The entire Tim Hardin catalogue could have been on this list – yes, another of those artists. He wrote Misty Roses, How Can We Hang On To A Dream, Reason To Believe etc, but this is my favourite. It’s a gently swinging little number about regret and renunciation with occasional outbursts of impotent anger. ‘Why can’t you be the way I want you to be? Why can’t you see that you’ve got to change and love me?’. We’ve all said that, somewhere around the bottom of the third glass. I really like Hardin’s voice, which is so gentle he sometimes sounds as if he’s about to nod out, which could be true given his lethal drug habit. But he’s a great antidote to those faux-folkies who try to do it all through mimicry and technique.
Millie Jackson has one of the great soul voices, a fact which got rather overlooked in favour of her obscene between-song raps. She didn’t do herself any favours by making albums like Back to the Shit!, featuring a photo her on the toilet. I Still Love You (You Still Love Me) is the last track on her best album, Still Caught Up, and it’s yet another of the great break-up songs on this list. ‘The way we used to be is just a bittersweet memory’ sings Millie, regretting a relationship that’s gone horribly off the rails. Caught Up and Still Caught Up are soul concept albums that actually work, all about lying and cheating and regrets, so this final scene has a particular power if you’ve followed the story all the way through. The seriousness of the song is almost ruined by the rather jokey ending, when Jackson loses her mind completely, starts babbling and is put in a straitjacket by a sinister doctor, but if you can stop yourself from laughing it’s a suitably melodramatic finale.
I was going to put American Trilogy – my favourite Elvis track – on the list, because it’s sad and uplifting in equal measure. But really, you can’t get away from In the Ghetto. When it was a hit in 1969 it was on very heavy rotation in our house. When Elvis died, my mother came home red-eyed from the sweet factory where she was working, and said they’d played In the Ghetto on the radio, and she hadn’t stopped crying since. There’s a lot of social consciousness songs from the late 60s/early 70s, it’s a little sub-genre that I really love, and this is the best of the lot. Great, unflinching lyrics about poverty engendering crime, a lovely melody and Elvis’s gorgeous mature voice… It was so surprising that he came out with a song like this, and I don’t think he ever really topped it.
Dinah, Dinah, Dinah. Another one who could sing her shopping list and make it sound like a cri de coeur. There are so many tragic moments to choose from, and I was going to put Drinking Again on the list until I remembered this beautiful, no-fuss rendition of the Irving Berlin standard. The lover, suspicious despite herself, begs the beloved to deny the rumours that ‘you’re growing tired of me’. It’s a wonderful ode to the toxic joys of denial – ‘Just say that everything is still okay, that’s all I wanna know’. Actually, taken with Drinking Again this is a good prescription for dealing with the end of an affair for those of us who can’t take too much reality. I always used to think that Dinah Washington was a sensible, hard-working professional, unlike the more famous car-crash singers like Billie Holiday: there’s something in her voice that sounds capable and serious. But then I discovered in the internet age that she died at 39 from a lethal drug cocktail, married seven times and spend all her money on ‘shoes, furs and cars’. Hey ho.
I’m struggling to find any male artists to put in the upper half of this list (although there’s a couple of great ones coming) – most of the sad songs I really love are sung by women. Marc Almond is an artist who revels in misery – ‘If you’re going to wallow’, read the sleeve notes on one of his albums, ‘wallow deep’. I think he’s at his best and most affecting when he keeps things simple, as he did here on my favourite track from his greatest album, Torment and Toreros. The singer reflects on his lost innocence and rapid descent into depravity – ‘Now I’m so wrecked that my eyes bleed’. It would be self-pitying but for the utter conviction that Almond puts into every note. I was absolutely bloody obsessed by Marc Almond from Soft Cell onwards, and I think everything he did up to and including the Mother Fist album was superb. I saw him perform dozens of times, and he never disappointed. This song takes me back to a very specific time (1983 to 1985) and place (a bedsit in Swiss Cottage) and a couple of very intense and unresolved love affairs that took place there. I rather fancied at the time that I too had lost my innocence and slid into depravity. Little did I know.
We’re getting into the second half now, so it’s time to unleash Dalida. If you don’t know her, you’re in for a massive treat. Dalida was the biggest singing superstar in France from the 50s until her death in the 80s, embracing cheery pop, ballads, folk songs, disco and loads of really tragic torch songs along the way. I love her every incarnation, she had a fantastic, versatile voice and she could switch performance mode from sexy/fun to stark misery in a toss of her blonde mane. There are so many great sad songs to choose from, but this is the one I keep coming back to. Our heroine lists her symptoms – je ne reve plus, je ne fume plus, je suis sale, je suis laide etc – adding up to the most complete expression of physical, mental and emotional anguish I’ve ever heard. ‘I’m ill’ doesn’t begin to cover it. It soon becomes clear what ails her: love gone wrong. This love is killing me, she sings, and if it goes on I’m going to die alone. Which of course is exactly what happened to poor, suicidal Dalida, making her the stuff of legend.
My husband just reminded me that I have to put this one on the list, because somehow I’d overlooked it. Odyssey are one of my all-time favourite groups. Nowadays they get lumped in with the cheesy disco-nostalgia industry alongside the likes of Boney M, but in their day they made some of the greatest songs of the 70s and 80s. Plenty of dance classics of course, but I really love the sad stuff like Inside Out and, above all, If You’re Lookin’ for a Way Out. Lead singer Lillian Lopez (or ‘Li-Lo’ as I like to call her) delivers the abject lyrics with as much dignity as can be mustered, and if it weren’t for the gorgeous melody and arrangements this would be gruelling stuff. The relationship’s over, the beloved is ready to leave, she’s desperate to hold on to him but she’s got just enough self-respect not to cause a scene. I’d like to say ‘been there, done that’ but I’m much more likely to be throwing myself in front of cars, clinging on to legs, swigging from a bottle of scotch and screaming ‘No! No!’.