1. The Smiths, “Asleep”
There’s no song better suited for the sensitive depresso to shuffle off this mortal coil to than The Smiths’ classic “Asleep,” which paints the act of dying as necessary and almost pleasant. “Deep in the cell of my heart, I really want to go,” Morrissey sings—and he later wondered why they called him the Pope Of Mope. In the context of his other lyrics, it could be taken as dramatic hyperbole, but still, “Asleep” uses warm, melancholy piano to make death seem like a reasonable option. After all, “There is another world / there is a better world / Well, there must be.” Ironically, like many of the songs on this list, it’s actually so heartbreakingly good and cathartic that it might make you want to stick around a little longer.
2. Megadeth, “A Tout Le Monde”
Almost every metal band has a suicide song: Killing yourself is second only to worshiping Satan as the genre’s leading lyrical obsession. Leave it to Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine to put a goofy twist on it, though: In this compelling track from the otherwise mediocre Youthanasia, he pens the usual doom-and-gloom end-it-all lyrics—then delivers his oddly formal, polite last words in French. Translation: “To all the world / to all my friends / I love you / I have to leave.” Quoi?
3. Johnny Cash, “Hurt”
Trent Reznor has written plenty of songs that could send you off to the medicine cabinet or closed garage, but he never topped Johnny Cash’s version of his song “Hurt” for sheer crushing desperation. Maybe that’s because Johnny was actually so close to the end of his life when he recorded it—his voice wraps around lines like “Everyone I know goes away in the end” as if they’re old friends. Even the seemingly hopeful closing lines (“If I could start again, a million miles away”) are resigned to the fact that the past is gone, and can’t be changed.
4. Pedro The Lion, “June 18, 1976”
Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan is a masterful storyteller, using simple words and phrases to convey his little vignettes—many of which are crushingly sad. Those looking for a romantic depiction of death by tall building need look no further than his indelible “June 18, 1976,” which tells the story of a new mother who swan-dives from a hospital building shortly after giving birth. The cops take eyewitness statements from 50 people, “each one in awe, for they’d never seen a girl so sad and beautiful.” And wouldn’t we all like to be remembered as beautiful?
5. The Replacements, “The Ledge”
For the jumper who’s more angry than sad, there’s The Replacements’ spooky “The Ledge.” It isn’t the greatest song on Pleased To Meet Me, but a close listen to the lyrics reveals something deeper than the watery, Cure-ish guitars. It’s about a boy who’s been ignored, but who gets plenty of attention once he’s ready to plummet. It ends: “All the love that they pledge / for the last time will not reach the ledge.”
6. Hüsker Dü, “Too Far Down”
The name of this song pretty much says it all, as does the title of its host album, Candy Apple Grey, the bleakest of Hüsker Dü’s catalog. (That’s saying something). Bob Mould’s lyrics take the stance that some people are beyond rescue: “I’m down again / and I don’t know how to tell you / but maybe this time I can’t come back / ‘cause I might be too far down.” Just in case anyone’s missing the point, he later adds, “When I sit and think, I wish that I just could die.” Candy Apple Grey doesn’t relent, either: The next song is another Mould moper, “Hardly Getting Over It.”
7-8. Pantera, “Suicide Note, Pt. 1” and “Suicide Note, Pt. 2”
On The Great Southern Trendkill, Pantera started to mix it up a bit more than usual, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the fierce dichotomy of these two songs. The first slows down the tempo and gives Dimebag Darrell’s guitar a chance to get all gloomy, as Phil Anselmo sings theatrical lines about a coked-out loser slashing his wrists for attention. In “Pt. 2,” the music becomes as ferocious as the lyrics, punching out a stunning sound, while Anselmo sounds like he’s personally punishing everyone who ever killed themselves. First line: “Out of my mind / gun up to the mouth.” Yow.
9. Blink-182, “Adam’s Song”
Blink-182 will have to forgive the world for perhaps not taking “Adam’s Song” seriously upon its release in 1999, as it appeared on an album called Enema Of The State, among songs with titles like “Dysentery Gary,” “Aliens Exist,” and “Dumpweed.” Nevertheless, “Adam’s Song”—reportedly about an old friend of the band who committed suicide—is surprisingly affecting, especially when the band reaches the bombastic chorus, and when the song describes suicide’s crushing aftermath: “You’ll never set foot in my room again / you’ll close it off, board it up / remember the time that I spilled the cup of apple juice in the hall / please tell mom this is not her fault.” The song had a sad postscript a year after its release, when a 17-year-old survivor of the Columbine High School shootings used it to soundtrack his own suicide.
10. Damien Jurado, “Tonight I Will Retire”
Plenty of Damien Jurado’s songs would make good accompaniment for the big sleep (“Gasoline Drinks” comes to mind), but “Tonight I Will Retire,” from the excellent Ghost Of David album, drowns while sounding almost falsely hopeful. Accompanied by just a piano and spare drumbeat, Jurado sings, “Oh tonight I will retire / to these hands with revolver / And I don’t fear death, I will commit / like an old friend I’ve known forever.”
11. Johnny Mandel/The Mash, “Suicide Is Painless”
Apart from Gary “Radar O’Reilly” Burghoff, Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman’s theme song for Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H was the only element of the original movie to make it over to the TV show. In the movie, the elegiac, folky song is the only thing openly tipping Altman’s hand as to how pissed-off the film is about the heavy mental toll of the Korean conflict: The rest is all wacky comedy. On TV, the song served as a straighter introduction to a show that was never shy about veering into the openly sad and melodramatic. The lyrics—courtesy of Altman’s then 14-year-old son Mike—don’t advocate killing yourself, they just point out that suicide is easy compared to the everyday business of life during wartime.
12. Don McLean, “Vincent”
It’s true that Vincent Van Gogh was little-appreciated in his own time. And it’s also true that he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. (Fun fact: It took two days for him to die.) But did one lead directly to the other, or did Van Gogh’s long history of mental illness, physical ailments, and poor habits have something to do with it? “American Pie” singer-songwriter Don McLean clearly lands on the side of the former in “Vincent,” which attributes Van Gogh’s death to everyone else’s inability to understand his art. But you know who gets him? Don McLean. So if you do kill yourself, there’s always a chance an annoying singer might use you to demonstrate his own sensitivity a century later. Talk about cold comfort.
13. Elliott Smith, “King’s Crossing”
Elliott Smith’s most desperate songs—and many fit that bill—took on a new resonance, naturally, after his death. “King’s Crossing,” from the posthumous From A Basement On The Hill, is particularly bleak, with impressionistic glimpses of the world’s ugliness—a skinny Santa, sexual frustration, etc.—juxtaposed with a sarcastic, “Ain’t life great?” Then there’s the scary, out-of-nowhere “Give me one good reason not to do it.”
14. Metallica, “Fade To Black”
Somehow, the members of Metallica never got embroiled in one of the lawsuits where grieving parents were conned into thinking that some heavy-metal song or another caused their child to commit suicide. That’s actually pretty amazing, since one of Metallica’s best-known songs is as devastatingly mopey as anything Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, or Ozzy Osbourne ever came up with. “There is nothing more for me / need the end to set me free”? That’s the kind of fuck-it-all teen-angst anthem that doesn’t need back-masking to make its point.
15. Trip Shakespeare, “The Crane”
Most people would consider it a crushing failure to become so deeply mired in debt that the only recourse from the howling of your creditors is suicide by car and cliff. In this 1990 song by Minnesota alt-rock quartet Trip Shakespeare, suicide is portrayed as just the opposite: a joyous, freeing victory against the forces that bind and oppress you. Dan Wilson sings about how he’ll be untouchable “when the dogs of the bank are upon me / and they’ve come to repossess my car”—he’ll be dead in the wreckage, and far beyond their grasp. Even as he’s headed for certain self-destruction, he pities those suckers left behind, whom he imagines as being tied to their wage-slavery by chains running from the back of their heads: “Understand that the chains are magical, and they strain to keep you where you are / I’ll be found at the base of the canyon.”
16. Leonard Cohen, “Dress Rehearsal Rag”
In spite of his dour reputation as the “Dr. Kevorkian of song,” Leonard Cohen traffics in bittersweet reverie, cheeky nihilism, and wounded misanthropy more often than in out-and-out slit-your-wrists sentiment—except for “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” pressings of which might as well have come with official Leonard Cohen letterhead on which to scrawl your tear-streaked goodbyes. Full of self-flagellating flashbacks about the “golden boy” he used to be and the “girl with chestnut hair” who used to love him, the song’s narrator—who’s also you!—works himself into a frenzy about how “it’s come to this” as he makes his “veins stand out like highways,” readying them for a valedictory slashing. At least he backs out at the end.
17. Chappaquiddick Skyline, “Everyone Else Is Evolving”
One of Joe Pernice’s more depressing side projects, Chappaquiddick Skyline opened its only album with the line “I hate my life,” setting the tone for the song, “Everyone Else Is Evolving,” and the record as a whole. People preparing to do themselves in tend to show warning signs, and Pernice doesn’t get too subtle when he tells us, “Please don’t be scared when someday soon you hear I’ve gone away.” Finishing the song by repeating “I hate my life,” Chappaquiddick Skyline cuts through the confessional bullshit to succinctly sum up any reasons Pernice may have for kicking the bucket.
18. Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Alone Again (Naturally)”
“I promised myself to treat myself / and visit a nearby tower / And climbing to the top / will throw myself off,” Gilbert O’Sullivan sings in “Alone Again (Naturally).” That isn’t exactly the expected story (or the expected “treat”), given the light piano ditty bouncing underneath his tortured lyrics. Those abandoned at the altar and unable to cope with the loneliness/embarrassment will sympathize with the suicidal intentions of the song’s stood-up character, who plans to plunge to his demise “in an effort to make to clear to whoever what it’s like when you’re shattered.” Those who haven’t been a victim of a runaway bride, don’t judge.
[pagebreak]19. Ass Ponys, “Fingers Fall”
Chuck Cleaver’s lyrics have always read like short Southern-gothic fiction, and never more so than on this track off his former band’s debut album: Crawling inside the head of a depressed woman at three critical moments of her life, he tracks her all the way to the end. Her final thoughts are those of every confused suicide: “Around her neck and through the rafters / this is it, she’ll show the bastards / everything she said was true / and now she’ll be the envy of them all.”
20. Bee Gees, “I Started A Joke”
The Bee Gees are known primarily for the sexy, mindless joy of songs like “Stayin’ Alive,” but the Brothers Gibb had a long career as sad-sacks prior to their discovery of disco. One of their biggest early hits was 1968’s crushing “I Started A Joke,” which pits its narrator’s fortunes against the rest of humanity’s. (“I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.”) The only solution, then, is to cue the strings and sing, “‘Til I finally died, which started the whole world living.” Apparently for the narrator, stayin’ alive was just holding everybody else back.
21. Low, “Mom Says”
The depressives in Low understood the Bee Gees’ pain—they once covered “I Started A Joke” (as did Faith No More, but in a much funnier way). But Low has its own corner of the market dedicated to life’s darkest moments. “Mom Says,” from The Curtain Hits The Cast, doesn’t reference death or even despair, but its vocals and lyrics are so haunting that when the final line comes—”Mom says we ruined her body”—it’s almost too much to take.
22. The Notorious B.I.G., “Suicidal Thoughts”
“Fuck the world” talk abounds on Biggie Smalls’ Ready To Die—beginning with that title, plus the eponymous track where he declares his “life is played out like a Jheri curl”—but most of that bluster is about wanting to go out in a blaze of glory. Not so “Suicidal Thoughts,” a creepy closer that finds Biggie phoning up his friend Puffy in the middle of the night and letting loose with weary confessions like “I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion,” lamenting the way he’s wasted away his life hustling the streets and cheating the people who love him. He declares, “I’m sick of niggas lyin’ / I’m sick of bitches hawkin’”—and, most troublesome of all for a man whose only escape is in his lyrics, “Matter of fact, I’m sick of talkin’.” Cue gunshot noise and Puffy’s hysterical screams.
23. Joy Division, “Exercise One”
While any number of Joy Division songs could be said to provide the perfect soundtrack to a noose fitting—the funereal “The Eternal,” for instance, or any other track from the second half of Closer—“Exercise One” is the group’s most blatantly prophetic. Backed by a death-march drumbeat and guitars that writhe like angry ghosts, singer Ian Curtis moans, groans, and spells out a few key details of his own imminent suicide, particularly in the couplet “Turn on your TV / turn down your pulse / turn away from it all / it’s all getting too much.” By the time the song’s last line—”Time for one last ride before the end of it all”—rolls around, it’s hard not to feel pulled by that strong, dark tide.
24. Sonny Terry, “Old Lost John”
Speaking of Joy Division, that band’s singer killed himself after watching the horrifically depressing Werner Herzog movie Stroszek. The movie’s final scene (spoiler alert!—and if you haven’t seen it, you should) features an offscreen suicide soundtracked by Sonny Terry’s manic, scary (at least in this context) “Old Lost John.” For the suicidal cinephile with a black sense of humor, this might be a fitting soundtrack to go out on.
25. The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
John was the brooding one. Paul had the boyish good-time tunes. But like most Beatles commonplaces, that dichotomy falls apart under too much scrutiny. Paul penned this relentlessly grim song about forgotten people leading forgotten lives. There’s no sappy happy ending, either. Eleanor dies, Father McKenzie buries her alone, since no one bothers to attend the funeral. No one was saved. The end. “She Loves You” seems far away.
26. Slipknot, “Wait And Bleed”
This isn’t the only song the masked maniacs of Slipknot have written about self-extinction, but it’s the most intense. Unfairly tossed in with the nü-metal crowd, Slipknot could craft songs of mind-blowing aggressiveness and power, and “Wait And Bleed,” from its self-titled 1999 album, is one of its best. Corey Taylor wails like a dying animal, which is well suited to lyrics like “Kneel down and clear the stone of leaves / I wander out where you can’t see.”
27. Sleater-Kinney, “Jumpers”
The Golden Gate Bridge is the nation’s most popular suicide spot—check out the fantastic documentary The Bridge for a gut-wrenching look at that phenomenon—with a couple people jumping to their deaths each month. Referencing a quote attributed to Mark Twain—“The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco”—Sleater-Kinney’s “Jumpers” paints a portrait of the quiet despair that pushes someone to leap from the bridge. The song ends with singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein referencing the time between leap and impact: “Four seconds was the longest wait.”
28. Eels, “Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor”
With lyrics drawn from the diary pages of Mark Everett’s sister, written just prior to one of her nine suicide attempts (she succeeded in 1996), “Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor” sums up decades of regret and despair in just over two minutes. Quietly strummed electric guitar and whisper-sung details—some mundane, some anguished—outline a plaintive sketch of someone giving up in their darkest, most hopeless hour. The story closes out with a defeated shrug too naked to be anything but non-fiction: “My name’s Elizabeth / my life is shit and piss.”
29. Jets To Brazil, “Conrad”
Although listeners don’t know the specifics, something happened to the suicidal protagonist of “Conrad”: “The face was lost but partly recovered / half asleep, half in a frenzy / one side tries to smile enough for two.” Seeking to end the “pain that comes with clarity and mirrors in well-lit rooms,” she checks into a hotel with pockets full of barbiturates and a plan to open her wrists. The song moves with an air of inevitability, with a sad electric-guitar melody gently closing it after vocalist-guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach sings, “Angels lay their odds on you / know not quite what they should do / only that they can’t quite tear themselves from the view.”
30. Papa Roach, “Last Resort”
One of just a few openly suicidal singles to crack the Billboard Top 10, Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” douses its listeners in grief through bass-heavy rap-rock and a despondent chorus sure to resonate in the hearts of Hot Topic devotees. (“Would it be wrong / would it be right / if I took my life tonight?”) Though he’s mired in the tragicomic days of early-’00s nü-metal, singer Jacoby Shaddix deftly navigates the canyon between rage and hopelessness, via the perspective of a friend who had recently attempted to kill himself, by whispering simply: “I can’t go on living this way.” Even the music video, which cuts between a frenzied live performance and sullen teenagers scowling in their bedrooms, reaches toward the abyss in a way that few other songs—chart-toppers or otherwise—ever dare.
31. Swans, “Failure”
Not many voices convey loss and devastation as effectively as Michael Gira’s, so it’s appropriate that his forlorn moans soundtrack Swans’ “Failure.” Dreary recitations of suffocating pain bend around sparse, haunted instrumentation to make a song exponentially more bleak than it appears at first glance, with its title appearing in the lyrics an even 10 times. Family and wealth are represented simply as more opportunities to suffer, while even self-destruction is fraught with defeat—”I’ve learned nothing / I can’t even elegantly bleed out the poison blood of failure.” See that light at the end of the tunnel? It’s a freight train.
32. Beck, “Already Dead”
Every decade needs a great break-up album, and the ’00s got Beck’s Sea Change, a beautifully dark set of songs from the other end of love. It’s a wallow, though, and some of it gets midnight black, like this track. The death here is figurative, but it sounds almost literal, starting with the opening lines: “Time wears away all the pleasures of the day.” Oh Beck, you crazy postmodern cut-up you!
33. Bright Eyes, “A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not”
The opening track from Bright Eyes’ crippling 1999 EP Every Day And Every Night casts a predictably dark pall through an austere second-person narrative. Detailing a young life lost in a dizzy haze of drugs, booze, and random bouts of unconsciousness, each brutal truth busts open over musical accompaniments that seesaw between soft and shambling. Trading off vocal duties with Son, Ambulance’s Joe Knapp, Conor Oberst shakily relates a sprawl of aimless days and a halfhearted quest for meaning that ultimately derails into the slow dawn of defeat: “This feeling always used to pass / but seems like it’s every day / seems like it’s every night now.”
34. Billie Holiday (and others), “Gloomy Sunday”
A lot of songs on this list could turn listeners suicidal, but only one has been reported to surely do the trick. A 1933 composition by Hungary’s Rezsõ Seress with lyrics by Ladislas Javor, “Gloomy Sunday” became the stuff of urban legend when Billie Holiday scored a hit with it in 1941. The lyric conjures up the image of a weekend in which the weather matches the mood of a lover thinking about ending it all after a beloved’s death. It became known as “the Hungarian suicide song,” though the stories of those which it inspired to take their own lives seem apocryphal. It’s a good song, but the legend goes a long way toward explaining why everyone from Mel Tormé to Christian Death has given it a go over the years. Oh, and as for Seress, he died decades later, jumping from a window in 1968.
35-36. Big Fun, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” / Unrest, “Teenage Suicide”
“Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)”—the original, written for the Heathers soundtrack by R.E.M. producer Don Dixon—isn’t nearly depressing enough to go out on, but it does sort of encourage the act with the lyrics, “Teenage suicide / Don’t do it / Teenage suicide / Ah, screw it.” For the film fan with a black sense of humor, it could work. Unrest’s excellent homage to the song—not a cover—takes things a step further: “Teenage suicide / Don’t do it / Teenage suicide / Yes I can.” That’s empowering!
Tomorrow: A bonus inventory of anti-suicide songs to bring you back from the edge.