Songs about depression can be the best place to turn when the black dog comes around. Depression’s a subject that crops up in music of all kinds and from all eras – from The Rolling Stones to Kanye West. We asked the whole NME team for their top picks of what to listen to when the going gets tough, and this is what we came up with: 50 of the best songs about depression, old and new. The common thread of them all, though, is that they all help put dark thoughts into perspective.
50‘I Feel Like Dying’ – Lil Wayne
Drugs are the mentally debilitating antagonist in this cut from 2007 compilation ‘The Drought Is Over 2’.
Key lyrics: “I am a prisoner, locked up behind Xanax bars / I have just boarded a plane without a pilot”
49‘Adam’s Song’ – Blink 182
These dark lyrics were written while the band were on tour, after they heard about a teen who left a suicide note for his parents. Guitarist Tom DeLonge said, “It’s one of those things, a story of a kid not being happy in his life, crossed with us being really lonely on tour. At the end of it there’s a better way out, there are better things to do than kill yourself.”
Key lyrics: “Another six months, I’ll be unknown / give all my things to all my friends / you’ll never step foot in my room again / you’ll close it off, board it up”
48‘Paint It, Black’ – The Rolling Stones
This sitar-backed, up-tempo track was originally released as a single in 1966 before being added to the US version of fourth album ‘Aftermath’. Its lyrics are intermittently angry and melancholy, wanting to cover up all the brightness in the world.
Key lyrics: “I look inside myself and see my heart is black / I see my red door and must have it painted black / maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts / it’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black”
47‘Everybody Hurts’ – R.E.M.
This much-beloved anti-suicide anthem uses an understated drum machine to place all the emphasis on Michael Stipe’s voice and the song’s lyrics. “I don’t remember singing it,” he once said, “but I still kind of can’t believe my voice is on this recording. It’s very pure. This song instantly belonged to everyone except us, and that honestly means the world to me.”
Key lyrics: “Take comfort in your friends / Everybody hurts. Don’t throw your hand… If you feel like you’re alone, no, no, no, you are not alone”
46‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’ – Biffy Clyro
The opening track to fourth album ‘Puzzle’ is “about hitting a low point and not giving a fuck,” says singer Simon Neil. “It was classic depression, I suppose. I think it has the attention and release that all good songs should have.”
Key lyrics: “Everywhere I look someone dies / wonder when it’s my turn”
45‘Hurt’ – Nine inch Nails
Johnny Cash famously covered Trent Reznor’s favourite song. “I’m not proud to say I hate myself and don’t like what I am,” he’s explained, “but maybe there is real human communication that ends up positive even though everything being said is negative.”
Key lyrics: “What have I become, my sweetest friend / everyone I know goes away in the end”
44‘Turn Blue’ – The Black Keys
Dan Auerbach drew on his painful divorce for these morose lyrics; he struggles to “stay on track just like Pops told me to.”
Key lyrics: “When the music is done and all the lights are low / I will remember the times when love would really glow”
43‘Black Eyed Dog’ – Nick Drake
There’s little to this that doesn’t sound forlorn and listless, although Drake’s keening guitar work is as deft and precise as ever. He died from an overdose less than a year after this song was recorded.
Key lyric: “I’m growing old/ And I don’t wanna know/ I’m growing old/ And I wanna go home.”
42‘Solitude Is Bliss’ – Tame Impala
‘Solitude Is Bliss’ was described by Parker as “the most sassy, confident-sounding song” he’d created for Tame Impala. It’s an anthem for introverts, depressed or otherwise.
Key lyric: “All the kids that I can’t compare to / making friends like they’re all supposed to / you will never come close to how I feel”
41‘Basket Case’ – Green Day
“The only way I could know what the hell was going on,” says Billie Joe Armstrong of his panic disorder, “was to write a song about it.” This is the frenetic result.
Key lyrics: “Sometimes I give myself the creeps / sometimes my mind plays tricks on me / it all keeps adding up I think I’m cracking up / am I just paranoid or am I just stoned?”
40‘Suicide Is Painless’ – Manic Street Preachers
To celebrate NME’s 40th birthday, a special album was created called ‘Ruby Trax’, featuring covers of past UK Number One singles. The Manics chose to record a cover of the theme from the 1971 satirical war film M*A*S*H.
Key lyrics: “Suicide is painless / it brings on many changes / and you can do the same thing if you please”
39‘People = Shit’ – Slipknot
Drummer Chris Fehn described the motivation behind this torrent of misanthropy: “Sometimes I just get that feeling when I look at society as a whole, my god, what a gyp.”
Key lyrics: “understand I cant feel anything / it isn’t like I wanna sift through the decay / I feel like a wound.”
38‘re:stacks’ – Bon Iver
Justin Vernon’s first Bon Iver album, recorded in a Wisconsin cabin, is hollow with grief, and ‘re:stacks’ is among the most lovelorn. His mum puts it best: “To me, it is not about getting over things and moving forward, it is about going through the sadness, taking some of it with you and being made whole because of it. I cry every time I listen to it.”
Key lyrics: “There’s a black crow sitting across from me / His wiry legs are crossed / And he’s dangling my keys he even fakes a toss / Whatever could it be that has brought me to this loss?”
37‘Loser’ – Beck
Supposedly written and recorded within six hours, this slide-guitar-filled song mocks Beck’s own rapping skills. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m the worst rapper in the world – I’m just a loser,’” he recalls, “so I started singing, ‘I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.’ I’m always kinda putting myself down like that.”
Key lyrics: “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”
36‘Waking Up’ – Elastica
Perpetual underachievement is the subject of this 1995 single from Elastica. It went on to be highest-charting song in the UK, and the album that followed hit Number One.
Key lyrics: “If I can’t be a star I won’t get out of bed / Waking up and getting up has never been easy”
35‘Nothin’ But Time feat. Iggy Pop’ – Cat Power
American singer Cat Power – aka Chan Marshall – wrote this 11-minute, piano-driven two-chorder for her boyfriend’s daughter, Lucia, who was being targeted by online bullies and found solace in Bowie’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust…’ It’s relentlessly optimistic: “Your world is just beginning,” she emphasises.
Key lyrics: “It’s up to you to be a superhero / It’s up to you to be like nobody”
34A Better Son/Daughter – Rilo Kiley
Jenny Lewis’ lyrics were so affecting for Anne Hathaway when she was going through a difficult period in 2009 that Hathaway “couldn’t look at her” for the first two years of their acquaintance. “It just felt too personal. I just think she’s a powerful woman, her music is powerful, she finds great strength in her vulnerability. And I’m really grateful to her for having both of those things: Power and vulnerability. Cause I know I feel that way a lot of times.”
33‘Dark Times’ – The Weeknd
The brooding ‘Dark Times’ sits towards the end of The Weeknd’s 2015 break-out album ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’. Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) said the collaboration with Ed Sheeran arrived after the pair met up following an awards show to party – they wrote the song the following day.
Key Lyric: “In my dark times I’ve still got some problems I know / Driving too fast but just moving too slow”
32‘Just’ – Radiohead
The melody for this was, according to Thom Yorke “a competition by me and Jonny to get as many chords as possible into a song”, but underneath it are lyrics about being relentlessly pursued by dark thoughts.
Key lyrics: “You’ve changed the locks 3 times / he still comes reeling through the door”
31‘Rock Bottom’ – Eminem
‘Rock Bottom’ was written about a time when Eminem had a young daughter had just been fired from his cooking job. “That was the worst time ever, dog,” he has said. “It was, like, five days before Christmas, which is Hailie’s birthday. I had, like, forty dollars to get her something. I wrote ‘Rock Bottom’ right after that.”
Key lyrics: “My life is full of empty promises and broken dreams / I’m hopin’ things look up; but there ain’t no job openings / I feel discouraged, hungry and malnourished”
30‘Suicidal Thoughts’ – The Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie phones Puff Daddy in the middle of night during this song, explaining his guilt and his suicidal intentions.
Key lyrics: “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell / Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fucking tell”
29‘Entropy feat. Bleachers’ – Grimes
Taking its name from a phenomenon that may eventually cause the heat death of the universe, this disaffected, but still euphonic tune was written with Lena Dunham’s boyfriend, Jack Antonoff (Bleachers) and used for a particularly downcast ending in an episode of Dunham’s show Girls.
Key lyrics: “How the birds can sing a tuneless song? / How can they stay in the sky? / Maybe they’re just screaming / maybe it’s not music and it’s all a lie”
28‘Down About It’ – The Lemonheads
The Boston band contrast intensely upbeat guitar with introspective, gloomy lyrics here.
Key lyrics: “You just don’t get it when I get so down about it”
27‘This Is A Low’ – Blur
Bassist Alex James claimed that this ‘Parklife’ track was penned by Damon Albarn right before a hernia operation and that the locations name-checked in the lyrics were inspired by a gift he bought Albarn for Christmas: “a handkerchief with a map of the shipping forecast regions”.
Key lyrics: “This is a low / But it won’t hurt you / when you are alone it will be there with you / finding ways to stay solo”
26Summertime Sadness – Lana Del Rey
Some have interpreted this languid sleeper hit as a reflection on an unusual form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that strikes in summer, rather than winter. Others point out the crippling effects of //saudade// it portrays.
Key lyrics: “I’m on fire, I feel it everywhere / Nothing scares me anymore”
25‘I Know It’s Over’ – The Smiths
One of the dourest songs from Morrisey’s pen, ‘I Know It’s Over’ tackles love, loneliness and despair with a sprawling five-and-half minute epic.
Key lyrics: “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”
24‘Every Night’ – Paul McCartney
This song was written in the face of The Beatles’ breakup; it sees McCartney struggling to carry on.
Key lyrics: “Every night I just want to go out, get out of my head / Every day I don’t want to get up, get out of my bed”
23‘I See A Darkness’ – Bonnie Prince Billy
In 2001 Will Oldham said his bleak 1999 track was about “an essentially evil person who tries to do good in the world.” Whether or not that fits with your ideas about depression, this song captures lows, and the drive to escape them, perfectly.
Key lyrics: “You know I have a drive to live, I won’t let go / could you see its opposition comes rising up sometimes / that its dreadful anteposition comes blacking in my mind”
22‘Stan’ – Eminem
One of Eminem’s darkest tracks is written from the point of view of a fan whose world unravels after Eminem fails to respond to him.
Key lyrics: “You coulda rescued me from drowning / now it’s too late, I’m on a thousand downers now, I’m drowsy / and all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call”
21‘She Lays Down’ – The 1975
Matty Healy’s song about his mother, Denise Welch, explores her post-natal depression, a subject she’s also broached herself: “My mum knew I had to keep physical contact with the baby. I remember looking at bottles thinking it was like asking me to climb Everest. There was never any doubt from family that this wasn’t an illness.”
Key lyrics: “Well we got a plane, going to see my dad again / she prayed that we fell from the sky / simply to alleviate the pain”
20‘Mad World’ – Tears for Fears
1982’s hit single contrasted brash pop sounds with broken lyrics. Gary Jules later covered the song for 2001 film ‘Donnie Darko’, and it hit Number One in the UK for Christmas 2003.
Key lyrics: “The dreams in which I’m dying / are the best I’ve ever had”
19‘Sorrow’ – The National
Matt Berninger, frontman of the Cincinnati five-piece, called this track “a fun song, a celebration of sorrow. It’s a wallowing song,” later adding it was “a person’s relationship with their own sadness” – addressing it something that must be lived with. The band once played the song continuously for six hours as part of an art piece by Icelander Ragnar Kjartansson.
Key lyrics: “I live in a city sorrow built / it’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”
18‘Pain Pain Again’ – Glasvegas
Depeche Mode were playing when frontman James Allan started writing this song, the swooning opener from their 2011 album ‘Euphoric /// Heartbreak ’.
Key lyrics: “I’m overcoming the obstacles of the ubiquitous demon named ‘shame’”
17‘A Letter To Elise’ – The Cure
“The mood is generally resignation in the face of inevitable change,” said The Cure’s Robert Smith of this tragic letter in song form.
Key lyrics: “Every time I try to pick it up like falling sand / as fast as I pick it up it runs away through my clutching hands.”
16‘Needle In The Hay’ – Elliott Smith
One of Smith’s most famous songs, from 1995, is a reflection on the effects of heroin use.
Key lyrics: “I don’t want to talk / I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet whenever I want / so leave me alone.”
15‘What Sarah Said’ – Death Cab For Cutie
A friend inspired this song about the pain of losing loved ones, says singer Ben Gibbard of their song from 2005 album ‘Plans’. “She was walking with her husband one day and just burst into hysterical tears because she realized that one day one of the two of them would have to watch the other die.”
Key lyrics: “Love is watching someone die / So who’s gonna watch you die?”
14‘Red Eyes’ – The War On Drugs
Adam Granduciel was struggling with depression when he wrote 2014 album ‘Lost In The Dream’, from which this is the second track. “I’ve lived with it my whole life and I’ve realised what it is in the past year,” he said on its release.
Key lyrics: “Don’t want another dark time think to myself / I won’t get lost inside it all, I’m on my way / well I can see it the darkness covering my mind / well we can hear the voices war inside.”
13‘FML feat. The Weeknd’ – Kanye West
The darkest cut from Kanye’s 2016 album ‘The Life Of Pablo’ pits the phrases ‘fuck my life’ against ‘for my lady’, and sets his struggles with mental health against his love for his family.
Key lyrics: “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than this nigga when he off his Lexapro / remember that last time in Mexico / remember that last time, the episode”
12‘Breathe Me’ – Sia
“‘Breathe Me’ is about feeling worried, generally anxious” says Sia Furler, the woman behind the 2004 hit. “Being overwhelmed by your own inner dialogue and having some sort of conniption fit and potentially doing yourself some harm, then asking for help.”
Key lyrics: “I have done it again / I have been here many times before / Hurt myself again today / And the worst part is there’s no one else to blame”
11‘u’ – Kendrick Lamar
‘u’, from the Compton rapper’s third album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, has him locking himself in a hotel room to battle his inner demons. “There’s some very dark moments in there,” he’s said. “All my insecurities and selfishness and let-downs. That shit is depressing as a motherfucker. But it helps, though. It helps.” Later in the album, on ‘i’, Kendrick’s battled through, singing “I love myself”.
Key lyrics: “Bitch everything is your fault / faults breakin’ to pieces, earthquakes on every weekend / because you shook as soon as you knew confinement was needed”
10‘Should Have Known Better’ – Sufjan Stevens
After Stevens’ mother died he addressed the weight of his grief in his seventh studio album, 2015’s ‘Carrie & Lowell’. The end of the song sees him come to terms with his loss, and embrace the new life of his brother’s newborn daughter – “The beauty that she brings, illumination.”
Key lyrics: “I should have wrote a letter / and grieve what I happen to grieve / my black shroud / I never trust my feelings / I waited for the remedy.”
9‘To Ramona’ – Bob Dylan
Despite being released during Dylan’s more political phase in the mid-60’s, ‘To Ramona’ makes allusions to his failed relationship with fellow folk singer Joan Baez throughout.
Key lyrics: “I’d forever talk to you / But soon my words / They would turn into a meaningless ring / For deep in my heart / I know there is no help I can bring”
8‘Grief’ – Earl Sweatshirt
“Grief is a final lament and epilogue,” tweeted Earl before the release of his second album ‘I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside’ in 2015.
Key lyrics: “Feeling like I’m stranded in a mob / scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop”
7‘How To Disappear Completely’ – Radiohead
Though this was supposedly based on a dream Thom Yorke had about floating down the Liffey in Dublin, paralysed, it’s come to mean something completely different to those struggling with depression.
Key lyrics: “I’m not here / this isn’t happening… in a little while I’ll be gone.”
6‘Avalanche’ – Leonard Cohen
Set to plaintive acoustic guitar, this brooding number sees a self-loathing Cohen express scorn on a lover who believes they can ‘cure’ his depression. “The crumbs of love that you offer me,” he sneers, “they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind.”
Key lyrics: “Well, I stepped into an avalanche / it covered up my soul”.
5‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – Nirvana
In 1993, Kurt Cobain told Impact magazine: “[‘Pennyroyal Tea’] is about a person who’s beyond depressed; they’re in their death bed, pretty much.” The word “pennyroyal” refers to pennyroyal herb, a natural medicine some claim can induce an abortion and Cobain hopes it will “distill the life that’s inside of me.”
Key lyrics: “I’m so tired I can’t sleep / I’m a liar and a thief”
4‘Lua’ – Bright Eyes
On this minimalist acoustic ditty, singer-songwriter Conor Oberst – aka Bright Eyes – relays the sad tale of two dysfunctional, substance-addicted lovers who are trying to help each other out, but just bring one another down.
Key lyrics: “I know you have a heavy heart; I can feel it when we kiss / So many men stronger than me have thrown their backs out trying to lift it.”
3‘Comfortably Numb’ – Pink Floyd
The working title of this epic rock ballad was ‘The Doctor’, which gives a clue to its message, as the narrator as a wonderous child reaches out to comfort the narrator’s adult self, who has become an alienated, depressed rock star.
Key lyrics: “There is no pain you are receding / A distant ship smoke on the horizon”
2‘Blue Moon’ – Elvis Presley
It’s the clip-clopping, muted percussion that makes this contemplative number, on which The King addresses the moon as the only one who understands him. It’s a heartbreaking ode to loneliness, but also conveys the comfort of solitude.
Key lyrics: “Blue moon / You saw me standing alone / Without a dream in my heart / Without a love of my own.”
1‘Atmosphere’ – Joy Division
Voted the greatest song of the millennium in 2000 on John Peel’s BBC Radio One show, it was also used to close out 2007 Ian Curtis biopic ‘Control’.
Key lyrics: “Don’t turn away, in silence / your confusion / my illusion / worn like a mask of self-hate”