A number of recent studies have supported the seemingly paradoxical theory that sad music generally tends to relieve its listener’s melancholic thoughts. Contrary to previously-held beliefs that sad music would only lessen its listener’s mood across the board, experts have now given us a gloriously gloomy green light: Go ahead and wallow in that sadness.
Movies, books, and the finales of your favorite TV shows all might do the job in their own rights, but nothing conjures tears quite like a sad song. Though experts haven’t yet been able to pinpoint exactly why, it takes a lot of focus for our brains to comprehend all the nuances and complexities of music; still, researchers have found that people can recognize emotions conveyed in music even after sustaining damage to parts of the brain involved in comprehending melody.
So it’s no wonder that sad songs are so cathartic — whether listening to them, or making whole albums of them. Here, we’ve rounded up just 20 of the most bleak, grim, melancholic albums out there for the most efficient commiserating.
Check out our best sad albums list below.
20. Greet Death, New Hell
At times, Greet Death’s New Hell feels like a freefall into an endless abyss. Other times, it’s an ascension up to an unknown sublime. Taking notes from slow-core, doom metal, and shoegaze, the Michigan band’s second album is one of the most concentrated works of catharsis in recent years. Thanks to touching melodies, rich textures, and tearjerking extended outros, the record lives up to its ominous name. Then, above it all, comes stark lyrics capturing the experience of dealing with mental illness (“Well the days are getting shorter/ All your friends stopped coming over/ And you’re losing your composure/ You should sleep less, we should talk more”). All of which is to say, if you see a friend listening to “Do You Feel Nothing?” or “Strange Days,” maybe check in on them. — Jonah Krueger
19. Saba, CARE FOR ME
Already a great storyteller, Saba brought his artistry to another level on CARE FOR ME by channeling the grief of losing his best friend and cousin Walter “John Walt” Long Jr. Over lush, funky production, the Chicago rapper opens up with raw, emotional lyrics delving into depression and anxiety. Though Saba shares stories specific to his own life, he does it without holding the listener at arm’s length. Instead, his conversational flow keeps his songs relatable enough to allow people to see their own struggles through a different lens and experience catharsis along with him. — Eddie Fu
18. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
Certain albums transport you with a vivid sense of place. Bon Iver’s debut album was recorded in Justin Vernon’s father’s remote hunting cabin an hour outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and, well… it sounds just like that! Songs like “Flume,” “Skinny Love,” and “Re: Stacks,” are gentle and maybe a bit wounded, with Vernon’s otherwordly tenor-falsetto delivering cryptic lyrics that simultaneously sound like nonsense and the secrets of the heart. It’s a record that helps to create a sense of solitude even when you’re surrounded by people, and provides a connection to deeper emotions when you’re utterly alone. It’s a companion, through good times and bad. — Spencer Dukoff
17. Duster, Stratosphere
For an idea of what it’s like to listen to Duster, look no further than the album art for their seminal 1998 album Stratosphere: desolate, hazy, and beautiful. Fusing slow tempos, downtrodden vocals, ambient textures, and just enough melody to make you start sweating from your eyes, it’s nearly impossible to listen to Stratosphere without developing a melancholic thousand-yard stare. It’s so utterly effective that Duster has even become the de facto soundtrack to deeply depressive online content, turning everything from viral clips to Family Guy into devastating art pieces. — J.K.
16. Paramore, After Laughter
Though Hayley Williams, Taylor York, and Zac Farro largely trade their pop punk roots for an ’80s new wave sound on After Laughter, the record’s lyrics are just as full of angst as their previous work. In sharp contrast to the bright synths and sleek guitars, the album features constant themes of heartbreak, depression, and anxiety, and fans are offered catharsis through tracks like “Hard Times,” “Rose-Colored Boy,” and “Fake Happy.” With nearly half of the album mentioning crying, there’s no better soundtrack to smile through the pain. — E.F.
15. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day
Blending ’70s psychedelic rock and indie pop, the sonics of Man on the Moon provide a unique template allowing Kid Cudi to bring listeners on a cosmic journey. Setting the stage by opening up about his personal struggles on “Soundtrack 2 My Life,” the lonely stoner offers comfort to fans who are experiencing their own troubles on tracks like “Solo Dolo” and “Pursuit of Happiness.” And of course, there’s nothing like Cudi’s hums on “My World” to lift your spirits. By the end of the album, “Up Up & Away” gives final motivation to shake off the sadness. — E.F.
14. Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger in the Alps
If sad music seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately (see: the stupid “Sad Girl Starter Pack” playlist on Spotify), you can thank Phoebe Bridgers’ 2017 debut album for kicking off an era. Sure, there have been many singer-songwriters who have crafted heavier songs about death, despair, and impermanence. But rarely have these songs been counterbalanced by biting wit and gallows humor like they do on this record. “Smoke Signals” evokes desolation and loneliness, while the main hook on “Funeral” is “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time/ And that’s just how I feel/ Always have and I always will.” The album will make you sad — but in a way that makes you strangely feel good. It’s also one of the best albums out there if you’re not a fan of Eric Clapton as a person. — S.D.
13. American Football, American Football
Before fleets of pop-punk bands would scream their own swan songs of their teen angst, American Football believably made growing up sound like the most painful experience in the world. Just 22 at the time of American Football’s release, frontman Mike Kinsella sings of losing his innocence and the disappointment that comes with passing time. “We’re just two human beings individually with inherent interest in each other and how we relate,” he sings on highlight “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional,” stripping heartbreak down to its most sterile, impersonal core in a futile attempt at self-preservation. — Abby Jones
12. Dashboard Confessional, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most
You’ve never really experienced true sadness if you haven’t listened to “The Brilliant Dance” while forlornly gazing at your own pathetic reflection in the mirror of your teenage bedroom. The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most is a Sad Album with a capital S, all catharsis and brutal honesty as the Patron Saint of Sad Acoustic Guitar Music Chris Carrabba pours his heart out over 10 tracks. Lyrically, songs like “Screaming Infidelities” and “Again I Go Unnoticed” come across as deeply personal to Carrabba. However, attend a Dashboard show (or check out a performance on YouTube) and you’ll see that these tracks transform into epic sing-alongs, showcasing just how universal the album’s themes of misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and unrequited love are for so many people. If you’re going through it — I mean, really going through it — pop on Dashboard’s most affecting collection of tunes and let those tears flow. — S.D.
11. Blood Orange, Negro Swan
Filtered through the lens of Black depression and the never-ending anxieties of the queer community and people of color, Negro Swan effortlessly mixes together funk, soul, blues, and even psych-pop into a sound that only Dev Hynes can only create. Filled to the brim with vulnerability, the pensive songwriting tells stories of love, loss, and trauma, yet manages to bring hope to marginalized people in the process. There can’t be joy without despair, a concept Hynes nails on the album. Experience both emotions through the record and emerge on the other side better off for it. — E.F.
10. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead have cultivated a reputation of being one of the gloomier bands in indie music. As such, any of their records could have easily landed on this list, but for our money, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool dives deepest into the trenches of sorrow. With a more mellowed-out, orchestrated sound palette and some of Thom Yorke’s most devastatingly beautiful vocal performances, the album is depressive, moody, and unflinchingly soul-crushing. Don’t believe us? Just take a listen to “True Love Waits,” which was scientifically proven to be Radiohead’s most depressive song from their most depressive album. –- J.K.
09. Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Bright Eyes is arguably the quintessential 2000’s emo act. From the lo-fi bedroom rock of Letting Off The Happiness to the brooding Fevers and Mirrors to the country streaks of Lifted or Cassadaga, Conor Oberst and company have many flavors of “sad music” for you to choose from. Something about I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, though, feels different. Maybe it’s the heightened intimacy or the acoustic backdrop that allows Oberst’s impeccable songwriting and lyricism to shine; maybe it’s simply that songs like “Lua” or “First Day of My Life” rank as all-time cry-worthy anthems. Either way, few records offer an antidote to crushing loneliness like I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. — J.K.
08. Jeff Buckley, Grace
Even if Jeff Buckley hadn’t tragically died before completing his sophomore album, Grace would still be a shoo-in on this list. Heartbreak has rarely sounded as devastating as it does on the musician’s sole LP, delineating the grief in visions of empty beds, biblical allegories, and glasses of wine. From the eerie sway of “Mojo Pin” to the the steady chug of “Last Goodbye,” Buckley’s crystalline voice makes his words all the more moving: “I feel too young to hold on/ And I’m much too old to break free and run,” he croons on “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” It’s tragic that we never got to see him do either. — A.J.
07. Grouper, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
“I’ve been good but I’m stuck in a sad song,” Liz Harris sings on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, her breakout album as Grouper. It’s a fitting tagline for the record, which often sounds like playing Mazzy Star on half-speed in an empty cave. Harris’ words tend to smear together indistinguishably, but even amid those vacuous, folksy recordings, you can clearly feel her wistful desire to let herself slip into the river and float until she reaches the earth’s edge. — A.J.
06. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
He might not have known it at the time, but Sufjan Stevens endured more trauma in the first few years of his life than many do in their lifetimes. Carrie & Lowell is an ode to Carrie, his late estranged mother, and Lowell, his stepfather who — despite only being married to Carrie for five years — became both a guardian and a beacon of hope. Written in the aftermath of Carrie’s death from stomach cancer in 2012, the album is Stevens’ means to understanding the grief compounded throughout his life, recalling crumbling memories of family road trips as well as bouts of binge drinking and self-harm. Grief never really shrinks, he seems to say, but if you’re lucky, better moments in life soften its blow. — A.J.
05. Elliott Smith, Either/Or
Elliott Smith didn’t intend for every song on his third album Either/Or to be sad; take its breezy closing track “Say Yes,” for example, which the musician himself once called “insanely optimistic.” But the contrasts in Either/Or are part of what makes the record so devastating. On Either/Or, Smith battles with his alcohol dependence, the loneliness that’s comorbid with fame, and the terrifying freedom to live however you please. When he sings “you can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you,” any iota of hope is shrouded by a devil on your shoulder taunting you towards self-sabotage. — A.J.
04. Have a Nice Life, Deathconsciousness
It might not be a tearjerker per se, but few records depict a bleak outlook on life as vivid as Have a Nice Life’s 2008 debut Deathconsciousness. Nearly an hour and a half of expansive, gothic-tinged post-rock, the double album seems to objectify humans as soulless pawns, mechanically going through the motions as apocalypse encroaches: “We’re machines that eat and breathe and look really cool,” goes a particularly memorable line in “Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000.” “And I’ve replaced my heart with metal parts.” As Deathconsciousness argues, perhaps the only thing more tragic than perennial sadness is the inability to feel anything at all. — A.J.