Music may be the food of love, but sometimes a sad song is all we need. When things look bleak on the horizon, listening to a beautiful song about inner strife can do wonders for the soul. In this totally subjective list, Happiful selects 20 incredible songs that let us know we are not alone
A torch songstress for the millennial generation, Lana Del Rey is known for her sense of epic melodrama. That’s certainly the case with Summertime Sadness, which eschews sunny vibes in favour of longing, loss and the emptiness experienced in the aftermath of an all-consuming love affair. The song’s underlying themes were hammered home in an eye-catching promo video where Del Rey and her lesbian lover (played by actress Jaime King) choose suicide at the end. Speaking about the song, Del Rey revealed the contrasting emotions at play. “I wanted to write about how sad and gorgeous the summertime seemed to me,” she said.
At the start of 1967, Syd Barrett had the world at his feet. The charismatic frontman of Pink Floyd was the toast of London’s underground scene and his band was just about to release Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to this day a landmark of English psychedelia. Eight years later, when his bandmates recorded this tribute to their lost leader, Barrett was one of the most notable acid casualties of his generation. However, the esteem and affection his former comrades still held him in shines through in this 26-minute ode to a genius who was too sensitive for the real world.
In 1966, as Swinging London clicked into hyper-drive, chief Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards could have turned on the peace vibes. Instead, they doubled down on their world-weary scepticism in this bleak classic about the loss of a lover. Whenever Hollywood addresses death, depression or social nihilism, you can bet Paint It, Black is on the soundtrack.
Damon Albarn was obviously feeling the strain. Under pressure to come up with lyrics for an atmospheric, brooding piece of music and due to go into hospital for a hernia operation, the singer turned to the UK shipping forecast for inspiration. “We used to listen to it when we were in America to remind us of home. It’s good for a hangover and for insomnia,” said bassist Alex James. Albarn composed a set of geographically-rooted lyrics that provided the song with an elegiac, melancholic, maritime imagery, and yet it’s strangely uplifting.
Pop-punkers Blink 182 delivered a major curveball with this tender, defenceless single. In fact, the song’s lyrical references to angels, morgues and unrequited love stand in stark contrast to their snotty brat reputation. The overriding theme is stark male vulnerability. “The song is about the heart- wrenching pain when a guy tells a girl, ‘Don’t waste your time because you probably gave me up a long time ago,’” explained singer Tom DeLonge.
Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong regarded this hit – about the death of his father when Billie was 10 years old – as a form of regression therapy. Clearly, it’s his most autobiographical song. Yet the song’s central theme of loss (and coping with loss) struck a chord. Released in 2005, it became symbolic after Hurricane Katrina. The band dedicated the song to victims of the disaster and to victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York.
Eminem’s skill for detail-heavy storytelling hits a compelling peak in Stan. A tragic tale of obsessive worship gone horribly wrong, the lyrics deal with a fanatical fan who kills himself and his girlfriend after his written overtures to his hero go unanswered. The first three verses are delivered by Eminem as the increasingly disturbed “Stan”. In the fourth verse the rapper reverts to the first person, addressing the protagonist and voicing concern over his mental state before realising that the damage has already been done. Unlike many of Eminem’s lyrics, there’s no evidence the song has any basis in real life events. However, the artist’s often underrated ability for deep empathy comes shining through.
The last year of Kurt Cobain’s tragically short life was particularly gut-wrenching. Laid low by severe drug dependency, stomachs pains and the toll of super-stardom, the Nirvana singer descended into the black depression that would finally kill him, aged just 27. Although recorded in 1993, the astonishing Pennyroyal Tea dates back to 1990. “The song is about someone who is beyond depressed,” he said. Slated as a single, its release was cancelled after Cobain’s suicide.
This beautiful smash hit was inspired by what band leader Roland Orzabal called his “teenage menopause”. “I had suffered from depression in my childhood,” he said. “I poured all this into the song.” Mad World is filled with references to emotional distress and primal scream therapy. Two decades later, amid the Iraq War of 2003, singer Gary Jules took his cover version to No 1 (at Christmas time).
A prime example of how good pop music can bring levity to disturbing themes, Disturbia is a difficult beast to pin down. Penned, in part, by Rihanna’s future boyfriend – and future physical abuser – Chris Brown, the song is deceptively up-tempo with sizzling beats and plentiful hooks. Behind the fizz, all is not entirely well. According to Rihanna, the troubling lyrics
are not specifically about a personal experience, but general feelings of anxiety, anguish and confusion. Despite its less than uplifting lyrical content, Disturbia’s obvious commercial appeal made it a massive hit in more than 20 countries. Yet few noticed the dark subtext.
Perhaps fittingly, there was no lack of tension in the writing and recording of this classic collaboration between rock legends Queen and Bowie. The music itself – including the killer, signature bassline – emerged from jam sessions. The lyrics though, an apocalyptic cry of both mental suffering and emotional empathy, had a more fraught gestation: a result of push and pull between the group and guest star Bowie, and liberal use of substances in the Swiss studio where it was recorded. “It was very hard,” recalled Queen guitarist Brian May. “You had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” Thankfully, the resulting song displays a bleak but ultimately positive view of how daily pressures can bring us down, but love will ultimately save us.
Rarely has desolation sounded sweeter than it does here. Aided and abetted by jobbing advertising jingle writer and copywriter Tony Asher (who wrote the lyrics), Beach Boys resident genius Brian Wilson lays bare his insecurities and his growing sense of social dislocation over three minutes of lush baroque loveliness. Always a melancholic soul, Wilson had grown increasingly insular after leaving the touring incarnation of the band to focus on songwriting and production. The fruits of this decision – the towering Pet Sounds – remains a pinnacle of 20th century popular music. The almost breathtaking sadness of this gorgeous song signposted Wilson’s imminent mental breakdown and decades-long battle with severe depression and psychosis.
This 1967 single marked something of a departure for Doors frontman Jim Morrison. While the euphoric material on the band’s debut album sealed Morrison’s reputation as a Dionysian sex-god poet, the follow-up album, which included People Are Strange, sprang from a deep depression the singer was experiencing. Accompanied by his bandmates, Morrison took a long walk along Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and penned the lyrics on a ridge looking out over the city. A reflection on modern alienation and being an outsider, the song reveals a deeply vulnerable side at odds with the boorish persona the singer seemed more eager to cultivate.
This endlessly fascinating Irish rebel recently stunned the world with her confessional self-made video where she cried out for help, and yet defiantly called out society for its lack of compassion with mental illness. But Sinead had been wearing her gorgeous heart on her sleeve long before she made global headlines, most notably on this stand-out song on her debut album. Using the city of Troy as a metaphor, O’Connor draws on memories of her emotionally-scarred childhood in Dublin. The result is both harrowing and poetic, and is widely interpreted as being influenced by her parents’ divorce. A masterpiece of vulnerability, and defiance.
A lolloping rocksteady backdrop and Allen’s coy, breathy vocal, disguise the dark matter at the heart of this beloved breakthrough single. Inspired by a horrific break-up with long-term boyfriend Lester Lloyd, the song was written by Allen following a stint in London’s mental health hospital, The Priory. “That was really tough as I was an emotional mess. The lyrics are definitely bitter sweet,” said Allen. While the song title, as well as the breezy music and Allen’s peppy vocal, suggests redemption, the lyrics pull no punches – excoriating the cheating lover for his infidelity, and taking pleasure in his ensuing discomfort. Indeed, the singer herself said she later regretted her direct approach.
The end of the 1960s acted as a full stop for many of the decade’s biggest acts, including this legendary duo. With the detested Richard Nixon in the White House, war raging in Vietnam, and relations souring between this long-term musical partnership, Paul Simon managed to channel his ennui into a gospel-inflected epic of redemption. Inspiration for the song came quickly and suddenly. “Where did that come from? It doesn’t seem like me,” Simon said of the song. Whatever the wellspring, the poetic lyrics with their comforting sentiments, and Art Garfunkel’s beautiful delivery struck a chord. The song has become an everlasting standard for empathy, sympathy and emotional solidarity.
There are times when even a Berocca and a day spent in bed watching trash TV won’t alleviate the “morning after the night before” blues. Instead of succumbing to her own dark thoughts, Florence Welch channelled her angst to create this defiant pop anthem, which the writer herself describes as being “the ultimate hangover cure”. There’s certainly something appealingly cathartic about the musical setting, which builds slowly before swelling into a fanfare of guitars, organs and ritualistic drums. The main ingredient, though, is Welch’s powerhouse vocal, where she wrestles with internal and external demons before exorcising them in the rapturous chorus. It’s a paean to moving on and keeping going.
Everybody Hurts emerged as one of REM’s most enduring songs. Time hasn’t been uniformly kind: it was voted as the most depressing song of all time in a survey conducted in 2012. Nevertheless, its plaintive qualities and supportive sentiments have made it a standard. In 1995, the Samaritans launched a UK press campaign consisting solely of the song’s lyrics and the charity’s hotline number.
“If you are consciously writing for someone who hasn’t been to college or is young, it might be nice to be very direct,” said guitarist Peter Buck of the song. “In that regard, it has tended to work for people of a lot of ages.”
Nine Inch Nails fans may beg to differ, but it took an ailing Johnny Cash to elevate Hurt to the pantheon of downbeat classics. In the wake of Cash’s rendition, writer and NIN leader Trent Reznor went as far as saying, “that song isn’t mine anymore.” Interpretations of the gloomy lyrics vary. Some contend that it is a suicide note written by the song’s protagonist. Others believe it describes the process of finding a reason to live while suffering depression. In Cash’s version, recorded shortly before his death, the reference to “crown of shit” in the original is changed to “crown of thorns” referencing Cash’s devout Christianity, and pre-empting the legend’s impending appointment with his maker.
How can one of the giddiest pop songs of all time also be one of the most heart-wrenching? To the world at large, 1965 was the year of peak Beatlemania. Four lads from Liverpool had created a cultural phenomenon that verged on religious worship. For John Lennon, however, it was a nightmare. Trapped in a loveless marriage in his Surrey mansion, and tiring of his mop-top image, the creatively restless Lennon sank into severe depression, from where he discovered his first introspective masterpiece, Help! “That was me, really crying out for help,” he later admitted. “The only two true songs I ever wrote were Help! and Strawberry Fields Forever.” In this devastatingly honest song, the world finally realised that the tough, cynical Beatle was, in fact, crying out for support. His desperately sincere lyrics confused everyone at first (“What prompted them to write such a song?” asked Mick Jagger). But with hindsight, we see a profoundly damaged young man taking off his mask and telling the world he needed somebody, not just anybody, to heal his pain. No wonder Help! has been used for countless charity campaigns – it’s one of the bravest pop songs ever created.