Music can conjure up moments in time that you’d just rather have Eddie Vedder convey for you, and that’s totally cool. An artist’s ability to emotionally communicate pain, fear, loss, and regret can form certain songs that nab you right where it hurts.
We all have that “sad song playlist” burned in our brain, but whether we want to acknowledge it is another story. Rewinding to the ‘90s one will find a plethora of heartfelt, raw music entries from prolific songwriters and artists. In this treasure chest you find songs on relationships, suicide, depression, death – it’s all there.
Since we all don’t cry enough these days, here’s a selection of the best sob songs from the ‘90s that will forever punch your gut with tears.
Eric Clapton – “Tears in Heaven”
Lyrics are shards of commentary and when there is sincere truth added the impact elevates. It is further heightened when the songwriter’s dialogue sparks from tragedy, which was the case with Eric Clapton’s 1992 song “Tears in Heaven.” The song was a heart-wrenching lullaby to Clapton’s four-and-a-half-year-old son Conor, who died falling 53 storeys out of the high-rise condo he lived at with his mother, actress Loredana Del Santo.
Even more tragic is the fact that incident occurred while both parents were away from the condo and Conor was under the care of the housekeeper. While the housekeeper was cleaning the six-by-four window, the young child apparently ran straight through it and fell to his death. Clapton penned the song, which begins with “would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” The song went on to win multiple Grammy awards in 1993.
Further gutting was the letter written by his son days before the accident. The letter included the words “I love you.” If this doesn’t make you break down, then human empathy no longer exists.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “I Could Have Lied”
Breakup songs can either make you wallow in the memories of your former love or lead you to join in shooting up that big middle finger and moving on. This song sways seems to sway between the two spectrums, sung through Anthony Kiedis’s reflective, succumbing voice.
Still, even though you can tell it’s time to move on it doesn’t make the mess left behind easy to sweep away and that’s why this track begs with vulnerability. Plus, the fact it’s allegedly to be about Sinead O’Connor makes it that much more interesting. With guitar solos like these, who needs tears?
Pearl Jam – “Last Kiss”
While Eddie Vedder did not write this song, the shaky fragility that his voice conveyed while singing it was deeply heartfelt. The original song was a fictional story about teenage lovers who get into a car accident, and was written by Wayne Cochran in 1961. “Last Kiss” is sung through the voice of the guy who his watching his girlfriend die in his arms, which should never happen. Vedder’s emotional rendition brings you into the boyfriend’s mind, instantly.
Soul Asylum – “Runaway Train”
If you grew up in the ‘90s and turned on the radio, this song came on within the hour. “Runaway Train” was the most popular entry from the band’s 1992 album, Grave Dancers Union, which sold over three million copies. Lead singer David Pirner has said Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the influences that helped draw the song.
While “Runaway Train” itself discussed isolation, it was the defining music video that brought the sadness to new extremes. Directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), the just over four minute video featured a stream of photos of missing children, one after the other, highlighting the not-to-be forgotten kids that disappeared.
Not just a rock song, it became a soundtrack of desperate hope. To this day we can’t help but wonder if those children were found and that in itself is heartbreaking.
R.E.M – “Everybody Hurts”
Sometimes you just need a song that makes you feel less weird and – poof! – R.E.M answers your plea. Each time Michael Stipe sings “everybody hurts” it’s like an instant nerve pinching, which is then followed by “everybody cries,” basically saying “it’s OK friend, let it out, just let it out.”
Seriously, sometimes everything is wrong and it’s time to sing along, and that’s why this song is forever engrained in your dear diary of a mind. The upside is that Stipe is telling you to “hold on” so that’s simply what you do, time and time again.
The Verve Pipe – “The Freshman”
Suicide is serious and whether the origins of this song came from an actual suicide or not, the lyrics paint the canvas. In fact, lead singer/songwriter, Brian Vander Ark, set the record straight in an interview with Radio.com, confirming that the suicide part of the story was fabricated, but the lyrics stemmed from his own reality.
According to Vander Ark, he and his friend went out with the same girl and his friend ended up getting her pregnant, which then led her to get an abortion. The suicide portion on the story was “poetic license to make it sound more dramatic. I mean, little bits and pieces come from everywhere.”
Goo Goo Dolls – “Iris”
The Goo Goo Dolls knew how to get you sappy and introspective. While “Iris” may have been their most popular song, “Name” is equally heavy. The band tackled multiple issues including abortion (“Slide”), and while it is still debated, “Iris” was a mainstream song before its time, talking about coming out as gay.
It’s also been said that the lyrics were penned for the film City of Angels, depicting the relationship between Meg Ryan’s character and the angel character played by Nicholas Cage. Whichever side you fall on, the lyrics and simple guitar progressions quietly sneak up on your soul.
Fast-forward to present day and the band’s still delivering heartrending lyrics like “never gonna live if you’re too scared to die” and “you can make it on a wish if you want to.”
Green Day – “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”
You knew this one was coming. This song in combination with the video of Billie Joe Armstrong strumming his guitar on his sad excuse of a bed is a quintessential sob track from the ‘90s. You listened to it at camp when you finally found friends that were soon leaving you, or when graduating from your high school clique, or moving to a new city — it’s that song about memorable goodbyes, and heck you’re not afraid to choke up on occasion.
The real question is why wasn’t “Time of Your Life” the theme song for this spinoff series? It may have lasted longer.
Jewel – “Foolish Games”
You know what’s awkward? When you’re trying to impress someone with your “really diverse” music selections and one of your most listened to songs on YouTube and iTunes is this one. There’s always an explanation, OK? I don’t care what anyone says, when Jewel starts belting “you’re tearing me apart” then seemingly sniffling through the last “tear-ing-me… apart,” it’s like she’s ripped your heart out and is letting you know it’s not getting sewed back up today, or possibly ever. See, there’s always an explanation.
“Foolish Games” first began as a poem that Jewel wrote when she was 16. I didn’t even listen to “Foolish Games” while writing this for fear of not being able to complete the article.
Blink-182 – “Adam’s Song”
Taken from Blink’s 1999 album, Enema of the State, “Adam’s Song” was written by both Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge. The meaning continues to be speculated about with one assertion claiming it stemmed from a fictional suicide letter; another from an article Mark read on suicide; and another cites Mark’s loneliness post-tour with no one to go home to as partial inspiration.
Yet, with lyrics like “I never thought I’d die alone / Another six months I’ll be unknown” and “Please tell mom this is not her fault” it’s hard not to draw links to the depths of depression and suicide. That’s something many people can relate to in some way or another. It’s hard to get through the entirety of this song without becoming numb with sadness.