In a 2017 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Metallica’s James Hetfield discussed what compels him to channel his darker emotions into songs. “What it is, is, if I can get it out of my head, it makes it better,” he said. “Better out than in.”
That often goes for the listener, too. There’s something cathartic about hearing an artist purge their anger, grief, or frustration — or some combination of all three — in a song. As Hetfield says, that mere act of releasing the feeling from your head or your heart is often the first step to moving past it.
The songs below are all ones in which I hear a great deal of hurt. But in each one, alongside that pain, there’s also a sense of triumph — a feeling that by channeling a given emotion into a song, the artist is somehow expelling it. And they’re also building a sort of monument to it: a document that you can turn to for strength and solace if you’re feeling anything like what they’re going through, or facing any kind of obstacle at all.
These sorts of songs have been hitting me especially hard in recent months. There are hundreds of examples, but these are some that, for me, really sum up that idea of harrowing yet ultimately healthy catharsis. Better out than in.
RVIVR, “Shaggy” (2016)
The Olympia, Washington, punk band RVIVR specializes in incendiary, instantly anthemic punk rock, the kind that makes you wish you were 15 again so you could jump up and down screaming the words with your friends at some packed basement show. Their songs tackle all kinds of topics with rare poignancy, from fading friendships to queer identity, but some of the best ones deal with loss. On “Shaggy,” from a 2016 single, the band memorializes Barker Gee, a friend from the punk scene who died by suicide that year. Co–singer-guitarists Erica Freas and Mattie Jo Canino address him directly, remembering Gee “casually slaying/on your nasty-ass guitar.” Speaking for an entire scene, they pan out to reveal “a thousand punk hearts breaking/on an empty parking lot.” The sentiment is crushingly sad, but the band’s turbocharged delivery transmutes it into a battle cry. Think of this as the equivalent of the teary, nostalgic yet ultimately life-affirming wake that follows the funeral. (If this one speaks to you, I highly recommend checking out this phenomenal Chris Gethard Show performance, which I’ve watched approximately 700 times since quarantine began.)
Rage Against the Machine, “People of the Sun” (1996)
The entire Rage catalog is one big catharsis, but this furiously funky Evil Empire track, where Zack de la Rocha honors the “spirit of [final Aztec emperor] Cuauhtémoc alive and untamed,” conveys a unique sense of urgency. The song draws a direct line from the Aztecs, crushed by the Spanish, to the modern-day Zapatistas, and flips Mexico’s bloody history into a rebel yell that could apply to any indigenous uprising. Every time the chorus arrives — “It’s comin’ back around again!/This is for the people of the sun!” — you can hear the scales of history tipping and the fury of past injustices being redirected toward the oppressors.
Albert Ayler, “Truth Is Marching In (Live)” (1966)
The late saxophonist Albert Ayler played with a booming, gospel-like fervor that could make his music sound at once joyous and mournful. Take this stunning 1966 live performance, recorded at New York’s legendary Village Vanguard and found on the album Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village, where an elegiac opening theme gives way to a dervish-like fanfare, with Ayler’s shrieking tenor leading the way. There’s a thrilling rawness to his sound — complemented by a tough, scrambling rhythm section featuring bassist Henry Grimes, who died in April due to complications from COVID-19 — and also a feeling of sheer exultation, as the fanfare intermittently returns. The music’s emotional seesaw suggests that the brightest moments arise out of the harshest storms.
On the Might of Princes, “For Meg” (2001)
Dozens of familiar songs, from “Creep” to “Wrecking Ball,” start out at a whisper and swell to a mighty roar, but this track — by cult-favorite Long Island band On the Might of Princes — just might be the greatest one you’ve never heard. A shining example of the DIY strain of so-called screamo that preceded the Warped Tour–friendly varietal of the same name, “For Meg” starts out with a strangely affecting Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael sample (Jeff Daniels: “She would have been a legend with or without that goddamn song …”) then builds to a tender pledge of devotion, sung a cappella: “I’ll scream it till your ears bleed/You’ll always have a friend in me.” Then the song erupts into a blistering hardcore squall, with singer-guitarist Jason Rosenthal proclaiming, “I’m sorry that I split you open to keep warm between your arms, hands, heart, and lungs…” I couldn’t tell you exactly what the song is about — a breakup, or some sort of betrayal? — but I feel its intertwined expressions of love and regret in my bones. Rosenthal, who tragically died of a heart attack in 2013 at age 35, was clearly working through something here, and “For Meg” preserves that struggle beautifully. (The entire album this track comes from, Where You Are and Where You Want to Be, is just as powerful; it’s just been reissued, and if you’re a fan of music that falls on any point along the emo continuum, it’s something you need to hear at least once.)
Janis Ian, “Watercolors” (1975)
The stately folk trappings of this deep cut by “At Seventeen” singer-songwriter Janis Ian conceal one of the most withering romantic kiss-offs in pop history. The narrator looks back on a doomed affair with a self-involved slimeball, the kind of guy who studies “articles on how to bed the bird in flight.” The song’s tone modulates from wistful to downright excoriating, as the woman lays into her lover after an unsatisfying tryst: “Go on, be a hero, be a man/Make your own destiny if you can/Go find a fence, locate a shelf, and hide yourself/Go on, go to hell…” You rarely hear this kind of gloves-off expression in pop anymore: It’s the result of some deep hurt, followed by fierce clarity.
Crowbar, “Fall Back to Zero” (2005)
Artists and albums cycle on and off my iPhone daily, but one thing remains constant: I never leave home without the entire Crowbar discography loaded into the library. As any die-hard could tell you — and the New Orleans metal veterans don’t really have any other kind of fan — guitarist-vocalist-bandleader Kirk Windstein has an uncanny ability to convey both crushing despair and the indomitable will to rise above it. I’ve spent quarantine running through the Crowbar catalog over and over, as well as Windstein’s outstanding 2020 solo album, Dream in Motion, but the song that’s hitting me hardest is this one, from Crowbar’s great mid-career effort Lifesblood for the Downtrodden. With its oozing, darkly mesmerizing verses and raging midtempo choruses, where Windstein bellows “That light ahead has always shown the way,” the track neatly illustrates the band’s full emotional spectrum. Over and over, it descends into the murk only to explode back into the light.
Miles Davis, “He Loved Him Madly” (1974)
Of all the ways one could think of to pay musical tribute to Duke Ellington, crafting a 32-minute psychedelic opus featuring swirling electric-guitar textures, and trumpet and flute so heavily reverb-bathed they sound like they’re emanating from the bottom of the ocean, probably wouldn’t be the first notion to pop into most artists’ heads. But that’s exactly how Miles Davis chose to process his grief over the death of the legendary pianist and composer, who used to sign off at his shows by telling audiences, “We love you madly.” Ellington passed less than a month before the June 1974 octet session that produced the track, and the loss hangs over the piece like a veil, especially during the hazy, 10-minute-plus ambient intro before drummer Al Foster kicks into a ghostly groove. There’s a purging going on here, and it results in an eerie yet transcendent piece that stands completely apart from jazz or any other easily defined genre. In sounding absolutely nothing like Ellington’s own music, it duly honored a man for whom “beyond category” was the highest possible compliment.
Freeman, “Covert Discretion” (2014)
It wasn’t just his Gene Ween moniker that Aaron Freeman set aside when he stepped away from Ween back in 2012. He’d gone to dark places on Ween records before, particularly on the 2003 bad-trip masterpiece Quebec, but on Freeman — the lone release from his solo project of the same name before he returned to the Ween mothership in 2015 — he put forth some startlingly naked commentary on the way life in Ween had wreaked havoc on his mental and physical health. On “Covert Discretion,” the songwriter, then newly sober, recounts the vicious cycle of fronting a band associated with, shall we say, altered states of mind while simultaneously trying to preserve his own sanity. Feeling betrayed by his audience and former bandmates after a disastrous 2011 Vancouver show, he sings — on this gentle acoustic ditty that cuts as deep as Songs of Love and Hate Cohen or Plastic Ono Band Lennon — “You all just left me/Just walked away/Alone, up there to die.” Things only get starker from there, as he adds, “Save your judgments for someone else/Be grateful I saved me from myself.” Then the song erupts into a righteous rock stomp as Freeman proclaims, “Fuck you all/I got a reason to live/And I’m never gonna die.” It’s the sound of a man giving the finger to the abyss, and mastering his demons by bringing them fully into view.
Björk, “Army of Me” (1995)
Whichever end of it you’re on, “Get your shit together” is a universally relatable sentiment, and it’s rarely been expressed as potently as Björk put it on this immortal Post opener: “If you complain once more/You’ll meet an army of me.” With its ominous industrial-synth march that explodes into an awesomely abrasive chorus, the song perfectly captures the sensation of everyday annoyance boiling over into rage. Björk has said the song was inspired by her “whining brother,” but it’s apt for any situation where your last nerve is being tested and composure just won’t cut it anymore.
Slint, “Good Morning, Captain” (1991)
I’ve been listening to “Good Morning, Captain” for more than 25 years, and the story at the heart of the song feels only marginally less cryptic to me now than it did the first time I heard it. A sea captain, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, swims ashore, makes his way to a house and encounters a young boy. The child apparently recognizes him… maybe the captain is his father? Either way, the captain is carrying some great weight on his conscience. He apologizes and mutters words of regret — maybe to himself, maybe to the boy, maybe both. And that’s pretty much all we have to go on. The tale, spoken in a flat, solemn tone by guitarist-vocalist Brian McMahan, unfolds across more than seven minutes as the band cycles through a hypnotic, bass-driven riff, sometimes punctuated by a wash of distortion. The tension never really lets up, until, about a minute before the end, McMahan, in the voice of the captain, screams, “I miss you!” and the band kicks into a dire, heaving crescendo that plays like the musical equivalent of breaking into uncontrollable sobs. We may never know what the captain is apologizing for, but it doesn’t really matter: Like the other songs discussed above, a close (and preferably, loud) listen to this epic track is undeniably cathartic, the kind of experience that leaves you feeling spent yet renewed.