Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

Or, 21 distinct ways of coping with, embracing, and analyzing the past

The Smashing Pumpkins, "1979"
The Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

    This feature was originally published in November 2013.

    nos·tal·gia noun [no-stal-juh, -jee-uh, nuh-] : pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.

    Rob Sheffield once compared music to a time machine. Songs remind us of times in our lives, and familiar sounds trigger familiar images in our heads. Subconsciously, the music attaches itself to the context in which it was experienced most intensely, and by listening to it, we are taken back to that moment. Music and nostalgia are intertwined in this way.

    Yet, nostalgia is a universal human emotion, so we decided to flip the scenario. Instead of listing the songs we found nostalgic, what about compiling a list of songs that are nostalgic? Many songwriters have made a career off tales of troubled pasts and old girlfriends, but then there are those certain songs that epitomize the idea of nostalgia. Most of them are frankly very sad, as the past is always dotted with could’ves, should’ves, and would’ves, which are easy to dwell upon.


    Some, however, reflect with resignation, accepting that one can’t change the things that’ve already happened. The 21 songs here depict 21 distinct ways of coping with, embracing, and analyzing the past. View this list less as a “best of” and more as a psychological breakdown of nostalgia in pop music.

    21. Skid Row – “I Remember You”


    Guitarists hate chorus delay, and for good reason. The effect was ubiquitous throughout the 1980s: If you were recording a major label album, your guitars were slathered with warm, synthetic tones. The definition of dated, the chorus effect has a wondrous caveat, in that it instantly teleports you to the ’80s. I wasn’t even alive in that decade, and yet I suddenly become familiar with it via a song like Skid Row’s “I Remember You”. It’s one of the great power ballads of all time, following a vulnerable Sebastian Bach as he tries to shake the memory of a lost lover. His heartbroken sentiments are those of reflection; he acknowledges the end of the relationship, but won’t discard the experiences they shared together. He hopes she also keeps them: “I wanna hear you say, ‘I remember you.’ ” –Jon Hadusek

    20. Iron & Wine – “The Trapeze Swinger”

    ironandwine Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    If anyone can glide frictionlessly across nine minutes of gentle memories, it’s Sam Beam. “Please remember me,” he begs some long-lost childhood friend turned lover, braiding fondly recalled days from his past together with images of angels, Heaven, and graffiti-spangled pearly gates. And really, in the world of this song, there’s no difference between eternal reward and the feeling you hunger for through your best memories. There’s no difference between watching a trapeze swinger flip toward the sky with the person you love the most and finally clawing up to the place you’re supposed to end up if you’re good. That’s the secret hope buried in nostalgia: the feeling that maybe, if you make it, you’ll finally get back to the warm places you remember. –Sasha Geffen


    19. Bryan Adams – “Summer of ’69”

    summerof69 Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    In contrast to most of the songs on this list, Bryan Adams’ mega-hit “Summer of ’69” looks back on better days with fondness rather than melancholy. His references to drive-ins and five-and-dime stores are sepia-toned and obvious, but they hit home for the twenty- and thirtysomethings listening to FM radio at the time. People related to this song… the tale of unrequited juvenile romance, the innocence of youth, and the pain of dwelling on such memories. When Adams concedes that “nothing can last forever,” he’s making that reconciliation for a whole generation of young adults. And it’s a universal message, because one can become lost in the present if they cling to the past. –Jon Hadusek

    18. Cat Power – “Names”

    catpower Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Like a roll call at the cemetery, “Names” beads together portraits of characters buried in time with nothing but sparse piano and Chan Marshall’s earthy voice. It’s one of the most subdued Cat Power songs, and until you listen to the lyrics, one of the calmest, too. But as soon Marshall fleshes out the vignettes of the people who touched her life throughout childhood, “Names” becomes anything but calming. She sings about friends forced into sex acts by strangers and family members, friends who started selling hard drugs at age 13, a teenage boyfriend who had to sell sex to support his crack habit after she moved away. “I don’t know where they are,” Marshall sings at the song’s finish, ringing her words with regret. She’ll never know if any of them made it. –Sasha Geffen

    17. Gram Parsons – “Brass Buttons”

    gram Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Gram Parsons wrote “Brass Buttons” about his mother, who died from an alcohol-related liver disease after a lengthy stint in the hospital. It’s suspected that Parsons’ stepdad gave her alcohol in the hospital, exacerbating the problem, but this was never proven. The song (included on Grievous Angel) was written prior to Parsons forming the International Submarine Band and touts some of the most aching, poetic lyrics he ever penned. Again, we find the songwriter citing distinct imagery as he waxes nostalgic: “Brass buttons, green silks, and silver shoes/ Warm evenings, pale mornings, bottle of blues.” –Jon Hadusek


    16. Grandaddy – “Miner at the Dial-A-View”

    grandaddy Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Always curious about the ways technology might color sentiment, Grandaddy predicted an extremely specific brand of nostalgia on the second-to-last song of their breakout record, The Sophtware Slump. In 2000, Jason Lytle essentially described the feeling of peering through a satellite at your childhood home through Google Maps, only instead of a laptop, the titular character of “Miner at the Dial-A-View” visits a futurist facility capable of honing in on any spot on Earth in real time. He watches his old friends wander around his old haunts, completely severed from a life he remembers loving. Lytle’s mournful tone on the refrain “I’m going home someday” calls into question whether “home” is something that can even be returned to or whether it’s only a feeling frozen into the pixels of the Dial-A-View. –Sasha Geffen

    15. Eleanor Friedberger – “Stare at the Sun”

    Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record

    Sometimes, when nostalgia hits you, the lines between “now” and “then” begin to blur. On the buoyant “Stare at the Sun” (from the appropriately titled Personal Record), Fiery Furnace Eleanor Friedberger evokes a seemingly inconsequential moment in the back of a cab, only to drift through other memories caught “in amber,” directly addressing an ex who may not exactly be an ex. Disconnected images of the past flare up (“Cooperative coffee and synchronized showers/ I try not to look at the clock”), eliciting warmth, confusion, hope, and sadness all at the same time, leaving Friedberger to repeat a mantra seemingly intended to keep from getting overwhelmed by it all: “I’m trying not to stare at the sun.” Nostalgia can give off some warmth, but it’s a dangerous thing to focus on exclusively. –Adam Kivel

    14. Rilo Kiley – “My Slumbering Heart”

    rilo Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    “Am I asleep or awake?” Jenny Lewis asks as she matures out of childhood and into the present. She sees herself hitting a home run on the baseball field, smiling and rounding the bases with the kind of triumph that can make your whole week when you’re a kid. Then she’s climbing a mountain with a partner, then finally she’s waking up next to that same partner with that same good feeling of being Little League MVP. The song breaks out into the best kind of nostalgia—the one that’s triggered, unintentionally, by the situation that’s actually around you, the one you don’t have to reach too far to find. –Sasha Geffen


    13. Neutral Milk Hotel – “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1”

    nmh Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    For Jeff Mangum, time seems like an easily manipulatable substance, same as light or water, something he can swirl or funnel at will. He strings Anne Frank to the present, and he shoots himself to the end of the world. But in the first few words of their epochal record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel ground us in a specific time: when you were young. It’s almost the same opening line as Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and it also guides us through an imaginative youth tainted by illness and dysfunction. We see towers and holy snakes commanded by the same tiny monarch, only to watch his parents eat each other alive. But at the center of the song, Mangum weaves in the memory of an intimacy too pure to be troubled by the violence around it: “This is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you/ and from above you how I sank into your soul/ into that secret place that no one dares to go.” –Sasha Geffen

    12. The White Stripes – “We’re Going to Be Friends”

    friends Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Innocence is underrated. Too often it’s conflated with naivety and subsequently dismissed or derided. “We’re Going to Be Friends”, the elementary school acoustic ditty from The White Stripes’ breakthrough, 2001’s White Blood Cells, revels in innocence, when the biggest worry you might have had a teacher thinking that you sound funny. It’s arranged in a reflectively simple manner, something that the children depicted in the song’s schoolhouse could learn and play for each other. It’s sweet, warm, and human, three elements that are surprisingly difficult to pull off in a rock song, but work here to repaint your entire childhood in the rosiest of hues. –Chris Bosman

    11. The Kinks – “Village Green Preservation Society”

    thekinksvil Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Childhood is bliss, truly. It’s the only time in our lives in which we’re free to think and create and have fun. In fact, “have fun” is the only real mandate; no money, romance, or careers holding us back. But it’s oh so fleeting, and that’s what affected Ray Davies the most. He wrote The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society to both celebrate adolescence and examine the passage of time in Britain, imploring listeners to respect the past as it transforms into the future. With bright arrangements and instrumentation, the album’s opening track acts as a thesis statement, a charming ode to old British architecture and Donald Duck. To Davies, these were signposts of youth. –Jon Hadusek


    10. Van Morrison – “Brown Eyed Girl”

    vanmor Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Beneath its cheery pop sensibilities, “Brown Eyed Girl” is a downbeat breakup song. Van Morrison’s words are those of a man reliving a failed relationship from its gleeful beginnings (“Laughing and a running hey, hey/ Skipping and a jumping”) to its final laments (“So hard to find my way, now that I’m all on my own”). He jumps from present to past tense, addressing both himself and his ex during the iconic chorus: “Do you remember when…” It’s a template nostalgia song, which juxtaposes its romantic sentiments against sha-la-la‘s and snappy hooks. –Jon Hadusek

    09. The Smashing Pumpkins – “1979”

     Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    One of the most iconic and popular Smashing Pumpkins songs is a result of a memory: Billy Corgan driving through Chicago during a powerful storm, stopped at a traffic light and waiting for the light to turn green. That feeling of anxious anticipation is universal, simultaneously hopeless and hopeful, full of promise and completely out of reach. “1979” doesn’t capture the moment when life is full of possibilities, but rather the decades-later reflection on that moment, when you realize and mourn the endless possibilities you never got to live out. –Chris Bosman

    08. Joni Mitchell – “A Case of You”

    joniblue Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    One of several emotional highlights off 1971’s Blue, “A Case of You” captures Joni Mitchell amidst a tragic obsession with bruised love — the sort that soaks the soul and never washes off. “Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine,” she sings. “You taste so bitter and so sweet.” It’s a complicated affair, but one that Mitchell’s wont to revisit, and she makes no secret of this. She revels in the memories, meditating and trailing on words as if she’s within a breath of the times. Later on, a similarly barbed passerby warns: “Go to him, stay with him if you can/ But be prepared to bleed.” Sound familiar? This is a sordid, relatable tale of love that’s long survived as Mitchell’s magnum opus and a jarring reminder that sometimes nostalgia gets the best of us. –Michael Roffman


    07. Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Tuesday’s Gone”

    lynyrd Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Here our protagonist works off his blues by hopping trains and traveling through the South. Unlike Sebastian Bach in “I Remember You”, Ronnie Van Zant is in denial. He has no interest in accepting the finality of his heartbreak and looks back on the situation with sad, scorned romanticism: “Tuesday, you see, she had to be free/ But someone I’ve got to carry on.” Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote a few songs that qualify as nostalgic, but “Tuesday’s Gone” is the best example. It’s about coping with nostalgia — averting it, drowning it out with booze and distractions. –Jon Hadusek

    06. Don Henley – “The Boys of Summer”

    boysofsummer Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    “Don’t look back. You can never look back,” cautions Don Henley on his 1984 hit, right in the midst of doing a whole lot of exactly that. “The Boys of Summer” might paint an image of idyllic youth, of riding with beautiful people in cars while the sun poured down, but it’s grown around a kernel of yearning for a time when music wasn’t so ruthlessly consumed. There’s that Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac (later transmuted to a Black Flag sticker in the Ataris’ 2003 cover), a symbol of a generation’s ethos flattened to a souvenir. There’s that feeling that loving things before adulthood is less complicated, less contradictory—but once you’ve crossed over, you can never go back. –Sasha Geffen

    05. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Things Done Changed”

    readytodie Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    “Things Done Changed” upped the stakes on nostalgia. For white, middle-class America, nostalgia takes the form of innocuous sentimentality and daydream escapism to a simpler, pre-cubicle time that had better breakfast cereals and the right Thursday night prime-time lineup. But when Biggie says, “Turn your pagers to 1993,” he’s not merely springing the clocks forward from a more innocent time of “Gazelle shades, corn braids,” and “summertime cookouts.” He’s showing us the transformation from civilized life to certain death, from a once functional community to a decaying, youth-led war zone, where “they [parents] even fuckin’ scared of us.” Biggie’s nostalgia, rather than basking in the warm glow of the past, shines a light on the deadly problems of the present. –Matt Melis


    04. The Beach Boys – “Caroline, No”

     Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    The original closing track of Pet Sounds ends with dogs barking and a passing train. That train, though, is what makes all the difference — it’s a visual metaphor for the cruelties of time. “Caroline, No” is the bi-product of Brian Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher, who both came together to orchestrate a tale of crumbling innocence. The ballad’s haunting in that Miss Havisham brand of decadence, where things sound so grand and shiny and yet… lonely. Words get sketchy (“It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die”) and downright depressing (“Things that made me love you so much then/ Could we ever bring ’em back once they have gone”), but isn’t that what nostalgia’s all about? Essentially, we’re peeping toms to the past, whether it’s our own or something we’ve read in a book or seen in a film. Focus too closely and you’ll one day wake up and find things have changed and all is lost. It’s difficult to disagree with Wilson and Asher’s conclusions here: Time really is a bummer. –Michael Roffman

    03. Otis Redding – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

    dockofthebay Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    You can point to a million existential indie rock anthems about how you can uproot your whole life, change everything about yourself, and still come out of it, crushingly, as the same person. But “The Dock of the Bay” is the original, and the standard-bearer. Leave from Georgia, go to San Francisco, and still “Nothing’s gonna change/ Everything just remains the same.” That’s a powerful enough sentiment, but the song’s history– recorded days before Otis Redding’s untimely and tragic death, released shortly thereafter, focuses the song’s sharp sadness to needlepoint, a rapier that cuts to the bone via Steve Cropper’s immaculate guitar work and Redding’s iconic (and accidental) whistles. It’s a de facto post-script to Redding’s incredible talent. –Chris Bosman

    02. David Bowie – “Heroes”

    heroes david bowie Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    There’s a reason “Heroes” occupies the centerpiece of Stephen Chbosky’s novel and film The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Originally inspired by the image of a couple kissing by the Berlin wall, David Bowie’s most triumphant and arguably best song easily slides behind any memory of feeling young and invincible. It’s the song you wished you had blasted in your car while joyriding around with your friends in high school, even if you never actually did. It’s the song that’ll let you believe your teenage years were the stuff of legend—or, at the very least, fiction. –Sasha Geffen


    01. The Beatles – “Yesterday”

    yesterday Top 21 Songs About Nostalgia

    Most days pass by and nothing much happens. They’re calendar pages that seem to pass through with nothing more than a strong wind and little else to mark them by. But some days uproot entire lives. “Yesterday” is a meditation on the aftermath of being left by someone you love. It’s skeletal, uncertain, and traffics in a bit of denial in the most human and communicable of ways. Its lush yet understated string section serves as a warm, enveloping hug, its barely two-minute run time deep diving into the exact moment of wide-eyed, crestfallen sadness that comes before the second-guessing, the resurrection attempts, the slew of ill-advised communications. All it wants is to turn the clock back one day, to a day where nothing much happened. –Chris Bosman

    Find the complete playlist via Spotify below…


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