25 Saddest Songs Ever
As this list of sad songs demonstrates, there are many reasons to break down in tears — a broken heart, death, lost car keys after an especially crappy morning. No matter what the situation, chances are somebody somewhere probably wrote a song about it, putting into words what you can’t (probably because you’re too busy bawling your eyes out to think clearly). So grab a box of tissues and check out our list of 25 Saddest Songs Ever.
When AC/DC’s uncharacteristically sad song ‘Ride On’ opens, singer Bon Scott is in a hotel room by himself in a strange town, empty bottles by his bed. “I ain’t too young to worry, and I ain’t too old to cry,” he sings over a slow bluesy riff that’s preparing for the tears that are sure to come. A woman broke Scott’s heart — or rather, he broke hers by doing something stupid, she dumped him and now he’s on the road, sitting in a hotel room, drinking to forget and doing his damndest to hold back the tears. His only advice to himself: Keep on moving.
Love sucks. Being in love sucks. Being out of love sucks. And being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back sucks pretty hard too. That’s the dilemma facing the woman in Bonnie Raitt’s colossally sad song about unrequited love. “You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t,” she sings in one of her most impassioned vocals ever. There’s real ache in every word that drips from her pained lips.
‘The Wind Cries Mary’ is filled with late-’60s psych-rock imagery that doesn’t make a whole lotta sense on paper. “After all the jacks are in their boxes, and the clowns have all gone to bed / You can hear happiness staggering on down the street,” “The traffic lights they turn up blue tomorrow, and shine their emptiness down on my bed.” What? But paired to the song’s mournful tone, they paint a pretty bleak picture of whatever wasteland Hendrix is singing about.
Lightning, thunder, blustery winds and chilling weather — they all pour down on poor Billy Gibbons after his woman leaves him in this epic bluesy crawl from ZZ Top’s second album. The song may get a tad melodramatic at times — “It sure got cold after the rain fell / Not from the sky, but from my eye” — but that doesn’t take away the pain and longing in Gibbons’ voice, which shatters alongside the heartbreak.
Even Lou Reed‘s love songs sting. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ was supposedly written about the first woman he ever loved. Unfortunately, she was married. And that opening line — “Sometimes I feel so happy, sometimes I feel so sad” — tells you all you need to know about the song, which is played so low and with so little energy, it sounds like almost all life has been drained out of the band. Essentially, it’s a farewell song to a love that was never meant to be. And that’s pretty darn sad.
Some background on ‘Trouble': Cat Stevens wrote the song while recovering from a collapsed lung and tuberculosis. It was used in the 1970 movie ‘Harold and Maude,’ about the relationship between a 79-year-old woman and a young twentysomething man. ‘Trouble’ plays over the heartbreaking scene before her death. If that isn’t enough to bring you down, there’s the plaintive melody and ache in Stevens’ voice.
Maybe it’s the power-ballad course this ‘Toys in the Attic’ song takes. Or maybe it’s the genuine ache in Steven Tyler‘s voice as he sings lines like “Please say you’ll stick around.” Or maybe it’s the awesome string section that lets you know that there’s some deep, heavy emotions on display here. Either way, tears flow readily in ‘You See Me Crying.’
Cheap Trick were reluctant to record ‘The Flame’ at first because they didn’t write it. They eventually gave in and scored their only No. 1 with it, setting the stage for a comeback in 1988. If the band loses some of its identity in the record, the heartbreak at the center of it glows bright. “You’ll always be the one / You were the first, you’ll be the last,” Robin Zander sings as the tears well up over his loneliness.
Despite the whole Oedipal thing going on at the song’s conclusion, the fatalism running through ‘The End’ is downright depressing. By turns a breakup song, a rumination on the end of childhood and a final observation on death itself, ‘The End’ can be as obscure as Jim Morrison‘s infamous “mother / father” line that nobody can really make out. Either way, nobody’s walking away unscarred.
Few things are more sad than dying alone, especially if you’re all by yourself in outer space, floating in a malfunctioned capsule with absolutely no hope of ever seeing your family or friends again. That’s what happens to the stranded astronaut in David Bowie’s breakthrough single. There’s caution in his voice as he relates a message back home: “Tell my wife I love her very much.” But things turns downright chilling, and depressing, near the end of this sad song as he gets word of his fate from ground control below — “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong” — as voices echo into eternity.
How’s this for depressing? The dude in the title track to Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 album isn’t even 19 years old and he’s knocked up his girlfriend. So he marries her, gets a factory job and essentially shoves away any dreams he’s had for a life that was better than his dad’s. His decisions will haunt him until the day he dies: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” he asks in one last futile attempt to make sense of his empty existence. Pretty damn depressing, right?
The opening lines set the scene: “Look at us, baby, up all night, tearing our love apart.” Like many cuts on our list of the 25 Saddest Songs Ever, ‘I Can’t Tell You Why’ is about love coming to an end. But unlike so many of those other songs, it looks like there might be hope for the couple in the end. Or at least temporarily, until another late-night fight rips them even further apart.
Brokenhearted Jeff Lynne is obsessed with something in this 1974 hit by Electric Light Orchestra. He’s not very clear what he’s singing about here, but it gets mighty heavy at times: “Breakdown on the shoreline / Can’t move, it’s an ebb tide.” Plus, there’s that line in the chorus about “my old world is gone for dead” hanging over things. The crawling melody and Lynne’s slow, deliberate vocal add to the sadness. We don’t know why we’re crying, we just are. OK?
The Everly Brothers were the first artists to record ‘Love Hurts.’ Roy Orbison, Gram Parsons and Cher have recorded it too. But it’s Nazareth’s Top 10 hit from 1976 that most people know. And with the power-ballad thrust driving home every ache and pain in singer Dan McCafferty’s scarred voice, that hurt he’s singing about sounds very real.
Stewart wrote ‘The Killing of Georgie,’ which was on his 1976 album ‘A Night on the Town’ and released as a single the next year, about a gay friend who was murdered. This undeniably sad song takes a few liberties with the facts, but the heartbreaking conclusion is the same. After Georgie comes out to his parents, he’s disowned (“How can my son not be straight after all I’ve said and done for him?” asks his dad) and eventually finds acceptance in New York City’s queer culture. But he’s jumped by a gay-hating gang one night and killed. “Georgie stay, don’t go away,” Stewart sing as the song fades.
When Neil Young first started performing ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ in late 1970, Danny Whitten, the guitarist in his backup band Crazy Horse, was still alive but battling a crippling heroin addiction. Less than a year after this sad song was released on Young’s 1972 album ‘Harvest,’ Whitten was dead of an overdose. “Every junkie’s like a setting sun,” Young sings, knowing the end is near for his friend.
Who knew these princes of darkness could be so sensitive? Black Sabbath’s immortal piano ballad was inspired by drummer Bill Ward‘s divorce, but the band plays it with such delicate tenderness, the song transcends one man’s mere marital woes. When Ozzy Osbourne sings “I feel unhappy, I feel so sad / I lost the best friend that I ever had,” it sounds like he’s fighting back real tears. A rare breakup song by a band that usually stayed away from such mundane subjects.
Most parents go through the heartbreaking stage of their children’s development when their kids don’t need them anymore — whether it’s their first steps, first day of school or leaving home. John Lennon and Paul McCartney build ‘She’s Leaving Home’ around a spare string arrangement that accentuates its poignancy. The daughter here packs up and leaves in the middle of the night, leaving her distraught parents to pick up the pieces: “Standing alone at the top of the stairs, she breaks down and cries to her husband, ‘Daddy, our baby’s gone.” Sniff.
The sad, strumming acoustic guitars and mournful piano notes that usher in ‘Wild Horses’ are enough to make a grown man cry. But when Mick Jagger steps in with one of his most impassioned vocals, for once it sounds like something’s cut through his heart of stone. The Stones’ ballads tend to get sloppy, but this sad breakup song is right on the mark.
Elton John’s 1982 tribute to his old friend John Lennon — the garden he refers to is Madison Square Garden, where the pals performed onstage together in 1974 — was released a little more than a year after the former Beatle was murdered. “What happened here, as the New York sunset disappeared?” John asks at the start of the song over plaintive piano notes. But things don’t get truly heartbreaking until about midway through ‘Empty Garden,’ when John sings, “I’ve been knocking but no one answers / And I’ve been knocking most all the day … / Johnny, can’t you come out to play?“
Jackson Browne was working on his fourth album, ‘The Pretender,’ when his wife died of an overdose, reportedly a suicide. ‘Here Come Those Tears Again’ was around in a skeletal stage at the time but gained tons of emotional resonance when the mother of Browne’s late wife contributed to the song. ‘Here Come Those Tears Again’ may have started as a breakup song, but it ended up as a requiem for a wife and daughter.
Stevie Nicks wasn’t even 25 years old when she wrote ‘Landslide,’ but the lyrics — “Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? / Can I handle the seasons of my life?” — reflect the introspection of someone twice her age. Nicks has said the bittersweetness stems from a crossroads in her life: heading back to school or pursuing her singer-songwriter dreams with Lindsey Buckingham.
Eric Clapton’s 1992 ballad may pile on the maudlin tone and purposely pull at the heartstrings, but it comes from a very real place. Like Led Zeppelin‘s ‘All My Love’ (see elsewhere on our list of the 25 Saddest Songs Ever), ‘Tears in Heaven’ is about the tragic death of a young family member — in this case, Clapton’s four-year-old son, who fell to his death from an apartment the year before. His heartbreaking performance gave Clapton his biggest hit since 1974’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff.’
Warren Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just a few weeks before he began recording his final album, ‘The Wind,’ in late 2002. So there’s an underlying sense of mortality to most of the songs. But he kept the best, and most poignant, track for the end. ‘Keep Me in Your Heart’ is a teary farewell to family, friends and fans. Zevon passed away two weeks after the album’s release in 2003. Just try making it through this one without getting choked up.
‘All My Love’
A cursory listen to ‘All My Love’ may lead you to believe it’s one of Led Zeppelin’s rare love songs (as opposed to their plentiful sex songs). But the cut was actually written in tribute to Robert Plant‘s five-year-old son, who died of a stomach infection while Zeppelin were on tour. Granted, lines like “Yours is the cloth, mine is the hand that sews time / His is the force that lies within / Ours is the fire, all the warmth we can find / He is a feather in the wind” are pretty vague, but trust us on this one.