music / Columns

The Top 5 Songs Of Mourning

September 15, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

It can’t all be fun and games my friends, this week’s Top 5 is inspired by Celine Dion’s latest release, “Recovering” – a mourning song that tells the story of singer’s shattered existence in the wake of the death of her husband of 22 years, Rene Angelil.

Whatever your opinion of the Canadian crooner, it’s hard to deny the bravery of confronting what must be a devastating subject, just eight months on from his passing. So, inspired by Celine Dion’s candor, we’re going to discuss songs of mourning, grieving, death and the dead.

Celine’s “Recovering” is a tribute to her late husband, not because it spells out his qualities, but because it details the effect of his death on Celine herself. What his death has wrought speaks to his meaning as person. Therefore, with this is mind, we are going to keep the criteria quite loose and allow a variety of interpretations of this topic – but there is one rule:

The song has to be in someway about real mourning. I am ruling out a lot of the more abstract Elliot Smith/Metallica style conceptual meditations on death and suicide. Whatever the mood, these songs are inspired by actual people.

5. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd [1975]

This was such a tough call. I adore “Jeffery Lee Pierce” by OFF! and “Candle In The Wind” launches my favorite Elton John LP, but (like “Stuck In A Moment”, “The Hunter”, “American Pie” and “Light Years”) they narrowly miss the cut. Instead, I’m returning to the Pink Floyd album I love the most: Wish You Were Here.

Intriguingly, I’m not going for the title track (which featured on my songs of the 70s list), because – while that song is undeniably beautiful – it’s the “Shine On…” suites that really try to evoke the spirit of former frontman Syd Barrett. Sure there’s none of his psychedelic whimsy on display; instead “Shine On…” is the cosmic spirit floating through whatever plain of existence Waters and Gilmour believe we are all going to end up on.

Yes, I AM FULLY AWARE that Syd Barrett was not dead when this tribute was written and recorded. He’d lost his mind to the effects of psychedelic drugs and Floyd openly admitted they were writing a song about the loss of something, perhaps, immaterial, but that was tangible to them – the Syd they knew.

It’s worth noting, Barrett, who died in 2006, was a willfully innovative guitarist and it’s fitting that his former bandmates wrote one of the most daring and dynamic pieces of guitar music imaginable to celebrate his lost genius.

4. “Back In Black” by AC/DC [1980]

Who said mourning songs had to be moribund? Could there be a more fitting tribute to the inimitable Bon Scott than “Back In Black’s” howl of “forget the hearse cause I’ll never die”? It is so satisfying to know that, despite being released just five months after Bon’s death, AC/DC decided to celebrate his spirit with a song that has become the definitive statement of the band’s sound. Angus Young core riff is a beastly creation that no underworld or coffin could hope to surpress. This is mourning as a celebration and (whisper it) an act of denial. Why cry, when you can pour one out for Bon instead?

3. “Dosed” by Red Hot Chili Peppers [2002]

The finest of three recorded tributes to Hillal Slovak, the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s original guitarist, “Dosed” is a wonderfully transitory work. This is the sound of a beautiful, carefree spirit slipping between your fingertips. The verses are joyous and full of esoteric glimpses of a well-loved individual. The chorus is a metaphorical bombshell, a theatrical death wail of biblical proportions. It’s a tribute to the Chilli’s dexterity and sensitivity that “Dosed” is allowed a breezy sense of scope: moods and emotions wash over the listener in waves. Mercifully, virtuoso guitarist John Frusciante is on hand to tie the potentially disparate scenes together with his elegiac playing.

2. “Coldest Winter” by Kanye West [2008]

“Coldest Winter” was written and recorded in honor of his mother, Donda West, who tragically died at age 58. Donda’s passing shook West to his core and “Coldest Winter”, like so many of the best mourning songs, speaks not of the person themselves, but the crater they have left in the existence of those who survive them. This is West at his absolute zenith. The production is masterfully understated. Cleverly sampling Tears For Fears, “Coldest Winter” is a steely and strangely slick affair, suggesting a heart that has frozen over – perfectly mirroring West’s words. Kanye pulled off a rare paradox on “Coldest Winter”: he gushes and falters while presenting the image of man hardened to world.

Note: the music video version is very much inferior to the studio version.

1. “Requiem: In D Minor (Lacrymosa)” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [1791]

Yes, before everyone and their mother chimes in in the comments, I am fully aware how wanky and pretentious a choice this is, but I don’t remotely care. When I thought about grieving and mourning music, this is the piece that came to mind. It’s a serenely grueling piece of concert music, it provides a wonderful finale (in an adapted form) to Amadeus and it functions as a song of mourning for both Count Franz von Walseeg’s wife (for whom it was originally intended) and for the composer himself.

Incomplete at the point at which Mozart died, “Lacrymosa” is a perfect blend of high scale theatrics, religious solemnity and awe inspiring grandeur. So I’ll take my lumps for the selection, “Lacrymosa” is the ultimate mourning music.

Remember to share your selections in the comment section below.