The Seven Toughest Pop Songs to Understand
U2, some time before they became "Numb"
Recently, Rocks Off looked at the most difficult song lyrics to understand in all of music, period. While that was fun, my editor brought it to my attention that virtually all of modern death-metal could qualify for that list. Since the advent of screaming, including metal in a list like that is like playing Mortal Kombat with cheat codes on.
So with his blessing, I embarked on a much more challenging route: discovering the most difficult song lyrics to understand in all of pop music, where understandable lyrics are part of the appeal. Almost all popular music in the last 50 years has focused on the same lyrical content for a reason.
A pop song with incomprehensible singing is a rare beast indeed, but I have tracked down some of the most difficult in existence. If you can recite the following lyrics from the top of your head, you are probably a true karaoke master.
U2, "Numb" This seems like one of the less popular songs in U2's catalog, and its video is routinely listed amongst the worst ever. I don't really understand that, as I find the video easy to relate to: it expresses feelings of numbness and isolation brought on by the hectic overstimulation of the modern world. The song is an interesting construction too, showcasing how U2 was stretching their legs a lot in the early '90s.
Oh, but the lyrics. Yeah, that's the Edge mumbling his way through reciting them, reading them off a sheet like he has a mouth full of marbles. Then Bono comes cooing with that falsetto, and I don't know if he's even singing real words. Conceptually it gets the point across, but if you aren't focusing in on it, or reading along, "don't" may be the only word you'll catch.
TIE: R.E.M., "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"/Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start the Fire" In a way, these two songs are very similar. They both came out in the late '80s, and the words are recited hyper-quickly by the respective singers. Michael Stipe is a little bit more incomprehensible than Joel, whose superior enunciation leads "We Didn't Start the Fire" to be relatively easy to understand.
The reason they tie here is that you are my party hero if you can keep up with either song word-for-word without looking at a lyric sheet. This is a great trick to bust out for your friends if you can actually do it; a huge embarrassment for you if you fuck it up. Either way, how Joel or Stipe pulled these off in the studio or live on a regular basis is a mystery to me, and I don't think I'll ever know every word to either song.
Fall Out Boy, "Sugar, We're Goin' Down" Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump has started singing much more clearly over the years, but during their breakout years most of his lyrics were pretty much indecipherable, aside from stray lines and words. Back in 2005, that led to a lot of teenagers singing along to portions of choruses and humming the rest.
My Bloody Valentine, "Only Shallow" My Bloody Valentine might be stretching the boundaries of pop, but their music falls under the category of "dream pop," so I'm counting it. I've never understood as single word of Kevin Shields' or Bilinda Butcher's million-miles-away mumbling. Thankfully, they wrote such enjoyable songs that their practical wordlessness didn't keep them from being massively successful.
List continues on the next page.
The Cranberries, "Zombie" Dolores O'Riordan's thick Irish accent contributed a lot to many people's difficulty understanding the lyrics to the Cranberries' classic alt-rock hits. Aside from "what's in your head -- zombie," I'm just shooting in the dark as to what she's saying most of the time in this song.
Elton John, "Bennie and the Jets" This one is tough partially because of the heavy reverb on Elton's voice, and partially because he sings part of the song in a very high falsetto. I honestly never knew a single word of this growing up, aside from the title of course, so I would always sing along in complete gibberish.
Blur, "Song 2" Truth be told, this song was suggested to me for this article, and I honestly didn't remember there being lyrics aside from "woo-hoo!" Having listened to it for the first time in a while, I still don't know what the fuck is being said here. I can make out a few words, but mostly it's unintelligible British-ese, followed by "WOO-HOO!"
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.