A sad song is an intensely personal thing. There is, despite all those ‘Top 10 Saddest Songs of All Times’ lists, no song that can mean the same thing to everyone. It must be personal, it must speak to your history, your pain and the particular losses and fears you have weathered.
That said, we’ve decided to throw our two cents in. We make no claims to have created universal lists; we didn’t collaborate, didn’t ask for input. The songs speak for themselves far better than I could speak for them; further introduction would be unnecessary. Over the next few months we’ll be asking other people to contribute lists of their sad songs. We have people like Thomas Ligotti lined up, so keep your eyes open, it should be interesting.
Ry Cooder, Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski – I Knew These People
Not a song as such, this bit of narrative by HDS and NK with backing by Ry Cooder lays out in heart-rending detail just how wrong relationships can go. That it segues into Cooder’s version of "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" almost makes it too much to take.
Nick Cave – Long Time Man
It’s a fairly typical murder ballad until you get these lines, “She looked up at me and began to smile/She said, ‘Baby, I love you’/Then she closed her baby blue eyes”, and you can almost feel sorry for the wife-killing protagonist. Almost.
Johnny Cash and June Carter - If I Were A Carpenter
Because when they sang this song they meant it. Absolutely and completely
John Parrish and PJ Harvey – That Was My Veil
“Was she a pretty girl/Did she have pretty hair/Was she soft spoken/Was there a love there?” And you go, “Polly, what are you doing to me?”
Mark Lanegan Band – Wedding Dress
“Would you put on that long white gown/And burn like there's no more tomorrows?/Will you walk with me underground/And forgive all my sicknesses and my sorrows?/Will you be shamed if I shake like I'm dying/When I fall to my knees and I'm crying/Will you visit me where my body rests/Will you put on that long white dress?” …and everyone knows she won’t. That the backing vox are done by Lanegan’s ex-wife, well…
Radiohead – Lucky
The odd one out on my list. I don’t particularly like Radiohead, but I can get behind this song. “It’s going to be a glorious day,” everyone knows it’s not.
Tindersticks – Traveling Light
Almost any Tindersticks song would work here. They don’t call them miserablists for nothing.
Hope There’s Someone – Antony and the Johnsons
There’s nothing sadder than hope. Hoping that you don’t have to sleep, or die, alone takes it beyond simple melancholy to a kind of visceral, transcendent sorrow.
Faith – The Cure
Propelled only by a relentless bass, the song wallows in hopeless isolation. Everything about it is subdued, resigned to that stark, gray place where there’s nothing left… but faith.
Heroes – David Bowie
We all know there’s no hope for Bowie’s star-crossed lovers. Even if they can beat them for one day, there’s no question how it’ll end up; nothing will keep them together.
Fade Into You – Mazzy Star
Perhaps the penultimate exquisitely forlorn song, the kind of gentle ache that you can get lost in forever.
Atmosphere – Joy Division
Bleak and beautiful in that particular way only Joy Division could do. Over the restrained cascade of the melody, Ian Curtis implores, admonishes: don’t walk away in silence.
The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda – The Pogues
So sad that I can’t actually listen to it. The horrific cost of war, the Battle of Gallipoli in this case, is presented in a wholly human context; there are no grandstanding political condemnations here, only tragedy and waste.
Untitled – The Cure
A wistful, pretty melody married to some of Robert Smith’s bleakest lyrics: “I’ll never lose this pain/Never dream of you again”.
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Ry Cooder, Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski- I Knew These People, Paris, Texas OST
Joy Division- Atmosphere, Substance
Radiohead- Lucky, OK Computer
David Bowie- "Heroes", "Heroes"
The Cure- Untitled, Disintegration
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Long Time Man, Your Funeral, My Trial
Mark Lanegan Band- Wedding Dress, Bubblegum
Tindersticks- Travelling Light, Tindersticks II
Antony and the Johnsons- Hope There's Someone, I Am a Bird Now
The Pogues- The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash