Here’s a groan-worthy headline for you: “What Comes First: Depression in Teens or Emo Music?” In what may be an unconscious echo of Nick Hornby’s oft-quoted High Fidelity query, “What came first, the music or the misery?”, NPR’s health blog presents a new study that found teens who listen to a lot of music tend to be depressed. Cue hysterical parents, swooping in to confiscate those My Chemical Romance CDs and replace them with — what, Sartre’s Nausea?
Now, it’s totally obvious that depressing songs pre-date emo’s breakthrough to the mainstream by a couple hundred years. But we thought this would be a good excuse to remind hysterical types that just because kids are dying their hair pink and black doesn’t mean the music teenagers like is any darker now than it was before. Listen to 25 of the most depressing non-emo songs we can think of after the jump, and suggest your own additions in the comments.
The Smiths — “How Soon Is Now?”
The Smiths catalog is packed with sad-sack anthems, but most of them are at least a little bit funny — on purpose. While we’ve found ourselves laughing through “How Soon Is Now?” on more than one occasion, it’s always been because Morrissey’s most famous song includes lyrics are so incredibly, straightforwardly self-loathing. Need we even quote the whole “There’s a club if you’d like to go/ You could meet somebody who really loves you/ But you go and you stand on your own/ And you leave on your own/ And you go home and you cry and you want to die” bit? (Whoops, looks like we already did.) The only appropriate response is to chuckle at Moz’s overwrought earnestness — or, you know, cry into your double whiskey. Which we’ve probably also done…
Big Star — “Holocaust”
If there’s one thing Alex Chilton had in spades (well, besides musical talent), it was range. In roughly a decade, he moved from the Box Tops’ radio-friendly sound to the power pop of Big Star classics like “September Gurls” to the band’s deeply sad, cultishly adored final album, Third/Sister Lovers. The darkest track on that album is called “Holocaust” for a reason: Beyond punch-in-the-stomach lyrics like “Your mother’s dead/ You’re on your own/ She’s in her bed,” Chilton sings like he’s lost to the will to live, backed in parts by a ghostly choir, and the song moves at the glacial pace of a funeral march.
Aimee Mann — “Save Me”
Sure, there is a glimmer of hope in “Save Me” — the anthem to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. But look at the depths of despair we’re starting from: “You look like the perfect fit for a girl in need of a tourniquet/ But can you save me from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they could never love anyone?” Considering the mixed bag of WTF that is Magnolia‘s ending, we’re not sure the answer to Mann’s question is necessarily “Yes.”
Tyler, the Creator — “Bastard”
Odd Future’s infamously angsty, violence-loving leader is at his darkest on the title track from last year’s Bastard. There are a few false starts: it kicks off with a string of disses and a goofily voiced monologue by a school psychologist, but there’s some real hurt in the stripped-down song that starts once the piano dirge kicks in. “My father’s dead. Why? I don’t know, we’ll never fuckin’ meet/ I cut my wrist and play piano ’cause I’m so depressed,” Tyler deadpans. The rape and murder fantasies that follow are a different kind of disturbing, but it’s all part and parcel of the same festering wound.
The Shangri-Las — “Give Us Your Blessing”
The Shangri-Las built an entire career, back in the mid-’60s, on songs of teenage death. The most famous of these is the Romeo and Juliet-on-a-motorcycle melodrama “Leader of the Pack.” Even more crushing is the hauntingly paced, breathily sung “Give Us Your Blessing” — about a young couple who plan to elope because their parents won’t approve of their marriage but then die in a car crash on their way to exchange vows.
Gowns — “White Like Heaven”
Don’t let the title mislead you; there’s nothing ecstatic about this eight-minute epic. It’s a song inspired by South Dakota’s proposed abortion ban, but it takes a personal, impressionistic approach to the bleak futures of women who don’t have reproductive choice and the unwanted children they have as a result: “And I knew right then that she was gonna have a baby,” sings Erika Anderson at the song’s climax. “Let it grow up in front of the TV/ Eat macaroni and cheese.” That, plus the image of a young rapist who huffs gasoline and the general atmosphere of hopelessness make “White Like Heaven” a beautiful soul crusher.
The Beatles — “Eleanor Rigby”
Perhaps the most famous utterly crushing song of all time, “Eleanor Rigby” is about “all the lonely people” in the world and two very specific examples: the titular Eleanor and Father McKenzie, both of whom seem to spend altogether too much time alone in church. Ponderous strings lend a funereal air, and even Paul McCartney’s ordinarily lighthearted voice is tinged with melancholy.
The National — “Mistaken for Strangers”
It’s hard to pick just one National track for this list, but we’re going with “Mistaken for Strangers.” More upbeat than some of the band’s ballads, it is nonetheless a song about losing yourself so entirely that “you get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/ When you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights.” It’s a horrifying image, and the hint of the anonymous consumerism we’re all, to some extent, submerged in makes it all the more pathetic.
The Cure — “Pictures of You”
No one writes a tearjerker of a breakup song like Robert Smith. We love “Boys Don’t Cry,” but if you really want to bulldoze your poor, broken heart, only one song will do. “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you that I almost believe that they’re real,” Smith begins, going on to present snapshot after romantic snapshot of a storybook goth love affair. It’s all in there: the kiss of a lifetime, the death of a heart, the relentless self-blame when it all goes to shit. But, in a weird way, it’s a good kind of hurt, like the burn after a particularly masochistic workout. Or is that just us?
Pearl Jam — “Jeremy”
“Jeremy spoke in class today.” By which Eddie Vedder means, he shot himself in front of the chalkboard. Shudder.
The Mountain Goats — “No Children”
The “No Exit” of indie-folk songs, “No Children” is about a married couple who pretty much exist to torture one another. It is, in fact, the climax of an entire album (Tallahassee) devoted to this couple’s self-destructive antics and includes such lines as “I hope it stays dark forever/ I hope the worst isn’t over” and “I hope you die/ I hope we both die.” The track is by far the band’s most famous — fans love nothing more than to sing along to it at shows — probably because its cutting combination of sadism and masochism will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent too long in a bad relationship.
LCD Soundsystem — “Someone Great”
James Murphy famously doesn’t like to talk specifics about “Someone Great,” but we can glean enough from the lyrics to know it’s one of the saddest dance jams of all time. It’s a song of mourning that also speaks to the singer’s own mortality: “There’s all the time and all the planning/ And songs to be finished/ And it keeps coming/ Till the day it stops.”
Bikini Kill — “RIP”
Another requiem, “RIP” finds Bikini Kill in a rare quiet moment — at first. The lyrics are achingly personal, from “I hope the food tastes better in heaven/ I hope there’s lots of rad queer boys up there” to “There’s another boy genius who’s fucking gone.” Eventually, the grief at the center of the track explodes into a barrage of frustrated curses: “I wouldn’t be so fucking mad, so fucking pissed off if it wasn’t so fucking wrong/ It’s so fucking wrong!/ It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair!” If this one doesn’t make you cry the first time you hear it, you’re probably dead inside.
Joy Division — “Isolation”
Sure, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” will tear you apart on first listen — but we’ve heard that song so many times on the bar jukebox that it doesn’t really get to us anymore. But when Ian Curtis titles a song “Isolation,” you know it’s going to be grim. And it delivers: “Mother, I tried, please believe me/ I’m doing the best that I can/ I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/ I’m ashamed of the person I am.” Eesh. The ending to Curtis’s tragically short story only makes the song more difficult.
Her Space Holiday — “Home Is Where You Hang Yourself”
For 15 years, Mark Bianchi’s Her Space Holiday has fused indie rock, electronics, and utter sadness. The name of the title track to Bianchi’s 2000 album pretty much says it all. Pained and diffuse, this song is about a couple that just can’t get back the love they once had, and the damage that rift causes. (In that way, its content isn’t too different from “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”)
Morphine — “Cure for Pain”
Before he died too young in 1999, of a heart attack, Mark Sandman was combining rock and jazz in a totally unique way — and we’d argue that his sensual baritone was one of the best, most distinctive voices in the business. Morphine’s songs were strange, sexy, and often dark. Although “Early to Bed” crossed over and became a sort of alt-rock radio novelty in 1997, “Cure for Pain” was Morphine’s greatest moment. “Someday there’ll be a cure for pain,” Sandman croons. “That’s the day I’ll throw my drugs away.” A simple truth, but a crushing one nonetheless.
Tears for Fears — “Mad World”
We doubt anyone can listen to this song anymore without thinking of Donnie Darko and that cheesed-up Gary Jules version, which is a shame because Tears for Fears’ original synthpop hit packs quite the emotional wallop. “Mad World” is about knowing from a very young age that you just don’t fit in anywhere and features one of the Top 40’s most depressing realizations: “I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/ The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”
Eels — “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”
The Eels album Electro-Shock Blues comes out of a horrific time in songwriter E’s life, after his sister killed herself and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” is a minimalist track, beginning and ending with the beep of hospital machines and filled out with delicate strumming. E sings, in a voice near a whisper, lyrics culled from one of his sister’s diaries: “My name’s Elizabeth/ My life is shit and piss” and “Waking up is harder when you want to die.” It’s as raw and honest a memorial as we’ve ever heard.
Liz Phair — “Fuck and Run”
Like many Liz Phair tracks, “Fuck and Run” has a sort of gallows humor to it. But don’t misread; this is a song about gazing deep into a long future of loneliness. “I can feel it in my bones, I’m gonna spend another year alone,” Phair predicts. A verse later, that year has become “my whole life.” And then there’s that whole, “Fuck and run, fuck and run/ Even when I was 17/ Fuck and run, fuck and run/ Even when I was 12” mess…
Black Box Recorder — “Child Psychology”
Whoa, this one. As in “Fuck and Run,” there are some deadpan laughs to be had here. It’s the first-person tale of a silent and despondent child whose parents try everything, “from speech therapists to child psychologists,” to get her to speak. Even when she starts talking, the girl and her family are “at each other’s throats,” prompting the quip, “Normal, happy childhood back on course.” The chorus — which MTV’s notorious censors have scrambled for fear of giving anyone ideas — is the real kicker: “Life is unfair. Kill yourself or get over it.”
Marissa Nadler — “Loner”
Some songs’ darkness resides almost entirely in their sound. Nadler’s echoing, dirge-like “Loner” is one of those — an icy blast of isolation. “It’s been years since you left me,” she breathes, “And it’s been hard.” Some songs tell you about loneliness. This one actually makes you feel like you’ve been trudging through the tundra with a heart that’s slowly turning to ice.
Bob Dylan — “Desolation Row”
Dead, tragic icons and storybook characters populate the desperate tableaux of Bob Dylan’s nearly 12-minute song, which closed out Highway 61 Revisited. In typical Dylan style, he’s never spelled out what or where “Desolation Row” is, but we’re sure that whatever else it is, it’s primarily a state of mind.
Lisa Germano — “Cancer of Everything”
Lisa Germano’s “Cancer of Everything,” from her essential 1994 album Geek the Girl, is an emotional thrill ride through one particular female psyche. A sort of schizophrenic conversation between the rational Germano and her inner histrionic, it starts off with a blast of feedback, a sparse drum beat, and then a guitar-vocal combination that sounds like it’s coming straight to hell. “This is a happy song,” she claims, before elaborating: “‘Cause I want cancer of everything, yeah right/ And if I fall down in a face of scars, I get attention.”
Pink Reason — “Goodbye”
Brooklyn’s Pink Reason sound paralyzed by sadness — or, at least, dulled by opiates — on just about every track they’ve ever released. Their 2007 album, Cleaning the Mirror, is one of the decade’s great, underrated masterpieces. Never has a “Goodbye” felt so much like a slow-motion baseball bat to the face, followed by a semi-lucid coma.
David Bowie — “The Man Who Sold the World”
We’ve always thought of “The Man Who Sold the World” (both the Bowie original and the outstanding Nirvana cover) as Munch’s The Scream in song form. No lyrics capture existential angst and dread quite like these: “I gazed a gazeless stare, we walked a million hills/ I must have died alone, a long long time ago.” Ugh. Give us some Kierkegaard and send us to bed, please.