Research shows sad songs can make you less sad, so here's a playlist
Bummed out? Go ahead and press “play” on that Smiths album: It could be good for you.
A study by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch recently looked at why people listen to sad music and found that “listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation.” So maybe listening to Joni Mitchell on repeat after your last breakup wasn’t a bad idea after all.
Because everyone should have a go-to gloomy playlist, EW compiled a playlist of our favorite sad songs with notes on why we keep listening to these tearjerkers. Listen, read, and, if you feel inspired, weep along.
Ariana Bacle, EW.com writer: There are songs about loss, and then there’s Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day.” With simple banjo instrumentation and Stevens’ gentle voice, the song sounds about the way watching snow fall feels: Peaceful, but somehow, melancholic. It’s what I listened to years ago when I first had my heart broken and wanted something to cry to, and it’s what I listened to weeks ago when I lost someone close to me and wanted something to relate to. Whatever the occasion, “Casimir Pulaski Day” has a hard-to-find, calming effect on me—and that’s more than enough reason to keep me listening.
Samantha Highfill, correspondent: “Bulletproof Weeks” by Matt Nathanson. I like my sad songs to keep things simple: Minimal instrumentation mixed with a solid vocal. Add in some classic “what happened” breakup lyrics, and the mood is set.
Jeff Labrecque, senior writer: “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths. When you’re having a Cameron Frye kind of day, this song is the cure.
Ashley Fetters, online news editor: Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” of course. It’s exactly what I want to hear when I’ve had a rough day—comforting, parental words of reassurance, basically—in a song. It’s like getting a “hey, bud, you’re gonna be okay” hug from Billy Joel.
Neil Janowitz, EW.com assistant managing editor: When I was at my angsty peak during high school, I used to turn to Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” (which I believe is actually supposed to be an uplifting song) and Aerosmith’s “Hole in My Soul” when I wanted to sad out. In hindsight, it’s embarrassing not that I used to sad out, but that I used such obvious, mainstream songs to do so. No creativity behind my melancholy.
Hillary Busis, staff editor: I spent a good three quarters of 2005 listening to Elliott Smith’s XO on repeat—particularly “Waltz #2 (XO),” the album’s melancholy masterpiece. (Whatever; I was going through some stuff.) Did I discover it initially because the boy who had broken my heart loved Elliott Smith? Yes. But I kept listening to it because it’s moving and insanely catchy, in addition to being gloriously gloomy—and that’s why I still love the song, nearly 10 years and however many boyfriends later.
Ben Boskovich, assistant social media editor: “Dreaming With A Broken Heart” by John Mayer. “Dreaming” is just one of many songs by Mayer that masterfully captures the thoughts and feelings associated with true heartbreak. Yeah, you may know him as a heartbreaker (so what, Taylor, Katy, etc.?) but there’s no one better to get you through a tough time than ol’ JM. Shout out to my ex-girlfriends for helping to inspire this explanation.
Teresa Jue, EW.com intern: God, where does one begin. It’s tough to choose, so I will go with the one sad song that made Michael Fassbender cry: Carey Mulligan’s rendition of “New York, New York” from the movie Shame. Mulligan’s eerie, slowed-down version of a grand song celebrating New York City is probably the one song that presses the “evacuate tears” button (see: Fassbender). Obviously, Mulligan was great in the movie.
Chris Rackliffe, senior social media editor: “Whenever You Call” by Mariah Carey ft. Brian McKnight. This song is incredibly tender and sweet—and Mariah and Brian sound heavenly together. I like this song (and particularly this version) because it’s one of Mariah’s lesser-known ballads, but its message of never-ending compassion is a powerful one. It oddly reminds me of my mom, who passed away in 2005. I’ve also listened to this song while dealing with breakups and it’s helped me cheer up a bit. That piano! Those high belts at the end! It’s just so good.
Kathryn Luttner, EW Community deputy director: After every breakup, I burned my ex a breakup CD, so I consider myself somewhat of a sad love song expert. My favorite, by far, is “Insensitive” by Jann Arden because it’s sexy, sarcastic, angry, and sad. Whether my relationship lasted two years or one month, I could cycle through every emotion in three minutes of that song.
Esther Zuckerman, staff writer: Perhaps it’s clichéd, but I always turn to Joni Mitchell when I’m sad. “Blue” is basically a perfect album, and there are so many songs on it that capture just how exquisite sadness can be in their extreme detail. God, “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is a great example: “He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer/ And he pushed three buttons and the thing began to whirr.” Still, “A Case of You” is probably the one I go to most frequently, so if you’re looking for sad Esther she’s probably in the corner squealing, “Oh, I am a lonely painter. I live in a box of paints.”
Another sad song I always turn to is Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” Baez wrote the song about her relationship with Bob Dylan, and the song is so specifically nostalgic about that early folk era (“that crummy hotel over Washington Square”), but I also find it so applicable to those moments when you think you have forgotten about a past relationship but suddenly the “ghost” of that partner reappears in your mind.
Jonathon Dornbush, EW.com intern: Really just pick about any Dashboard Confessional song and it’ll fit in a sad song playlist, but if you really need all the sadness of teenage angst, you can’t go wrong with Chris Carrabba’s guttural screams on “Ghost of a Good Thing.”
Mandi Bierly, senior writer: Johnny Hartman’s “It Was Almost Like a Song.” Lyrically, it runs the course from a great love found to a great love lost (both experiences are “almost like a song”), but it’s really about Hartman’s voice: It’s as soothing as a warm bath, which could explain why this track is always at the top of my sleep playlist. Also, there’s something special about listening to sad songs from different eras: You’re transported to another time, where your problems can’t/don’t exist. It’s like a timeout.
Marc Snetiker, correspondent: Sometimes when I’m in charge of the playlist, I put on Diddy (feat. Faith Evans and 112)’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and I immediately get friends demanding that I turn it off. It hits a nerve with a lot of people. Truthfully, it’s about lost loved ones, and that’s sad enough, but it’s not necessarily the funeral message that gets me going. I like to think that the song’s declaration—I’ll be missing you—is more of a proud proclamation, rather than a grieving concession. It’s something you want to belt out and sing on the last night of camp. It’s a little more beautiful, less depressing that way.