As a writer, I think of the lyrics in music as a specific kind of form poetry. Beyond the requirements of rhyme, lyrics have to follow melodic flow, with emphasis and syllables laid out appropriately to the rhythm and beat. That's the challenge and reward of lyrics: to bring out the message in a very specific structure. I have little patience for musicians whose lyrics either don't rhyme (I'm old-school: songs are supposed to rhyme!) or whose later verses make a hash of the melody / rhythm to smash a certain amount of syllables into a line.
Ideally, lyrics tell a story. Within these limits, it's a story implied or even written the listener, but there is a sense, not just of the "now" moment of the song, but things coming before and/or after. To be successful, lyrics usually have to be universal; to be interesting, they have to strike an unusual chord (all musical pun intended). For me, certain song lines jump out and stick with me. I've been on a bit of a self-improvement kick of late, so my current picks tend to show that:
No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from -- "Life Uncommon" by Jewel
As if my luck and hope had found each other -- "I Believe" by Sophie-Ellis Bextor
I'm dealing with the changes, this complicated strangeness of seeing life this way -- "This Is Me" by Faith Hill
The things I write are only light extemporanea. I won't put politics on paper, it's a mania! So I refuse to use the pen in Pennsylvania. -- "But Mr. Adams" from the 1776 soundtrack (This whole soundtrack is filled with brilliance. It's particularly awesome that some direct quotes from the historical figures are actually *woven into the songs.* "Is Anybody There?" includes the line, "Through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory" which was actually written by John Adams in a letter to his wife.)
(But I digress.)
I've been down and for too long forgotten; on occasion, I'll stay there for days. And I'll act like a clown, and I'll tear myself down, just for someone to fill me with praise -- "I'd Rather Be Alone" by Helen Reddy
Of course, musicals have a bit of an advantage in that the story context has already been provided, so their lyrics can fill in the specifics. That said, my favorite lyrics probably do come from musicals: 1776, Wicked, Camelot, Into The Woods.
Of course, the music is not only equally important, the mood and instrumentation should augment the lyrics, increasing their power. Some examples:
He Never Mentioned Love by Kirsty MacColl -- I have loved this song for a long time, and I can still put it on loop with great pleasure. The beauty of it is the first listen (or a casual listen) tells one story, and a deeper listen to the lyrics brings the realization that the story is actually the opposite of the singer's claims. The bouncy, chipper instrumentation and melody are something of a contrast, which works beautifully here. Kirsty tends to do a fair amount of this - another one to check out is "Children of the Revolution," which sounds so happy until you pay attention to the words ...
What Is This Feeling? from Wicked -- I adore these lyrics. The whole song is a near-parody of upbeat, triumphant love songs, and the lush, overwrought Disney-esque ensemble arrangement is the icing on the cake. (Please excuse some of the typos in this version - I grabbed the first one I could find with the words.)
Chasing The Sun by Sara Bareilles - all right, so I know Bareilles is very mainstream, so I'm not exactly saying anything unique, but for my money, this song is the standout of The Blessed Unrest. It blows the continuously clipped "Brave" out of the water. Just the line "Skyscrapers' little tombstone brothers" sticks in my mind and won't leave. Here there is some of the "cramming in syllables," but it's done in such a consistent way that it creates a rhythm of its own. I also love that unusual pitch she hits on the word "sun" - it brings your awareness back to the gorgeous melody with that moment of surprise.
So that's my (way more than) two cents on the writing of lyrics.