Nostalgia, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period”, is one of the most powerful emotions there is. This is why so many great songs have been written which invoke a longing for the past, typically either ruing the loss of a treasured relationship or simply reminiscing about better times now sadly gone. Sometimes a nostalgic song may even remind of us of our own pasts, because music is about what we choose to hear and a great song speaks uniquely to each and every one of us.
Here are 20 well-known songs with a powerful nostalgic theme:
1. Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday – Stevie Wonder
Written a few years earlier by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, this soulful classic appeared on Wonder’s 1969 album My Cherie Amour, which also featured the equally memorable title track. However it had first been recorded in 1966 by white Motown singer Chris Clark, who herself was popular amongst Northern Soul fans in the UK. Its theme is a melancholic reflection on a lost romance.
2. Those Were the Days – Mary Hopkin
A big UK number one hit by the Welsh songstress who was married to the highly acclaimed record producer and musician Tony Visconti, this song is actually an English-language version of a traditional Russian romance song by Boris Fomin, using words by the poet Konstantin Podrevsky. Produced by Paul McCartney in 1968 it is a sweet, melodic reminiscence of an innocent and idealistic adolescence.
3. American Pie – Don McLean
Written by the artist himself in 1971, this much-analysed song was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in spite of its length (the full version was nearly nine minutes long, and was originally released as a double-sided seven-inch single). On the surface it is a lament over the tragic death of rock’n’roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash in 1959, but goes on to sample many of the events and changes in musical and popular culture during the 1960s and possibly even beyond.
4. Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams
An upbeat, catchy number by Canadian rocker Adams, this big 1985 hit charts the conflict between the aspirations of a young wannabe rock guitarist in a band reluctantly facing the inevitability of getting older and settling down. The lead actor in the story is philosophical about how things turned out, but rues that his time spent with the band were “the best days of my life”.
5. Seasons in the Sun – Terry Jacks
Actually an English-language adaptation of a song written in French by the Belgian Jacques Brel in 1961 this heart-wrenching number, first translated in 1963, became a massive hit for Canadian producer-turned-singer Jacks in 1974. The story is a superbly mournful lament by a dying man saying farewell to his loved ones whilst reflecting upon a life lived and now passing from his hands. Rumours abounded at the time that Jacks had written the song himself about his own situation and that he was terminally ill. In fact neither was true and, thankfully, nearly half a century later he is still very much alive and well.
6. Crocodile Rock – Elton John
“I remember when rock was young”, quoth Elton in 1972. And indeed, it had been less than two decades since Rock Around the Clock had first begun its long march to immortality. Performing his own memorable falsetto backing vocals, he sings of a time in which life had been all about carefree, youthful independence against a backdrop of an emerging musical culture and all that surrounded it.
7. December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) – The Four Seasons
Probably the most well-known hit from the band more commonly known as “Frankie Valli and…”, unusually the lead vocals were performed by drummer Gerry Polci, with Valli merely providing the backing. The song fondly recounts a young man’s early courtship of an unnamed woman (even the young man himself didn’t know her name). According to co-writer Bob Gaudio it was originally to have been called “December 1933”, but Valli successfully argued that it would be preferable if the intended audience could personally relate to it.
8. Yesterday – The Beatles
Said by some to have been the Fab Four’s best ever song, but John Lennon probably wouldn’t have agreed. The acoustic classic was written and performed entirely by Paul McCartney, backed by a subtle string quartet. John was reputed to have become embarrassed whenever Beatles fans enthused over it in his presence. Legend has it that Paul composed the entire melody in a dream, and was worried at first that he may have subconsciously heard it somewhere else and be plagiarising another person’s work. The band refused to issue the final recording as a single in the UK but it was released retrospectively in 1976, six years after the break-up of the group, and reached the Top 10.
9. Grandad – Clive Dunn
A lovely novelty song recorded by Dad’s Army star Clive Dunn following a chance encounter with songwriter Herbie Flowers, who once worked with David Bowie as well as performing the immortal bass riff on the Lou Reed classic Walk on the Wild Side. A 51-year-old Dunn dressed as an elderly man (I thought at the time that he was an elderly man) for his Top of the Pops appearance in which he was surrounded by doting grandchildren extolling their love for him as he reminisces about times gone by. The song remained at the top of the UK singles charts for three weeks.
10. Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin
Penned by Kris Kristofferson and originally recorded by Roger Miller, the popular Joplin version was posthumously released in 1971 when it topped the US singles charts. The song is a melancholy narrative chronicling the adventures of two freedom-loving friends who had hitched a ride from a truck driver across the American South to California before going their separate ways.
11. My Way – Frank Sinatra
Whilst the Sinatra version is certainly the most notable, having enjoyed huge chart success, especially in the UK, this classic Paul Anka-written song was also a big hit for Elvis Presley and for punk icon Sid Vicious. The narrator, nearing the end of his life (it is usually a he, other than in the Dorothy Squires version), proudly reflects upon how he has lived his life in the manner of his choosing, taking on all comers and doing things his way – please or offend. The fact that both Elvis and Vicious recorded their own versions shortly before their respective deaths lends the song a special poignancy.
12. Day Trip to Bangor (Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time?) – Fiddler’s Dram
Now we go from one extreme to the other with this completely unserious, but enduringly lovable folkish song from 1979. Recalling a day trip to the North Wales seaside, singer Cathy Lesurf tells us of the fun that she, Jack and Elsie – amongst others – had at the funfair and out on the paddler boat. Incredibly, the song was the source of some controversy as the event which inspired it was said to have taken place in Rhyl, and that Bangor was chosen instead simply because it had an extra syllable, thereby depriving Rhyl of the resultant valuable tourist income. Rhyl-ly?
13. Time – David Bowie
The starman’s vast musical repertoire includes many more conspicuous nostalgia trips than this controversial gem from the 1973 Aladdin Sane album (controversial for its unapologetic use of the W-word). However the intensely powerful last verse, sung with gusto and with passion against a background of Mick Ronson’s screaming lead guitar which challenges it for supremacy, has an unparalleled quality which cries out its pain over a relationship that could have been…
Breaking up is hard
But keeping dark is hateful
I had so many dreams
I had so many breakthroughs
But you my love were kind
But love has left you dreamless
The door to dreams was closed
Your park was real and greenless
Perhaps you’re smiling now
Smiling through this darkness
But all I have to give
Is guilt for dreaming
14. Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
Belfast-born Van Morrison had already achieved fame with local R&B band Them when in 1967 he launched his solo career in some style with this poetical reminisce about happy times spent with a former love. Originally intended to have been a calypso vibe, it started out as “Brown Skinned Girl”. Morrison claims to have changed the lyrics by accident. The song’s reference to “making love in the green grass” had to be edited out by many of the more prudish radio stations of the time, although as a timeless classic it is remembered with fondness in its pure and original form.
15. Baggy Trousers – Madness
This big hit by the madcap English ska group is a lovable, if comedic shout out to the band’s schooldays. Recalling “lots of girls and lots of boys, lots of smells and lots of noise”, it would have pushed all the right buttons with the still relatively young Madness fan base. It featured prominently on the 1980 album Absolutely.
16. When We Were Young – Adele
Just to demonstrate that I’m up with the times (well almost), here’s one from the 21st century – 2015 to be precise. Concerned by the onset by what she perceived to be writer’s block, London-born Adele teamed up with Canadian musician Tobias Jesso Jr. to pen this powerful soul ballad, invoking recollections of adolescence as she reconnects with an old acquaintance and revisits powerful memories, wishing that she could stop time from rolling relentlessly on. Rather touchingly, the single cover artwork featured an old photo of a gappy-toothed primary school Adele.
17. Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles
Written in 1978 and recorded a whole six months later in 1979, this unusual synth-pop novelty production impressively blends a somewhat Kraftwerk-esque electronic vibe with an almost sassy female, American-sounding backing support. Lamenting the demise of the radio star at the hands of advancing technological media, it provides a fatalistic reflection on the cruel inevitability of progress. Some of the lyrics are thought-provoking too – the line “Lying awake intent at tuning in on you” would have touched anyone of my generation who had spent so many teenage nights lying furtively beneath the bed covers listening to late night pirate radio broadcasts in defiance of early nights for school. The intentional irony of this song is that its whole production trades large on the futuristic pop culture the triumph of which is rued by its lyrics.
18. Dance With My Father – Luther Vandross
A touching personal tribute by the late Luther Vandross in which he talks fondly of his love for his own departed father, cruelly taken from him when he was eight as a result of complications from diabetes. A lovely, uncomplicated, straightforward lyric in which he prays to God for the chance for he and his mother to dance with him one more time, as he had danced with the family when Luther was a child. Sadly, Vandross himself passed away just two years after writing what he had considered to be his “career song”.
19. The Way We Were – Barbra Streisand
The lead single from the 1973 studio album and film of the same name. The romance movie was a big box office success, and the song relates the tale of the two lead characters who drift apart before meeting up together later in life to reflect upon how things once were between them. There is a resigned sadness in the fact that they have gone their own separate ways but regrettably there is to be no going back to the way they were, and fond memories are all they have left to share.
20. Yesterday Once More – The Carpenters
For some Karen Carpenter’s was the most beautiful voice in popular music but she was, in her own words, “the drummer who sings”, having also been a very skilled percussionist. Possibly the duo’s definitive and most successful hit, this simple, tuneful ballad from 1973 expresses its longing for the love songs of the past before celebrating the news that, for the singer, they are “back again” (we are not told how or in what way). Karen’s brother Richard, who co-wrote the song, revealed in a television documentary that he felt it was the best song he’d ever put together.