Everything dies. Innocence, dreams, friends and colleagues, family members, ourselves. There are suicides, abortions, murders. Upbeat death songs, teenage death songs, religious death songs, accidental death songs and reflective death songs. These are the cream of the crop, though. The top ten songs about death.
10. The Show Must Go On – Queen
Queen put out their last album in October of 1991. Freddie Mercury was dead less than a month later. Because of the crushing deterioration of AIDS, Brian May doubted Freddie could even sing this song in the studio. Legend says Mercury nailed it in one take after a shot of vodka. The lyrics are startlingly emotive and vulnerable, especially for a Queen song, making it clear that it was always intended to be Freddie’s swan song. Although never directly articulated, the imminence of death is clear in every bold, meaningful chorus that Freddie belts out, desperate to get the final word in before the curtain falls. Not surprisingly, this one was voted the most popular funeral song in all of Europe not too long ago.
9. Candle in the Wind – Elton John
Although originally penned for Marilyn Monroe, this song didn’t really get huge until Elton tweaked it a bit and sang it at Princess Diana’s funeral. Lyrically, this one stands out because of its imagery. The lost, exploited girl with no anchor, adrift in a sea of celebrity, resonates with the image of Princess Di so clearly that Elton’s 1997 version of the song became the biggest-selling single of all-time. It’s really just a eulogy in a song—a tribute that nearly rivals its subject in beauty and grace. A pretty song, and like the best funerals, you get a sense of closure when it’s over.
8. Arc of Time – Bright Eyes
The one thing that puts this song in stark contrast to the first two, is how surprisingly upbeat it is. Hand claps punctuate the already meaningful drumline, and by the final verse Conor Oberst sounds positively joyous. First time I’ve ever heard someone sing “You will die, die, die, die” without questioning their hormone levels. And while the melody is catchy, like many Bright Eyes tunes the lyrics are the main draw. Conor Oberst’s message is clear: death’s presence is out of our hands, but our reaction to it is not. The choice to embrace it or run from it is our own. At first glance, this song sounds Christian, but in my opinion the song is more about finding your own salvation and clinging to it before death comes. Which, as Oberst kindly reiterates, is swift indeed.
7. Ocean Breathes Salty – Modest Mouse
The fifteen minutes I spent listening to this song, watching the video, and reading the lyrics got me approximately nowhere. Talking with Logan and Levi though, I’m getting a much more fleshed-out opinion. I believe it’s about two lovers, one very Christian and morally-centered, and the other a much more cynical Atheist. The Christian has died, and the other one is filled with bitterness at the loss. He’s torn between standing for his beliefs and hoping to see his lover in the afterlife. The guitar is haunting; a solid wall of somberness. Wah-wahs weave between Isaac Brock’s frustrated lyrics, and the listener is left pondering the same questions about the afterlife that plague the singer.
6. Keep Me in Your Heart – Warren Zevon
Months away from dying of inoperable cancer, Zevon put out his final album The Wind to say goodbye. Everybody from Billy Bob Thornton to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen helped him with it, and it was the biggest success of his career. This track is a look inside to a man who’s made his peace with his own death. It’s noble and dignified and just generally awesome. The music is Zevon’s standard folk rock, and it’s the lyrics that propel it so high. He reminds us that it’s the little things we end up missing about a person after their gone, and the importance to love in the moment. Plus it made an amazing appearance in Boston Legal when Michael J. Fox’s character (who’s dying of lung cancer, coincidentally) is about to leave the show.
5. Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles
The Beatles’ classic about loneliness and the consequences of never finding true love rolls in at number five. It’s a sweeping orchestral epic, inasmuch as a 2:11 song can ever be, and there’s over 60 cover versions out there to prove just how relatable it is. The lyrics are desolate and for the most part unforgiving: Both Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie need somebody to love—but don’t meet up until Father McKenzie is conducting Eleanor’s funeral. And then there’s the string arrangement, which is brilliant and probably primarily responsible for the song’s insane popularity. Just listening to the music’s instrumental is cool enough—it already sounds like a lonely funeral dirge—but add Paul’s lyrics and you have one of the greatest songs of all-time. It’s down so low because at heart it’s a loneliness song, but it surprised me just how often death and loneliness go hand in hand.
4. All Things Must Pass – George Harrison –
George says this song reflects how the ‘essence of the soul’ is the only thing that resists change. “None of life’s strings can last,” he sings. Released almost immediately after The Beatles broke up, Harrison sings to the thousands of fans across the world who’ve been crushed to learn their favorite band has split. The lyrics are somehow depressing and uplifting at the same time, again harkening back to George’s stated quest “to achieve duality of all things.” Crazy what doing drugs in India will make you think. However, bursts of brass and Harrison’s ever-present guitar make the song anything but crazy. Instead it’s one steady, beautiful march. I don’t think it was until Paul McCartney sang this at George’s funeral though, that it gained immortality.
3. Dead! – My Chemical Romance –
One of the rules on these lists is one song per artist. If there’s ever been a time to break that rule it was looking at My Chemical Romance. Welcome To The Black Parade is a modern rock opera; an all-around strong piece of music. And it’s a concept album about death! Kinda! Alas, I picked just one track. In my opinion, the most death-centric (ok, that’s kind of a cop-out. I mean, look at the title) jam on the album. From the tasty guitar solo in the opening to the epic la-la’s at the end, this song dominates every second it’s playing. It isn’t bashful about the message that frankly, no one cares if you die. Being confronted with that fact might be just depressing enough to make you kill yourself to end it early. “If life ain’t just a joke, then why are we laughing?”
2. Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
Conor Clapton was in pre-school when he fell 53 stories to his death in New York in 1991. Overcome with grief and regret—mostly due to himself being a terrible father—Eric Clapton withdrew into his own world. He emerged the next year with this moving ballad worth three Grammies and a place as one of the best death songs in history. Classic Clapton fretwork compliments unguarded (and rightfully legendary) lyrics: “Would you know my name / If I saw you in heaven?” Listening to the song is one thing, but listening to it and imagining the pain Clapton had to feel knowing his heroin and alcohol addictions obliterated his shots at being a decent dad is tough to fathom. It adds so much weight to an already heavy jam.
and number one…
1. Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult –
I don’t even really feel like I have to justify this song because the lyrics already do such an amazing job: “The door was open and the wind appeared / The candles blew and then disappeared / The curtains flew and then He appeared.” That’s some spooky stuff. Not to mention it’s graced by one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history. Seriously, this song has it all: death incarnate, haunting background vocals, and a face-melting guitar solo. I guess, come to think of it, there IS one thing wrong with this song. Needs more cowbell.