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A Music Critic’s Top 10 Classic Rock Songs About Mental Health

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My history as a rock critic goes back to 2000 when I scored a college internship with “Rolling Stone,” where I notably fetched a bottle of water for Slash, guitarist from Guns N’ Roses.

I’ve been at it two decades now, having spent the better part of the 2000s working as a producer for MTV News, interviewing rock bands and pop stars and cutting mini-movies on them, a few of which can be seen on my YouTube channel.

I’ve reluctantly appeared on camera in a couple of silly segments for MTV. And I also wrote a heck of a lot about politics. I have bylines in some other outlets like VICE, AOL and The Fix.

When I sat down to select these anthems of mental illness, I took it very seriously. As someone who happens to have bipolar disorder, I have a keen interest in lyrics as poetry, an obsession that many who have bipolar share.

Trigger warnings: mental illness, suicide, trauma

Behold: the top 10 songs about mental illness.

1. Nirvana — “Lithium

Seattle’s Nirvana ignited a movement in 1991 with their scorcher of a debut “Nevermind.” Their lyrics are about as moody as it gets, and they dovetail nicely with the band’s punk-influenced sound.

“Lithium” is a thrill ride of emotions — from happiness to despondence to animal magnetism, highlighted sometimes within the same sentence.

Kurt Cobain had bipolar disorder, and in this song he writes about imaginary friends or voices inside his head — a categorical demonstration of extreme mania. “Lithium” is most emblematic of the disease down to the titular drug that treats bipolar disorder.

I’m so happy
‘Cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly
That’s OK ‘cause so are you
We broke our mirrors

I’m so lonely
That’s OK, I shaved my head
And I’m not sad
And just maybe
I’m to blame for all I’ve heard
And I’m not sure

2. R.E.M. — “Everybody Hurts

If a song could be anthropomorphic, asking you a question personally, “Everybody Hurts” would ask: “Are you OK?” And when you listen to it, the answer would be: “Yes.”

The adage “misery loves company” is true, and grieving or feeling difficult emotions is better knowing you’re not the only one. This song is that empathetic friend who has the power to lift your spirits in camaraderie.

It’s an anti-suicide anthem and one of the most important songs in R.E.M.’s oeuvre.

When your day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
Everybody hurts sometimes

3. Black Sabbath — “Paranoid

Black Sabbath is a hard rock band who — along with Led Zeppelin — laid the foundation for the heavy metal revolution that followed.

Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne has always been kind of an odd bird. Infamously, he once bit the head off a live bat onstage in Des Moines, IA in 1982. Formed in 1968, Black Sabbath scored stardom with their 1970 second album “Paranoid” and its title track.

People think I’m insane because
I am frowning all the time

All day long I think of things
But nothing seems to satisfy
Think I’ll lose my mind…

I need someone to show me
The things in life that I can’t find
I can’t see the things that make
True happiness, I must be blind…

Happiness I cannot feel
And love to me is so unreal

4. Jimi Hendrix — “Manic Depression

It’s unclear whether or not Jimi Hendrix was bipolar. He never talked about it in interviews, but he wrote a song about it. “Manic Depression” epitomizes the disease with its poetic lyrics that shine a light on the struggle.

Music, sweet music
I wish I could caress
Manic depression’s a frustrated mess

Manic depression is indeed a frustrated mess, as anyone who has it can attest.

5. Black Flag — “Depression

The legendary LA hardcore band sums up depression in this less-than-three-minute nugget of a tune from the 1981’s classic, “Damaged.

With its galloping speed and guttural screaming, hardcore punk is often a means of blowing off steam, and this song is the perfect example. The lyrics are quite literal.

Depression’s got a hold of me
Depression, I gotta break free
Depression’s got a hold on me
Depression’s gonna kill me

6. Nine Inch Nails — “Down In It

Trent Reznor is the industrial-music mastermind of 11 albums and the Oscar-winning composer alongside Atticus Ross for “The Social Network” (2010) and Pixar’s “Soul” (2020). His tour-de-force debut — 1989’s beloved “Pretty Hate Machine” —  delivers this spine-tingling showpiece, which describes the ups and downs of bipolar.

Kinda like a cloud I was up, way up in the sky
And I was feeling some feelings you wouldn’t believe
Sometimes I don’t believe them myself
And I decided I was never coming down
Just then a tiny little dot caught my eye
It was just about too small to see
But I watched it way too long
It was pulling me down

I was up above it
Now I’m down in it

7. Bright Eyes — “Something Vague

Conor Oberst is one of the great songwriters of his generation and this song is total melancholia. Bright Eyes’ 2000 album, “Fevers and Mirrors,” is a torturous dive into the depth of the hell that is major depression, contrasting Oberst’s latter-day work, much of which is jovial.

It’s unclear whether or not Oberst struggles with depression or any mental health malady. But these lyrics sure are spot-on:

Now and again it seems worse than it is
But mostly the view is accurate

You see your breath in the air
As you climb up the stairs
To that coffin you call your apartment

And you sink in the chair
Brush the snow from your hair
And dream the cold away

8. Rilo Kiley — “A Better Son / Daughter

The LA indie rockers nail it with this song, which practically bleeds bipolar disorder. I’ll let the words speak for themselves.

Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move
Awake but cannot open my eyes
And the weight is crushing down on my lungs
I know I can’t breathe

And hope someone will save me this time…
And sometimes when you’re on
You’re really fucking on
And your friends they sing along
And they love you

But the lows are so extreme
That the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence
But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through

You’ll fake it if you have to
And you’ll show up for work with a smile
And you’ll be better
You’ll be smarter
More grown up and a better daughter or son
And a real good friend

And you’ll be a real good listener
You’ll be honest
You’ll be brave
You’ll be handsome and you’ll be beautiful
You’ll be happy

9. Blink-182 — “Adam’s Song

Pop punkers Blink-182 crossed the drawbridge from punk obscurity to MTV superstars instantly in the late 90s.  Bassist and singer Matt Hoppus has been in the news recently because he revealed a cancer diagnosis.

The guys are notorious goofballs, but it was time to take a breather when they wrote “Adam’s Song,” a serious tune about suicide. The lyrics take the form of a suicide note, and serve as a reminder of the negative impact suicide can have on a person’s loved ones.

I never thought I’d die alone
I laughed the loudest, who’d have known?
I trace the cord back to the wall
No wonder it was never plugged in at all
I took my time, I hurried up
The choice was mine, I didn’t think enough
I’m too depressed to go on
You’ll be sorry when I’m gone…

Please tell mom this is not her fault

10. Tears for Fears — “Mad World

This 1980s new wave jam was used strategically in the Jake Gyllenhaal cult classic about a schizophrenic teenager, “Donnie Darko.” It was covered by Gary Jules and a lot of people think it was Jules’ song, but it is indeed one of Tears for Fears finest tracks. Anyone who has been suicidal can relate to this tune. And dreams about death.

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world

Honorable mentions: 
Garbage — “Bleed Like Me”
Good Charlotte — “Hold On”
Green Day — “Basketcase”
Matchbox Twenty — “Unwell”
Rise Against — “Make It Stop (September’s Children)“
The Offspring — “The Kids Aren’t All Right”
Linkin Park — “Crawling”
Pennywise — “Bro Hymn”
Sonic Youth — “Schizophrenia”
Soul Asylum — “Runaway Train”
Soundgarden — “Fell on Black Days”
Suicidal Tendencies — “Institutionalized”
System of a Down — “Lonely Day”
The Who — “Behind Blue Eyes”

Getty image by FotoLesnik

Originally published: September 3, 2021
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