There are a few factors to take into consideration when reading this list, which was immense in its scope and terribly difficult to whittle down.
-There is an exorbitant amount of songs named after women, so there’s no way I could honor them all. Classics like “Alison” and “Barbara Ann” go without saying, and for certain letters like J, there were a disproportionate number of candidates compared to other letters. Sorry if your favorite song got left off—nothing personal, I probably dig it.
-For some letters with a multitude of choices, I nominated a modern song plus a classic song—it just wouldn’t be fair to choose “Laura” by Girls over “Layla” by Eric Clapton, for example, if we’re thinking in terms of the most essential. It also wouldn’t be fair to only honor classic songs and ignore modern ones.
-For the most part I tried to choose songs that were JUST the name of a girl, with no modifiers or additional words. Sometimes my hands were tied.
-Some bands don’t write songs named after women. Some bands write a ton of songs named after women. If an artist appears twice, them’s just the breaks—it’s not an issue of favoritism.
-Try not to compare the quality of songs from letter to letter. For the rare letters, like Q, X and Z, options were extremely limited. Use your own discretion.
With that in mind, I present an alphabetical glossary of, and tribute to, the (probably) gorgeous women who have inspired amazing pieces of music over the decades:
“Angie” — The Rolling Stones (1973)
One of the Rolling Stones’ most effective ballads, “Angie” tells the tale of a relationship that’s fallen to pieces. Mick Jagger’s unique delivery of the word Angie (“Ayyyeeeennjay”) is probably the most distinctive part of the song, but it contains some poignant lyrics, titular character aside: “I hate that sadness in your eyes / But Angie, ain’t it time we said goodbye?”
CLASSIC PICK: “Billie Jean” — Michael Jackson (1982)
As with any insanely popular pop song, the lyrics of “Billie Jean” have been subject to intense scrutiny over the years, with speculations ranging from an homage to tennis player Billie Jean King or a tale of a mentally ill fan who had one of Michael Jackson’s kids. Jackson himself said it was about his experience with groupies in the Jackson 5 and was written for his female fans.
MODERN PICK: “Bryn” — Vampire Weekend (2008)
A short, bright little ditty from everyone’s favorite Afrobeat-inflected indie pop darlings, the lyrics describe a girl who embodies the free-spiritedness singer Ezra Koenig appears to wish he had.
“Cecilia” — Simon & Garfunkel (1970)
Paul Simon’s lyrics contrast with the mood of the jaunty, sun-kissed “Cecilia,” suggesting a woman who makes the narrator feel both extremes of the emotional spectrum constantly — the age-old tale of being used by a woman that inspired most of the blues.
CLASSIC PICK: “Darlene” — Led Zeppelin (1982)
Released on the much-maligned post-Bonham’s-death “album,” Coda, the swaggering groove of the song would sound right at home in the meatier moments of Physical Graffiti. Not much can be discerned about Robert Plant’s muse in question other than he desires her in some way due to the fairly generic lyrics.
MODERN PICK: “Dani California” — Red Hot Chili Peppers (2006)
The smoldering funk of this lead single off Stadium Arcadium depicts, in Anthony Kiedis’ usual lyrically dense fashion, a lived-fast-died-young girl — “California rest in peace,” contrary to popular belief, has little to do with the state. Kiedis has stated Dani isn’t a real person but rather a composite of all his past lovers — so you know that’s a lot of inspiration to draw from.
CLASSIC PICK: “Eleanor Rigby” — The Beatles (1966)
This one was fairly obvious, no? Paul McCartney’s gothic string-based dirge sounds as haunting as the lyrics themselves, which portray a sad, forgotten woman who dies alone (“buried along with her name”), an image so powerful it sends chills down the spine.
MODERN PICK: “Eliza (Hue)” — Chris Bathgate (2011)
The leadoff track on the Michigan folk singer’s newest album Salt Year, “Eliza (Hue),” and its cousin song “Poor Eliza,” are both tortured glimpses into the singer’s tumultuous relationship. His lyrical approach is dark and shies from no detail.
CLASSIC PICK: “Francine” — ZZ Top (1972)
ZZ Top is known for their humorous sexual innuendo in their songs, but this particular tune is an ode to a thirteen-year-old girl named Francine. Yeah, it’s more than a little disturbing, but damn if it doesn’t rock anyway.
MODERN PICK: “Fredericia” — Do Make Say Think (2003)
I can only speculate this epic, cinematic mood piece is named after a woman, but as it’s an instrumental tune, I suppose it’s too abstract to say with certainty. Beautiful nonetheless.
“Gracie” — Ben Folds (2005)
Piano-rock icon Ben Folds appears twice on this list because, let’s face it, dude writes a LOT of songs named after girls. In the calm “Gracie,” the muse in question is not a friend or lover but his daughter, serving as the (literal) sister song to his earlier ballad “Still Fighting It,” written for his son Louis.
“Hannah” — Ray LaMontagne (2004)
Ray LaMontagne’s sorrowful, rich blues tenor has made girls (and some guys, perhaps) weak at the knees for the better half of the 2000s, and “Hannah,” a slow shuffle off his debut, is no exception. The addition of melancholy strings clinch it as a tearjerker.
“Izabella” — Jimi Hendrix (1970)
Released after Hendrix’s death at the apex of his limitless musical power, the lyrics have a distinct tie to the Vietnam War — and when he played the song at Woodstock, he divulged that it is indeed about a soldier in love with a girl far away, mingled with his hopes for the future and fear of the war he’s facing.
CLASSIC PICK: “Jessica” — The Allman Brothers Band (1973)
Again, another instrumental, but the gorgeous twin-guitar harmonies of Dickey Betts seem to illustrate Jessica as a gorgeous, free-spirited Southern girl. In reality, Jessica was Betts’ daughter, but the instrumental nature of the song allows the listener total freedom of interpretation.
MODERN PICK: “Jamie” — Weezer (1994)
A rarity from the Weezer (Blue Album) deluxe edition, this is an example of Weezer’s endearingly simple approach to lyricism. The power-pop song candidly describes a man who’s head over heels for the woman, where the feeling is evidently mutual.
“Kate” — Ben Folds Five (1997)
Ben Folds with his original band rock as hard as a piano-driven trio can on the sprightly “Kate,” where Folds is so infatuated with the namesake girl that he doesn’t just want to be with her—he wants to BE her. Draw conclusions accordingly.
CLASSIC PICK: “Layla” — Derek & the Dominoes (1971)
It’s essentially become known as an Eric Clapton song, and for good reason: He wrote the bulk of the tune. The searing slide guitar work courtesy of Duane Allman underscores the emotional drama Clapton felt at the time: It’s no secret that, like many of his relationship-centric songs, “Layla” was written for Pattie Boyd, his future wife, who was close friend George Harrison’s wife at the time.
MODERN PICK: “Laura” — Girls (2009)
With a blend of punk rock’s edge with the supremely melodic style of Elvis Costello and The Beatles, Girls talk about a guy who, presumably, was in a relationship with a girl named Laura which failed and yet is still trying to pursue something platonic with her so as not to lose her completely. We’ve all been there.
CLASSIC PICK: “Michelle” — The Beatles (1966)
Though half of the words are in French, Paul McCartney’s modal, slightly Eastern-tinged love song doesn’t mean too much in either language. His feelings for the woman in question are as simple as this: “I love you, I love you, I love you / That’s all I want to say.” Thus, that’s all I need to say.
MODERN PICK: “Maria” — Rage Against the Machine (1999)
The visceral, hyper-political bombast that is Rage Against the Machine didn’t write “Maria” to try their hand at an aching love song. No, instead, Zach de la Rocha spits his vitriol in the form of an allegory to the Virgin Mary, using the symbolism to skewer the cult of organized religion and condemn the masses for blindly believing in something corrupt. But I suppose Mary still qualifies as a twisted form of muse.
“Natalia” — Joan Baez (1976)
Joan Baez can explain the song better than I can in the below recording. But she pulls no punches: Her muse is Natalia Gorbanevskaya, a Soviet citizen who was unfairly put in a mental institution time and time again. She never believed she was crazy despite the government constantly telling her the opposite. Baez encourages us all to be this strong of mind and heart.
“Ophelia” — The Band (1975)
The perky, brass-laden rock song more famously appeared a few years after its release on The Band’s Scorsese-produced concert film The Last Waltz. It serves as an ode to the “second coming of Ophelia,” a mysterious, alluring woman who gets herself and those around her into constant trouble.
“Peg” — Steely Dan (1977)
Jazz-fusion duo Steely Dan have always turned out obscure, strange lyrics whose meaning can be tough to plumb. While there are plenty of signs that the lyrics could indicate hope for the girl, but it can be read just as easily as a sardonic jab at one who’s materialistic and shallow.
“Queen Jane Approximately” — Bob Dylan (1965)
I had to bend the rules a bit since the actual girl’s name is “Jane.” But Dylan deserves recognition despite the rule-bending for this organ-washed folk number. It’s unclear who Queen Jane is, and rumors have flown ranging from marijuana to an allegory for Dylan himself, but the most popular interpretation is a woman who acts too good for the narrator but whom he continues to be there for when her life is a mess.
CLASSIC PICK: “Roxanne” — The Police (1978)
Most people are well aware this classic Police song is about a prostitute (“Put on the red light”). That said, the reggae-inflected groove and Sting’s delivery easily distract the more uptight listener from the risqué subject matter. Still, it’s generally thought that the narrator of the song is so enamored with Roxanne that he’s trying to make her quit her job “selling herself.”
MODERN PICK: “Rosa Parks” — OutKast (1998)
The lyrics to this raw, danceable OutKast track mainly deal with partying and ushering in a new reign of hip-hop, but Dre and Big Boi must have been inspired by Rosa Parks to some extent, metaphorically or otherwise. Ironically, Parks herself hated the song and was offended by its profanity and wound up suing OutKast in court for damages— and won.
CLASSIC PICK: “Sara Smile” — Hall & Oates (1976)
A simple, spare blue-eyed soul tune, the lyrics are suitably straightforward as Hall professes his love for his girlfriend Sara. He’s been involved with and in love with for a while, but their relationship seems in danger of falling apart, with her threatening to leave and him begging her to stay one more night.
MODERN PICK: “Suzy Lee” — The White Stripes (1999)
Lumbering and heavy, the character of Suzy Lee has cropped up in several songs throughout The White Stripes’ career — this song, off their debut album, was merely her first appearance. The narrator sounds confused not only regarding Suzy’s feelings for him, but his own feelings for her (“I wish I have an answer but I just don’t know”). The unresolved nature of the song has led most fans to speculate that Suzy Lee is really just a metaphor for Jack White’s ex-wife and drumming bandmate Meg White.
“Tela” — Phish (1988)
Say what you will about Phish, but their wild and wacky personalities have led to the creation of several bizarre female characters. Tela, a character in guitarist Trey Anastasio’s conceptual piece The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, is perhaps the most distinctive of all: a beautiful woman, the “jewel” of the evil King Wilson’s “foul domain” who seduces protagonist Colonel Forbin and later betrays him to Wilson and his forces. And yeah — if you’re not into Phish, that’s already way more than you cared to know, so I’ll stop.
“Ursula (The Swansea Song)” — Barclay James Harvest (1972)
A progressive rock band mostly forgotten in the public eye but contemporary with bands like Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues, Barclay James Harvest are distinctive for being one of the only groups to be inspired by a girl named Ursula (maybe THE only). Musically, it’s a pastoral, folk-based tune with some nice string swells, while the lyrics seem to describe a mythological transformation of a woman into a child.
CLASSIC PICK: “Vera” — Pink Floyd (1979)
One of the most overlooked songs on The Wall, the minute-and-a-half “Vera” is also one of the saddest. Roger Waters cries out to ask if anybody remembers Vera Lynn, the famous World War II-era singer who sang “We’ll Meet Again,” a song which helped bolster morale for the war. In Waters’ oft-bleak worldview, he holds the opinion that her message of hope just served to distract from the tragedy of those in the war who never got a chance to meet their wives again and never got to meet their kids at all— exactly what happened to Waters’ own father.
MODERN PICK: “Vivian” — Delta Spirit (2010)
Delta Spirit’s “Vivian” is a sorrowful piano-laced ballad penned for frontman Matt Vasquez’ late grandmother from the perspective of his grandfather after the pair passed away within a short period of time. Try not to get all misty as he wails, “Heaven is too cold without you.”
“Wendy Clear” – Blink-182 (1999)
Don’t lie: If you’re a male in your early- to mid-twenties, you probably loved Enema of the State in middle school. Wendy Clear is presumably one of bassist/singer Mark Hoppus’ previous flames who just didn’t work out, and this ode to her laments the demise of what they once had, despite his desire for things to be different—all that good teenage drama.
“Xena: Warrior Princess Theme Song” – Joseph LoDuca
Try finding another song of this type that begins with X. Or even another girl’s name that begins with X, for that matter, much less one that inspired a song. In the meantime, this little score will do.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Pt. 1)” – The Flaming Lips
Leave it to the ever-eccentric Wayne Coyne to think up a (presumably Japanese) ass-kicking, karate black-belt female as his savior from the evil pink-colored robots intent on beating his soul into submission. I wonder if he’s ever actually met her, sober or otherwise.
“Zoe Jane” – Staind
OK. I couldn’t find a SINGLE other song named after a woman beginning with “Z”—other than the Zenon theme song, but I already had a theme song so that seemed too easy. If anybody has any suggestions, that’d be great. As for the song itself, no, I don’t listen to Staind—this is something I dug when I was an angsty eighth grader. As far as Staind goes, this is a pretty harmless ballad about singer Aaron Lewis’ daughter, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend seeking it out.