My Top Ten – “Duende”… Sad Songs

Back in 2008 – it doesn’t seem that long ago – the music journalist Laura Barton wrote a wonderful piece in her Guardian column, “Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll” about what she called Duende, or what the singer Nick Cave described as “the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives at the heart of certain works of art”.

The description struck a chord with me. While the column went on to describe the blackness of spirit that often lies at the heart of music that could be called Duende, I thought of it more widely, as that ineffable melancholy in so much of the music I love most. A melancholy that might be a darkness of the spirit, or a lost love, or just a sense of melancholy. An E minor rather than an E major. And often a sadness which is so beautifully expressed that it becomes uplifting.

Yes, it’s the music you might listen to most late at night after a few drinks. The music that might just squeeze out a tear. Music that might hold a memory, or might just be the sounds that touch the very strings of your bow.

In the ten that follow, the most common musical genre is country. Even though that’s way off being the music I listen to most. It’s not even necessarily the most soulful music in my book. But the melancholy that runs through so much of it perhaps makes it the most likely source of that duende. 

Maybe I’m just talking about sentimentality really. But the ten that follow are all songs that truly move me, and uplift me just as I empathise with the sadness that lies within them.

There’s no Dylan or Springsteen here. I could fill a whole sad ten with either. So I decided to leave them out on this occasion and focus on some songs that might not be as well known, but mean just as much.

Pour yourself a whisky and wallow!

10. Roll On Arte – The Felice Brothers

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It’s the voice as well as the tune that does it for me in this song. A ragged, vulnerable voice – that of Ian Felice – that feels like a man who no longer knows where to turn. But who feels there is hope somewhere.

9. Talking In Your Sleep  – Grand Drive

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I had to have a Grand Drive song. Danny Wilson sings with such tenderness and hurt. “Talking In Your Sleep” is off their last album, “Everyone”. This was one of those songs that, when it came out, I just played constantly on repeat on my iPod. Simple, but so very touching.

8. Give Up The Ghost – Radiohead

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This is Thom Yorke at his most frail and eerie, off the most recent album, “King Of Limbs”. I could just as easily have included “Codex” off the same album.

7. Please Be With Me  – Eric Clapton

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This song is off the 1974 album, “461 Ocean Boulevard”. It was a time when Eric Clapton was recovering from drug addiction and most likely lost love as well. And finding new love. It’s a plaintive cry for help. Just beautiful.

6. Through The Morning, Through The Night  – Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

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This is from the 2007 collaboration “Raising Sand”, which was a big success. Robert Plant’s participation got the notices, but Alison Krauss led the songs, as she does on this one. A perfect example of country sadness:  but to know that another man’s holding you tight…

5. The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter – Laura Cantrell

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Laura Cantrell was one of the late John Peel’s favourites. Absolutely one to cry into your beer with. The title says it all. Laura has the loveliest voice to make it a spiritual experience.  Especially if the whiskey is making it sweeter…

4. Fade Into You – Mazzy Star

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Mazzy Star are a nineties indie band fronted by the beautiful Hope Sandoval. The songs are slow and fuzzy. “Fade Into You” is, I think about a love that never happens, about someone who is lost. Hope’s voice is dreamy, other-wordly, full of a beautiful melancholy.

3. In Your Back –  Keren Ann

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Keren Ann is Israeli-Dutch-Indonesian and has based herself in Paris and New York. Her music has a strong French element and you could imagine ‘In Your back” being sung in a smoky Parisian cafe. It’s a bitter post-love story, but her voice and the music is so dreamy that it becomes a love song. For a while a few years ago, I just couldn’t get this song out of my head.  I still love it.

2. Pause – Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

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Anyone who reads my blogs will know how much I like Emily Barker’s music. This is my favourite song. It’s great on record and even better live. A simple strummed electric guitar, Emily’s singing so plaintive, the harmonies so uplifting. Atmospheric.

1. Ventura  – Lucinda Williams

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I think this might be the saddest song I have ever heard. Lucinda is so down about her lost love, that it hurts even to listen. She sounds woozy and so lost.  But there is salvation – watching the ocean waves, maybe Ventura

If this isn’t Duende, I don’t know what is.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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11 Responses to My Top Ten – “Duende”… Sad Songs

  1. Great list! Sad songs are not always a bad thing. Sometimes they can help you bring out your emotions in a way that spoken words can’t.

  2. dc says:

    blimey- full monk on after listening to this lot.

  3. Okay, when I got the email notification of this post, I docked it! Your theme was cutting a little too close to my momentary nerve. But now that I’m out of that moment, (I’ll just go get another glass of wine 😉 ) I’ve had a good and enjoyable (oxymoronish emotion) listen to some very beautiful songs that I wasn’t that familiar with. Thanks John!

  4. Rick says:

    I saw Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in concert. It was a great show. It would have been better if it was Led Zeppelin.

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