It’s time to bring back the Sad Songs playlist

Written by Apa Agbayani, Don Jaucian, Jam Pascual, and Carina Santos
Art by Neal Corpus


In any coming-of-age comes an encounter with a sad song at the exact moment in your life that it’s meant to speak to you. So much has been written of music as a balm, of how sometimes it is enough that each word in a song feels like you’ve said it or heard it some other way in your life — like these sorrows had past lives before they became yours. Now, you have something to sing along to when all other words leave you.

As the rain starts to hit more heavily in these parts, it feels like a good time to revisit a Young Star classic by Regina Belmonte (that we can’t even find online), a list of sad songs originally published one rainy season in the early aughties. Taking it as an inspiration below is another list — not as a “best of” or anything definitive — but as a selection of our personal salves.

Liars – The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack (2006)

When something is repeated, it could function as emphasis, as with the Hebrew language, or it could very well be that you’re trying to convince yourself to believe in a lie. The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack lives in that tiny space where the difference in the meaning of repetition dwells together, where you’re not quite convinced of the sparse promises, but you allow yourself to believe in them, too. (Carina Santos)

The Mountain Goats – Autoclave (2008)

“I am this great, unstable mass of blood and foam,” John Darnielle sings, defiant and pitying, announcing that he’s undeserving of the homecoming that comes with intimacy. Upon learning about bacteria that thrives in an environment that’s supposed to kill it, he writes: “[t]his got me to thinking about people whose hearts involuntarily pulverize any good feelings that come within a city block of them.” (C.S.)

Ang Bandang Shirley – ‘Di Na Babalik (2013)

I’ve heard this song so many times: at a gig, on loop after a heartbreak, leaking tinnily out of some speakers; but it never wears off its veneer; its reluctance to cross the finish line, to move on. No one knows the comforts of a lost love better than this song does. In fact, it willingly embraces it. Because at times, the memory of what is gone is the only thing that keeps us alive, for better or for worse. (Don Jaucian)

Frightened Rabbit – Nitrous Gas (2013)

This year, Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchinson was found dead on the banks of Scotland’s Firth of Forth, lending a sombre and chilling tone to what he called the expansion of an often flippant phrase, “I wish I was dead.” It’s a song for when life gets too heavy, and you need a song you can sink into — just for four minutes — so you don’t drown inside yourself. (C.S.)

Lykke Li – Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone (2014)

There is a point in “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” that it almost disintegrates. Each word has been sung like a decaying mantra, relying on friction to burn through pleas to “love her scars” so she can sew herself back together. But by this time, her love is at its breaking point, scorching even in the way it asks for recognition. (D.J.)

Björk – Stonemilker (2015)

Björk once confessed that she struggled writing sad songs, because she hated the dark headspace they put you in. Years later, could she have imagined herself writing Stonemilker? It’s an elegy to a love that is dying, a seven-minute snapshot of the moment you realize you owe one another emotional honesty to begin to leave this love behind. (Apa Agbayani)

Carly Rae Jepsen – When I Needed You (2015)

An impossible sorrow creeps out through the ‘80s synths and drum breaks on Carly Rae Jepsen’s When I Needed You. It’s a song anyone can dance to and it describes a hurt that pretty much anyone can relate to: Thinking the world of someone who thinks so little of you. “I’m not myself,” she bursts in between verses, and you feel it. (A.A.)

Ourselves The Elves – Uncertainly (2015)

“Uncertainly” is like gravity, a wash of waves that take you in its undertow whenever it comes on. The storm of feelings it contains — the confusion, the excitement, the regret — is purely plaintive, so distilled of its essence that it’s hard to feel anything else when you’re listening to this song, or even afterwards. (D.J.)

Sufjan Stevens – The Only Thing (2015)

How do you make a list of the things that keep you alive? From “driving this car / half-light, jackknife, into the canyon at night,” specifically. Sufjan Stevens tries, knowing that the experiences that sustain him are no longer within reach for a loved one lost. And when I hear it, it feels like my hands are on the rope too, pulling both sides of that tug-of-war. (Jam Pascual)

Mitski – Your Best American Girl (2016)

Amidst quiet breaths and roaring guitars, Mitski’s Your Best American Girl paints a love doomed by a difference in worlds — when you try to fit yourself into someone else’s world yet the distance is simply too great to bridge. One of Mitski’s greatest gifts is her concision, and she fills the song’s brief runtime with hurt after hurt after hurt. (A.A.)

Noname – Freedom Interlude (2016)

On the sixth track of her 2016 mixtape, Noname finds herself at a loss. “I thought I was gon’ write a rap,” she says, her creative process gone awry by a reality shifting beyond her understanding. She flits attention from new love, to Bill Cosby’s #MeToo reckoning, to motherhood. The song ends with sampled audio of Nina Simone defining freedom as a lack of fear. I wonder if that’s true. (J.P.)

Quest – Walang Hanggan (2016)

“Walang Hanggan” is six minutes long but it feels as if it’s reaching, ironically, to eternity, looking down on an abyss, created in the wake of a broken relationship. The sparse production focuses on Quest’s vocals, dazed and inconsolable, still trying to make sense of the hurt and every thing that has happened. It is chilling yet admirable in its insistence to stand still and wait. Because what else would you do when even fate has given up? (D.J.)

Radiohead – True Love Waits (2016)

The fading quality of the recording suggests that this spectral call has waited and waited. And though the positioning of “true love” in the title makes it seem a little sinister, we often forget that ghosts are manifestations of absences, energies that can be traced to a pattern of hope — because what is perceived as destroyed is now here, in attics, in lollipops and crisps. (D.J.)

Julien Baker – Hurt Less (2017)

All of Julien Baker’s songs could fit into this list, but the pain-drenched tenderness of Hurt Less, a song Baker wrote about her best friend, Matt Gilliam (who also features on the track), feels like a portrait of being put back together. To will yourself to not survive a car crash but end with a tiny ring of reluctant optimism, sometimes that’s the most we can ask for. (C.S.)

Mount Eerie – Seaweed (2017)

The entirety of “A Crow Looked At Me” is a black forest of grief, songwriter Phil Elverum’s last love letter to his wife Geneviève Castrée, who passed of cancer. But it was Seaweed I listened to most when my dad ended his battle with the same disease. “What about foxgloves? / Is that a flower you liked?” Time dissolving memory. That’s what living is: things slipping away. (J.P.)

The National – Nobody Else Will Be There (2017)

“Sleep Well Beast” came at the right time: I had just uprooted my life to move eight hours into the past. Although The National has been there for me for years, this song held me steady on my feet — on walks around a city I’d just been getting to know, as I was trying to get used to actual solitary states. It insinuates a definite “alone-ness,” but it makes me feel like someone is watching over me. (C.S.)

Rostam – Bike Dream (2017)

Obfuscated in metaphor, drum loops and synths inspired by planetarium music, Rostam’s Bike Dream is a song about being one of “two boys: one to love you sweetly, one does so discreetly.” I’ve always read it as being privy to someone’s pained inner life, but yearning, too, to be the lover who gets to see them in the sun. (A.A.)

She’s Only Sixteen – Monologue (2017)

This isn’t so much a soliloquy but a debate between two warring sides of the same personality, cutting into each other. What comes out of that friction? The knowledge that this is who you are, and the sobering notion that it all might be too much, too bothersome, for anyone. Regret and indignation. An apology without a sorry. (J.P.)

Now, Now – AZ (2018)

There’s a kind of genius to the way AZ evokes two seemingly disparate scenarios — the appearance of a ghostly figure and summer drives to Arizona — as, instead, distinct but related strains of loneliness, forms of distance from a life once there. Wistful, glistening indie pop. It’s a vibe. (J.P.)

Snail Mail – Pristine (2018)

If you’ve ever tallied hurts against someone then felt them burst out of you like poison, you’ll love Pristine. The song is Lindsey Jordan’s ode to coming clean with every dark, resentful thought that’s burdened you. Through rolling guitars and sharp songwriting (“And out of everyone, be honest with me, who do you change for? Who’s top of your world?”), she sets it to paper to set herself free. (A.A.)


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