did you think I’d lay down and die? / Oh no, not I, I will survive,” Gaynor proclaims with glitzy flair. The source of Gaynor’s pain is a partner who didn’t treat her right—imagine being the person that spawned one of the greatest displays of “I’m thriving without you” of all time.
The Go-Go’s’ 1981 debut album Beauty and the Beat is exceptionally hard to dislike. Take for example its final track “Can’t Stop the World”—a bouncy, driving guitar pop song about a broken heart and car. Is there anything more new wave than that? “Can’t stop the world / Why let it stop you?” asks lead singer Belinda Carlisle, and in that moment, you have no choice but to nod forcefully in agreement.
The Impressions had range. If you need proof of the soul group’s chops, look no further than the title track of their 1964 album Keep on Pushing. A trio of Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash absolutely mop the floors with their sky-high falsetto, and the lyrics clearly resonated as well—it became a civil rights anthem, and its title was also used as a slogan for a number of progressive political causes. “It don’t make sense / Not to keep on pushing,” they sing, and you can’t really argue with them there.
Pretty much any version of this protest anthem will do—Pete Seeger has a goosebump-inducing live version where the crowd joins in, Toots and the Maytals turned the song into reggae gold and Bruce Springsteen recorded a calming studio version—but Joan Baez’s rendition makes me weep the most. She famously sang the song at the March on Washington in 1963, and other early live versions capture that same powerful weight as well. If there’s a better song about human struggle, I would love to hear it immediately.
This is a dramatic turn from the quiet acoustics of Joan Baez, but Killing Joke harness quite a bit of power as well. The British industrial and post-punk group teamed up with Gang of Four’s Andy Gill and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl for their 2003 self-titled album, and one highlight is “You’ll Never Get to Me.” Jaz Coleman’s vocals are delivered somewhat absurdly, but hearing Coleman growl incredibly earnest lines in the style of a hardcore singer or swamp monster is really something: “Oh, sing a song of joy / Sweet childhood / Never desert me.”
It’s amazing what a song can do in just two-and-a-half minutes. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell essentially achieve everything great about pop music on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a soul duet of epic proportions. The lines of the song strive to bring together lovers who are separated by distance, but the metaphorical obstacles here (mountains, valleys and rivers) can be just about anything.
American pop culture in the 1950s was largely swanky, sanitized or often problematic (to put it lightly), but there’s something very pure about Nat King Cole, even if his records were the choice music of square parents. His 1954 track “Smile” fills me with the same sense of wholesome, childlike wonder as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the designated clean-up song of my fourth grade class. Lines like “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile / If you just smile” may exude Disney energy, but it’s still comforting, especially sung over opulent strings.
When Nina Simone sings “human kindness is overflowing,” on her rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” you feel that ripple of humanity’s warmth. Recorded for her 1969 album Nina Simone and Piano, this gorgeous jazz version, with nothing more than the title’s aforementioned elements, will make the tears start to roll and the hairs stick up on the back of your neck.
Primal Scream’s 1991 album Screamadelica is near perfect, blending rock, dance and gospel music seamlessly, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better combination of those genres on an album since then. “Movin’ On Up” is arguably the band’s greatest ever track, and though Bobby Gillespie doesn’t have the best voice, his attitude-filled delivery here is so sublime. With an angelic gospel boost from backing vocalist Denise Johnson and a killer rhythmic guitar motif, this song will make you feel unstoppable.
Queen are essentially gods of uplifting, gargantuan rock. When they teamed up with similarly mythical figure David Bowie on 1982’s “Under Pressure,” it was always going to be a megahit. It’s got one of the most recognizable song intros ever, and though its lyrics are largely what you’d expect, there are a few surprising moments of profundity about the one thing that will save us all: “And love dares you to care for / The people on the edge of the night.”
Some people might find this song morbid and others might find it more comforting, but no one can argue with its brilliance. R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” taken from their classic 1992 album Automatic For The People, wouldn’t have anywhere near the amount of emotional zeal without the passionate vocal timbres of Michael Stipe, who gives this song a timeless woe. Anyone who claims to have never shed a tear in their life, should listen to this song and finally bask in their own sorrow—but in a productive way that Stipe’s advocating for here.
There’s a reason that “A Change is Gonna Come” became one of the most important songs of its era. This classic Sam Cooke single marked a shift in his discography, which up until that point, had largely avoided discussing social or political issues, and it eventually became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Tragically, we didn’t get to see Cooke fully embrace this side of his music because he was killed less than a year after the song was released, but its lyrics of a long-and-hard-fought battle in pursuit of a noble cause are sorely needed.
Ask someone who invented rock ‘n’ roll and the answers you’ll probably get are Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley or Fats Domino. While each of those musicians played an integral role in the genre’s infancy, rarely does Sister Rosetta Tharpe get her due credit for influencing those very musicians and making some of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll recordings. Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” is a contender in the long-running debate of the first rock record, and like many gospel-influenced songs, it advocates for hardiness in the face of darkness.
When The Staple Singers holler about a place where “Ain’t nobody cryin’” and “Ain’t nobody worried” on their 1972 single “I’ll Take You There,” it’s hard to imagine a more appealing setting than that right now. Does such a place exist? Probably not. But this call-and-response soul tune offers fool-proof solace.
Is there a more necessary song right now than one that contains the line “I’m a little sick, unsure, unsound and unstable / But I’m fighting my way back”? When Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott sings the song title in the chorus, it’s like a microdose of serotonin, and the song itself is an urgent call for air guitar if I’ve ever heard one.
There are a lot of Tom Petty songs that would sound otherwise corny if he wasn’t the one singing them. His slight yet easily recognizable vocal drawl is uniquely American and perfect for lofty radio rock songs like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin.’” The gripping former track is fairly nebulous, hence why it was used in political campaigns of both parties, but Petty posits an important universal truth without sounding like a sap: most things worth doing are hard.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify right here.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.