The core of music has always been to create sounds that people are going to want to listen to. This is doubly true with popular, populist pop music, which grew and thrived off people wanting to hear catchy hooks repeated as often as possible.
However, those catchy hooks aren’t always bubblegum. They can be jarring, with a wonderful dissonance that appeals to dark humor as much as dark dancefloors. Below are some of the chirpiest, catchiest, and most thoroughly disturbingly worded songs from pop music history.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – The Beatles
This is a classic example of a nice pop tune with bizarre subject matter. Two people are brutally bludgeoned to death by a killer with a titular silver hammer over the course of three and a half minutes, complete with a special sound effect and a chorus of “Bang Bang!” that is more cheery than it has any right to be.
“Oasis” – Amanda Palmer
Perhaps the undisputed king of this list, Oasis is quite simply one of the darkest songs Amanda Palmer ever wrote. For perspective, consider how much time she’s spent as a member of the Dresden Dolls, a band that dressed like undead cabaret junkies and named themselves after a city mostly famous for being firebombed to the ground. It’s also chirpy, up tempo, and best of all, it comes with a candy-colored (and NSFW) video that fits it perfectly.
“The News From Your Bed” – Bishop Allen
The best worst birthday song ever. An eminently hummable little tune about realizing that you have lost everything you had at this time last year. Notable for managing a narrative fake-out in under three minutes: the protagonist resolved to hit the town and make the most of the night, and for a second it seems the song will have a happy ending. The cab is “in on it” and never shows up. Also notable for its excellent, excellent use of happy hand claps.
“Choose Me For Champion” – Rasputina
Enough of this kindergarten-flavored sadness! It’s time for a song with teeth. This is a rallying, fist-in-the-air number about how the narrator has the charm and the grit to lead oppressed people to certain victory no matter the odds! Why is it on this list? Because most of the lyrics are from a speech by Osama Bin Laden, which makes it (decidedly) uncomfortable to use to get yourself revved up to go out and face the world.
“100,000 Fireflies” – The Magnetic Fields
Despite the heartwarming vocals, it’s about a codependent pair of lovers that only stay together because the participants literally can’t stand to face their nights alone. It’s also home to one of the bleakest, cruelest, funniest, and best lyrics Steven Merrit has ever written: “You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance. You won’t be happy anyway.”
“Rehab” – Amy Winehouse
This song isn’t ironic. There’s nothing ironic or even incongruous about a songwriter with a substance abuse problem writing a song about refusing to seek help, and then dying of substance abuse. It’s also not any darker or funnier now than it was when it was released in 2006: in light of the well-known nature of Ms. Winehouse’s problems, it’s always been as disturbing as it is wonderfully danceable.
“Romans 10:9″ – The Mountain Goats
Really, there’s nothing in the lyrics here that the average listener would find that disturbing. That’s why, during live shows, John Darnielle introduces it by explaining that while people think it’s cheerful, it’s actually about somebody whose life is so terrible that all he has to cling to is religion, lest the despair kill him. Excuse listeners for thinking there was something even a little bit optimistic on one of your albums, John.
“Chandelier Lake” – Tilly And The Wall
The sadly defunct Tilly And The Wall were always notable for their manic energy and immature charms: even when the band wrote scathing songs, it tended to come off like rowdy fourth graders on a playground. Then there’s this song, a spooky as all-hell discourse on a lake where the body of a murder victim has been hidden. It’s like a Decemberists’s song set to something that kids sing to keep the rhythm of jump-rope, and that only makes it more chilling.
“I’m Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Star” – The Boy Least Likely To
When the band released its first album in 2006, Rolling Stone said that The Boy Least Likely To sounded like “if all your childhood stuffed animals got together and started a band.” The band even put cute colorful puppets in its music videos. Then there’s this song, which tells a story of youthful loves and musical adventure, interspersed with flat-out weird lines like ‘I never would have got here if I followed my heart” and the even stranger “I’m happy if you’re happy, but it breaks my heart.” These lines drop out of nowhere, with just enough to forever ruin one’s ability to take the light-hearted story that accompanies at face value. What’s really going on here? Who knows?
“Heart Attack ’64″ – World Inferno Friendship Society
At least this song tells listeners exactly what they’re getting into in the title. The concluding number on World Inferno’s concept album about the life of actor Peter Lorre and his death (a stroke initially mistaken as a heart attack) in (you guessed it) 1964. In concert, the band encourages people to find a partner and waltz to the dreamy song.