Western music is built around the idea of tension and release—the movement from a feeling of dissonance or unsettledness to consonance and stability. But some music revels in a mood of irresolution or doomy uncertainty and refuses the easy cathartic, let-it-all-out appeal of the anthemic chorus, denying the listener the satisfying feeling of “going home” you get when a melodic or harmonic sequence resolves itself. Such music is angst music, and here, on our fresh-as-a-daisy old-ass pop-rock playlist intended to complement last week’s hip-hop playlist, we celebrate it in all its jangly, fuzzy-edged, alienated, out-of-sorts, edge-of-terror glory.
1) “But when you think you made it disappear / It comes again—‘Hello, I’m here’”
Sparks, Angst in My Pants
Sigmund Freud, the daddy of psychoanalysis, defined angst as “an oppressive anxiety that has no particular object”. The Mael brothers had just this gnawing, non-specific object in view on the title track of their 1982 album. “Give it a hundred years, it won’t go away!” sings Russell, to the accompaniment of a glammy big beat that only swells the anxiety within.
2) “There are times when I feel / I’d rather not be the one behind the wheel”
Depeche Mode, Behind the Wheel
Anxiety dreams take many forms, one of the most common being the “endless pursuit”, from which neither pursuer nor pursued can ever escape. It’s a trope that goes back at least as far as Homer and continues in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where the pursuit is carried out—to no particular end—in a car. Alienated, claustrophobic car rides are a recurrent angsty theme in popular music, and few do crepuscular journeys to no obvious destination better than Depeche Mode.
3) “Will we arrive in the middle of nowhere?”
Queens of the Stone Age, Auto Pilot
Another number about taking a trip featuring a nagging narcotic guitar line that is the musical embodiment of probing, gnawing anxiety. Taken literally, the song is about flying rather than driving, but there’s not much difference between the two at an existential level. Where there is a big difference is between driving-as-an-exercise-in-angst music and plain old “driving songs”. The latter are designed to get you pumped up and singing along; driving-as-an-exercise-in-angst tunes capture oppressive feelings that can’t be domesticated or dispelled: How did we get here? Where are we going? And hey, who exactly is driving this thing?
4) “And you may find yourself / Behind the wheel of a large automobile”
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
A classic of existential art-pop angst, containing further references to feelings of alienation experienced in relation to cars (aka automobiles). In the video David Byrne pulled off the extraordinary feat of making everyone think he was very cool by behaving in an extremely silly way.
5) “Drive to the forest in a Japanese car / The smell of rubber on country tar”
Public Image Limited, Poptones
Another slice of angst music that begins in a car. Despite the title, it’s not very poppy. Few do alienated existential angst better than juddering Jah Wobble and lacerating John Lydon.
6) “Don’t look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it”
David Bowie, Breaking Glass
Can guitars genuinely be angsty? Yes, and so can Minimoogs! So say Carlos Alomar and Brian Eno on this track from David Bowie’s album Low, which also contains a great driving-as-an-exercise-in-angst tune: Always Crashing in the Same Car.
7) “Death in the air / Strapped in the electric chair / This can’t be happening to me”
Metallica, Ride the Lightning
As a genre, heavy metal is a fine carrier of angsty feelings. On the title track of Metallica’s second album the boys discover themselves strapped in an electric chair and about to “ride the lightning”—Dr Freud would have recognized the anguished fantasy for what it was and prescribed a little CBT.
8) “There’s something moving under / Under the ice moving … / It’s me.”
Kate Bush, Under Ice
Kate Bush and Metallica have more in common than you might imagine. The latter’s Ride the Lightning album (1985) contains a song about the none-more-angsty terror of being trapped under ice (Trapped Under Ice)—and so does Bush’s Hounds of Love (Under Ice), which was released the following year. Does this point to a direct influence? The sentiments are strikingly similar even if the instrumental treatment is somewhat different.
9) “It’s nature’s way of telling you: something’s wrong”
Spirit, Nature’s Way
A classic of environmental angst, written as the Sixties hippie dream began to sour. “It’s nature’s way of telling you—dying trees,” sings Randy California (normally a very chilled fellow indeed, with one of the most lustily laidback names imaginable). “It’s nature’s way of telling you—soon we’ll freeze.”
10) “She stuck the pins right in her heart”
Rolling Stones, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
A classic of urban unease, with a wonderfully nervy-funky clavinet contribution from Billy Preston. The title might suggest that it’s a love song but the lyrics actually relate tales of New York City police shooting a boy in a case of mistaken identity and of a young girl dying of a drug overdose. The album cover, showing Mick Jagger’s head wrapped in a pink chiffon veil, isn’t exactly designed to put you at your ease either.
11) “Something small falls out of your mouth / And we laugh”
The Cure, One Hundred Years
12) “I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day”
Sonic Youth, Tunic (Song for Karen)
In terms of its lyrical content, “anxious” hardly does justice to this haunting number about the easy-listening icon Karen Carpenter and her losing struggle with anorexia. Sonically it’s pure angst, especially the spooked instrumental passage that begins around the 3’37” mark with what sounds like the malevolent humming of a swarm of bees. Astonishing, disconcerting video.
13) “When I was a child I had a fever / My hands felt just like two balloons”
Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb
Sustained anxiety leads to total physical and emotional breakdown, which is followed, in the case of Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall, by a warmly enveloping sense of anaesthetized serenity. The drugs still work.
14) “That’s great, it starts with an earthquake”
REM, It’s the End of the World As We Know It
OK, here comes the catharsis as Michael Stipe and friends—otherwise no strangers to feelings of indie outsider angst—declare themselves relaxed, and even a little relieved, about the imminent prospect of apocalypse.