Death is a fact of life, but it can be one of the most difficult subjects to discuss. But despite being such a complicated, emotional topic, many great rock songs have addressed dying -- from all different sides. It wasn't easy to narrow down such a vast subject to just 10 songs, but I settled on the below list, limiting myself to only tunes from the 1980s to the present -- and only one track per artist.
"I don't want to feel no more," Alice in Chains main man Jerry Cantrell sings at the beginning of "Black Gives Way to Blue." "It's easier to keep falling." This gorgeous ballad about Layne Staley, the band's former lead singer who died in 2002 of a drug overdose, ripples with pain and sadness as if the grieving process is still very fresh. And as a sign of how sorrow can bring together very different people, Elton John played piano on the track.
So many Drive-By Truckers songs deal with hard times that it was difficult choosing just one death-themed track from the band. But the nod goes to "Angels and Fuselage," the eight-minute epic that concludes their two-disc set Southern Rock Opera. The album often addresses the passing of Ronnie Van Zant (the leader of Lynyrd Skynyrd) in a 1977 plane crash, and "Angels and Fuselage" tackles the subject head-on, imagining Van Zant's final moments. It's a slow, sad song, an interesting counterpoint to what one would assume was a panicked, terrifying scene for Van Zant, as well as the other passengers of the doomed flight.
Green Day are known for their angry punk anthems, but "Wake Me Up When September Ends" wistfully chronicles how every September reminds frontman Billie Joe Armstrong of the death of his father during his childhood. This American Idiot standout ends on a rousing, all-guns-blazing note, but the long-festering sentiments and lingering loss are the song's emotional anchor.
Heavy metal is often accused of provoking suicidal thoughts in its impressionable listeners, but one of the genre's finest songs on the subject looked deeply at the depression and uncertainty that sometimes make life unbearable. Metallica's "Fade to Black" was written long before their multi-platinum success of the 1990s, and frontman James Hetfield turns down the volume for a candid acknowledgment of his sense of futility. "I was me, but now he's gone," he laments, deciding that death would be better. Thankfully, Hetfield is still around -- and, hopefully, so are a lot of lost souls who gained comfort from the song's blunt examination of desolation.
For much of the first decade of Pearl Jam's career, singer Eddie Vedder addressed meaningful themes like alienation and murder. But for "Last Kiss," a cover of a 1960s tune, the band seemed to be taking things a bit easier, performing a fluffy pop tune about a guy who gets into a car crash, killing his girlfriend. The subject matter was serious, but Pearl Jam's treatment made it feel almost nostalgic or tongue-in-cheek. Well, the joke was on Pearl Jam: It turned out to be one of their all-time biggest hits.
The intensity of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke's performance on "Videotape" might lead the listener to wonder if he's plotting suicide. Imagining going up to Heaven, presumably after taking his own life, Yorke sounds not scared or sorry but eerily calm, concluding that "today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen." The jittery percussion and ice-cold piano form an alarming juxtaposition that complements the tone of the lyrics: The end of a life is a horrible moment and yet an oddly beautiful one at the same time.
While some songs about a person's death are vague or ambiguous, Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Brendan's Death Song" is very specific. Written in honor of the passing of their friend Brendan Mullen, the track bids him farewell while frontman Anthony Kiedis imagines what his own death will be like. Considering how much death RHCP have experienced over their career -- original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose -- the compassion that runs through "Brendan's Death Song" can be felt in every chord change.
R.E.M. devoted much of their 1992 album Automatic for the People to mortality -- including references to dead performers Andy Kaufman ("Man on the Moon") and Montgomery Clift ("Monty Got a Raw Deal") -- but "Try Not to Breathe" remains the song that cuts the deepest. Envisioning himself as an old man, singer Michael Stipe speaks to his loved ones, asking them to remember him after he passes. The stark beauty of the song has the simplicity of a funeral march.
System of a Down - "Soil"
While other songs on this list approach death and suicide with compassion or sorrow, "Soil" from System of a Down expresses itself through anger. Over pounding drums and furious riffs, singer Serj Tankian tears into a friend who killed himself. Though there are happy memories, the loss eats at the narrator, causing him to wonder if he could have done anything different to help. Often we experience grief through sadness, but "Soil" is a moment when rage and confusion take over.
Many U2 songs touch on death, but "Pride (In the Name of Love)" may be their most famous. A tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., the song celebrates anyone who stands up to injustice with courage and love. Even though King was assassinated, the song argues, his message of tolerance and equal rights lives on.