None of us are strangers to a tough listen. Sure, sometimes we want music to make us feel good, but other times we want to feel something a bit darker. These ten songs are a step over the line; some of them we might get the urge to listen to once a year, in a dark room, alone, with headphones, and only if we have absolutely nothing to do for the rest of the evening, while others will just make us cry. Strangely though, many songs on this list are impossible not to come back to, be it for curiosity, the earworm effect, or simply because, despite their unsettling nature, they are great songs. Just don’t play any of them at a party unless you really want everyone to bugger off home.
10. In The Ghetto – Elvis Presley
Maybe you were not expecting to see the king of rockabilly on this list? By and large he was indeed a pop singer but this tune stands out for having a much more political message than most of his others. It dares people to look at the inequalities in the USA, and indeed those that can be seen around the world, by narrating the life and death of a boy born in the ghetto. Easy to put on in the background certainly, but when one really takes the time to hear the story a single listen is enough for a while.
9. Frank’s Wild Years – Tom Waits
A story about a true American psychopath, Frank’s Wild Years conjures up the image of a smoky underground jazz club down a back alley, where our narrator sits with a cigarette in one had and a Johnny Walker in the other, rattling off this tale to any who care to listen. The title character is living a perfectly ordinary life, with a perfectly ordinary job, and a perfectly ordinary family, until one night he has a few drinks and burns his whole house to ground, then disappears up the highway. So creepy is Tom Waits‘ telling one can almost hear Frank laugh as he drives away.
8. King Park – La Dispute
Drive by shootings are never a jolly topic, La Dispute take it a step further with a true story, told from the perspective of a ghost, in which a gang based shooting results in the accidental murder of a sixteen year old. While the first half of the song is uncomfortable enough, the screaming climax, in which the narrator sees the shooter locked up in a hotel room asking, “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” while his uncle begs him to come out and accept what he has done, ends suddenly and somehow leaves you wanting to know more of this dark story.
7. Hurt – Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor set the standard for emotive song writing in 1994 when The Downward Spiral was released. While the whole album could go on this list for its depiction of loneliness, drug addiction, and suicide, it is this song that caps it all off. Our protagonist has just tried to kill himself, unsuccessfully, and is now looking around at what he has left; friends long gone, an empire of dirt, and a wasted life. While the final verse does leave the hope that he will find a way to live with himself and make better choices, the journey getting there is too harrowing to listen through regularly.
6. Gloomy Sunday – Billie Holiday
Known as the Hungarian suicide song, this piece was linked to 19 cases of people in the country taking their own lives throughout the 1930s. Although hard to verify and largely dismissed now, one can easily see, based on the song’s subject matter, how it earned this reputation.
Originally written by Rezső Seress in 1933 about the despair left behind by war, it was not until Lásló Jávor‘s rewrote the lyrics, in which the narrator wishes to take their own life following the death of a lover, that we heard the song in its most well known form. Billie Holiday’s English version, released in 1941 is the most globally recognised, and listening to it one can feel the sorrow ineluctably weep through the speakers. Gloomy Sunday is, without question, achingly beautiful, and as a result is always deserving of a revisit.
5. The View – Lou Reed & Metallica
No, it is not a typo, The Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed and thrash metal pioneers Metallica did collaborate, on a whole album no less. The View is the only single from that album so, if you are tempted to hear exactly what this partnership sounds like, it will probably be your first port of call. You could also skip that step and just trust us when we say it sounds like Lou Reed is trying to record a spoken word album while the sound of Metallica rehearsing in the next room accidently leaks in. Poorly produced, difficult to sit through, but why would it ruin your day? Because Lou Reed, singer-songwriter, who worked with Andy Warhol, penned Perfect Day, Walk on the Wild Side, and countless other classics, then made an album with the lines,” I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff” and “I am the table”, then died.
4. The Little Boy That Santa Clause Forgot – Nat King Cole
Who decided this was the Christmas song we needed? In 1937 Michael Carr, Tommie Connor, and Jimmy Leach did. The only seasonal song on this list, the lyrics tell the story a small boy who receives nothing for Christmas and is left alone with last year’s broken toys. It is as sad as it sounds, only getting more so when it is revealed the boy has no father. Cold, lonely, miserable, not the sorts of feelings one needs floating around on a day the whole family is gathered, as if family Christmas is not hard enough! As difficult as it is to imagine why someone felt the need to write this it is harder still to imagine anyone looking forward to this each year as they sit down to unwrap the pile of presents beneath the tree.
3. Dance With The Devil – Immortal Technique
Perhaps the most nauseating track you will hear today, in no small part down to its brilliant story telling and eerie piano. Immortal technique tell a simple story about a man coming from a broken family, desperate for money and respect, and his journey lower and lower into the pits of gang crime. While it is hard enough to see the protagonist’s potential get slowly whittled away, what he is prepared to go through to reach prestige among his crew is positively gut wrenching. When the twist finally comes, along with a chilling confession from the narrator, you will definitely need some time alone with your thoughts.
2. …And Then She Bled – Suicide Silence
On their second album, Californian deathcore outfit Suicide Silence gave us a truly chilling soundtrack to a chimp mutilating a woman, literally. The whole song is a 911 call by a terrified pet owner telling the police her chimpanzee has gone berserk and is eating the face of her friend. As the call escalates so does the band’s playing, fitting perfectly with the terror of the scene. Besides the feeling of sickness one feels as the screams of “She’s Dead, she’s dead!” echo behind the disorientating wails of the guitar, there is also a lurking fear when the song ends of turning round and seeing the chimpanzee before your very eyes. The message is, do not attempt to domesticate wild animals!
1. Frankie Teardrop – Suicide
This is indisputably a dark room and headphones listen. The stand out track from Suicide’s debut album brings us a minimalist noise soundscape accompanied by Alan Vega‘s chilling monologue about a factory worker driven to kill his family and, after, himself. The claustrophobic tension alone is enough to get under ones skin as it builds to the massacre, but when it is punctuated by those anguished screams as we follow Frankie into hell blood positively curdles. While it leaves one feeling bleak and hopeless it is so atmospheric it impossible to not listen to again, although admittedly after a long time.
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