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Top 10 Hauntingly Beautiful Songs

VO: Lisa Yang
Script written by Aaron Cameron These songs aren’t just listened to when you’re sad, they’re the hauntingly beautiful songs that make you think, even become melancholic. Songs like “How to Disappear Completely” by Radiohead, “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan, “Breathe Me” by Sia, “Mad World” by Michael Andrews feat. Gary Jules, and “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton are some of the songs on our list.

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Top 10 Hauntingly Beautiful Songs

These are the songs that send shivers down your spine and move your heart. Welcome to MsMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 hauntingly beautiful songs.

For this list we will be looking at the songs that move us, touch us, and make us feel a whole range of complicated feelings

#10: "How to Disappear Completely" (2000)

While not the sound they're known for, this track from 2000's Kid A is now remembered by many as one of Radiohead’s best offerings. In place of his otherworldly guitar work, Jonny Greenwood presents a Krzysztof Penderecki inspired string arrangement as the foundation for “How to Disappear Completely”, which was recorded at Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire, England. Lyrically, meanwhile, the track was inspired by a mantra of sorts, given to Thom Yorke by Michael Stipe of REM- “I'm not here, this isn't happening”. The song was also inspired by a dream Yorke had about floating. Sonically, it's almost hard to tell where Yorke's vocals leave off and the mournful and emotive string section begins.

#9: "Angel" (1997)
Sarah McLachlan

Featuring just McLachlan, her piano, and the subtle bass of Barenaked Lady Jim Creeggan, this song tugged at the heartstrings long before it became associated with the ASPCA. Inspired by the overdose death of Smashing Pumpkins’ touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin - this haunting lullaby has become the go-to song to underline sadness in TV shows and movies, and as an attempt to find hope in real life tragedies. McLachlan has referred the writing process of this song as a “very easy labor”. Burnt out from two years worth of touring, the singer felt that, while not a drug user herself, she could identify with someone turning to substances as a means of coping with the touring lifestyle.

#8: "Transatlanticism" (2003)
Death Cab for Cutie

The title track of the album that cemented this band’s place in music history, “Transatlanticism” may very well be one of Death Cab for Cutie’s finest musical moments. Written by Ben Gibbard with Chris Walla, the track runs close to the 8-minute mark and maintains a sense of pained loneliness throughout. Beginning sparsely with just piano, vocal, and precise percussion, the song builds with the eventual addition of electric guitar. Addressing the loneliness and frustration that comes with a long distance relationship, a theme carried across the entire concept album, “Transatlanticism” is as lyrically beautiful as it is musically hypnotic.

#7: "Breathe Me" (2004)

Owing to the way it was recorded, “Breathe Me” is one of the few songs in Sia’s catalogue that she can really enjoy listening to. With Sia out sick, bassist Sam Dixon and drummer Felix Bloxsom recorded the track in her absence, and she got to fall in love with the results before adding her vocals. She wasn't the only one to feel smitten though. Upfront about worries, anxiety, and self-harm, the song is at once inconsolable and deeply soothing. Beginning with just piano and a voice so weary and lethargic you doubt she'll make it to the end of the verse, “Breathe Me” builds in intensity and emotion, like light at the end of a dark tunnel.

#6: "Mad World" (2002)
Michael Andrews feat. Gary Jules

Originally recorded by Tears for Fears, “Mad World” took on a whole new sound in the hands of Michael Andrews. Tasked with sound tracking the film Donnie Darko, Andrews needed a song with the right emotional weight to replace U2's “MLK”, which the production could not afford. Featuring no drums or guitars at the request of director Richard Kelly, Andrews created the soundscape of “Mad World” using piano, vocoder, as well as synthetic cello via a mellotron. He then enlisted former bandmate Gary Jules to record the restrained vocals. Mostly completed in less than two hours, the version was meant as a demo, but Kelly liked the track so much he decided to use it for the film.

#5: "The Wolves (Act I and II)" (2007)
Bon Iver

Written while Justin Vernon was recovering from a breakup, the end of a band, and mononucleosis of the liver, “The Wolves” is almost a mantra of self-determination in the face of intangible obstacles. Relocating to his father's cabin in rural Wisconsin, Vernon coped with his loneliness by recording and pursuing new directions and approaches to his songwriting. Completing what he thought was a solid demo, Vernon was urged to release the recordings as an album, “The Wolves” proving to be a highlight for many listeners. The conflicted mix of emotions in the song can only be rivalled by the band's later track “Holocene” which treads similar ground.

#4: "Tears in Heaven" (1992)
Eric Clapton

A favorite of many Clapton fans, “Tears in Heaven” was the guitarist's means of coping with the death of his young son Conor. The son of Clapton and model Lory Del Santo, Conor was just four years old when he fell to his death from a New York City high rise. A former addict, Clapton sought to avoid falling back on old habits, pouring his grief into music instead. Having written the first verse, Clapton asked co-writer Will Jennings to complete the song as part of their work for the soundtrack of the film “Rush”. Inescapably linked to Conor's death, “Tears in Heaven” is an emotional exploration of sorrow, loss, pain, and uncertainty.

#3: "The Sound of Silence" (1964)
Simon and Garfunkel

Written over six month period, “The Sound of Silence” was slow in the making. Simon allegedly wrote much of it in a bathroom with the lights out, which likely explains the opening line, if not the mood of the whole song. Thought by many to be about a range of heavy topics- most notably the JFK assassination- Paul Simon has said it’s simply about people's inability to communicate with one another. Undeniably captivating, the uniquely bleak sentiment of uncertainty offered by “The Sound of Silence” has seen it used to underscore emotion in films as diverse as The Graduate and The Watchmen. It even found its way into the quirky fabric of the cult classic comedy series Arrested Development.

#2: "Hurt" (2002)
Johnny Cash

What was once a musical suicide note from Trent Reznor became a musical obituary for the Man in Black. Presented to the iconic songwriter by producer Rick Rubin, Cash took a liking to the Nine Inch Nails classic - allegedly listening to it roughly 100 times. The song not only perfectly suited Cash and his demon-fuelled past, but also married perfectly with his weakening but still commanding, low-baritone voice. Powerful in its own right, the song becomes an absolute tearjerker when paired with the music video. Within a year of its release, both Cash and his wife June would pass away. In 2007, the couple's home- which featured prominently in the video- was destroyed by fire.
Before we unveil our top pick here are a few honourable mentions.

“Autumn Leaves” (1996)
Eva Cassidy

“Young and Beautiful” (2013)
Lana Del Rey

“Only Time” (2000)

#1: "Hallelujah" (1994)
Jeff Buckley

As omnipresent as it is today, “Hallelujah” actually took a very long time to gain footing in the public consciousness. First released by Leonard Cohen in 1984, the singer wrote it over a five year period, accumulating approximately 80 different verses before narrowing it down to four. Rejected by CBS Records, who called it “a disaster”, Cohen released it independently to little fanfare. Ten years later Jeff Buckley picked up where John Cale's 1991 cover version left off, but it too had a limited impact... until Buckley's death in 1997. Today over 300 covers exist, but it's Jeff Buckley's raw and sensual take that is best known, the sentimentality of which is only heightened by Buckley’s untimely demise.
Do you agree with our list? What’s your favourite hauntingly beautiful song? For more ethereal Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to MsMojo.

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