Epic songs are sorta hard to define. Is it epic because of the length? Because of the story it tells? Some other element? I tend to rely on the unmeasurable and unquantifiable x factor when talking about music, so that's what it comes down to for me. Which songs make me think "this song is EPIC!"
So without further ado, my top 5 epic songs.
5) The Tragically Hip - The Depression Suite (We Are The Same, Universal 2009)
The newest song on the list, "The Depression Suite" seems to be about a man contemplating suicide. It starts with him hiding under his pillow (with his lover asking "Are you going through something") and progresse through several different phases, including keeping a straight face to hide true thoughts ("I will make my face a mask"), reflecting on futility ("I'm thinking just in passing, what if this song does nothing") and the oddity of situations ("bring on the requisite strangeness, it always has to get a little weird") before finally settling on plans for ending it ("don't you want to see how it ends"). That's my interpretation, at least. Others may see it differently. The style shifts with the lyrics, making almost seem like several different songs mashed together.
4) NOFX - The Decline (The Decline EP, Fat Wreck Chords 1999)
Several years before Green Day released their American Idiot, NOFX had already mastered the long-form punk story-song. Inspired by the title track to From The Cradle To The Grave by The Subhumans (and beating its over 16 minute length about about 2 minutes) , "The Decline" is a punk rock masterpiece. The "decline" of the title refers to the decline of American society, criticizing loss of rights, the rise of the conservative Christian right, the imbalance of economics, the harshness of drug laws and government lies and murder. The narrator ends up giving up, declaring that we have "lost the battle, lost the war, lost the things worth fighting for." "The Decline" finds Fat Mike at his cynical best.
3) Coheed & Cambria - Welcome Home (Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume 1: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness, Columbia 2005)
Coheed & Cambria are one of the most epic bands in general, using their 5 studio albums to tell the story of the Amory Wars, in which Man and Prise try to break the Mage's rule over the Keywork (if that doesn't make sense, check out the forums of C&C fanpage Cobalt & Calcium, they have some pretty good explanations of the albums). If this list were longer, other songs by the band would probably make their way in, especially "No World For Tomorrow" from the album of the same name and "The Broken," "Here We Are Juggernaut" and "Guns Of Summer" from the prequel album Year Of The Black Rainbow. The shortest song on this list, "Welcome Home" is also one of the two best in terms of just the music. Lyrically, the song focuses not on Claudio Kilgannon or his uncle the Prize Fighter Inferno, but on the writer of the story, focusing his hatred and anger toward his former love, threatening to bury her. With an amazing acoustic intro, driving riffs and an extended musical bridge with Ooh's in the background, "Welcome Home" is a defining epic song.
2) The Decemberists - The Mariner's Revenge Song (Picaresque, Kill Rock Stars 2005)
"The Mariner's Revenge Song" opens in the belly of a whale with two sailors who survived their ships being swallowed. The narrator reveals that he has been following the other sailor, intending to kill him. The rest of the song tells the story of how the narrator encountered the other man when he was "a child of three" and the other man was a "a lad of 18." The narrator explains how the other man seduced his widowed mother, then left her with all his debt. On her deathbed, the now mentally unbalance mother makes her son promise to "find him, bind him, tie him to a pole and break his fingers to splinter, drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked clawing at the ceiling of his grave." The boy lives as an orphan for 15 years before taking a job in a priory, where he overhears a whaler describing his captain to the prior. Convinced that the captain is the man he's looking for, the narrator joins a privateer to track down his ship. After several months, the narrator is finally closing in on the other man's ship when both are swallowed by a whale. The narrator proclaims that both of them being the only survivors means that it's a divine will that he should kill the other man, and the song ends with the narrator telling him to lean close so he can "whisper the last words you'll hear." A great recording of the song can be heard here. I highly recommend listening to it.
1) Lynyrd Skynyrd - Free Bird (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd, MCA 1973)
What other song could possibly be number 1? This song is THE epic song. Having it stuck in my head is what made me decide to write this post in the first place. For the first 4 1/2 minutes, the song is slowish and ballad-y, with an easy going acoustic guitar, some piano and some great slow blues in the background as Van Zant sings lyrics inspired by a band member's girlfriend's insecurities over devotion to the band. After that, the song kicks in to a rocking guitar solo that last over 4 minutes. One of the greatest studio solos ever recorded, and in the live recording it gets even better. I'm gonna stop typing and go listen to right now.