Darkest albums ever: 50 of the best

Originally featured in NME magazine, it’s the 50 most depressing (but brilliant) records of all time.

Listen to our 50 darkest albums as a Spotify playlist

50 The xx (2009)

You’d think we’d be sick of The xx by now, given they have been absolutely everywhere for the past 18 months. But the more we hear these songs of bittersweet tenderness, the more they twist their emotional wrench: twilit R&B redrawn in shades of black and grey.


49 This Is Hardcore (1998)

After the gorgeous geek romances of 1995’s ‘Different Class’, Pulp turned to the sordid sleaze of hardcore pornography (the mordantly groovy title track), and the agonies of drug comedowns (‘The Fear’) and growing old (‘Help The Aged’) for their downbeat ’98 masterpiece. As Jarvis put it “this is the sound of someone losing the plot”.

48 A Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002)

Coldplay’s second took in burning cities, wars and decaying romance – if you’ve not cried to ‘The Scientist’, you’re either dead or in Brother.

47 Nebraska (1982)

Having made his name in bellowing motorcycle rock and with the brassy pop of the ‘Born In The USA’ album slowly coagulating, in 1982 The Boss took the bold stand of releasing the haunting folk demos of ‘Nebraska’ rather than the full-band version. And, crammed with bleak tales of spree killers and death row inmates, it was perfectly pitched: a masterpiece of the murderously morose.


46 Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)

They owed something to Joy Division, yes, but if that line from ‘Obstacle 1’ about “stabbing yourself in the neck” delivered in Paul Banks’ crypt-ready baritone didn’t get you there, you’ve missed a teeth-chattering thrill.

45 The Back Room (2005)

Combining the sonic sedition of Joy Division and Interpol with nailgun melodies about death, disease, wicked cities and finger-shredding factory work, Brum’s bleakest brotherhood produced a debut as brooding and ballsy as a goth-pop Batman.

44 Suicide (1977)

While this notorious New York duo largely transmitted gloom via music – sparse synthesized stabs foreseeing industrial and electroclash – rather than lyrics, the 10-minute murder ballad ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is ‘Suicide’’s grim exception.

43 Metal Box (1979)

Inspired by his mother’s death and taking pot-shots at religion, the corporate rat-race and Deluded Britain in general, John Lydon’s avant-garde second album was xryptic, suffocating and – true to its title – played entirely on aluminium guitars. It was described by bassist Jah Wobble as a musical version of Munch’s The Scream and seeded the serrated noisefests of Sonic Youth, Shellac and Nirvana.


42 Lady Sings The Blues (1956)

Not the soundtrack to the shitty Diana Ross-starring Holiday biopic, rather the open-hearted, soul-baring third record from Lady Day herself. The cover of Ann Ronnel standard ‘Willow Weep For Me’ is sadness distilled.

41 I See A Darkness (1999)

Will Oldham’s first under this name – while easier listening than his Palace Brothers work – encapsulates ‘gloomy’ via vocal quaver and clanging piano. Johnny Cash deemed the title track worthy of covering on 2000’s ‘American III: Solitary Man’ – hardly festooned with belly-laughs itself.

40 The Doctor Came At Dawn (1996)

Bill Callahan recounts every painful detail of falling in and out of love on this uncomfortable ride into the centre of heartbreak. Brutal, weepy and deadpan.

39 Glasvegas (2008)

James Allan trademarks his brand of Scottish EastEnders: a boy is dead in a sectarian attack, a dad isn’t there, some contemplate fate inside the belly of Polmont young offenders’ prison, others turn on their SAD lights to ward off crushing depression.

38 In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

Workshy eterno-mope Jeff Mangum’s splintered collection of folk songs came into focus after he read Anne Frank’s The Diary Of A Young Girl. The emptiness of suffering that he realised in making it seems to have creatively neutered him – he hasn’t released anything of substance since.

37 Black Sabbath (1970)

In particular, the opening track, prosaically titled ‘Black Sabbath’. The album as a whole can credibly claim to have invented heavy metal.

36 Things We Lost In The Fire (2001)

Notoriously slow-rocking Minnesotans featuring a Mormon couple. We could have picked pretty much any Low album, but went for one featuring the lyric “I fell down the stairs/I wished I was dead.”

35 OK Computer (1997)

Better. Sexier. A peerless work of genius. Harmonically excellent. Prone to causing night sweats. Or invoking drink-dropsied delirium tremens. Like Thom Yorke. Drowning in pre-millennial angst. On MTV Rocks.

34 Berlin (1973)

By the time this was made the collective global comedown had begun. And so it was that he envisioned ‘Berlin’ as “a ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ for the ’70s”. The story about producer Bob Ezrin telling his kids their mum died in order to record authentic crying from them is fake; it’s a testament to the sense of singular artistic purpose that bleeds through the project that so many still believe it.

33 The Blackened Air (2002)

NYC’s wonderful gothic folkist Nina Nastasia should be a superstar by about 2060 if her popularity increases at its current rate. If not, her Steve Albini-recorded second album will remain an undervalued wonder.

32 Candy Apple Grey (1986)

Dropping the hardcore in favour of a more sparse, lo-fi approach exposed the sadness at the core of Bob Mould and Grant Hart’s fractured relationship. A touchstone of lonely desperation.

31 Third/Sister Lovers (1978)

Recorded by a broken band, both emotionally and personally, this was deemed too uncommercial for release for four years due to Alex Chilton’s tortured unravelling on the likes of ‘Holocaust’ (dead mums and life-as-nuclear-conflagration) and bonus track ‘Dream Lover’ (desperate blues fantasy).

30 Here, My Dear (1978)

Soul’s ‘Rumours’, ‘Here, My Dear’ was Gaye’s commercially doomed attempt to rip open the ribcage of his failed marriage to Motown boss Berry Gordy’s elder sister Anna and poke around the viscera.

29 Pre-Millennium Tension (1996)

Tricky claimed he wanted ‘Pre-Millennium Tension’ to be “out-and-out punk”, but this brew of Satanic visions and weed psychosis was something far darker. That the song ‘Makes Me Wanna Die’ is the lightest here speaks volumes.

28 Elephant Shoe (1999)

Arab Strap’s chief mumbler Aidan Moffat was all coupled up, but there was little domestic bliss to be found on ‘Elephant Shoe’. This was like nuclear fall-out from the battle of the sexes, coloured in the most desolate slowcore hues imaginable.

27 Spiderland (1991)

The legend that all five of Louisville’s Slint checked into a psychiatric institution upon recording ‘Spiderland’ – a major post-rock building block – is bollocks. The fact it exists at all is telling, though.

26 My War (1984)

Henry Rollins, Black Flag’s fourth and final vocalist, arguably didn’t make their songs his own until this, their second album. Its final three songs, notably, eschew speed in favour of slow, sludgy crawl-metal.

25 This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

The Fall are often dank, but it took Brix Smith’s sense of songwriting order to make Mark E’s benighted world of non-sequiturs sound massive and marbled in its gloom.

24 White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity (1991)

The Swans of ‘White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity’ was a more nuanced, orchestrated outfit than the blasted, atavistic line-up of the early ’80s. But the likes of ‘Failure’ are all the more powerful for their mastery of light and shade.

23 Monoliths & Dimensions (2009)

Where once Sunn O))) records were walls of zero-BPM drone-doom guitar and nothing else, on their seventh album, we encountered choirs, string sections and ‘Alice’, a homage to avant-garde jazzer Alice Coltrane. Their expanded palette increased their emotional weight. “Our music is like the white light going into a prism,” announced Stephen O’Malley…

22 Closer (1980)

Barely a year elapsed between the band’s two studio albums, but creatively speaking, it might as well be light years. ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is, notionally speaking, a punk record – albeit a cavernous, spectral-sounding one, thanks to the dark hand of Factory producer Martin Hannett. But there are already glimpses of something broader and more unclassifiable – something the band would cite in full on ‘Closer’. Commencing with ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, a claustrophobic shudder of tribal drums and alien-sounding guitar, ‘Closer’ plumbs rare depths of lyrical abjection and sonic horror.

21 Your Funeral… My Trial (1986)

Recorded smack bang in the middle of Cave’s junkie days, The Bad Seeds’ fourth album is a dark paranoid fantasy. That Cave went on from here to stoving Kylie’s head in with a brick on ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ is no surprise.

20 Talk Talk Talk (1981)

On their second, the Furs’ aloof, scratchy gloom summed up an era in moody teenage life so thoroughly that John Hughes named his film after its first single: ‘Pretty In Pink’.

19 Songs Of Love And Hate (1971)

No countdown of gloom would be complete without Leonard Cohen. A Canadian poet-turned folkish singer-songwriter who moved to New York in the ’60s and lurked at the edges of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, such was Cohen’s command of a reserved, regal darkness that beautiful women would routinely throw themselves at his feet in a vain attempt to make it all better.


18 Violator (1990)

Throughout the ’80s, they had been gradually death-ening their disco. And 1990’s ‘Violator’ was the culmination of their enigmatic tech-disco, laying the blueprint for industrial pop for the decade to come. It was hardly the dourest tome of the goth-pop era, but the sinister squeals and graveyard grooves felt so evil they sounded like the devil gone dancing.

17 “Heroes” (1977)

When the X Factor fucktards removed the ironic apostrophes from “Heroes” for their charity cover version, they committed one of music’s most hilarious acts of cultural vandalism. “Heroes” are thin on the ground in the labyrinth sepia lair of Bowie’s most Cold War-frosted Berlin album.


16 The Downward Spiral (1994)

Trent Reznor chose to record this arena-ready industrial metal opus in the Cielo Drive house where Sharon Tate was killed by the acolytes of Charles Manson. He built a studio there which he named Le Pig, after the blood graffiti scrawled on the door by Tate’s murderers. The horrific venue ensured ‘The Downward Spiral’ scrubbed away NIN’s traces of fakery.

15 154 (1979)

Not so much depressing as oppressive – for their final version one outing, Wire ramped up the dark synth undertow, coming across as command-barking tazer-wielding sadists in a future fascist state.

14 The Drift (2006)

Eleven years in the making, a lifetime in the digesting, Walker’s follow-up to 1995’s scree-tastic ‘Tilt’ was even more unrelenting and bleak. The effect was a series of flickering snapshots of the horrors of the modern world – the 21st century being shown a Big Brother-style montage of its ‘worst bits’. Nightmarish, portentous and awash with theatrical jarrings and disturbing bolts of noise.

13 Blue (1971)

An album that has lit many a lonely student the way to dusky death, Mitchell’s 1971 classic details her split from Graham Nash, her youthful divorce and the trauma of giving up a daughter for adoption, all delivered wrapped in inconsolable poetry with a roll of piano or thrum of acoustic. Sad, sublime.

12 Vauxhall & I (1994)

It’s bookended by two chest-bursters, but between ‘Now My Heart Is Full’ and ‘Speedway’, Moz’s most all-round coherent solo record was overwhelmingly drenched in a drizzly, cavernous echo – like it was playing in the flat next door, as you sat, alone, on a Tuesday: the only signal that you were still alive.

11 Dummy (1994)

The Bristol trio’s debut slowed Blue Note jazz and hip-hop breaks to a zombie trudge – but it was Beth Gibbons that brought the emotional heaviness, her torrid cries like a torch singer awakening from cryogenic deep-freeze.

10 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

After his mother died, Kanye West beat himself up with the same magnified solipsism that he had once directed at proclaiming his own majesty. He took Auto-Tune – the garish, oily sound of mindless over-consumption – and reinvented it as a new blues. ‘808s…’ was a vocoded funeral-dirge, a neon lament – the slick and twisted gospel of a man who was deliberately tearing himself apart so that he might one day be reborn.

9 The Man Comes Around (2002)

In which Cash set the bar for a generation of swansongs, with a little help from Rick Rubin. A testament to its wounded, regretful power is that Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’ has pretty much become the definitive one.

8 I Am A Bird Now (2005)

The theme of ‘I Am A Bird Now’ is of transformation, sung by one who feels trapped in his own skin. Antony Hegarty’s Mercury winner was sung for the outsiders, and if its mood was mournful, it was also hopeful, in love with humanity.

7 Pink Moon (1972)

The stark, pared-down sound of The Keats Of Folk and his acoustic guitar, recorded in the span of just four hours (at midnight, naturally), ‘Pink Moon turned out to be Drake’s swansong. He was dead, at 26, from an overdose of anti-depressants. Irony alert!

6 Pornography (1982)

Sod ‘Lovecats’, let’s mope! Arguably the album that invented goth, ‘Pornography’ was the first of The Cure’s Trilogy Of Doom that would suck ‘Disintegration’ and ‘Bloodflowers’ into its vampiric cataclysms of sound with the intention of making anguish sound awesome. And what exactly do you expect from an album that opens with the line, “It doesn’t matter if we all die”? Kazoo solos?

5 Desertshore (1970)

The flat drone of the madrigals set against the flat drone of Nico’s voice have never made ‘Desertshore’ an easy listen. A cold stone obelisk to the loneliness that sat so at odds to her extraordinary physical beauty.

4 Meat Is Murder (1985)

Child abuse, more child abuse, animal death, getting stabbed at a funfair: The Smiths do not yield easy winners in the gloom stakes, but ‘Meat Is Murder’, from its coldly ironic cover down to its sampled bone-saw was Morrissey reining-in the Wildean elements to get in touch with his inner Beckett.


3 In Utero (1993)

What else says love like imagining you and your betrothed are conjoined parasites, feeding off one another’s waste? Or imagining her umbilical cord as a ‘noose’? Or writing a song called ‘Rape Me’? Or… oh, you get the picture.

2 Let It Come Down (2001)

A 90-piece orchestra and a bunch of rhymes about heroin have always gone together like steak & kidney for Jason Pierce. In 2001, he shot his last big injection of major-label cash to make the orchestras sound goliath, even as the lines about burning holes in his clothes looked into a world miniaturised by pain, drugs, and the pain of drugs.

1 The Holy Bible (1994)

Lyrically, ‘The Holy Bible’ is another level entirely. If we didn’t know the personalities involved, pro-death penalty and anti-political correctness sentiment (on ‘Archives Of Pain’ and ‘PCP’) might be dealbreakers. Instead, they work as part of a moving opus of fanatical self-examination and despair at humanity.

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