There are some artists who, when you hear their name, you think of a certain song, but when you dig deep into their discography you learn that not everything is as rosy at it seems at first. This is a list of fairly downbeat albums by artists you wouldn’t expect that from.
Frank Sinatra – In The Wee Small Hours (1955)
Let’s start off with the oldest album on this list, Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours isn’t your typical Frank Sinatra album. Frank’s career, and ergo his life, was in the shitter in the early 1950’s. His audience had lost interest in the aging crooner, his TV series The Frank Sinatra Show was declining in ratings and on top of all this, he was dropped from Columbia Records leading to his suicide attempt.
Things did pick up for him when he was signed to Capitol Records and won an Oscar for his supporting role in From Here to Eternity, but things weren’t all perfect just yet. His marriage to his first wife Nancy Barbato ended in divorce in 1951, but ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t stay single for long and ten days later he married actress Ava Gardner. However, their relationship proved to be toxic and in 1957 they divorced, and the difficult relationship influenced this album, making perhaps the first ever “break-up” album, but don’t quote me on that.
Here Sinatra isn’t his usual cheeky, finger clicking self, some of the songs are stripped down with minimal instrumentation, introducing us to a different Frank Sinatra, a lonely Frank Sinatra. All the songs deal with failed romance and have such depressing titles as Glad to be Unhappy and I’ll Never Be The Same and When Your Lover Has Gone, a song which reportedly caused Sinatra to break down in tears.
The cover as well adds to the feel of the album and its theme of loneliness. Frank stands alone on a street corner smoking a cigarette. He’s not laughing like on the cover of Swing Easy or grinning like on the cover of Songs For Swingin’ Lovers (the two albums which sandwich this one), this is something much darker and quite frankly, it’s depressing.
Moby – Wait For Me (2009)
We go from the oldest album on this list to the most recent, Moby’s 2009 album Wait For Me was pretty different from other Moby albums which were mostly electronica but also had elements of rock, blues and even gospel. Wait For Me is more of an ambient album, it doesn’t feature anything that will make you want to get up and dance unlike 1999’s Play; it is a more personal affair.
In an interview (bizarrely conducted by a dog), Moby stated that he intended this album to be “more melodic” and “more personal” and he also described it as “mournful” and it shows in tracks like Pale Horses, which he also described as “mournful” (it’s a pretty repetitive interview).
The track Walk With Me, with vocals by Leela James, is a very sparse and ambient sounding track, giving it a feeling of isolation, as does the final track Isolate, believe it or not. However, the most depressing track on the album has to be the title Wait For Me with guest vocals by Kelli Scarr. While the song isn’t going to make you throw yourself off the top of the Sears Tower, its accompanying video which depicts a man who gets beaten up and mugged, losing his job and his wife before killing himself just might.
While it’s not a depressing album per se, compared to other Moby albums, it’s certainly something of a downer. Recorded in his apartment in New York, the album had no studio interference, which works well. It is a very atmospheric album, it’s also melancholic and sad, but overall it’s still a good listen.
Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987)
While most, if not all, of the other albums on this list are depressing musically, this one is depressing for its lyrics and themes. Pet Shop Boys were big back in the day with four number one singles between 1985 and 1988 (two of which are from this album) while 1993 saw their only number one album and perhaps the gayest album of all time, Very.
But when it came to songwriting, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had a certain agenda. Music journalist Robert Christgau said of the album “this is actual pop music with something actual to say” and that’s certainly true. The album is a pop record anyone can easily get up and dance to, but there’s more lying underneath the radio friendly pop tracks.
For example, Shopping is a critique of privatisation in 1980’s England while the opener, One More Chance, which was originally written for Divine but was later re-written by Tennant, deals with masochism. More notably, however, Rent deals with prostitution and anxiety while the controversial number one single It’s A Sin is a scathing attack on the Catholic church and was inspired by Tennant’s religious upbringing.
1987 was a very bleak year with the Hungerford massacre in August, the King’s Cross fire in November and Margaret Thatcher’s re-election in June. The cover compliments the detached pop sound of the album, as well as the detached feelings of the British public at the time. It’s an album full of anxiety, pain, anger and fear, albeit hidden by catchy pop numbers.
REM – Automatic for the People (1992)
If Anton Corbijn’s moody, monochrome cover doesn’t hint at something a whole lot bleaker inside, the maudlin opening track and lead single Drive with its acoustic guitar certainly does. It was REM’s third album with Warner Bros. and their last album, Out of Time, was upbeat and emotive (it did after all feature Shiny Happy People), this album was more human and subtle and deals with loss and mourning.
Tracks 6 and 7, Sweetness Follows and Monty Got A Raw Deal, both deal with darker themes than anything REM had done before and Try Not To Breathe is sung from the point of view of a man waiting to die.
Unlike some other albums on this list, there are more upbeat moments on this album, the crowd pleasing Man On The Moon based on comedian Andy Kaufman, the hopeful Everybody Hurts, and just try not to dance to The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.
The album is considered one of their best, if not their very best, release. It went to number one in the UK and number two in the US and went Platinum seven times. Lead single Drive went to number one in the US Alternative charts while Man On The Moon got to number two and would later be used in the
film of the same name.
The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up (1971)
Who doesn’t love The Beach Boys? Their upbeat surf pop stylings bring a smile to any face, and who doesn’t sing along with Wouldn’t It Be Nice when it comes on the radio? Well, you can abandon that idea right now because that’s not what this album is about. The title is ironic because here The Beach Boys have given up their surf rock roots for something more melancholy.
In the early 1970’s, the band had begun to transition to the counterculture and were encouraged to write more socially conscious lyrics. This is prominent in the opening track Don’t Go Near The Water, which is funny since the band previously sang about surfing and swimming and now we’re being told to avoid the water. This song and A Day In The Life Of A Tree are both environmental songs.
The heartbreaking Disney Girls (1957) has a nostalgic quality about it while Student Demonstration Time was partly inspired by the Kent State Shootings, which saw four unarmed students shot dead while protesting the Cambodian campaign. Skip ahead to track nine, ‘Til I Die, which had a sense of loneliness about it and, according to its writer Brian Wilson, was written while he was depressed and “preoccupied with death”.
As for the band itself, they were falling apart. Brian Wilson was slowly but surely losing his mind and would become a recluse before seeking therapy. As for the album, it did well, becoming their biggest selling album in years, but listen to The Beach Boys Today or Pet Sounds next to this album and you can clearly hear the difference.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
Just two years after his breakthrough double album The River and two years before the iconic Born In The USA, Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska. Nebraska isn’t the all-American style we’ve come to known from Springsteen, it’s a bleak depiction of of small town America with unemployment and crime running rampant.
The songs deal with regular blue collar Americans who are down on their luck with no hope for the future. The title track is sung from the point of view of spree killer Charlie Starkweather. The lead single Atlantic City tells the story of a young couple running away to said city with the man getting into organised crime and depicts the place as a corrupt hotbed of crime.
Another notable track, Highway Patrolman, deals with a failed farmer who becomes a highway patrolman and lets his criminal brother go free after he shoots someone. The closing track Reason to Believe offers us a small amount of hope with the line “still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe”, although it does deal with dead dogs and a man leaving his girlfriend with no explanation why.
Like I said, it’s a bleak album, and it’s often political too, and like most of the albums on this list it’s a challenging one to listen to, even for fans of Bruce Springsteen.
David Bowie – Low (1977)
Released one year after Station to Station to Station and shortly before Heroes (which would be released the same year as this album), Low comes from a dark and troubled place. While Bowie is best known for his classic hits such as Space Oddity, Starman and Changes, Low doesn’t really feature any songs that will be familiar to the casual Bowie fan, the kind who bought his greatest hits compilations after he died and hummed along to Life on Mars when it came on the radio.
After moving to Berlin Bowie had something of a mental breakdown, speeding round car parks shouting and talking nonsense about Nazis, and sharing an apartment with Iggy Pop in the drug capital of Europe probably didn’t help matters.
Bowie’s attempt to replicate the sounds and styles of Krautrock acts like Neu! and Kraftwerk lead to something that even Bowie’s biggest fans were taken aback by, but the first half of Low was nothing compared to Side B. While Side A was something more experimental that most of what he’d previously done, tracks 8-11 gave us something we’d never heard from the Thin White Duke.
The desolate sounding Warszawa, the bleak Art Decade, the misery evoking Weeping Wall and the Cold War inspired Subterraneans; all four tracks based on places in West Berlin, a place Bowie referred to as “dying with no hope of retribution” and that’s exactly the sound we’re getting here.
These four tracks alone paint such a vivid picture of Berlin in the late-1970’s, and even today when listening to them it’s hard to grasp that this is a Bowie album, the man who brought us such great pop music but who also often experimented, leading to darker albums like Outside and of course this album. And while we’re on the subject of Berlin…
Lou Reed – Berlin (1973)
Lou Reed had made a name for himself as part of Andy Warhol’s clique and more notably for founding and performing with John Cale as The Velvet Underground. As a solo artist, he had a big hit with the Transformer in 1972 which featured such classics as Perfect Day, Walk on the Wild Side and Satellite of Love.
However, his follow-up album wouldn’t follow in the same vein. Everyone was expecting the same sort of glam rock but Berlin was anything but, and for some can be a difficult listen. It’s a concept album that covers the relationship between Jim and Caroline, an American couple living in Berlin.
The couple deal with troubles such as depression, drug abuse and prostitution. Caroline Says I deals with infidelity while Caroline Says II deals with domestic abuse. Track eight, The Kids, samples crying children as Caroline has her kids taken away. This leads to her suicide in track nine, The Bed, but the closing track Sad Song reveals Jim’s refusal to mourn his partner.
It’s one of the bleaker pop albums you’ll ever hope to hear, but back in 1973 it seemed Berlin was too bleak for most of the public. It barely got into the US Top 100, although it did get to number 7 in the UK Album chart, but this didn’t stop Rolling Stone calling it a “disaster” while Creem magazine referred to the story as “lousy”. Today it’s recognised as a classic and perception has since lightened up.
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