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May 18, 2009 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Top 5 songs by depressed musicians

This isn’t a proper Top 5 per say. There are definitely better songs dealing with issues of depression than some of the ones I’ve chosen, but if I’d included them this list would probably have ended up being pretty damn predictable. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to leave out a couple of the usual suspects, but I did throw in a curveball or two as well, just to try keep things interesting.

But I digress; these five musicians had it bad. Real bad. Collectively they got in brawls, spent time in jail, suffered from alcoholism, had two car accidents, two abusive stepfathers, multiple broken families, a heroin addiction, numerous breakups, were diagnosed with epilepsy, probably had bi-polar disorder, and definitely had five eye operations (the last of which was botched, damaging the eye permanently). Together they also attempted suicide several times, and were successful twice. One died by hanging himself with the clothes rack that was used to dry his baby daughter’s clothes. The other stabbed himself in the chest with a kitchen knife. Twice! Nasty.

Joy Division: Twenty Four Hours
“So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride / What once was innocence, turned on its side.”
For some reason, the scene where these two lines are read aloud by Sam Riley in the Curtis biopic Control has stuck in my mind more than anything else from that incredible film. They are the opening lyrics of ‘Twenty Four Hours’, a veritable “how to” for capturing feelings of depression, hopelessness and despair in four minutes and twenty-six seconds of music. Hope is almost completely absent. Only the last line, where Curtis sings Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late, hints at a possible escape. That we know what Curtis’ destiny was to be doesn’t make the lyrics any less powerful either. The tension created between the sped-up verses and slower midsections is almost unbearable. Joy Division may have written a number of more memorable songs, but none were quite as sad as ‘Twenty Four Hours’. Poor Debbie. Poor Natalie. And poor, poor, poor Ian.

The Mountain Goats: No Children

“I am drowning / there is no sign of land / you are coming down with me / Hand in unloveable hand / and I hope you die / I hope we both die.”
Lyrically this song is fucking miserable. Thankfully John Darnielle was singing about a fictional couple, rather than a relationship of his own. Even with this knowledge it’s still incredibly unsettling to listen to, particularly because of its deceptively upbeat acoustic arrangement. Note to self: don’t ever play this song to prospective girlfriends.

Elliott Smith: Needle in the Hay
“I can’t beat myself / And I don’t want to talk / I’m taking the cure / So I can be quiet wherever I want / So leave me alone / You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks”
Forever will this song be associated with that Wes Anderson suicide montage. It’s a shame really, because for all its misery there’s a moment in the song where Elliott Smith switches into his fragile falsetto in order to deliver the second half of the chorus, that still sounds as achingly beautiful to my ears as the first time I heard it.

Radiohead: No Surprises
“A handshake of carbon monoxide”
It might seem odd that the song featuring what might be Radiohead’s most cheerful melody ever is the one I’ve selected for a place on this list, but then again, that plinking glockenspiel had to be cheerful. Otherwise, lines like “A heart that’s full up like a landfill, / a job that slowly kills you, / bruises that won’t heal” would have been even harder to stomach. Radiohead fans might suggest that the heartbreaking Romeo & Juliet ballad ‘Exit Music’ would have been an even more depressing selection, but I actually find ‘No Surprises’ wallowing sense of resignation even more depressing than that “Hope you choke” line.

Kanye West: Say You Will
“I wish this song would really come true / I admit I still fantasize about you”
Ah, the controversial choice. I know this might sound strange, but Kanye’s been through a lot. Seriously! In the year before 808s and Heartbreaks was recorded, he split up with his fiancé and his mother died as a result of complications from a breast reduction and tummy tuck procedure. Simply put, her son’s fame led to her death. And if you’ve ever heard Kanye’s gorgeous tribute to his mother, ‘Hey Mama’ (which was written a couple of years before all this happened), you’d know that she was probably the most important person in his life. Sure, Kanye can be insufferable at times, but it’s also that same ego that makes so much of his music compelling. In Ye’s own words, “It’s lonely at the top.” As for the song itself, it’s six minutes of wandering agony and haunted choir backups. It’s also the song in which Kanye’s controversial auto-tune exercise comes off most successfully. His de-humanised vocals are left painfully exposed by its stark arrangement. A combination of thunking Japanese drums and weird sampled sonar pings drive the song inexorably towards its empty conclusion, like an icebreaker, plowing a lonely furrow through frozen arctic waters. And this was the guy who wrote ‘Gold Digger’?

Oh, and if you must know, honorable mentions go to Scott Walker, Nick Drake, Nas, Jeff Buckley, Beethoven, Steve Drozd, Cat Power, Kim Deal, 2Pac and Jim Morrison. Miserable fuckers the lot. No Kurt though, sorry Nirvana fans. Blame Gus Van Sant. I’m still pissed about the 97 minutes of my life that I wasted watching Last Days


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  1. Elle Hunt says:

    Five solid choices, but I think Cat Power takes the cake in one sole swoop with “Names”.

  2. Jonny says:

    You’re blaming Kurt Cobain for ‘Last Days’?? Wack. BTW, your Joy Division song should be ‘The Eternal’, and your Mountain Goats song should be ‘Moon Over Goldbsboro’.

  3. matthew says:


  4. James Beavis says:


  5. Josh says:

    come on something from Pink Floyd’s another brick in the wall must get some showing there. Otherwise good choices

  6. matthew says:


  7. Matt says:

    Cool category. Not that it’s a vote, or anyone cares, but something (anything) off Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” would own most of these songs for depressed-ness…

  8. Lar says:

    No Morrissey? The Smiths? Last Night I Sreamt Somebody Loved Me has got to be the most gut-wretching song around.

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