For a group of people obsessed with immortality, pop stars sure do sing a lot of songs about death. Maybe it’s not that surprising. It’s a deliciously rich topic ripe for all kinds of songs: From murder ballads and tender tributes to nihilistic hip-hop jams, there’s a killer canon of timeless tunes inspired by the Grim Reaper. Love him or fear him, the dude’s coming — might as well write about him. What follows are 20 of the finest songs about death, kicking the bucket, biting the dust, buying the farm, and catching the last train for the coast. May these morbid faves live on forever.
Bob Dylan, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 12; Peak date: Oct. 27, 1973)
Midway between Dylan the protest singer and Dylan the born-again Christian, there was Dylan the gunslinger, and his aim was true. Featured on the soundtrack to 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kidd, this fatalistic cowboy ballad has proved amazingly unkillable, surviving Eric Clapton‘s 1975 reggae-fication, Avril Lavigne‘s featherweight remake, and regular live airings by Axl Rose. When Bob wrote, “Mama, put my guns in the ground,” he might have been playing Dylan the soothsayer and commenting on post-Slash Guns N’ Roses.
Jimi Hendrix, “Hey Joe”
Say what you will about Joe, the dude who blasts his cheating lady in this rock ‘n’ roll standard. At least he’s honest. “Yes, I did,” he admits in Jimi’s well-known version. “I shot her.” As for Hendrix, he ain’t one to judge. “Shoot her one more time again, baby!” he cries, too busy unpeeling a badass guitar solo to get all moralistic.
Cutting Crew, “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 1 for two weeks: Peak date: May 2, 1987)
The French phrase le petit mort, or “the little death,” refers to the feeling of transcendence or melancholy that comes with achieving orgasm. That was the impetus for this wonderfully overwrought ’80s jam, all about a guy who leads with his groin and gets his heart busted. At least he got some action first.
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 14; Peak date: Aug. 13, 2011)
Good songs cause debate, and folks are still arguing about whether this 2010 country smash is about suicide or just a young girl who’s grateful for the short life the good Lord has given her. One line everyone can agree on: “Funny when you’re dead, people start listening.” It’s true: When deceased relatives start talking to you, they’re dang hard to ignore.
Ke$ha, “Die Young”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 2; Peak date: Dec. 8, 2012)
When Ke$ha and her team wrote this skeevy electro-pop hit, they must have just finished discussing Robert Herrick’s 17th century carpe-diem poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s basically the same idea — get your rocks off while you can — though Herrick somehow makes it four stanzas without using the phrase “that magic in your pants.” Not everyone’s the poet Ke$ha is.
Bob Marley, “I Shot the Sheriff”
Like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” this outlaw anthem withstood a faux-reggae assassination attempt from Eric Clapton. It’s even more interesting, though, as a legal case study. Marley’s narrator denies killing one cop but admits to capping the fallen deputy’s superior. It’s like saying you robbed the bank vault, not the armored car. Granted, it may have been self-defense, so depending on how Bob’s lawyers work the voir dire process, the crazy gambit just might work.
The Notorious B.I.G., “Ready to Die,”
There’s nothing scarier than a gunman with nothing to lose, and that’s precisely what Biggie plays on this song about death, the title track of his 1994 debut. He’s a 22-year-old willing to kill for money he’s too stressed out and paranoid to enjoy. His words are as terrifying as they are thrilling.
Elton John, “Candle in the Wind”
(Hot 100 Peak [original version]: No. 6; Peak date: Jan. 23, 1988)
(Hot 100 Peak [1997 double-sided single]: No. 1 for 14 weeks; Peak date: Oct. 11, 1997)
Everyone wanted something from Norma Jean Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe. Everyone, that is, except for young Elton, then known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight. He saw the seemingly glamorous starlet for what she was: a tortured soul in need of a hug. “They set you on a treadmill,” he sings, “and they made you change your name.” When Reg grew up, he, too, changed his name and started rocking glittery outfits, so it’s no wonder her death hit him so hard.
Eric Clapton, “Tears in Heaven”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 2; Peak date: March 28, 1992)
No iffy reggae grooves here — just an incredibly heartfelt song written from a father to a son who left him too soon. The song arrived less than a year after Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor fell to his death from a Manhattan window, and despite its lack of fiery guitar heroics, it’s among the most memorable things Slowhand has written.
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe,”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 1 for 4 weeks; Peak date: Aug. 26, 1967)
There’s more mystery in this 1967 country classic than there was in six seasons of Lost. Why did Billie jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? What’d he throw off it the night before? Why is the narrator’s family so unmoved by this young man’s untimely demise? Surely, Hurley’s magic numbers have something to do with it.
50 Cent, “Many Men (Wish Death)”
“Lord, I don’t cry no more,” Fiddy raps on this ode to invincibility. “Don’t look at the sky no more.” Having survived nine bullet wounds, he’s become a cold-hearted pragmatist who strolls the streets “gun on waist, chip on my shoulder,” waiting for rivals or crooked cops to take their best shot. He’s like the Terminator with a slightly better flow.
Jan & Dean, “Dead Man’s Curve”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 8; Peak date: May 9, 1964)
A couple years after Jan and Dean dropped this teen tragedy classic — co-written by Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson — Jan Berry crashed his car on North Whittier Drive, not far from the section of L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard immortalized in the lyrics. Talk about prophetic — but luckily he survived.
Bruce Springsteen, “The Last Carnival”
For Springsteen, the 2008 death of organist Danny Federici was more than the loss of a longtime bandmate. It was like a traveling circus losing a key member, and here, the Boss wanders the fairgrounds at midnight, eulogizing a fellow trapeze artist who never let him fall.
The Smiths, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
There’s young love, and then there’s emotional rescue, and that’s what Morrissey gets from his companion in this oft-quoted Smiths masterwork. For Moz, the mere act of riding around in a car with this other person represents the pinnacle of existence, and he’d rather they collide with a “double-decker bus” or “10-ton truck” than see this magic night come to an end.
Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”
(Alternative Songs Peak: No. 28; Peak date: Sept. 2, 2006)
The nuns tried their best to beat Ben Gibbard into believing in heaven and hell, but he’s not so sure. Maybe death leads somewhere else — a shadowy place where two true-hearted people can clasp hands and do their best to keep each other company. It’s a nice idea.
Blue Oyster Cult, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 12; Peak date: Nov. 6, 1976)
There’s no eluding death, BOC remind us here, so why even try? It’s better to channel that energy into something productive — like grooming your ‘stache, airbrushing a bitchin’ dragon on your van, or practicing your cowbell.
Metallica, “Fade to Black”
James Hetfield must have been a real joy to hang out with circa 1984. “Emptiness is filling me/to the point of agony,” he sings on this song about death, the bleakest of all ’80s power ballads. Had he toned it down a little, ‘Tallica might have crossed over to the pop charts like Warrant did a few years later with “Heaven.” Live and learn.
Led Zeppelin, “In My Time of Dying”
If you can’t skirt death, stall it. “Jesus, gonna make up my dyin’ bed,” Robert Plant sings here, but since the tune goes on for 11 minutes, J.C. will have to wait until Jimmy, John Paul, and Jason are done with their thunderous blues-rawk showboating.
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, “Tha Crossroads”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 1 for 8 weeks; Peak date: May 18, 1996)
In the gospel according to Bone Thugs, heaven is like a big family reunion. That doesn’t make it any less scary — “I don’t wanna die,” Wish Bone repeats toward the end — but it makes our passage through this “hateful world” a little more tolerable.
Kanye West, “Coldest Winter”
In 2007, Kanye suffered the death of his mother and the dissolution of his relationship with fiancée Alexis Phifer. The pain was too much to rap or sing about, so he went into sad-robot mode and created a set of Auto-Tune electro-pop tracks, none more affecting than this one. “Goodbye my friend,” he croons, the vocal effects barely detectable. “Will I ever love again?” ‘Ye’s human after all.