This morning, opening the shutters to a bruised and broken sky, my first inkling wasn’t to put something cheery on the stereo, but something that dampened the mood further: Music for Egon Schiele, by Rachel’s. Sitting there, lost in minor chords and teary strings, rain pouring down, I realised how strangely happy I was; how content I’ve always felt when dark weather has music to match. With that in mind, I sifted through YouTube to compile 10 (mostly) melancholy tracks I adore. They mightn’t put a smile on your dial, but they mean the world to me… 

Courage – Sarah Polley

“Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter”

 When Helena and I left Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter in 1997, tears streaming down our cheeks, two things lingered for days: the film’s sheer emotional power, and Sarah Polley’s haunting cover of Tragically Hip classic, Courage, which bears little resemblance to the original. We bought the soundtrack and kept this track on repeat through an entire bottle of wine one night. It still never fails to move us, although we struggle to watch this clip featuring scenes from the film, especially now that we’re parents.

 The Copper Top – Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat

“Birth love and death, only reasons to get dressed up…”

If it’s not the most heart-wrenching song I know, it’s certainly the most affecting video. The Copper Top is from Everything is Getting Older, the 2011 collaboration between Scottish jazz pianist Bill Wells and countryman Aidan Moffat, former singer with Arab Strap. It’s a cracker, but not the kind of track you put on a dance mix. This song tears me apart, and yet I play it endlessly. Art, pure and simple!

 This is Just a Modern Rock Song – Belle and Sebastian

“I’ll only but a book for the way it looks (and I’ll stick it on the shelf again)”

 Belle and Sebastian appeal to my inner cardigan wearer: earnest and twee, with achingly beautiful pop melodies. They’re a guilty pleasure I carefully balance with harder edge Scots, Mogwai and Arab Strap. This is Just a Modern Rock Song is a real creeper, a song that unashamedly takes its time before a big brass reveal. I used to play it on the train after Richmond matches, at my saddest, but now they’re winning it gets a regular airing while walking the dog: trust me,  you don’t know melancholy until it’s midday, midweek and you’re alone in a park,  holding a bag of steaming poo. How could you not love a song with the confession: “We’re four boys in our corduroys, we’re not terrific but we’re competent?”

 The Never Ending Happening – Bill Fay

Night falls, stars, sunrise again, birdsong before the day begins…

 Bill Fay released two critically acclaimed and commercially ignored albums in the late 1960s/early 1970s before disappearing into musical obscurity and a series of menial factory jobs. In 2004, when Bill Fay and Time of the Last Persecution were reissued, Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy led a Fay revival, covering Be Not So Fearful and helping coax the 70 year old back into the studio for Life is People, arguably last year’s best album. Fay has lost none of his passion, Christian faith, song writing ability or modesty, refusing all but a handful of interviews and performing only once – this bewitching take of Never Ending Happening – after the album’s release. The way Fay sees it, all that promotion business eats up valuable composition time, and that won’t do. God bless him!

 Cherry Blossoms – Tindersticks

“You let me forget again…”

 Tindersticks have been my favourite band for 20 years. They will always be my favourite band, just as Withnail & I will stay my favourite film, paisley shirts my favourite item of clothing, New York my favourite city, and Coopers Stout my favourite beer. Some things just are. It pains me that I’ve only seen them twice: in a 14th century cathedral in Prague in 1995 and the Corner Hotel in 2002. The album version of Cherry Blossoms (Tindersticks – 1995) has a ghostly dual vocal, but no impact is lost in this recent live performance. Here’s hoping there’s 20 more years to come!

 The Melody of a Fallen Tree – Windsor for the Derby

“I am the melody of the fallen tree what comes between, you and me…”

 According to my iPod, of the 10,000-plus songs stored, this is the third most played. There’s joy amid the whimsy, but not much, which is just how I like it. I had mixed feelings when Sofia Coppola featured it in Marie Antoinette: happy for the band’s heft in royalties, but fearful I’d hear the song in every second café. (I’m still scarred by the mid-1990s use of This Mortal Coil’s Song to the Siren in a European car commercial). That said, you could put this over a McDonalds ad and I’d still love it!

 The Kiss – Judee Sill

“Holy breath touching me like a wind song, sweet communion of a kiss”

 During one of our marathon music chats last year, Greville Warwick almost fell over (as he does) when I confessed to not knowing Judee Sill’s The Kiss.  “Maaaaaate,” he said. “It’s in my top 10. Trust me, it’s gonna blow your mind!” Within minutes, courtesy of YouTube, this live version made true his promise.  Not until weeks later, when a box set arrived, would I hear the incredible orchestrated version from sophomore album, Heart Food. This, however, remains my favourite: a vulnerable, heart aching performance from a tragic figure who really lived heartache. Trust me, this is gonna blow your mind….

 Kyrie – Popol Vuh

“aaaaaah, aaaaaaaaaaahhh, oooooohhhh, aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh”

 Did you know that Popol Vuh is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic K’iche’ kingdom in Guatemala’s western highlands? Neither did I. The Popol Vuh I know pushed the spacial and spiritual boundaries of Krautrock, 70s precursor to post punk, ambient and so much more. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo would be lesser films without Florian Fricke’s revelatory soundtracks. Kyrie, from second album In Den Garten Pharaos, is an ethereal masterpiece. Everything Fricke wrote, he once said, was with God in mind. If only God had thought of us music lovers, before taking him from the world at 56.

 Chimes (excerpt) – North Sea Radio Orchestra

“Sweet chimes, that in the loneliness of night, salute the passing hour”

 Several years ago, while researching monumental ambient project North Sea & Rameses III, I stumbled across this video by little known British chamber group North Sea Radio Orchestra. It was an epochal musical moment. NSRO ticked all my boxes: they were pastoral, choral, contemporary classical, folk, borrowed liberally (and reverentially) from Yeats and Tennyson, and liked playing in churches. They were fronted by a husband and wife, too, which I seem to have a thing for (Low, Yo La Tengo). Their self-titled debut, Birds and I, a Moon have pride and place on my buckling CD shelf. I recommend you buy them all!

 Tinseltown in the Rain – The Blue Nile

“Do I love you? Yes, I love you. Will we always be happy go lucky?”

 In 1984, when I never left home without carefully gelled and blow-dried locks, softly permed by my apprentice hairdresser cousin, my copy of Blue Nile’s debut Walk Across The Rooftops was scratched to billyo from overplaying. I loved the Scottish foursome: their kick-arse fringes, baggy daks and, like Brit compatriots Talk Talk, glass half empty approach to New Wave. Tinseltown in the Rain was the tearful soundtrack to several imaginary breakups – imaginary, because I didn’t have a proper girlfriend to break up with until 1985.


A few notable absentees:

Miss Haymes – The Durutti Column

The Hour Grows Late – Yo La Tengo

By This River – Brian Eno

Let the Happiness In – David Sylvian

Not Me – Wim Mertens