Few genres lend themselves so comprehensively to sad music as soul does. It’s a genre full of songs about love, loss, and how difficult surviving each day can feel. Here are some of the saddest soul songs ever.
“Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton
Song Year: 1996
Braxton performed “Unbreak My Heart” for her second album. It’s a sad soul song about the pain of heartbreak.
Diane Warren wrote this song in the ballad style, giving it a somber, melancholy sensibility.
It was an immediate success with listeners, dance clubs, and radio stations. Braxton’s version was so popular that it became one of the most successful songs by a solo artist ever to enter the Billboard charts.
“Kiss And Say Goodbye” by The Manhattans
Song Year: 1976
“Kiss And Say Goodbye” is another sad soul song, specifically in the rhythm and blues tradition. The primary difference between rhythm and blues and soul music is their vocal line. Both have a strong rhythm beat. But soul music puts more emphasis on its singers, whose vocals make their songs so resonant with listeners.
“Kiss and Say Goodbye” is no exception. It’s a bittersweet song about a parting between two people. They’re close, and there’s much-shared nostalgia for their lost past.
Unlike some of the other songs discussed, the speaker in this song wants to fight through the melancholy to hold onto their shared good times. It’s not easy, but the song suggests it’s worth the effort.
“Be Without You” by Mary J Blige
Song Year: 2006
Johnta Austin, Bryan Michael Cox, Jason Perry, and Blige collaboratively composed “Be Without You.”
Blige recorded the song in 2005 and released it in 2006. It quickly became one of the most-played songs on the radio. A little over ten years later, the R&B community declared this sad soul song the most popular R&B song of all time.
That’s unsurprising; Its theme of loss is resonant, and Blige gives a moving and memorable performance.
“Love T.K.O.” by Teddy Pendergrass
Song Year: 1980
Music is full of songs about the challenges and complexity of love. “Love T. K. O.” is a sad soul song that continues that tradition.
Its lyrics are about how devastating love can be if you aren’t careful. David Oliver performed and recorded it originally. But Pendegrass’s version of the song is the one most people recognize.
“How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” by The Bee Gees
Song Year: 1978
The Bee-Gees are best known for their disco music, but they also wrote their share of soul songs, especially sad ones. “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” is a textbook example.
It has a slow, lyrical melody and long phrasing combined to give it a melancholy air. The chord progressions and harmonic line help give the music momentum.
There’s also an effective use of off-beats as word painting. By stressing the weaker beats of each bar, the singers capture the feeling of being wrong-footed we all experience when feeling sad, lost, or lonely.
“It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday” by Boyz II Men
Song Year: 1991
Today, you hear this sad soul song everywhere, from graduations to funeral services. The husband-and-wife duo Freddie Perren and Christine Yarian wrote it in 1975. It was modestly successful and reached number 38 on the rankings charts.
It wasn’t recorded again for almost another 20 years. Boyz II Men turned it into a capella triumph. This time it reached number two on the charts and went up to number one on R&B ranking lists.
Even if you don’t recognize it from a graduation or a funeral, you may recognize the Boyz II Men version from its stint on the soundtrack for Lethal Weapon 3.
“Both Sides of the Moon” by Celeste
Song Year: 2019
One of the most evocative sad soul songs is singer Celeste’s “Both Sides of the Moon.” Celeste blends funk, soul, and languid guitar chords to excellent effect.
Like many sad soul songs, this one is about a romance that goes awry. The speaker reflects on how a once-trusting relationship comes apart at the seams.
Ultimately, the perpetual give-and-take of the relationship becomes overwhelming, and the speaker and the person they speak of part ways. It’s a haunting melody full of powerful imagery and metaphors.
“Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack
Song Year: 1973
Flack released “Killing Me Softly” in 1973, and this sad soul song was tremendously successful. It sat on the billboard charts for five non-consecutive weeks. The composition blends folk music and soul for a result that’s as melancholy as it is romantic.
The song’s success was such that Flack received a Grammy Award for her performance. What no one appreciated until afterward was that it set her up to become the first artist to win two consecutive Grammy Awards, an achievement realized in 1974.
“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by Donny Hathaway
Song Year: 1971
This sad soul ballad was composed by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. It was made famous by Donny Hathaway in 1971.
Other notable performances include versions by:
- Kelly Gordon
- The Hollies
- Niel Diamond
Russell and Scott got their inspiration for the title from a Church of Scotland parable about a young girl carrying her brother uphill.
Consequently, even though this song is a bittersweet meditation on life’s burdens, its message is optimistic. It’s a somewhat mournful but loving reflection on the ability of perspective to transform hardships into something more bearable.
“After Laughter” by Wendy Rene
Song Year: 1964
“After Laughter” might be more accurately described as a poignant rather than a sad soul song. It captures that flat feeling everyone experiences when the party is over, and laughter dissipates.
There’s no way to bottle and keep that giddy feeling, so you must push on until the next one finds you.
The good news, the song says, is that these things are cyclical. Tears might be the inevitable consequence of laughter, but you don’t have to experience them for long.
“Do You” by Ne-Yo
Song Year: 2007
Originally, Ne-Yo recorded “Do You” as a solo performance. It features a speaker who questions a former girlfriend. He’s keen to know if she still thinks about him and, if so, how. However, since its release, several remixes have performed the song as a duet.
The lyrics combine with the melody to produce a piece that begins slow and thoughtful. The use of electronics, like a synthesizer, keeps the sound energized and ensures a propulsive rhythm under an otherwise sad soul song.
Saddest Soul Songs, Final Thoughts
Sad soul songs span a variety of decades and topics. Whenever they were written, their popularity has been long-lasting.
To be sad is a powerful human emotion, and nothing is more moving than having someone share that emotion with you. Music is a wonderful, safe way to work through sadness; sad soul songs are particularly cathartic. Whether that’s because of their expressive vocals, minor chords, or melodies varies on the song.
One thing they have in common is their ability to incite catharsis. Whatever else the lyrics say, they remind you it’s okay to cry. Whatever the matter is, you will move past it with time and good music.