(Pictured: Benny, Frida, Agnetha, and Bjorn, on stage in 1979.)
Back in 2012, it was reported that science had determined Adele’s “Someone Like You” to be the near-perfect sad song. In 2013, Rolling Stone published the results of a reader poll that chose the 10 saddest songs of all time, including George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and John Prine’s “Sam Stone,” “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which clocked in at #1. In 2015, Paste cast the net a little bit wider, picking 50, and it caught some good ones: several from the Rolling Stone list plus “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” by Tammy Wynette, “Whiskey Lullaby” by Alison Krauss, and Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” among others.
My personal picks for saddest songs ever are not on either list, and on the flip. (Please add your favorites in the comments.)
ABBA’s music was often deeper than it got credit for being, and the existentially bleak 1980 single “The Winner Takes It All” is the best example:
The gods may throw a dice
Their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here
Loses someone dear
But tell me does she kiss
Like I used to kiss you
Does it feel the same
When she calls your name
Somewhere deep inside
You know I miss you
But what can I say
Rules must be obeyed
The judges will decide
The likes of me abide
Spectators of the show
Always staying low
Human beings as pawns in some cosmic game of chance is not exactly your usual pop-song material.
You can’t fully appreciate “The Winner Takes It All” from the page—you need to hear it. Even better, watch the video, directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström. The contrast between shots of happy couples and the resignation in Agnetha Faltskog’s voice, and the hurt on her face, is powerful. In “The Winner Takes It All,” the fragility of human feelings is no match for the enormity of fate, and the feelings of pain and helplessness are devastating.
Down a YouTube rabbit hole the other day, I came across another candidate for saddest song ever, one that I’d forgotten about.
Nashville contract songwriting frequently works like this: a producer gives the writers a title or concept and tells them which artist it’s intended for. Then it’s up to the writers to fill the order. (Which explains a lot about the mediocrity of so much Nashville product, in days of yore right up to the present.) Improbable as it seems, this industrialized process manages to create art, sometimes. The greatest of the contract songwriting teams will often say, however, that their favorite compositions are their most personal.
So it was for Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan, who would end up the most prolific and successful Nashville team of the early 80s. They had already written the #1 hit “Sleepin’ Single in a Double Bed” for Barbara Mandrell in 1978. Their composition “Years” wasn’t intended as a single until radio stations started playing it from Mandrell’s album One for the Record late in 1979. In February 1980, it made #1 on the Billboard country chart. (Wayne Newton rushed out a pop version that made #35 on the Hot 100, but Mandrell’s version is the one you want. )
The feelings all come back
Even now sometimes you feel so near
And I still see your face like it was yesterday
It’s strange how the days turned into years
It’s not just the words and music that make “Years” what it is. Barbara Mandrell really sells it. We default to the idea that she’s singing about a lover who has left her, but she could just as easily be missing someone who’s died. Whichever it is, she’s been fighting her grief for a long time, and in her weariness she sometimes simply gives in to it:
After all this time
You’d think I wouldn’t cry
It’s just that I still love you
After all these years
Nighttime gently falls
Another day is gone
I turn around to find you’re still not here
I’ll leave the hall light on
In case you come back home
But I’ve been saying that for years
We hear it over and over: “Time heals all wounds.” We say it to others, and we tell it to ourselves. Often, the only thing that gets us through a particular today is the knowledge that we’ll feel better on some future day. But what if time doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do?