sad songs playlist

I sometimes half-jokingly refer to one of my favorite genres of music as “sad folk.” It’s the kind of music that inevitably comes to dominate my Avett Brothers artist station on Pandora if I listen to it long enough. (The Avetts themselves are always painfully sincere and can be quite sad–have you heard “Murder in the City”?) The voices of this genre tend to be soft and introspective, and the music sounds like a rainy fall day: think Bon Iver or Alexi Murdoch. And yes, sometimes the lyrics can be rather devastating (the question is whether you can actually hear them). I tend to like sad songs in general, even if they don’t fit under the “folk” designation (which has recently gotten so broad as to not be very helpful). Here are some of my favorites.

  1. “She Loves You” by The Gaslight Anthem. No, this isn’t a Beatles cover, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the title is a deliberate allusion; TGA does love naming their influences. This was a bonus track on American Slang, and I feel bad for all the people who got the regular album and didn’t find out about this song. Brian Fallon’s voice can make any song sound sad, even Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” which he covered with side project The Horrible Crowes. The lyrics to “She Loves You” aren’t necessarily sad, though, just wistful. Like West Side Story and that Dire Straits song about Romeo and Juliet, this song places everyone’s favorite Shakespearean young lovers in an urban setting, which means that like most good Gaslight Anthem songs, this one has a strong sense of place. The tune is wonderfully singable and sounds like it’s been around for a long time (you know what kind of tune I mean?), which evokes another sense of the word “folk” even though this song fits more into the rock genre.
  2. “The Stable Song” by Gregory Alan Isakov. You’ve probably heard this singer’s beautiful, pained voice even if you’ve never heard his name; one of his songs was in a Subaru commercial recently. (One of the many reasons why hipsters buy Subarus, I guess.) I’ll be honest; I’m not 100% sure what “The Stable Song” is about, though I get hints of deep regret over a series of foolish decisions. (It’s definitely not about the stable where Jesus was born, though it did come up on a Christmas station I was listening to once!) What I love about this song, aside from its heartbreaking tune, is that it seems to have an Appalachian setting: it mentions the Ohio River, and one of its loveliest metaphors is “turn these diamonds straight back into coal.” Listen to the album version, but also check out the movie-score-worthy version featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
  3. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart. Despite the creepy cover, which shows a man with a sheep’s head, I own and really enjoy The Head and the Heart’s first album. (I just have to hide it behind my other records.) I’ve loved this song for a long time, but just in the past week, as I’ve been thinking about moving away from the place I’ve lived for 15 years and, in fact, entirely out of the Appalachian region (see above), where I’ve lived pretty much my whole life, I’ve started to listen to it in a new way. This song, like most of the album, is about coming and going and wanting to return. My favorite line, which in its matter-of-fact profundity sounds like a line The Avett Brothers would write, says, “My family lives in a different state/And if you don’t know what to make of this, then we cannot relate.”
  4. “A Little Bit of Everything” by Dawes. I posted a link to this song on Facebook the other day on National Chicken Wing Day because while there are probably lots of songs that rep chicken wings (mostly country songs, I bet), this is the only one I’m actually aware of. I included a warning that this is NOT some light-hearted novelty song, despite the chicken wing reference, so you should not listen to it unless you are prepared to weep. Dawes has written some of the most perfect rock lyrics since the classic rock era, and many of them are on display in this song. The verses are about, respectively, a would-be suicide who can’t nail down one reason why he’s about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (“it’s a little bit of everything”), a beaten-down-by-life older man experiencing decision paralysis in a buffet line, who reviews his bittersweet life and then decides to eat everything!! (this is the chicken wing part), and an engaged couple contemplating the life they’re about to embark on (this is the happy verse, though it still mentions the bride-to-be loving “the way you ache”). It’s a sad song, but it also communicates a defiant, white-knuckled determination to hold onto the good parts of life.

Maybe don’t listen to all four of these songs right in a row. Or maybe do. And while you’re at it, let me know what your favorite sad songs are.

music about places

Some of my favorite music is the kind that tells a story about a place, or in some cases, not just a story but a whole novel.  In that latter category I put Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” which ranks with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in its ability to evoke a city with its depravities, deprivations, and transitory beauties all jumbled together.

Other music is less specific in its description, relying more on sound than on lyrics to call up a picture of a place.  U2’s The Joshua Tree instantly takes me out West, and I know that’s largely because of the album title, but it’s also in the music itself.  As proof of this, I don’t picture the southern California location of the actual Joshua Tree National Park when I hear this album; I actually think of somewhere more like where Nevada meets Idaho.  (N.B. My brother recently said that U2’s music is more American than John Mellencamp’s.  Harsh but true.)

Two of my favorite composers are Aaron Copland (his “populist” works) and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music would strongly suggest their respective countries even if they didn’t incorporate famous national folk tunes.  I just read something interesting on Wikipedia: Copland didn’t actually call his famous ballet Appalachian Spring; someone else gave it that title later.  His goal was just to write “music for an American ballet.” (  This probably explains why I don’t picture the Appalachians when I listen to it; I think of someplace flatter (hence bigger), like Oklahoma.  The point is that I definitely think of America.

One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to listen to music while driving–any music will do, but the best is music that fits the place I’m driving through.  I love to turn on my Avett Brothers Pandora station while I’m driving back to Lynchburg, VA, after visiting my family in Pittsburgh, PA.  My route stays just east of the Appalachians, in the foothills, pretty much the whole way.  The Avett Brothers are actually from North Carolina (which is close enough), but the kind of music that comes up on the station is more broadly country–and here I don’t mean that extremely popular genre that comes out of Nashville; I mean from the country, the part of America that used to be the frontier back when all the fancy people closer to the coast were creating the United States of America on paper, although now it’s usually just lumped in with the East.  I grew up hearing this kind of music and didn’t appreciate it then.  Now I think it’s so beautiful it sometimes makes me want to cry.

Then there’s the whole category of music that I associate with a particular place not necessarily because of anything in the music itself, but because I had an early or memorable experience with that music in that place.  I still like to listen to my Coldplay library when I’m on an airplane (which is a type of place, right?), because on my first truly long flight, to the U.K. in 2009, I listened to their albums on my iPod all night, coming in and out of sleep to hear Chris Martin’s familiar falsetto.

I could go on, but I’ll turn it over to you.  What songs, albums, or artists make you think of places, because of either the lyrics, the music, or some association personal to you?