When Someone Great Is Gone: Songs About Death

Music can help in all kinds of situations, can soothe all kinds of pain. And even though what you’re going through seems so insurmountable and it seems nothing could alleviate the difficulties you’re going through, it is possible to find some solace in music. Because it’s such a shared experience – much more so than films or books – many of us have songs that help us out when life seems hopeless. Even sad songs can offer their own kind of company, and remind us of the good times. Here are ten songs about loss that helped us here at NME through even the most difficult periods.

Modest Mouse, ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’

This wonky pop song sees frontman Isaac Brock vow to carry on the memory of the person who has died, singing, “Your body may be gone / I’m gonna carry you in / In my head, in my heart, in my soul.” And when someone leaves you with nothing but love, that can be enough to sustain you. The lopsided synth line gives the whole song an otherworldly feel, while the break in that middle-eight, which introduces a kaleidoscopic instrumental before a reprisal of the lush chorus, will knock the wind out of your sails.

Eric Clapton, ‘Tears In Heaven’

Famously written about the death of Clapton’s young son in 1987, this won a slew of Grammys upon release in 1993 (including ‘Song of the Year) and is arguably one of the most memorably moving compositions in pop music. Surprisingly, considering the deeply sensitive subject matter, it was co-written by Clapton and songwriter-for-hire Will Jennings. Yet the mournful, wistful resignation of the wheezing synth and clip-clopping percussion, combined with the very personal lyrics, “Time can bring ya down / Time can bend ya knees”, makes it clear this is an incredibly personal song. Clapton has said of it: “I have got a great deal of happiness and a great deal of healing from music.” Us too.

Brand New, ‘Guernica’

The spindly, creeping guitar of the verse in this post-hardcore tracks gives way to the fury and outrage of the power chord-heavy chorus, which rallies against the injustice of death. Someone close to the narrator has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it seems, and the resulting sense of uselessness in the face of such news is almost too much to bear: “If I could I would shrink myself and sink through your skin / To your blood cells and remove whatever makes you hurt / But I am too weak to be your cure.” John Lydon once said that “anger is an energy” and the rage spooling from this song can inspire you to grab life by horns and make every second count.


Frank Turner, ‘Long Live The Queen’

Speaking of making every second count, this riotous folk-punk song makes the point quite brilliantly. Listen to the way Turner sounds like he’s out of breath – it’s like the grief and shock have actually knocked the air from his lungs. The lyrics recall the parting words of the narrator’s hell-raising and terminally ill best mate: “You’ll live to dance another day / It’s just now you’ll have to dance for the two of us.” During the mute coda, Turner movingly modifies the words: “We’ll live to dance another day / It’s just now we have to dance for more of us.”

Kanye West, ‘Only One’

Kanye has claimed that this song, co-penned with Paul McCartney, was channelled through him by mother Donda, who died in 2007. The beautifully simple lyrics are written from her perspective, as she implores ‘Ye to tell his young daughter North-West about her. The minimalist organ and Kanye’s autotuned vocals – the man’s a genius, but wouldn’t get very far on The X Factor – give the track the feel of a comforting lullaby.

Warren Zevon, ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’

Appearing at the end of the Chicago singer-songwriter’s final album, ‘The Wind’, on which he began work after being diagnosed with cancer of the lung, ‘Keep Me in Your heart’ is Zevon’s final farewell. His voice sounds frailer than usual and the simple acoustic guitar is plaintive, but this is somehow weirdly uplifting rather than morbid. It’s in the freewheeling “Sha-lalala-lala-li-lalala-lo” refrain, which sort of makes it seem like he’s shrugging his shoulders at fate and accepting his mortality. His assurance that “If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less” and “I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse” are surely among the most perceptive and comforting ever put to record.

The Beatles, ‘Let It Be’

Don’t waste your life questioning the universe’s seemingly batshit mental motives, the Fab Four are saying with this song. Sometimes the only way to stay sane is through calm acceptance. The lilting, piano-led refrain is so familiar it’s like a nice cup of tea, while the lyrics are direct and advise on the only viable reaction to loss with reassuringly simple words: “In my darkest hour / She is standing right in front of me / Speaking words of wisdom / Let It Be.” It’s the aural equivalent of someone putting their arm around you and saying it’ll be okay. If you’re more into soul, Bill Withers’ cover is arguably even better than the original.


Puffy Daddy, Faith Evans & 112, ‘I’ll Be Missing You’

Dedicated to Biggie Smalls, who was murdered at the unbelievably young age of 24 in 1997, this tear-jerker features his widow Faith Evans and sees Diddy (then calling himself Puffy Daddy) re-appropriates The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ and flips the lyrics so that they relate to the narrator: “Every step I take… I’ll be missing you.” Evans’ presence gives this real emotional oomph: you can feel the pain in every note.


Local Natives, ‘Airplanes’

This one seems to pay tribute to a beloved grandparent now lost. “Every question / You took the time / Time to sit and look it up / Look it up in the encyclopedia.” It’s the little things we remember about the people we love. The wistful chorus gives way to a whispered, understated bridge – just vocals, sparse percussion and minimalist piano – with the following beautiful lyrical image: “I bet when I leave my body for the sky / The wait / The wait will be worth it.”

LCD Soundsystem, ‘Someone Great’

Here James Murphy recalls getting the dreaded phone call about the death of a friend or relative, set to muted electronica. “It keeps coming”, he repeatedly says of the pain,” ‘Til the day it stops.” One day, rest assured, it will. The tinkle of xylophone sounds childlike, perhaps suggesting this relates to someone the narrator knew and loved in childhood – a grandparent, perhaps, as in the Local Natives song. And one lyric embodies the crushing irony of grief: “I wish that we could talk about it / But there – that’s the problem.” The songs does what all great pieces of art do: it reminds us that we’re not alone in feeling universal emotions.

The Flaming Lips – ‘Do You Realize??’

Despite the fact that this song is said to be about band member Steven Drozd’s heroin addiction and the death of Wayne Coyne’s father, it has kind of become a Flaming Lips set-closing, confetti-filled, inspirational staple (with lines like “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes – let them know / You realize that life goes fast”).


Radiohead – ‘Videotape’

It’s a song that’s so stripped down and basic that you’re left with nothing but a bit of piano, Thom Yorke’s vocals and lyrics about reaching the “pearly gates” and “This is my way of saying goodbye / Because I can’t do it face to face”. It’s no wonder he described the process of creating it as “absolute agony”.

Nick Cave feat. PJ Harvey– ‘Henry Lee’

Back in ’96, Nick Cave brought us a collection of songs about death and crime, but there’s something about this one, recorded with his then-girlfriend PJ Harvey, that makes it the most lingering track on ‘Murder Ballads’. It’s based on a folk song about a distraught woman who stabs a man to death, but what’s even more haunting watching Nick and PJ dance in the video.

Blue Oyster Cult – ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’

While the Romeo and Juliet reference has triggered some speculation that this song’s about suicide, it’s essentially about (as the title suggests) not fearing death and accepting its inevitability. Any song that can do all that plus feature some cowbell deserves a spot on this list.


Elliott Smith – ‘King’s Crossing’

From the clangy piano to the shaky uncertainty in his voice, it’s nearly impossible to listen to this song about self-destruction, drug abuse and death and not think about Elliott Smith’s untimely passing.

Queen – ‘The Show Must Go On’

Brian May penned this song about Freddie Mercury’s illness and it was recorded during the frontman’s final days of life. There’s no denying that Freddie was one of a kind, and down to his very last days, he was still, first and foremost, a fighter and a performer. The show still went on for him.

Rufus Wainwright – ‘Memphis Skyline’

There are quite a few songs by Rufus that make us tear up, but seeing as we’re sticking to a theme here, ‘Memphis Skyline’ seems most fitting. Written in honour of Jeff Buckley, this is probably one of the most touching tributes out there.

Ben Folds Five – ‘Brick’

Ben Folds has always been reluctant to discuss the meaning behind this song, but has revealed that it’s about an abortion his girlfriend had while they were in high school, and the aftermath of the unborn child’s death.

The Shangri-Las – ‘Leader Of The Pack’

This 1964 song is about a girl who falls in love with the leader of a motorcycle gang, is forced to break up with him since her parents don’t approve, he speeds off on his bike and then he crashes and dies. The subject matter’s pretty devastating, yet The Shangri-Las still somehow manage to make it sound sugary sweet.

Pearl Jam – ‘Last Kiss’

So the original 1961 version by Wayne Cochran was a bit of a flop, but nearly four decades later, Pearl Jam took a successful stab at it, with their version entering the Top Five of nearly every US chart at the time. But even if you’re not a Vedder/Cochran fan, simply reading the lyrics (detailing a car crash and subsequently losing a loved one) will make your stomach turn.

Which songs did we miss? Which ones hold the most meaning to you? Leave us a comment to let us know.