There is nothing in the world quite as immediately emotionally transformative as music. That is a statement as close to fact as you will find in an article as subjective as this, despite the guarantee in the headline.
Music mimics our vocal and physical expressions of emotion in order to convey the intended mood, for instance, when a person gets excitable or fearful their expressions will likely be loud, fast and frantic. An excitable genre like trance echoes these adjectives. This direct transposing of emotion into sound means that from an incredibly early age we can intrinsically interpret musical triggers like major or minor keys into feeling.
Ultimately, however, what dictates our emotional response to music is lived experience, and it is this fact that adds an asterisk to the ‘guaranteed’ tag. The music of Scatman John has probably made some cry if it has somehow become indelibly entwined with the right life experience, in the way that only music can.
Thus this list focuses on those rare songs that seem to hold on to some fragile part of life that doesn’t often get spoken about and when artists dare to tread there it often proves teary for the listener. Feel free to take from the playlist at the bottom and add your own heart-tuggers for those times when your eyes need a good old cathartic cleansing.
In the words of Rosey Grier, “It’s alright to cry, it might just make you feel better.”
Ten songs guaranteed to make you cry:
10. Jackson C. Frank – ‘Blues Run the Game’
It is a recurring theme in the list below that sad songs hit hardest when they carry the full weight of the story behind them. In Jackson C. Frank’s case, there aren’t many darker backstories in music. “I don’t believe in curses exactly,” says friend and biographer Jim Abbott, “But he sure was in the wrong place at the wrong time an awful lot of times.”
The first and most prominent of those wrong places was Cleveland Hill High School. The school caught fire and, in the resulting blaze, 15 of his classmates died including his girlfriend Marlene, the muse for his song of the same name. Jackson was in 6th-grade music class at the time. He emerged from the inferno with scars, both physical and emotional, that would pain him for a lifetime, in which he grieved the loss of Marlene throughout.
Following the accident his music teacher gifted him a guitar and his musical talents blossomed and the song ‘Blues Run the Game’ he caught a boat to England, where amidst the burgeoning beatnik folk scene of Bond Street he crossed paths with Paul Simon. He would record his self-titled debut in 1965 with Simon as a producer. The song did little to diminish the heap of his burden and tragically he fell into a life of homelessness and he died a forgotten legend. The beauty of the song and the fact it lives on is the beautiful silver-lining to his legacy.
9. Mount Eerie – ‘Real Death’
Mount Eerie’s album Death is Real deals with tragedy and grief in one of the most candid, raw, and heartfelt ways ever put to record. Mount Eerie is the musical moniker of Phil Elverum, who tragically lost his wife to cancer, very suddenly, when his daughter was only a few months old.
Unlike almost any other song ever written ‘Real Death’ is permeated with the realities of grief in a way that arrests attention and elucidates the everyday impact of loss. The following stream of consciousness verse is one of the most affecting in music: “Crusted with tears, catatonic and raw / I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail / A week after you died a package with your name on it came / And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret / And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed / A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now / You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known / Deep down would not include you / Though you clawed at the cliff you were sliding down / Being swallowed into a silence that’s bottomless and real.”
The stark reality of grief is unabated, however, the closing line to the song offers salvation: “I love you.” It might only be one line, but in the contextual outpouring that precedes it, the fact it ends on a simple declaration of love is a mark of defiance, no matter how humble it may be.
8. Rodriquez – ‘Cause’
Once again, with ‘Cause’, the sadness of the song is emboldened by the backstory. The life-affirming documentary Searching for Sugarman chronicles the tale of Rodriguez, a folk musician who sold all of ten records in America, but unbeknownst to himself, went on to be the bigger than Elvis in South Africa.
This track captures the eery feel of an ill-fated prognostication. The first line of the song is, “Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas,” and it is a fate that Rodriguez would experience. After poor record sales, he was dropped by his label just a matter of days before Christmas.
The poignancy of the song deserves to be eulogies but the final verses speak best for themselves: “Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them / So overdued I went to the company store / And the clerk there said that they had just been invaded / So I set sail in a teardrop and escaped beneath the doorsill / Cause the smell of her perfume echoes in my head still / Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun / In weekends of whiskey sours / Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?”
7. Nico – ‘These Days’
If you wish to protect the sanctity of this beautiful song then look away now, for I am about to divulge a fact that blunts its visceral edge and replaces it with a question mark: Jackson Browne wrote the original version of this song when he was only 16-years-old.
How a boy with a fluffy slug on his top lip and greasy hair, knew so much of the world and romance is a mystery, however, he assimilated a wealth of wisdom way beyond his years to produce one of the most gorgeous folk songs there is.
Nico’s interpretation is a wistful thing of beauty. She transfigures the greatest music exam submitted since Mozart and embalms it with the mellow hue of lived experience, ending on the mournful couplet of, “Please don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them,” with a weary sigh.
6. Nick Cave – ‘Ghosteen Speaks’
Speaking about the loss of his son, Arthur Cave, Nick Cave wrote, “Language falls short before the immensity of grief,” adding, “One desperate morning […] I called upon my son by name […] I said ‘you are my son and you are beside me’.”
In the song ‘Ghosteen Speaks’, those four little words, “I am beside you”, hold the weight of all language, but emboldened by the lightness of the music and empowered by the actualised release from boundless grief, they soar transcendently, and four simple words bring comfort to those that need it most. They embody the cathartic and spiritual power of music that Cave has harnessed and sheltered throughout his records.
The album as a whole is a powerful listening experience that stands as the transfigured product of Cave’s grief and the comfort that comes with the power of memories and hope. “I am beside you,” is a mantra for those grieving to cherish.
5. Nick Drake – ‘Place To Be’
Nick Drake’s back catalogue is enshrined in delicately ethereal wonder. His unique gentle strumming and his morning birdsong-like voice have an otherworldly quality, almost too wistful to be pressed onto the bulky heft of vinyl. The tragedy that surrounds this delicate beauty is that shortly after producing his third album he would die of an overdose.
‘Place To Be’ is not the typically minor key tear-jerker, but it captures something spiritual that proves to be very moving. Pink Moon is record that sits on the bittersweet boundary of beauty and longing and ‘Place To Be’ is a distilled nugget of that dichotomy.
4. R.E.M. – ‘Everybody Hurts’
Sadness is part of the human experience and with ‘Everybody Hurts’ R.E.M. invite you to embrace that. The song is a gentle entreaty to the emotional side of life.
The bulk of the song was written by the band’s former drummer Bill Berry. He intended the song as an anti-suicide song, in an attempt to reach out to people who felt hopeless in a way of telling them they are not alone.
Featuring a string arrangement composed by Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones the song soars and offers a balm of life in harsher times. As John Cooper Clarke once said of the Paul Anka version, “It broke my fucking heart… in a good way!”
3. Elliot Smith – ‘Between The Bars’
There is so much going on in Elliot Smith’s ‘Between The Bars’ that it proves very difficult to summarise coherently. On the one hand, it offers comfort in its refusal to judge others, but like an AA meeting that lack of judgement comes with the promise of a lament, and a gentle undercurrent of rage as the ceaseless pissing away of potential.
“The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see / promises you’ll only make — drink up with me now,” is the candid autobiographical cry that Smith casually croons out.
Once more it is a song touched by the tragedy of retrospect. Smith was another starlet who died prematurely in catastrophic circumstances. This song captures the casual unfurling of the regrettable elements of the luminary’s life.
2. Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’
Sometimes a cover is so great that it seems the fate of the song all along was to end up in the hands of its grateful inheritor. That is not to besmirch the Nine Inch Nails original, it is just that the song seems to yearn for the weary tones of a careworn voice.
It is a tale of ageing that transitions from apathy to exultation. Consequences and regrets are considered and the pain of both is laid bare, but despite the lyrical content the upsurging chord change of the chorus offers a new lease of life as the song moves on, if not away from.
The song is perfectly embodied by a tableau depicted by Mark Romanek while directing the music video. He told The Guardian, “I went to the House of Cash Museum and found it in total disrepair. There was no time to clean it up so I decided that I’d just film it, and Johnny, exactly as they were. He was no longer in his prime – he was fading and that was what I wanted to show. While I was filming the opening segment of Johnny playing guitar in his living room, his wife, June, came down the stairs and watched. The look on her face was so complex: full of love and pride and concern for her husband.”
Much like Mount Eerie’s tear-jerking ballad, behind the sorrow of the song there is an enduring core of love.
1. Nina Simone – ‘My Father’
It has often been said that Nina Simone sings other people’s songs better than her own. She is one of the greatest singers that there has ever been so that is a fairly tricky thing to judge. However, when it comes her handling of Judy Collins’ poignant words, the sentiment certainly rings true.
On Susie Cave’s website, The Vampires Wife, she describes a spiritual moment she had with this song quite wonderfully. “I was driving up to London the other day and this song came on the radio and I had to stop the car, pull over on the side of the road and have a cry,” she writes. “Nina seems to draw each line down from the heavens and delivers each word with such concentration and care, as if at any moment the song may shatter into a million pieces.”
‘My Father’ is a love song like no other. It explores the complexity and depth behind the line that Bob Dylan would crystalises in a pellet of benevolence with his song ‘I Threw It All Away’ – “Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round / Love and only love, it can’t be denied.”