Top Ten Songs About Death
On a recent episode of Glee, Naya Rivera sang The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.” Her performance, as well as the entire episode, was dedicated to the memory of Cory Monteith. The 31-year-old actor who played “Finn” died on July 13 in Vancouver, B.C. from “heroin and alcohol toxicity.”
Other songs featured in the episode included Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” “Seasons Of Love” from Rent, “I’ll Stand By You” from The Pretenders, James Taylor’s classic “Fire & Rain,” and Bruce Springsteen’s powerful “No Surrender.”
The Band Perry received top billing since they’re one of country music’s hottest acts (and the rest of the songs come from artists that are a little past their prime). “If I Die Young” was TBP’s second single and their first number one hit. As of October 2013, it’s also their bestselling single.
You’ll hear “If I Die Young” at each of their upcoming concerts. For example, The Band Perry will be in New York City on Oct. 16. Ten days later, The Band Perry supports Rascal Flatts at a show in Bloomington, Illinois. In 2014, look for The Band Perry with Easton Corbin and Lindsay Ell in Rockford, Illinois on Feb. 20. Then on Feb. 23, The Band Perry, Easton Corbin, and Lindsay Ell roll into Saginaw, Michigan for a show at the Dow Event Center.
It may sound morbid, but the aforementioned Band Perry song and Glee episode got the entire Clickitticket staff thinking about death—more specifically, songs about death. After kicking it around the conference room for an afternoon we came to the consensus that death is one of music’s three major song topics. The other two being “love” (which includes sex, relationships, and break-ups) and “partying” (which includes drinking, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and dancing). In other words, there are a lot of songs about death.
The Great Beyond has long been a source of inspiration for legitimate artist as well as a convenient topic for wannabes and posers looking to sound urbane and stolid. Sometimes their songs are actually about “death” like The Doors’ “Break On Through” or “The End” (come to think of it, most Doors songs are about death). Some songs are about the death of a particular person like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Brendan's Death Song." Some songs just have “death” in the title like The Clash’s “Death or Glory” or The Smiths’ “Death of a Disco Dancer.” Some songs are about suicide—Elliot Smith’s “King’s Crossing”—or the afterlife—Modest Mouse’s “Ocean Breathes Salty”—or capital punishment—Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows’ Pole.” Whatever aspect of death you can conceive someone has written a song about it.
As you can see there are a bunch of songs about leaving this mortal coil. There are so many that narrowing it down to the ten best is nearly impossible. To make the task a little easier on us, we kept to songs that memorialized a fallen comrade (either real or fictional) or are clearly about “The Big D.” Furthermore, the songs have to be of some renown. Sorry, that caveat rules out tunes like “It Just Is” by Rilo Kiley, “Don't Swallow the Cap” by The National or “Say Goodnight” by Bullet for My Valentine.
10. Puff Daddy featuring Faith Evans & 112 - "I'll Be Missing You"
“I’ll Be Missing You” samples The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” but the lyrics, which honor the passing of The Notorious B.I.G., are genuine and from the heart. Puff Daddy was good friends with Notorious and Faith Evans was his widow. The song was a huge success and a Grammy Award winner.
9. Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
Gordon Lightfoot wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” about a real boating accident that occurred in 1975 on Lake Superior. He was inspired to write the tune after reading an article in Newsweek. His song is not completely accurate but he has changed some of the lyrics after new details of the shipwreck emerged.
8. Metallica – “Fade To Black”
James Hetfield wrote “Fade to Black” during a time when he was very depressed and obsessed with death. The band’s gear had just been nicked and they were thrown out of their manager’s house for excessive rowdiness and cleaning out his liquor cabinet. “Fade to Black” was Metallica’s first power ballad.
7. Kanye West – “Coldest Winter”
Kanye West laments the passing of his mother, Donda, on 808s & Heartbreaks’ final track, “Coldest Winter.” The tune “recreates” elements of Tears for Fears’ “Memories Fade.” West was vulnerable all throughout 808s but probably the most vulnerable during “Coldest Winter.” West loved his mother. Donda died from complications arising from cosmetic surgery.
6. Queen – “The Show Must Go On”
Brian May wrote “The Show Must Go On” about Freddie Mercury and his losing battle with AIDS. People say they suffer for their art but Mercury literally suffered for his. He recorded “The Show Must Go On” when he was so sick he could barely walk. His performance is a true inspiration. The single was released just six weeks before he succumbed to the ravages of AIDS.
5. Eric Clapton – “Tears In Heaven”
Eric Clapton wrote “Tears in Heaven” about his four-year-old son who fell to his death from a 53rd floor window in New York City. It doesn’t get more tragic than that. Clapton later said the song was very therapeutic and helped him get over his loss. It was co-written by Will Jennings and featured on the soundtrack to the film Rush.
4. The Shangri-Las – “Leader of the Pack”
You might think that a song released in 1964 would be outdated in 2013 but “Leader of the Pack” is just as true today as it was when the Shangri-Las recorded it. Yes, “I met him at the candy store” is an anachronism but the song’s themes of teenage tragedy and motorcycle accidents still ring true (sadly).
3. U2 – “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”
If “Pride (in the Name of Love)” isn’t U2’s signature’s song then it’s definitely in the top three. Released in 1984, this stadium anthem is about the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. although U2 (Bono) got some of the details wrong. King was killed in the evening not in the morning as the song suggests.
2. Elton John – “Candle In The Wind”
Keith Richards once said that all Elton John does is write songs about dead blondes. He was referring to “Candle in the Wind,” which is about the death of the Marilyn Monroe and “Candle in the Wind ’97” which is a re-worked version about the death of Princess Diana. The original is a great song. The remake is the biggest selling single of all-time.
1. Pink Floyd - The Great Gig In The Sky
“The Great Gig in the Sky” comes in at number one because Pink Floyd did the impossible. They set “death” to music using nary a lyric. The only vocals are Clare Torry’s mesmerizing wailing and two short audio clips. The song, found on the seminal The Dark Side of The Moon, was originally called “The Mortality Sequence.”
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