The UN, which apparently doesn’t have anything better to do, has released what it’s calling a list of the world’s happiest songs, in support of something called the International Day of Happiness. If you’re of a certain persuasion, though, you probably regard “happy” songs with the sort of creeping dread you otherwise reserve for “bubbly” shop assistants and “uplifting” motivational homilies. And you’re not the only one — there’s been plenty of research into why sad songs can leave us feeling happy (and, conversely, hearing Pharrell’s “Happy” one more time can leave one with the urge to kill). Scientific evidence aside, there are certain songs that, while undoubtedly sad, are somehow also uplifting — happy/sad songs, for want of a better term. Here are ten of our favorites.
Elliott Smith — “Say Yes”
This is exactly the vibe we’re going for here — the sort of bruised optimism that comes with a stonking hangover and the unexpected fact that you’ve woken up with someone next to you, a kind of melancholy that is somehow comforting, the feeling that comes with the sun poking through the clouds for just a moment.
Leonard Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving”
I’ve written here before about how people who call the great man “depressing” are kinda missing the point, and while I’m pretty sure that my entreaties are largely falling on deaf ears, at least hear this one out: this is a song about the end of a love affair. It is, undeniably, a sad song. And yet it is also about valuing that the affair happened, about letting it come to its natural conclusion and being thankful for the time you spent together. It is, in other words, pretty much the definition of happy/sad.
Tim Buckley — “Dream Letter”
Which leads us nicely to this track, which comes from an album that is literally called Happy Sad, and sounds like its title suggests. This song’s lyric is an imaginary letter, written by Tim Buckley to the mother of his son. It asks how the boy is getting on, and looks ruefully at the way things played out: “When I get to thinkin’ about the old days/ When love was here to stay/ I wonder if we’d ever tried/ Oh, what I’d give to hold him.” Knowing that both father and son would go on to meet tragic, premature deaths only makes the whole thing worse, and yet, this is ultimately a song about how much a father loves his son, which is as beautiful as it is sad.
Jens Lekman — “The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love”
I Know What Love Isn’t is Lekman’s breakup album, and this penultimate song finds our hero reflecting on how getting his heart broken is ultimately not the worst thing in the world, nor the most important. In a previous track, he observes, “You don’t get over a broken heart/ You just learn to carry it gracefully,” and this song finds him coming to the realization that perhaps the burden isn’t that heavy.
The Smiths — “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
No one does insane, pyrrhic romanticism quite like Morrissey, and this is pretty much the apogee of his vision of doomed, unrequited, yet somehow exuberant love. “If a double decker bus/ Crashes into us/ To die by your side/ Such a heavenly way to die” — you sort of know that whoever he’s singing this to is probably edging toward the door, but that doesn’t make it any less romantic (or strangely uplifting).
The Verve — “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
Basically a song-length version of, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” Those strings, though! And that video!
Cat Power — “Good Woman”
This is flat-out heartbreaking — it’s a song about realizing that the relationship you’re in is damaging both parties, and that you’re going to have to be the one to make the break and walk away, even if you still love the person you’re leaving behind. It holds the promise of better days to come, even if it’s hard to see them through all the tears.
Kendrick Lamar — “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst”
The dramatic conclusion to the narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city, dealing with the aftermath of the shooting of Kendrick’s friend, the event to which the album’s story has been leading up. It encompasses three perspectives (that of the victim’s brother and sister, along with Lamar’s own), and it’s both bleak and deeply moving. And yet, it carries with it an air of redemption, or at least the realization that for all the survivor’s guilt he experiences (something he’d go on to explore in more detail on his new album To Pimp A Butterfly), Kendrick has come out the other side of his experiences older and wiser, albeit also sadder and never again to be the brash kid he was when the album started.
The Drones — “Penumbra”
A song about Buzz Aldrin, darkside lunar alienation, and an eagle in golden underpants. I can’t really explain this one, to be honest, except to say that what makes it uplifting is that unexpected major chord right at the end.
Patti Smith — “Birdland”
Any song that starts with the lyric, “His father died…” is probably not going to be your average crowd-pleaser, but “Birdland” builds from a quiet reflection on grief into a whirling storm of noise, the aftermath of which leaves you feeling like you’ve been through a wind tunnel — you might still be feeling sad, but the metaphorical cobwebs have very much been blown away. The lyric finds the bereaved boy imagining his father leaving Earth on a spaceship, and wanting to go along too. It’s not to be, of course, but if nothing else, you get the feeling that the boy left standing on the beach will be better equipped to go on alone.