The Best Singers at Portraying Emotional Songs
One of the most difficult things to nail when writing music is how your character feels. Sure, there are a million signs that can point you in the right direction: lonely, sad, happy, etc. But how do you capture that feeling in notes? How do you make it palpable? Virtually every song has an emotional hook - something that listeners will latch onto and keep returning to again and again. That hook is what makes it possible for us to listen to a song over and over again without getting tired of it. And while emotions don’t always come naturally to us when we hear them, they are much more receptive to our emotions than they are to ours.
If we tune into our own emotional wavelength, we’re more likely to find songs like The Zombies - “I Want To Know Now” or Leonard Cohen - “Hallelujah” than anything else. And just like everything else in the world of music, emotion comes in many forms; different genres have different tendencies for expressing certain feelings better than others. Whether a song is about heartbreak or unbridled joy depends on its genre as much as the singer who performs it.
Here are some of the greatest vocalists at portraying emotional songs.
Aaron Carter - We Don’t Care
There’s a certain je ne sais pas that permeates a lot of Aaron Carter’s early 90’s output, but it’s undeniably endearing. “We Don’t Care” is one of his best, but there’s not a dry eye in the house as he belts out “I don’t wanna be a part of something we don’t care about”. There’s a weary resignation to the sentiment, as though he knows this deep down, but he’s doing it for his girl who doesn’t care about him. And even if you’re not a fan of the song, you’ve got to admire someone who can sing about not caring about something and make it sound so beautiful.
Adele - Hello
“Hello” isn’t a song about a fresh start or a new adventure; it’s a song about getting over someone. That also makes it a pretty apt description of the whole process of growing up and losing your innocence. Like so many other songs, it’s one that knows it’s just a song, but feels so real that you can’t help but understand what it’s trying to say. Adele’s ability to take an everyday experience and turn it into an experience you’ll never forget is what makes her one of the best at expressing human emotion.
Alessia Cara - How Far I'll Go
“How Far I'll Go” is a song about overcoming adversity and finding strength within yourself. But it’s also a song about falling in love; as Cara sings “I can change the world just by believing in you”. These two things are the ultimate goals of any relationship, or anyone for that matter. And because this is a Disney soundtrack, the two are also metaphors for a perfect day. Every moment, from riding down the street in a convertible on a perfect day, to the way your significant other smells when they walk through the door, is a metaphor for how much you love them. And it’s that love that makes you so brave when you need to be.
Charles Bradley - Have You Seen Her
There are a million songs about missing someone. But there are only a few that actually describe seeing that person alive. “Have You Seen Her” is one of those songs; a sparse, bluesy song about the woman Bradley loves who’s been missing from his life for years. It’s got all the longing of missing someone you can’t stop thinking about, with a sense of urgency and desperation that makes it feel like it’s happening right then, like you can’t let her walk out of your life again. And it’s all topped off with a triumphant chorus that’ll have you fist-pumping the air at full volume.
Coldplay - A Sky Full of Stars
“A Sky Full of Stars” is an originally written song that’s now become a pop culture phenomenon. The premise is simple: we’re all searching for a reason to go on, and we find it in the people we love. And that’s certainly the case with this song, with Chris Martin and Coldplay singing about starry nights and the love between a man and a woman. Backed by some beautiful piano work, it’s the kind of song that makes you feel like you’re not alone in the world, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
David Bowie - Blackstar
When a popular artist dies, you can be sure there’s a song somewhere that they wrote that perfectly captures their essence. And that’s what Blackstar does for David Bowie; it’s a song that is as ethereal and otherworldly as the man who sang it. In the song, Bowie sings about the need to move on after a long, painful and ultimately fatal illness. His message is to not let circumstances dictate the direction of your life, that no matter how bad things may seem, there is always a way to find a way forward. The song begins with an almost ethereal soundscape of Bowie’s voice, seemingly floating above a bed of skittering percussion. And then, as the lyrics begin to make sense, the sound becomes more grounded, the vocals becoming more clear and the piano chords more upbeat.
Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday - Summertime
There are few artists who can make a song about the joys of summer sound so melancholy. And few vocalists who can make the song sound as if they’re singing to a lover who just broke their heart. That’s exactly what Fitzgerald and Holiday do on this classic jazz tune. There’s a lonely and abandoned quality to this song that makes it sound as if Fitzgerald and Holiday are singing to a lost love who has just broken up with them. While the lyrics are upbeat and celebratory in their delivery, they also sound wistful, as if the singer is mourning their lost love. The lyrics are simple, but the delivery is full of sadness and longing; Fitzgerald sings, “Summertime, don’t mean a thing, if you’re not here with me.” And when she sings, “If you could see me now, you’d tell me that I’m dreaming” the same sad, longing feeling comes through as in the chorus of a lot of great songs.
Ed Sheeran - Castle on the Hill
“Castle on the Hill” is the kind of song that makes you realize that even if you’re not someone’s type, there’s still room for you in their heart. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to be a better person. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to clean your room. And it’s the kind of song that will have you singing along on the first try with lyrics like “you are my castle on the hill”, lyrics that seem almost silly until you realize that no matter how far you get from them, they will always be there for you.
Fleetwood Mac – Nobody Does It Better
“Nobody Does It Better” is a pop song that paints a picture of the perfect day. It’s the kind of song that’s impossible to hate and impossible to walk away from. It’s the kind of song that will have you begging for a rewind button. And it’s the kind of song that makes you believe that happiness can be found in any situation, no matter how bad it may seem. As long as you’re with the ones you love, you can find happiness in the most unlikely places.
Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
“How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” is one of the best love songs of all time, and it’s also the kind of song that will make you cry. It’s impossible to listen to this song without getting a little teary-eyed and all the more heartbroken for it. Florence Welch takes a lot of poetic license when she describes falling in love; it’s the kind of song that would make anyone emotional.
Carole King - I Feel the Earth Move
Carole King is an incredible songwriter, and her ability to capture the feeling of being alone even when you're not is what makes her so great at emotional expression. Her songs are typically about looking back fondly on a lost love, but they're also about owning up to your mistakes and trying to put them behind you. Her most famous song, "I Feel The Earth Move," is a great example of emotional expression through musicality.
Emotionally speaking, there's no better way to express yourself than with music, and there's no better way to find your way into someone else's heart than with great emotional songs. Whenever you're searching for a new song to listen to, make sure you don't forget to check out these great vocalists at expressing emotional songs!