If you’re sad or ever had your heart broken—and who hasn’t—then chances are, you have a list of your own favorite sad rock songs to play. It’s a sentiment that we understand completely, given that wallowing in sadness and coping with heartbreak through music is one of our favorite therapies.
In this list, we cover some of the best-known sad rock songs of all time. It starts way back in the 1970s and even includes one foreign-language option. It’s truly a comprehensive list of songs that are sure to tug at your heartstrings when you’re down.
1. Seasons in the Sun – Terry Jacks
“Seasons In The Sun” is the sad song anthem of the 1970s. It’d be hard to name anyone who didn’t do a major boo-hoo when this song came on the radio. It is about the impending death of a friend, which made all of us who loved it think a bit more about loving people while they’re still in front of us. It’s also a reminder to make amends and to let bygones be bygones while there’s still time to do so.
2. Rocky – Austin Roberts
As far as sad rock songs go, this one has a surprisingly upbeat melody and tempo. That’s partly why the last verses hit you so hard. It tells the story of a man and woman who fall in love and have kids and do all the things that couples do, but in the very end, the woman dies. It’s a song about love and loss that taught a generation of rock lovers how to grieve.
3. In the Ghetto – Elvis Presley
In 1969, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll recorded a song unlike any he’d ever recorded before. “In The Ghetto” is about the downward spiral of life in the ghetto of Chicago, seen through the eyes of a young man and his mother. By the time the young man was born, his mother already has too many kids to feed but does not have enough food. As a result, the boy turns to a life of crime to get his needs met and ends up dying on the street because he stole a car.
4. Keep on Singing – Helen Reddy
This sad song by Helen Reddy, circa 1974, reminds us of the power of music to lift a person out of a less-than-fortunate life. It tells the story of a poor kid who sang in the streets to make a bit of extra money to help her and her father survive their impoverished life. Everyone who heard the kid sing encouraged her to keep on singing, and it was something that kept her going after her father passed away, leaving her an orphan. The song eventually reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Easy Listening charts.
5. Without You – Mariah Carey
If ever there was an anthem for the brokenhearted, this is it. It’s the ultimate break-up song, and with Mariah Carey’s deep resonant voice singing the chorus “I can’t live” in a deep, baritone sound, it’s all over. Get out the tissues.
The girl’s gotta do something with those five octaves that she has at her disposal, and apparently, it’s to make us cry by singing sad rock songs. Carey wasn’t the first to record this song. That distinction goes to Badfinger, but her version is definitely our favorite!
6. Different Corner – George Michael
We admit it. It’s hard for us to choose just one song by George Michael in this category. He recorded so many sad rock songs and sang them in a way that only he could. Think “Mother’s Pride,” “Waiting For That Day,” and “Praying For Time,” and you’ll know what we’re talking about.
Written while he was still part of the band Wham!, “Different Corner” is a break-up song, one taken from Michael’s real life. We love this particular version of the song because it shows just what an amazing vocalist he was live. He was a true artist, and this song proves it.
7. I Can’t Make You Love Me – Bonnie Raitt
Anyone who has ever been rejected by the person they love can totally sympathize with this song, sung masterfully by Bonnie Raitt. Recorded in just one take, her vulnerable delivery of this song gets to the heart of what it means to experience unrequited love. Mojo magazine dubbed Raitt’s song #8 on its top “100 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2000. So, of course, we’re naming it one of the best sad rock songs around.
8. The Flame – Cheap Trick
That this song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 is probably no surprise to fans who love Cheap Trick. It also holds the distinction of being the only song by the band to hit #1. What is surprising is that this sad rock song to end all sad rock songs was a number that the band itself didn’t like. Well, no matter. Plenty of heartbroken music fans more than like the song. They love it, making it a logical choice for this list.
9. Landslide – the Chicks
First made famous by Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide” has all the elements that make sad rock songs great. It’s about the realization that all things change, and sometimes, love ends, sung to perfection by The Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines. It hit #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, and eventually, The Chicks’ version of “Landslide” went double platinum.
10. Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
Few sad rock songs have the depth of tragedy that “Tears In Heaven” does. Recorded by Eric Clapton after his four-year-old son died from a fall out of a 53rd-story window, it was one of the projects that the singer and songwriter took on in order to try to heal from the incident. It eventually won three Grammy Awards and was named one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” by Rolling Stone.
11. Don’t Jump – Tokio Hotel
This song by the German band Tokio Hotel started out with the best of intentions. They recorded the original version of the song, “Spring Nicht,” in German as a way to help teens work through their problems in a positive way. However, the intention was misconstrued when people thought that the band’s lead singer, Bill Kaulitz, might have been thinking about suicide at one point, which was supposedly the reason behind the song.
Eventually, Tokio Hotel recorded the song in English, and the controversy surrounding the song cleared up, leaving us with one of the most socially conscious sad rock songs ever.
12. Abschied Nehmen – Xavier Naidoo
The only foreign-language song on our list is a sad rock song that doesn’t need translating. That’s because the video for the song, which is sung in German, tells the story so well that you don’t need to know the words. The lyrics only enhance the story that the pictures tell.
The song is by German singer Xavier Naidoo, and it tells the story of a man who lost his best friend. While the song’s backstory is up for some speculation, what’s not is the beauty and the poignancy of this song. It definitely deserves to be on a list of the best sad rock songs ever.
13. Cat’s in the Cradle – Harry Chapin
When we first heard this song as kids, we thought it was sweet. Who doesn’t want to grow up to be like the person they admire the most—their dad? As we got older, the true meanings of the lyrics got a hold of us, and now, it’s impossible not to cry when the song comes on. Apparently, it didn’t just get under our skin. It spoke to a lot of people. The song got a nomination for a Grammy and, eventually, ended up as a Grammy Hall of Fame song in 2011.
14. It Can’t Rain All the Time – Jane Siberry
This song, which is attached to the 1994 movie The Crow, starring the late Brandon Lee, would be sad, anyway. However, given the untimely demise of Lee during the filming of that movie, this sad ballad is a visceral kick in the gut for fans of the movie.
It repeats a line from the movie—“It can’t rain all the time”—and reminds the listener to have faith in the eternity of life and love, even if we can’t see beyond the rains of today.
15. My Heart Will Go On – Céline Dion
Legend has it that Céline Dion sang what might be her most famous song in only one take. Released in November 1997 in conjunction with the movie Titanic, the song went on to become the best-selling single in the world in 1998.
Ironically, it was a song that the singer wasn’t sure she should record, given how many other movie tunes she had already recorded. Lucky for us that she did. It’s one of the best songs to belt out when you’re feeling a bit blue.
16. Someone You Loved – Lewis Capaldi
We’re pretty sure that you have probably played this song on repeat more than a few times since its release in 2018. Written and sung by Lewis Capaldi, it isn’t the sad love song that you think it is. Or more specifically, it’s a sad love song, but it’s about the singer losing his grandmother, not an old flame.
Still, it works so well as a sad rock song because it’s just an amazing song. Although originally a sleeper song, it came into its own eventually. It received a nod for Song of the Year at the 62nd Grammy Awards.
17. Shallow – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
This was the song that showed us what a great singer Bradley Cooper is. Recorded as a song for the 2018 movie A Star Is Born, it featured the vocals of both Cooper and Lady Gaga, who was also one of the songwriters of the tune. It eventually went on to be nominated for numerous awards, including a BAFTA, a Critics’ Choice, and a Golden Globe.
It has also spawned a number of covers, including one by Kelly Clarkson. It also made an unknown singer, Charlotte Awbery, instantly famous when she sang it in a London tube station, making this song worthy of being on the list of the most famous sad rock songs.
18. Back to December – Taylor Swift
Who hasn’t screwed up a relationship and then wished for a do-over? We know we have. Apparently, Taylor Swift has, too, given that she recorded the song. The 2010 song is said to be an apology song to her ex-boyfriend, Taylor Lautner. The song made it to #6 on Billboard’s Top 100 in the US.
19. The One That Got Away – Katy Perry
This 2011 song is another one that has a deceptively upbeat melody and tempo, and yet, is a heartbreaker at its center. Katy Perry sings masterfully about the one who got away, something that we can all relate to because we all have one that got away. For her, the one that got away was none other than fellow singer Josh Groban, who has sung his own share of sad songs over the years. The song topped Billboard’s Hot Dance Club songs for a time.
20. Someone Like You – Adele
With its arpeggio piano beginning and black and white imagery in the music video, it’s hard to miss the fact that Adele’s “Someone Like You” belongs on a list of sad rock songs. Written about a broken relationship in the singer’s life, it went on to become a huge hit when it was released in 2011. It landed Adele on all kinds of charts, including one that positioned it at #3 on a list of favorite number-one singles songs in the UK.
21. Right Here Waiting for You – Richard Marx
If there’s an often-sung sad ballad from the 1980s, this is it. Richard Marx’s song “Right Here Waiting For You” was recorded for his wife Cynthia Rhodes while the two were apart since she was shooting a movie.
It—might we add, brilliantly—features Marx’s incredible vocals, some keyboards, and a classical guitar. It eventually reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is now a favorite in karaoke bars everywhere. It’s a fitting end to our list of the best sad rock songs.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.