Man, if there was ever a day for prolonged, dark sentiment it would be today. We've just seen a storm of historical proportions wreck the great, modern city. Recently shining, modern apartments across Manhattan are lit with candlelight for a least a while longer. It's Halloween! (And, as of this writing, the spooky is racing far ahead of the sexy.)
So, assuming there's something functional in close proximity for which to play music, you've gotta go goth. Goth rock, both the sound and the general image of it, has only grown in mainstream acceptance since its first appearance in the early 80s. Using dark, sometimes supernatural imagery to explain tumultuous internal feelings is pretty much what pop culture does now (See: Buffy, Harry Potter, Twilight, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, everything). Broadcasting inner darkness to the wider world is something that whole generations of young people have grown up always being comfortable with. Pop-culture in 2012 is gother on average than 1982 by a huge margin.
But most every list of the genre's best songs features a too-familiar roll call of names and tunes. Bauhaus, The Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Birthday Party. And while those songs have aged quite nicely, there has been a good 30 years now with goth in our bloodstream. Its not like these sounds and themes have stayed locked and dated in a shallow 80s grave.
So, on this the gothest of days, we provide you with our definitive list of the 20 best goth songs released since 1992. Go on and mope a bit.
20. Wymond Miles - "The Thirst" (2012)
All manner of sounds from the mid-80s have rushed back into indie-rock in recent years, goth very much included. But not many records have captured the feeling of that Cure/Echo and the Bunnymen high point more successfully than Fresh and Onlys' guitarist Wymond Miles. His album, Under the Pale Moon, is one of this year's best in any rock sub-section. It was released by Brooklyn's Sacred Bones Records. who really can't get enough credit in bringing the style back in to relevance.
19. Danzig - "Mother (live)" (1993)
In some ways, this lunkheaded heavy-metal singalong seems counter to goth's shy and wounded stereotype. Mutton-chopped muscle-head Glen Danzig spent at least as much time in a brightly-lit gym as he did sighing in a graveyard somewhere. But there's something resonant about turning yourself into a sexy monster ("sexy" circa 1993), baring your teeth at neighborhood kids while glowering at their older sisters, that's culturally evergreen and really at the heart of goth's 90s turn towards mall-kiosk commerce. And for shlocky goth-inspired radio metal, this tune is way bigger than anything in the Marilyn Manson catalog.
18. Trust - "Candy Walls" (2011)
Distant, dour Depeche Mode synth-pop has been particularly resurgent of late. Toronto's Austra has been on the edge of its revival though TRUST, featuring that band's drummer Maya Postepski, one-upped them for elegant melody on this 2011 single (again, from Sacred Bones).
17. Swans - "My Buried Child" (1995)
Michael Gira's Swans project, which has been exploring musical extremes from the early 80s to this year's excellent album, The Seer, had a mid-90s period of (only) relative calm. Female singer/bassist Jarboe enabling a more nuanced range inside their brutal sound, a more gentle tool to express some horrible, horrible stuff.
16. Cold Cave - "The Great Pan is Dead" (2011)
Wes Eisold cuts a dark, romantic figure comparable to the scene's classic frontman, though his first record sounded much more like the brittle minimalists on its more electronic edges. But on last year's Cherish the Light Years, he puffed himself outward, like a wounded animal bluffing strength it can't quite back up.
15. Liars - "Broken Witch" (2004)
Early 80s goth often crossed over into clanking industrial and pure, crazed noise. But when Liars merged the two on their instantly reviled, gradually revered sophomore album They Were Wrong So We Drowned, it still caught the early 00s by surprise somehow. As aggressive and unsettling a song as this list can allow, for times of angst so great, that nothing short of a blood ritual will suffice.
14. Scott Walker - "Jesse" (2006)
Even within the confines of 60s chart pop, Scott Walker's romantic sentiments were pitch-black. Is there a 60s hook as bleak and magnificent as "the sun ain't gonna shine any more"? His recent, avant-garde albums are roughly one million times bleaker, going well into sheer horror. But even as the emptiness of "Jesse"'s repeated, "I am the only one left alive" causes cascading existential dread, Walker cuts an elegant Miltonian figure.
13. Interpol - "Obstacle #1" (2002)
Paul Banks was no Ian Curtis, history pretty emphatically settled that. But there is a goulish handsomeness to that first Interpol record, still. And for a guy who gets routinely mocked for his clunky lyrics, "You go stabbing yourself in the neck!" is an unusually vivid and memorable image.
12. Tricky - "Christiansands" (1996)
Ok, hear me out for a second. Tricky's pre-millenial death-rattle is coming from a pretty distinct point in trip-hop's triumphant mid-90s blip. Martina Topley-Bird is an R&B singer, if you had to pin her down. But the radiant despondancy of this song, the religious allusions ("I met a devil in Helsinki") and uneasy, anti-social touches ("when you talk, you make me cringe") contained within its hypnotically minimal lyric? It's stunning proof that goth themes can resonate beyond the confines of emotive guitar pop.
11. Zola Jesus - "Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake" (2011)
The reigning diva of a style's 00s resurgence, the biggest star on Sacred Bones, with maybe the most forcefully mournful voice around, Zola Jesus has recast goth's deep black in bright, shining white. There's a sense that Zola may not have recorded a song that quite matches her power as a live performer, but this one, defiant over a limping, echoed beat, comes closest so far.
10. Portishead - "We Carry On" (2008)
The first two Portishead records, as dark as they are, were too tied up in hip-hop sonics, spy-movie samples, and record scratches to be recognizable as traditional goth pop. Third though, cuts out those club touches and gets much closer to uncut despair. (And the post-punk guitars here place the band closer sonically to the original goth vintage.)
9. Deerhunter - "Flourescent Grey" (2007)
Always flirting lyrically with the sex-and-death-obsessed transgressive fiction of Dennis Cooper and recounting his youth filled with harrowing hospital stays, Bradford Cox's early stuff was more than a little bit goth. The title track from his main band's 2007 EP is an explicit take on the unfair devotion that the ever-decaying human body can cause within an otherwise downcast admirer.
8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Red Right Hand" (1994)
One of the only icons from the original 80s goth scene whose work remained vital and interesting in ways that weren't just faded echoes of their initial greatness. Nick Cave's Birthday Party helped define goth rock with their enduring 1981 song "Release the Bats", but with spot-on placement in classically creepy soundtracks for Scream and The X-Files, "Red Right Hand" might have been just as important in guiding a new generation into the dark.
7. The Knife - "Silent Shout" (2006)
Though synths always factored into goth music, the 00s saw the style move even further into dance music, minimal house, techno. No one put waking nightmare dread into motion better than Sweden's The Knife on the title track to their 2006 album, which still stands as something of an unrepeatable masterpiece in spite of all the bands who've attempted to equal it since.
6. Bat for Lashes - "Daniel" (2009)
And when the fires came
The smell of cinders and rain
Perfumed almost everything
We laughed and laughed and laughed
And in the golden blue
Crying took me to the darkest place
And you have set fire to my heart
5. PJ Harvey - "Down by the Water" (1995)
Goth's feminine ideal is dark, regal, fiercely intelligent, sexually self-possesed, and thus very appealing in comparison to a bunch of other available pop archetypes. Without ever directly copying someone like Siouxsie Sioux, P.J. Harvey dominated mid-90s alternative rock by embodying that ideal, becoming spooky and macabre without leaning on any rote supernatural imagery, updating and grounding a dark rock aesthetic as a starting point for deeper self-examination.
4. EMA - "Marked" (2011)
Erika Anderson seems more obviously wounded on record than Harvey ever has, but there's a vivid clarity to her songs that seems comfortable peering out from inside that cloud of exquisite anguish. Here, her love is drastic, curdled, but she still wants it to be permanent. She cries out for lasting proof of every bruise her heart ever took on.
3. Nine Inch Nails - "Hurt" (1994)
The 90s most iconic goth was easily Trent Reznor, who steam-powered his icky feelings right up the post-Nirvana pop charts, scoring some of the most unimaginably sadistic radio hits of all time (Rihanna only wishes she could get away with something as extreme as "Closer"). There's no straining to understand a line like, "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel." Given second life as a Johnny Cash song, "Hurt" was pure enough to be the death's door definition and last big moment for pop's original, iconic Man in Black.
2. Xiu Xiu - "Suha" (2002)
Though he isn't acknowledged for it often enough, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart is the most important goth figure of the 2000s. His songs—sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous, often both—have pushed the genre forward in drastic steps, putting allegorical themes of gay ostracization into blunt literal language and moving from expressing alienation to actually causing it in listeners. "Suha" from 2002's Knife Play, totally eclipses the S&M dabbling of Anderson and Reznor, moving on to abject, really hurt yourself desperation instead. "I hate my husband. I hate my children. I'm going to hang myself, when will I be going home?" But it's a beautiful song, too. There's a sloppy Joy Division aping in the guitar line that you can be embarrassed by if you need to be, but taking those slick Sumner guitar riffs and making them sound like they are actually breaking down emotionally is quite a smart tweak, really.
1. Crystal Castles f/ Robert Smith - "Not in Love" (2010)
Can a genre be defined by the sound of one man's voice? You wouldn't think so. There are 19 other examples here of a style escaping its founding fathers and moving into all sorts of interesting variation. Crystal Castles, for example, have grafted goth onto high-energy dance-floor nihilism with great success. Their electronic albums show supreme contempt for modern electronics, rip the guts out of Nintendos and leave them melted into Blair Witch totems in the woods. But when you take that new interpretation, lay it on top of the structures of a mid-80s guitar song, and then fly in the high priest of harrumph to sing it for you? Let him huddle around a fire on a winter night, hold an ex-lover close and whisper, "we are not in love"? I mean, how much goth perfection can you even bear?