Most “Song of the Summer” lists give you fluffy, relaxing, free-spirited pop hits, but the discerning music fan understands that all the best songs are sad ones, and any season is perfect for the right downer. So here are a few songs released this year you can rock out to while still experiencing the fundamental brokenness of this world and your losing battle in the search for significance.
Tove Lo, “Habits (Stay High)”
“You’re gone and I’ve gotta stay high all the time to keep you on my mind… Can’t go home alone again, need someone to numb the pain.” These lyrics are just about all you need to know this breakout single from Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo is as far from bubblegum as you can get.
Trust, “Rescue Mister”
Though Trust’s Robert Alfons hails from Canada, “Rescue, Mister” sounds like it came from the darkest nook of Eastern Europe–with its gender-bending vocals floating over subterranean, detuned synths, the production is equal parts The Knife and Depeche Mode. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, and it’s transcendent once it hits the chorus.
Damon Albarn, “Everyday Robots”
The most outright depressing song on this list–and likely the one that will retain its relevance longest. While hundreds of artists have satirized technology’s dehumanizing effects on society, Damon Albarn isn’t warning or predicting anymore. The “everyday robots” are already here, suckling themselves with mindless entertainment (thanks for reading, folks–don’t forget to share on Facebook!); all he can do is mourn. And mourn he does–with stumbling Tupperware percussion, wheezing violing sample, a poignantly repurposed excerpt of standup comic Lord Buckley, and absolutely BRUTAL lyrics. “Everyday robots just touch thumbs,” Albarn sighs, laying bare in so few words the total inversion of human relations wrought by smart phones. The track starts as all empty space, with audible breaths over piano stabs, then the melancholy takes over with swelling strings as Albarn’s voice grows more resigned.
Jennifer Lopez, “So Good”
If you search the web for this song, chances are you’ll find the video for J. Lo’s minor 1999 hit “Feelin’ So Good.” 15 years and two divorces later, this angsty breakup song isn’t going to make it on the radio over the bubblegum “First Love” or “I Luh Ya Papi,” but you’re obviously not trapped in a car with a busted input jack right now, so you have the whole Internet at your disposal to access this synth-driven slow groove just the same as if it were #1 on Billboard.
Alice Boman, “Over”
“You know I need the darkness just as much as I need the light,” sings Swedish songstress Alice Boman on this humble dirge. The lo-fi organ and obvious preset drum machine loop aren’t some coy statement; Boman intended to record a proper studio version of the song, but the producer she sent this recording directed it to a record label that wanted to release it as-is. And you, the listener, reap the rewards of that decision with Boman’s unreserved, intimate performance and a warm, frayed instrumental backdrop.
Royksopp & Robyn, “Every Little Thing”
No one was surprised when digital wizards Royksopp announced a new collaboration with the unmistakable pipes of Robyn, but what did take many of us off guard is what a slow burn their “mini-album” Do It Again turned out to be. Robyn’s ability to pump a performance full of conviction and emotion is rivaled only by starlet Ariana Grande, but Grande is still too green to collaborate with any competent songwriters or dial it down when appropriate. At that same stage in her career, Robyn would just as easily have fallen into that trap, eager to assert herself and please record executives. However, On Do It Again, particularly the penultimate track “Every Little Thing,” Robyn proves herself a skillful veteran who knows when to limit herself to piano or mezzo-forte, deftly leading and following Royksopp’s lush orchestration at just the right moments.
Sisyphus, “I Won’t Be Afraid”
No one rips your heart to pieces quite like Sufjan Stevens, and his output this year comes in the form of Sisyphus, a supergroup featuring him, Son Lux, and Serengeti (they used to be called s / s / s, but that probably stunk for SEO). “I Won’t Be Afraid” has Sufjan’s tearjerker trademarks all over it, and Serengeti only appears in some background vocals toward the end–singing, not rapping–making this the saddest cut from the trio’s self-titled record.
Tobacco, “The Touch from Within”
Tobacco, known in his off-season as Black Moth Super Rainbow, has the most unique voice in electronica and rock today, and his new album Ultima II Massage is one of 2014’s best so far. Its closer, “The Touch from Within,” is a moody, downtempo cut with a single, haunting line: “We dream about something that’s never okay.” Sung by Fec’s devilish vocoder over sliding, fuzzed-out synths and primitive drum samples, this song will get you zoned out–but you certainly won’t be at ease.
La Roux, “Let Me Down Gently”
Her first new material in five years, La Roux’s “Let Me Down Gently” is a breakup song stuck at the bargaining phase of grief. Singer Elly Jackson pleads with an erstwhile lover: he (or she) is clearly moving on, but can’t it wait for just a little while? The synth-drenched arrangement doesn’t pound your subs quite like most Top 40, but its satisfying build is sultry and widescreen, even delivering a sexy sax solo.
Cherub, “Chocolate Strawberries”
Cherub makes no bones about being raunchy; the Tennessee duo sounds like they should relocate to Miami, with their late-night sound and endless talk of sex, drugs, and disco. “Chocolate Strawberries,” the closing track for their new album Year of the Caprese, is not so much sad as it is drenched in fatigue and ennui–the kind from parties that last too long but still don’t outlast you. This after-hours sketch of classed-up junk food, driving under the influence, and bougie women hits a head-bobbing sweet spot with its tight drum programming, funk guitar riff, and bendy synth solos.