Music can make you feel joy, and most pop music is still about love. But don’t underestimate the downside: many of the most beautiful songs are very depressing. Murder, accidents, lost loves, loneliness, addiction and suicide are beautiful subjects for a sad song. What are the top ten songs that leave the listener despondent?
10. Richie Valance / Ray Petterson – Tell Laura I Love Her
Ray Petterson wrote this classic love drama, although it would become an even bigger hit for Richie Valance in 1960. Teen Tommy is totally in love with Laura and wants to marry her. To pay for a ring, he participates in a car race where his car capsizes and explodes. His last words are “tell Laura I love her.” In the last verse, Laura is told the words while she waits for him in the wedding chapel.
9. Radiohead – How to Disappear Completely
Radiohead has never been the happiest of bands, and Thom Yorke’s voice was made for depressing songs. Their single Creep is a real depressive teen classic. But success as an artist does not mean that life looks brighter as How to Dissappear Completely from the album Kid A proves. The main character cannot cope with life and protects himself by thinking that he is absent everywhere, even at the noisy climax of a performance.
8. Kenny Rogers – Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town
At first hearing this hit by Kenny Rogers is a relaxed country song. But appearances can be deceiving. A veteran was paralyzed during the Vietnam War. He watches his wife Ruby get ready for a night out and suspects she has another husband. Even though the singer knows he cannot prove his manhood, while Ruby is leaving the door, he asks if she wants to stay with him. In the end the tone grows grimmer and he wishes he could use a weapon to stop Ruby.
7. Janis Ian – At Seventeen
At Seventeen is one of the most realistic songs about teenage death. The modestly sung song became a worldwide hit in 1975. At Seventeen provides a complete picture of the life of an unattractive girl who suffers from cruelty and insecurity. She’s often forgotten, never gets a Valentine’s Day card, and lonely fantasies about loved ones who aren’t there.
6. The Smiths – Never Had No One Ever
The English band The Smiths has probably never made a cheerful song. In the eighties they grew into a phenomenon with their songs about loneliness and miscommunication. Singer Morrissey knew better than anyone how to express the pain of isolation. Like on the extremely sad Never Had No One Ever (1986) that has the legendary phrase: “I had a really bad dream, it lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days.”
5. Neil Young – The Needle and the Damage Done
Neil Young’s plaintive voice is made for sad music. Young was also a major drug user for a while until some of his friends died of an overdose. It produced one of the most beautiful and depressing songs about heroin addiction that he recorded live for the album Harvest (1972). Since then it has been covered many times, often by musicians with addiction problems.
4. Lou Reed – Caroline Says II
Lou Reed was a specialist in dark subjects. His album Berlin (1973) is considered one of the most depressing ever. A relationship is destroyed by addiction, prostitution and ultimately suicide. As Caroline Says II calmly points out, it doesn’t help that Caroline is beaten up by her husband: “Why is it that you beat me / it isn’t any fun.”
3. Johnny Cash – Hurt
Hurt’s original was written by singer Trent Reznor of the industrial band Nine Inch Nails. It’s a dark song about addiction and self-harm. It is often seen as a suicide note sung. Country singer Johnny Cash seemed like an unexpected candidate to cover the song, but towards the end of his life he was very successful singing just those kinds of songs. Hurt fits perfectly with Cash’s gritty voice who was never one of the happiest anyway.
2. Joy Division – New Dawn Fades
The music of Joy Division is jet black, especially in combination with the lyrics of singer Ian Curtis. Curtis suffered from epilepsy and depression and committed suicide before the release of the second group album in 1980. Since then, Joy Division’s songs have come to be seen in a different light and people are looking for clues in the lyrics. There is a lot of choice in the Joy Division oeuvre, but New Dawn Fades exudes directionlessness like no other and the feeling that all hope is disappearing. The lyrics: “A loaded gun won’t set you free / So you say.” makes it all extra depressing.
1. Billie Holiday – Gloomy Sunday
Jazz singer Billie Holdiday lived a life of setbacks and died at the age of 44, poor and humiliated, from the complications of prolonged alcohol and drug use. Her pain also gave her voice a unique character that allowed her to sing beautifully melancholic songs. Her version of Gloomy Sunday is known as the most depressing song of all time. The original is a Hungarian song recorded by Pál Kálmar in 1935 and a first English translation would follow a year later. The slightly modified version of Billie Holiday from 1941 is seen as the definitive interpretation of the “Hungarian suicide song”. Essentially, Gloomy Sunday is about someone whose loved one has passed away and then contemplates suicide because in death hopefully the loved one will be met again. A legend has since emerged that Gloomy Sunday incites suicide. Although this has never been proven, the composer of the original did commit suicide in 1968. The combination of the legend, the sad mood of the song and the life story of Billie Holiday makes Gloomy Sunday at least the most depressing song ever.