Omar El Akkad is an award-winning journalist who has reported on stories as varied as the NATO-led war in Egypt and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. His debut novel, American War, has been described by book reviewer Michiko Kakutani as "an unlikely mash-up of unsparing war reporting and plot elements familiar to readers of the recent young-adult dystopian series The Hunger Games and Divergent.”
My taste in art leans heavily in the direction of misery. I’m a sucker for bleak books, dispiriting movies and, above all else, sad songs. In that spirit, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite downbeat albums. Some of these records cater in loneliness, others
in self-loathing, others in general existential gloom. But all are fairly likely to ruin your day.
Suede – Dog Man Star
Certain albums should never find their way into the hands of a lovesick teenage boy, and this hour-long piece of gothic outsider Britpop is one of them. A meandering mass of dirges and not-quite- ballads that’s unlike anything this band, or any other, has ever done. I discovered this album at the age of 13 and I’m not sure I listened to anything else for the next year.
Jeff Buckley – Grace
The entirety of Buckley’s only studio album – he died far too young, drowned while swimming in an offshoot of the Mississippi river – is excellent. But the absolute high point comes about two-thirds of the way through, when the listener reaches Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," followed by "Lover, You Should Come Over" – a combined 13 minutes of utter perfection.
Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N2 It
Almost every song on this album sounds like a funereal hymn in which the subject of the funeral has been allowed to posthumously participate. Mike Hadreas sings in an amalgam of sighs and whispers, at once immediate and very far away. The whole album is sad and beautiful but it’s the second track, "Normal Song," that gets me every time.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
There’s a song on this album called Jim Wise. It’s about a man who killed his terminally ill wife and then tried to kill himself, but the gun jammed on the second shot. Jim Wise isn’t even the most depressing song on this record. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The Be Good Tanyas – Chinatown
Whether you like sad songs or not, Chinatown is a terrific record, one of the best pieces of folk Americana of the last 15 years (ironically, the work of a Canadian trio). But if you do like sad songs, there are a couple of world-class numbers here – "The Junkie Song" and the ethereal rendition of "I Wish My Baby Was Born" are both gorgeous.
The Antlers – Hospice
Even if the thought of a concept album about a terminally ill cancer patient and her hospice worker strikes you as a terrible idea, you should give the Antlers’ best album a listen. It’s a truly great record, anchored by the standout track, "Kettering." Will the lyrics make you miserable? Of course they will.
Holly Williams – The Highway
Like a lot of my favorite country albums, this one is populated with all manner of mean drunks, dying towns and folks so down on their luck they couldn’t possibly get any downer. But The Highway’s crown jewel is its closing track, "Waiting on June." It tells the story of Williams’ grandparents, who were together for 56 years and died shortly before this album came out. It’s a life story told in a single song, and a hell of a song at that.
The opening lyrics of the opening song on this album go like this: “When they found your body / Giant Xs on your eyes.” What follows is an hour of sad, melodic music that, given the depths of misery the band plummets to on songs such as "Embrace," is still incredibly controlled, incredibly… pretty. This is road trip music, assuming you’re driving exclusively at night through the backroads of North Dakota in the dead of winter.
Ruby Amanfu – Standing Still
Ruby Amanfu’s stripped-down version of Cathedrals, originally recorded by the band Jump Little Children, is one of the most stunning covers I’ve heard in years. It anchors an album full of reimagined takes on other artists’ songs, from Bob Dylan to Kanye West. The only constant is Amanfu’s perfect, crystalline voice. This isn’t a particularly sad or depressing album, just perfectly, wonderfully bittersweet.
London Grammar – If You Wait
There are only two reasons this album is on the list. 1) I love Hannah Reid’s voice; 2) when I was writing the final scenes of American War, the song that never left my head was from this album, a track called Interlude. I think of my protagonist’s final moments and this song begins to play, every single time.