Now that we’re in the dead of summer, it would probably be a good time to run a top ten on beach albums, or ubiquitous summer singles, or road trip albums, or any kind of list denoting some kind of fun, carefree activity. But instead, this week we’re dedicating our top 10 to albums so bleak, depressing, fatalistic or just plain disturbing that your whole summer could end up a wash out of the lingering feeling of melancholy that comes with listening to them. Do we know how to party or what! However, it should be noted that these albums are all spectacular, but maybe don’t break them out at your next barbecue.
Lou Reed – Berlin
Lou Reed has been at varying times a thought-provoking artist, a rock star, a poet, a provocateur and a completely baffling figure. On Berlin, he checks off a few of those boxes, but more importantly added another role on his checklist: harvester of human misery. Albums this completely defeating and bleak don’t come along that often, and there’s a pretty good reason for that: sending your audience into a fetal position isn’t a sustainable career plan. That said, it’s an impeccably written and performed rock operetta, that just happens to revolve around themes of addiction, infidelity, prostitution and suicide. We’re not sure which track cuts the deepest: “The Kids,” with its actual recording of crying children, or “The Bed,” with its disembodied, ghostly backing vocals.
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night
Aesthetically, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night has a lot in common with many of his other albums, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if you missed out on the bleak subject matter contained therein. Recorded following two overdose-related deaths — first Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, and six months later, roadie Bruce Berry — Tonight’s the Night is a weary and wounded statement of grief. It’s one of Young’s darkest hours, for sure, but also one of his most defiant, as the aftermath of albums like Harvest had left him jaded and cynical with the fame that comes from achieving commercial success in the music industry. The grief and bitterness that overflows from the album is ultimately what makes it one of Young’s best, if one of the most draining albums a listener can endure.
Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers
On #1 Record and Radio City, Big Star crafted some of the most sparkling power pop songs of the ’70s. Then, four years later on Third, everything more or less imploded in an unexpectedly poignant way. One could easily look at the album as a band losing interest in creating anything the slightest bit commercial, or for that matter, losing interest in being a band. The louder rock songs sound weary and resigned. The ballads sound defeated and tormented, the two strongest of the bunch, “Holocaust” and “Kanga Roo,” downright harrowing. This is the same act responsible for “September Gurls”? Indeed it is, but just barely.
Throbbing Gristle – D.O.A.: The Third and Final Report
Throbbing Gristle never made “sad” music, per se, but it is certainly bleak — music so ugly and terrifying that repeated listens could cause irreparable breakdowns. Between the noisy clatter of “I.B.M.” and the pretty electronic sounds of “AB/7A,” you could almost walk away thinking that D.o.A. is merely an experimental record that favors opposing extremes. But it’s more complicated than that. The death threats in “Death Threats” are almost sort of funny, but the dialogue in “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is just muffled enough to be disturbing. “Weeping” is supposedly a ballad, but genuinely unsettling. And “Hamburger Lady” is quite possibly the scariest song ever written, cold, violent and haunting. You’ve been warned.
Joy Division – Closer
There’s not a whole lot I can add to the legacy of Joy Division’s Closer at this point that readers don’t already know. The band’s brief existence had been cut short by Ian Curtis’ suicide shortly before the album’s release, and the album itself isn’t a walk in the park. Every moment feels alternately like an exorcism or a requiem, but it’s really a shame that this had to be the last of Joy Division’s output. As post-punk goes, there are few albums that achieve the same kind of harmony between intensely taut songwriting and emotional resonance.
The Cure – Faith
The stereotype of Robert Smith as a miserable caricature is one that generally doesn’t hold water, particularly when viewed against case studies like “Friday I’m in Love” or any song on Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me in which he makes some kind of animal noise. That said, when he was younger, dude could do some serious moping. Faith is the sound of The Cure at their most funereal and morose, with much of the post-punk edge of Seventeen Seconds sanded off, save for the pair of rockers, “Doubt” and “Primary.” But the rest of it descends into a deep, depressive mood that’s pretty hard to shake off. “The Drowning Man,” “The Funeral Party,” “All Cats Are Grey” — these aren’t the kinds of titles that indicate a man at his sunniest, but they’re pretty great tracks all the same.
Big Black – Atomizer
(1986; Touch and Go)
Steve Albini has been known to push his audience’s buttons, make listeners cringe and wrench out some truly nasty sounds from his guitar at that. With Big Black’s Atomizer, he accomplished that hat trick pretty handily, and with several tracks to spare. Where Songs About Fucking had a little more room for humor, Atomizer is essentially a document of American nihilism. Its subjects frequent some base dens of iniquity (“Bad Houses”), self-immolate out of boredom (“Kerosene”), and commit even more skin-crawling acts of sexual depravity on “Jordan, Minnesota.” It’s one of post-hardcore’s greatest moments, as well as one its most fucked up.
Eels – Electro Shock Blues
Mark Oliver Everett can write a darned pretty melody, as well as a truly fun pop hook, but then again the man has experienced his share of tragedy, loss and grief. The aptly named Electro Shock Blues is, in a way, his own form of therapy, the product of a year in which Everett, better known as E, lost a number of family members and close friends. Certainly, the album harbors quite a few upbeat pop songs, with E’s trademark exuberance, but then again, a quick look at the tracklist will tell you that there’s a pretty serious bummer happening within. “Cancer for the Cure,” “Hospital Food,” “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor,” “Going to Your Funeral” (in two parts, no less) — it’s a lot to take on one album. Of course, E delivers it all with charm and grace.
The Antlers – Hospice
There aren’t many indie rock albums in recent memory that have been as simultaneously inspiring and depressing as The Antlers’ Hospice, a multi-layered narrative involving a relationship between a caretaker and a dying cancer patient. Frontman Peter Silberman supposedly built this as an extended metaphor for a dying relationship of his own, but the fictional version seems much more defeating. There’s also a song that may or may not be about an abortion (“Bear”), a song about Sylvia Plath (“Sylvia”), and a handful of instrumentals as gut-wrenching as the tracks with vocals. The music is gorgeous, but mournful, like Sigur Ros at their most insular, or Arcade Fire if one more funeral had truly done a number on them. It’s a heavy album, but not in the Sabbath sense of the word; more like the “I should probably call my loved ones” sense.
Harvey Milk – A Small Turn of Human Kindness
(2010; Hydra Head)
Bluesy Athens, Ga. sludge metal band Harvey Milk has been known to have a little fun with their audience from time to time, be it in the form of an entire set of R.E.M. covers, or a Thin Lizzy and ZZ Top-style rock `n’ roll boogie album like The Pleaser. Then again, they can be cripplingly bleak with their slow churning sonic bludgeon. A Small Turn of Human Kindness is about as dark as Southern metal gets, its concept narrative of a crumbling marriage and suicide harrowing enough to make Eyehategod sound like Motorhead. That said, it’s one of their strongest albums, no matter how devastating the material.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.