Autumn: A chill in the air, long shadows across dying grass, the smell of wood smoke in the wind. These days bring up moments of introspection. They also bring visions of songwriters reflecting on lost loves and broken hearts covered in scar tissue and the writings of JRR Tolkien.
There’s no perfect formula for a song about fall, but they tend to come with a few touchstones: nostalgia, longing, acoustic guitar picking, and a deep melancholy just beneath the surface.
Here are 20 tunes to play while sipping a mug of Earl Gray by the fire or standing in line Fellowship of the Ring on your TV.
Simon & Garfunkel, “Leaves That Are Green” (1966)
Meditative and endlessly sad, all of it Sounds of silence album feels right for autumn. But no song on the LP directly addresses the cycles of nature as “Leaves That Are Green” does Paul Simon song “And the green leaves turn brown/And they wither with the wind/And they crumble in your hand.” Sure, it’s about a lost love, but it’s also an anthem for lonely arborists.
The Kinks, “Autumn Almanac” (1967)
Not everyone is upset about how the jersey weather is coming. The characters in Ray Davies‘ song looks forward to the weekend being roasted, cleaning leaves, eating roast beef and watching football matches. A stand-alone slotted single between the 1967s Something else by the Kinks and the 1968s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the melody bridges the aesthetic of both albums. Even Dave Davies likes it: “I played through ‘Autumn Almanac’ [recently] and it is a phenomenal recording. You can understand why it’s taken so long,” he said Yahoo! in 2015.
Led Zeppelin, “Ramble On” (1969)
“The lions fall around when I was on my way/Thanks to you, I am much obliged for such a pleasant stay/But now it is time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way.” Be they about ladies Robert Plant met on the band’s first Stateside tour (when the song was recorded during a stop in New York in 1969) or Frodo’s trip to the Undying Lands, Plant’s lyrics embody the shift from summer to autumn. The song rumbles like a late August storm (with John Bonham allegedly beating out the beat on a plastic bin) but Jimmy Page‘s acoustic drumming and electric wiring evokes a wininess in early October.
Van Morrison, “Moondance” (1970)
Morrison is a legendary curmudgeon, but he is one of the few musical artists who finds love, joy and inspiration in the fall. A celebration of the season with a direct and jazzy approach, the title track for Morrisons LP from 1970 connected with fans in a way that Astral weeks not in 1968 (it is now considered a masterpiece). All seemed to agree with Morrison that it is “a great night to create romance/’Under the cover of the October sky/And all the leaves on the trees fall/To the sound of the breeze blowing.
The Doors, “Indian Summer” (1970)
Like “October”, this Doors track is an exercise in minimalism. Over Robby Krieger‘s simple, very hippie guitar voice and some light drums, Jim Morrison spills a few words about love and meeting said love along the way. From the other side of the 1970s Morrison Hotel, it’s a pleasant but non-essential Doors track. That said, it’s probably a great soundtrack for a peyote trip.
Rod Stewart, “Maggie May” (1971)
Rod Stewart just can’t resist Maggie May. He has missed weeks of classes just to be with the lover who is his everything. Stewart said of his 1971 classic, his first US chart topper, that it was “more or less a true story about the first woman I had sex with.” Nothing he ever wrote felt as true, conflicted and nostalgic as this. Bonus points for fall mandolin simling.
Big Star, “September Gurls” (1974)
Like Don Henley’s signature solo track “The Boys of Summer”, this tune by Alex Chilton‘s cult band echoes the dreamy, wistful feeling that comes with cooler temperatures. Often called the definitive power-pop song, the 1974 gem is actually more than that. It’s like Laurel Canyon people, Beach Boys pop The Beatles rock and AM gold at once. For a nice twist on the tune, turn on Bracelet‘ version from the 1986s Different light.
Aerosmith, “Seasons of Wither” (1974)
Aerosmith drawn from lots of sources to create their sound: the Stonethat Yardbirdsthat J. Geil’s Band. But Zeppelin looms large on the early stuff. It is a good thing. Steven Tyler‘Seasons of Wither’ from the 1974s Get your wings, nods to the misty, magical moods of “Ramble On” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” But it’s also clearly Tyler. Inspired by the New England winter, which stretches from mid-October to mid-May most years, the song finds a space between a dark January ballad and a breezy summer rock ‘n’ roll ballad.
Bonnie Raitt, “Rainy Day Man” (1974)
“Well, it looks like another fall/my friends they’re not helping at all/and I’m feeling a little cold and small,” Bonnie Raitt sings on this soul-rock gem. Like so many great Raitt tunes, “Rainy Day Man” balances sadness and hope, slow tempo and high energy. Even when she sings about “grey days,” there’s a warmth.
Bob Seger, “Night Moves” (1976)
Is it Bob Seger masterpiece in summer or autumn? Yes, he says, it was sweet summer time. And the story seems to follow kids who are stuck at the end of August with everything they have. But the song, off Night movementswhich arrived at the end of October 1976, seems to be written about someone who stands between the two seasons and looks back and wishes he could go back, “with autumn approaching.”
Fleetwood Mac, “Silver Springs” (1976)
Rumors had so many perfect songs, “Silver Spring” didn’t even make the cut. Think how amazing that is. If you are team Stevie Nicksyou must be wondering how Lindsey Buckingham couldn’t make it work with a songwriter who wrote “I’d be your only dream/Your shining autumn sea crashing” about him. Nicks seemed to get the last word in as her dazzling ballad went singularly on Fleetwood Mac‘s live reunion record The dance and landed a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1998.
Justin Hayward, “Forever Autumn” (1978)
This song feels like a sequel to “Ramble On” written by Moody Blues. And it should. Hayward fronted the Moody Blues, but this song comes from a strange musical version of world War. Written by British jingle composer Jeff Wayne and soft rock artists Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass, the song came together in 1976 and hit the UK charts in 1978. Apparently Wayne wanted something on his world War interpretation that sounded like “Nights in white satin.” Mission accomplished.
Earth, Wind & Fire, “September” (1978)
Do you remember the night of September 21st? Well, Earth, wind and fire fans do. Bandleader Maurice White, professional songwriter Allee Willis, and guitarist Al McKay wrote this funk-disco-pop nugget in 1978. Since then, the song has gone everywhere: It’s been in movies, TV shows, commercials, video games, and even played in 2008 at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. To quote White, “Ba-dee-ya! Ba-dee-ya!“
Neil Diamond, “September Morning” (1979)
Neil Diamond digs deep into the syrupy stuff for the title track of his 13th album. Like something out of a boozy, over-the-top Broadway musical, the song is pure gold if you’re a die-hard diamond. It only reached No. 17 on Billboard Hot 100 but went to No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary charts in 1980.
U2, “October” (1981)
One of U2‘s most contemplative songs, the title track of the band’s 1981 album (which the quartet released in October) is almost an instrumental, as Edge plays a beautiful but cheerful piano in the first half of the song. So “October” blooms only a little when Bono sings only a few lines: “October and the trees are bare/Of all they wear/What do I care?/October and kingdoms rise/And kingdoms fall/But you go on/And on.”
Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer” (1984)
Written by Don Henley and Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell, this ode to all that is over comes at that post-Labor Day malaise. No one is on the beach, the lake is empty, the sun is setting alone, and Henley knows it:Summer is out of reach.” You know what else is out of reach? Henley’s ex A Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac tells him not to look back, those days are gone forever – a sentiment evoked in the introspective Campbell guitar lines and Eagles the plaintive voice of the singer.
Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain” (1991)
Axel Rose“Stairway to Heaven”, “Hotel California” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in nine minutes, this epic had coalesced in the back of the singer’s brain for years before it appeared on Use your illusion II. Sweeping, absurd, wild and glorious, the Homeric symphony-in-a-song came with a video that MTV played relentlessly in 1992. And why wouldn’t they? This video had it all: Stephanie Seymour, Riki Rachtman, Slash leaving a wedding to play a guitar solo in front of a church in New Mexico, Slash climbs atop a grand piano to play another guitar solo.
Neil Young, “Harvest Moon” (1992)
While Peggy and Neil Young eventually separated, the moment between the pair captured on “Harvest Moon” is exceedingly tender. A departure from the noise rock Young churned out in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the 1992 hit reminded fans that Young can go from over-the-top guitar to gentle folk balladry with remarkable grace. Bonus points for awesomeness Linda Ronstadt harmony vocals. Want an entire album fit for fall? Both at Neil Young Harvest and Harvest Moon will satisfy.
The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” (2001)
Is it Jack White melody about autumn? Maybe. Is it snowing with the fury and thump of an October storm? Absolutely. Forget looking for the meaning of the song. When Jack and Meg White ripped into the opening of the 2001s White blood cells, millions of fans realized that the duo could stand tall with any classic rock act. Opinion didn’t matter, feel did, swagger did. And these two were dizzy for days.
Green Day, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (2004)
Green Day songs generally work best with sunshine, skateboards and political rage. But this one is intimate and personal. Billie Joe Armstrong reportedly named the song after the words he said to his mother after his father died in September 1982. Armstrong was 10 years old. Twenty-two years later, the song became an important part of the punk trio’s album American idiot.