Although I began compiling this list in pursuit of fun, I might have created a monster here; repeatedly listening to the following songs might destroy every ounce of hope holding your tormented psyche together. With that prior warning in mind, here’s the list:
10. “Embrace,” Low
Apparently, Mimi Parker was having a baby around the time this song was written. The lyrics do suggest giving birth: “Holding my head for the last of race/Pushing my body to get that embrace.” Yet, this song is not a celebration of childbirth, but instead a chilling reflection on the transience of both infancy and motherhood, perhaps from someone doubting their aptitude as a parent.
9. “Love is a Losing Game,” Amy Winehouse
As a lyricist, Amy Winehouse could write songs that sounded simultaneously concise and emotive; that sounded darkly self-deprecating without asking for pity. “Love is a Losing Game,” one of the late musician’s masterpieces, illustrates this rare capacity.
8. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye
Given the strong hints of sexuality in a lot of his songs, it is no wonder that Marvin Gaye sometimes gets pigeonholed as a musician meant for sexytimes. Indeed, once could say the same of the music behind his 1971 concept album What’s Going On? The lyrics, on the other hand, are a different story; the whole album follows a soldier returning from Vietnam only to find his country ravaged by unemployment, inflation, racial tension and environmental degradation. In “Mercy Mercy Me,” probably the most well-known track from the album, Marvin laments the destruction of planet earth.
7. “Little Girl Blue,” Janis Joplin
One thought more depressing than that of a little girl, sitting alone in a corner, unhappily counting her fingers, is the realization that this unhappy little girl might be a young Janis Joplin. By covering an old standard, changing the lyrics so as not to include the happy ending in the original, this is one of the legendary singer’s most vulnerable recordings.
6. “Names,” Cat Power
Chan Marshall states the names of childhood friends who were killed, sexually-assaulted and addicted to drugs before age fifteen, all with an unsettling matter-of-factness in her voice.
5. “Alone Again (Naturally),” Gilbert O’Sullivan
Gilbert O’Sullivan mourns about being orphaned. First Dad dies, then Mom dies shortly thereafter of a broken heart. following all that death, feeling terribly lonely and lacking a single soul to talk to, the narrator "treats himself" to suicide.
4. "Michael," Red House Painters
Mark Kozelek wonders what happened to his best friend from adolescence. Considering all those allusions to delinquency, drugs and mental illness, “Michael” could be anywhere, if he's even alive at all.
3. "The Kids," Lou Reed
“The Kids,” from Lou Reed’s concept album Berlin, is a remarkably cruel, disturbing track. Without giving away too much of the story, the narrator believes that the “miserable rotten slut” in the lyrics, his previous lover, deserves punishment – namely the loss of parental rights – for her sexual promiscuity and drug use. In truth, the entire Side B of Berlin is an incredible downer, but the malicious lyrics and the added sounds of shrilly-screaming children earn this particular song a place on my list.
2. "I Know It's Over," The Smiths
No tribute to a failed relationship competes with this devastating Smiths classic. I’ve often thought that the four lines starting with “sad veiled bride, please be happy” critique the unhappy business of marriage altogether, but so much of Morrissey’s brilliant lyrics are best left to your own, personal interpretations.
1. "The Crucifixion," Phil Ochs
As the 1960s progressed, the songs of topical singer Phil Ochs, once sanguinely revolutionary, eventually became characterized by intense expressions of political despair. I personally find lots of his later work debilitating. This song, about how we build moral leaders only to tear them down, was originally written about John F Kennedy, but unintentionally picked-up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and Salvador Allende along the way. As his surviving brother once described, Ochs had the ego to take the violence of the 1960s personally, thus leading him headlong into the torments of his later life.
Honorable mentions include Tracy Chapman’s tale of poverty, divorce and alcoholism, “Fast Car,” and Janis Ian’s classic teenage angst track, “At Seventeen.”
While putting the finishing touches on my list, I listened to every one of these songs. If you did as well, are you as drained as I am? Anyone fancy a drink?