The Ten Most Depressing Pop Albums Ever
(Author’s note: I wrote long blurbs about the first five albums. Then I sort of spaced out and wrote the absolute minimum about the next five albums. I doubt those final entries even qualify as notes or that they point towards anything of lasting value. I didn’t keep up my initial pace because there’s no point. I mean, ultimately, there’s no point doing anything. I learned that from listening to these albums and from listening to Pinkerton, by Weezer, which I’m not even going to go into right now because I just can’t.)
- Either/Or by Elliott Smith
This album is (probably) named after a book by Soren Kierkegaard, who explained the title like this: “I say ‘either/or’ to people facing a big choice. No matter what you choose, you’ll regret it.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close.) This album goes into excruciating detail about each one of those regrets. Sometimes he makes both choices in the course of a single song. The music is folky and acoustic. It’s mostly finger-picked guitar. It sounds so pretty and it’s so infinitely quiet that you just assume the person playing that guitar went on to kill himself, because the aesthetic’s too pure for any other telos. And, in fact, he did. Smith knifed himself in the heart.
- Pink Moon by Nick Drake
This album is just seething with deranged, schizoid despair. It’s so crazy that you could miss that about it very easily. I refer you, for starters, to the title, which makes no sense and is really some kind of grotesque afterbirth following brittle, solipsistic daydreams. Has there ever been a pink moon? No, but Drake sings those words over and over, as if trying to cast a fey little spell before he chokes up completely. I might add that this album is not just folky, like Elliott Smith; it’s downright perverse. There are little vacuums of minimalist non-sound all over the place. It’s like Drake isn’t sure whether he cares enough to sing, or play, or finish the lyrics he’s gathering from his subconscious like freshly picked nightshade. But he perseveres, despite himself, until you’re digging your fingernails all the way into your palms.
- Silent Shout by the Knife
I realize that some people, who have a lamentable predeliction for things that are instantly painful, will probably insist that Silent Shout, which is accomplished and melodic, is less depressing than Shaking the Habitual, which is postmodern and irritating. But real depression has an arc. It has grandeur. It has whole mansions of self where it lingers and mopes. This album is perky and carefully crafted, on the outside. Dare to enter, and what you find is all marble, smooth and inhuman. Here you’ll discover music kept at a temperature close to absolute zero. The electronics are warmer than the vocals, which shouldn’t even be possible.
- De La Soul Is Dead by De La Soul
There’s nothing more admirable, or more bone-charring, than the spectacle of a hippie who’s lost all of his illusions. And here you get to enjoy the fallout radiation emitted by — not one — but three formerly happy-go-lucky, “conscious” rappers, none of whom believe in anything now. They rap about this, and they rap about that, but what’s unmistakable is the vast sucking sound of a moral vacuum bigger than any words they could possibly shovel into the void. The samples are perfunctory and subdued, like something tasteful you’d be utterly comfortable spinning and scratching while DJ’ing a wake.
- Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon
What I find so endearing about this album is that Lennon sacrificed almost the entirety of his talent at the altar of a single idea. And it was a stupid, stupid idea, at that — it’s the “primal scream,” which is exactly what it sounds like, but also turned out to be a goldmine for therapists in the 1970s who wanted to project enough edge to intrigue celebrities well sick of themselves. People with Lennon’s intense demons long to escape from every bit of stardom and success they earn. It’s counter-intuitive, but so are many other true things. Instead of singing, Lennon gives short, pretentious lectures. Instead of playing music, he smears each track with an unrefined slurry of dull, unresponsive tones; it’s pretty close to the entrance music a heroin overdose makes in a junkie’s head as it begins. The fact that people quote this album so much is a testament to what they leave out: an unbelievable sadness they’re trying mightily to pretend isn’t there. “I just believe in me,” Lennon sings, making relentless eye contact with us, daring us to laugh. Laugh. Go on. Go on, fuckers! I fucking dare you! I’d sum it up like this: Plastic Ono Band may be the most passive-aggressive pop album ever recorded.
- Boxer by The National
On this album’s third song, which is a nice ballad about a stalker, the lead singer mutters “I think I’d better follow you around.” Then he sings “brainy, brainy, brainy.” I don’t understand who is the “brainy” person he’s referring to. Is it the girl he’s trying to intimidate? Is he angry at her for being smarter than him? Or is it some kind of compliment he’s giving himself for being a clever creep? Or is it, like, a somber reminder to himself to play it smart while he smothers the person he loves, drowning her in his syrupy affection? The undecidability itself is (I reckon) the “point” this singer is determined to make. “Brainy, brainy, brainy” is exactly the sort of gibberish you mutter to yourself when you are so miserable that you don’t care (when you’re sitting in the public library, and they close in fifteen minutes) whether your shirt is inside-out or not. I’m pretty sure the lead singer’s name is Matt Berninger, but I’m not going to Google it, because I might start weeping and hugging myself. That’s why I keep calling him “the lead singer.”
- Born to Die by Lana del Rey
I realize that this album is exceptionally glamorous, in that faded Vegas tradition of threadbare lounge carpeting and flickering neon. But I don’t think that a bleak, lush, insinuating album like Lana’s should be disqualified from making this list just because it’s wearing lipstick and trying too hard. Some people think Liz Phair is a genius for taking Exile on Main Street and renaming it Exile in Guyville. But taking “Born to Run” and turning it into a car crash is so much braver — so fucking drunk on its own Manic Panic imitation of the way some emo cokehead from an affluent suburb might respond to Bruce Springsteen— that it’s sublime from the word “go.”
- Ride the Lightning by Metallica
This is a pretty blatant pick. The album features a song about killing yourself (“Fade To Black”) and a song about being electrocuted (“Ride The Lightning”). But a lot of people don’t realize how incredibly insincere this album manages to be, and the insincerity is the real reason that Ride the Lightning is such a damn good piece of music. On other, more earnest albums, Metallica come across like a bunch of Led Zeppelin superfans who think life is an epic medieval battle and call their guitars “axes.” Those albums are silly; they pose nonsensical existential dilemmas that can only be answered by “slaying” your “foes” and attempting the “conquest” of a “fair maiden” afterwards. This album, on the other hand, is just a series of over-the-top thought experiments designed to squeeze big wet clumps of manly tears out of anybody within earshot. Imagine being trapped under ice. Imagine Lovecraft. Imagine Death Row. There’s nothing more profound than imagining not even being able to think about deep stuff (like death) anymore because you’re dead, and your brain is, too. Life is precious, and Metallica believes everyone should (not) enjoy it while they still can’t.
- Scissor Sisters by Scissor Sisters
The highlight of this LP comes right at the end: “Return to Oz” is a sad, operatic song about this, like, river of hard drugs that’s deluging the queer party scene and killing everybody’s vibe. It’s also based on one of the most depressing movies ever made, Return to Oz; that fucking movie is responsible for almost every case of mental illness in children under the age of puberty, according to a recent study conducted by a worried babysitter. But let’s not forget the rest of this increasingly obscure album, including the disco version of Pink Floyd’s disco-immune nightmare “Comfortably Numb.” It’s sparkling and gaudy, but you seem to be hearing it play in an echoey, deserted club — some gray warehouse closed down by city officials who cited health concerns and complaints from the neighbors. There’s an entire song about yearning for straight porn (“Tits On The Radio”) that is somehow even more wretched when sung by a resolutely gay man. There’s a ballad, “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough,” that is (I think) about wishing you weren’t having sex while you’re in the middle of having sex. This album is a nonstop bummer. God, it’s glorious.
- (tie) The Marble Index by Nico and Closer by Joy Division
For legal reasons, I have to end with these two masterpieces of obviousness, even though you and I both know that a good singalong session with “Everytime” by Britney Spears — or “‘Til The Cops Come Knockin’” by Maxwell — is infinitely more dispiriting and holy and real. (Check out the Britney scene in Spring Breakers for a perfect video capture of what I’m talking about.) The Marble Index came to Nico when she was irrelevant, fat, and desperately ill from years of taking Andy Warhol seriously; she wrote the whole thing while gagging on picturesque isolation, somewhere ritzy and lonesome, surrounded by the azure Mediterranean. Songs like “No One Is There” indicate that Nico had a Metallica-like willingness to milk inexcusably corny tropes for their cathartic gifts of pain. Nor is that the only song on the album; there are others.
Meanwhile, on the ironically titled album Closer, Joy Division left behind the wonderful punk rock they’d just finished pioneering (on Unknown Pleasures, which had yet to become a T-shirt fad). Instead they embraced a more avant-garde approach: they tried to sound the way Frank Sinatra might sound after a zesty and comprehensive lobotomy. The lead singer, Ian something-or-other — I still refuse to use Google for this — was suffering from epileptic seizures and a post-industrial landscape dominated by the false idols of late capitalism. In short, nobody had bought his first album, and he was going to be damned if he’d let anyone change their mind about Joy Division this far into the shipwreck. Closer was largely ignored by the public when it first appeared; later, of course, it would be hailed as a masterpiece by people (like Trent Reznor) who thought they could be even sadder than it was. But nobody could miss every single note as unswervingy as Ian: not then, not now, not ever. And the most amazing part is that he did all of it without even having a memorable last name.