Note the distinction here. This is NOT a list of the saddest songs. Such an endeavor would require effort beyond anything I'd want to conjure up here. There are dozens if not hundreds of songs that are both universally accepted as sad as well as just sad to me personally. Such songs are an effective fusion of sad sounding music and melancholy lyrics which could cover anything from personal loss to tragedy to fond old memories to rejection, isolation, coming of age and so on and on and on and on.
No, THIS list simply points out those sad songs that come across as such without the aid of the lyrics (the words, I mean - the vocals are still important). That is, the tune and melody has to tug at the heart strings all on its own. If I still haven't done a proper job of explaining what I mean here, perhaps the list itself will make everything clear.
5. "Thank U" - Alanis Morissette
The first single off the album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998), I really couldn't tell you if this song is meant to be sad based on its mostly incomprehensible lyrics. But the instrumentation picks up the slack. Really for me, this song is established as sad the moment that stark little line on the keyboard comes in right at the beginning. Morissette's own vocals do seem to stem from a sense of perhaps yearning mingled with bittersweet memories but it's also because the vocals aren't overpowered by the instruments that this comes across so well. The drum beat throughout is as simple as it gets (a la Ringo) and the guitars never intrude on the main melody. Another reason "Thank U" makes this list over others is its ability to convey sadness without ever slipping into a minor key. The song is written in C Major and relies on chord changes from that to G and F major. That's pretty cool.
4. "Red" - Treble Charger
There are two recordings of this song. The first on Treble Charger's debut album nc17 and then it was rerecorded and somewhat changed (mostly the drums) for 1997's Maybe It's Me. I've always considered "Red" to be one of the great mostly unknown songs of Canadian rock. And what makes it so great is its super sad riff. The opening features the guitar almost haphazardly doodling a simple melody, barely rising above the vocals and later the subdued bass and drums (no bass and drums in this part of the second version). But where the sadness really starts is at the end of the chorus, just after the vocal part. During said vocal, the guitar merely plays two or three chords, each struck only once then sustained for a long time. But when the vocals finish, that's when one of the saddest riffs of all time kicks in. The guitar solo (superior in the Maybe It's Me version) after the second chorus fits perfectly but still doesn't measure up to the overall tone established by the chorus part. The song ends with an extended run of this part. The sustain is used just perfectly as the notes wail out mournfully, almost making it seem like the guitar is a singer belting out a tale of woe.
3. "Walk Away Renee" - The Left Banke
In the world of popular music, strings were never put to sadder use than in this little masterpiece from the late sixties. The Left Banke, the only American entry on this list, pretty much invented the genre of "baroque rock" with their inclusion of violins, lutes and harpsichord alongside the more traditional rock band instruments. I don't think I can put into words the sense of melancholy and sadness that is brought forth through the song's strings, which mostly carry the melody. Throughout, Steve Martin's voice is tinged with regret and charged with romantic defeat and the lyrics, while certainly fitting enough, are really inconsequential. The flute solo makes the best of that instrument's strengths, staying out of the high register and hitting us with the low notes - it's short and to the point while deeply haunting. Even the symbol crash leading into the chorus somehow resonates in a sad way.
2. "Leave it Alone" - Moist
From probably my favourite album of all time, 1996's Creature. From the opening bassline - if you want to even call it a bassline as it's just a single note (E) being repeated in slow rhythm - you know this is going to be a sad one. Those who know the song know the lyrics and it's not my job to discuss them here. A soft, simple guitar riff gradually starts in over the bass, at first not really synching up with it. This continues for a few seconds until the two instruments do find a balance and harmony. Just at this moment, David Usher enters with the first verse, the second half of which is when the drums come in (as usual on this list, a very simple beat) From there, the guitar part underlines the vocal, weaving in and out with it but never overpowering it. The chorus continues the evolution but it still comes very gradually and even when the piano comes in and things finally get loud to enter the chorus, the sadness only increases - this isn't subdued mourning anymore - it's a full out crash of emotions as both David and the guitar reach new heights. It's all so powerful and beautiful but still it's actually the next part that makes this song make the list. The guitar riff expands on what it did in the chorus to produce a melody that has stuck in my head from the moment I first heard it over ten years ago. It's used to form the bridge and then fused into the final chorus to lead the song to its ending. All the other instruments work great support but it's really all about the guitar here as the song concludes and we're left with that melody echoing in our brains, ringing out a sadness that could mean almost anything to anyone.
1. "Whiter Shade of Pale" - Procol Harem
There have been dozens of covers of this song but only the original will do. Of course it's that hammond organ part that defines the entire song. The lyrics are actually pretty random and meaningless - the sadness is conveyed completely by the music on this one. The vocals, while not saying anything to really stir up emotion, are still sung in the proper manner to compliment the instrumentation. As is par for the course, there is a slow, simple drum beat in the background that rarely distinguishes itself, only rising into some quick flourishes at the end of various vocal lines. I've seen footage of it being played live and the guitarist and bassist do appear to be playing but I can barely hear them. These guys weren't baroque rock but this song was certainly baroque inspired - I've read the organ part was influenced by Bach. But it is one hundred percent original and it's the best example of a melody just dripping sadness from every single note. There's no bridge and the main riff remains fairly constant throughout. It doesn't matter - tunes don't get any sadder or more haunting sounding than this.