Readers recommend playlist: songs about loneliness

Among the artists feeling alone this week are the Pixies, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix and the Who

Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of your suggestions last week. Thanks for taking part. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.

From parrots to primates, dolphins to dogs, so many animals are social creatures, preferring company to solitude. It must have been a sad day when the last of our Neanderthal brothers sat alone on the Rock of Gibraltar, gazing out to sea ... perhaps Al Green felt the same when he recorded Tired of Being Alone. In fact, rather than be alone on the record he went to the studio next door and asked a country band to come and sing backing vocals. A close listen reveals all.

Listen to the playlist on YouTube.

Loneliness can lead to depression, and in Burning of the Midnight Lamp, Jimi Hendrix sits alone, watching the moon wax and wane. He stares at a dropped earring that still lies pointing at the door through which his lover made her exit.

You never knew your lover had a smell until they weren’t there. It’s the odour of love and companionship, of memory, faith and fidelity. In the Pixies’ Cactus, Black Francis pleads for a worn dress from the woman he misses.

What does a mother smell like? Milky? Cottony? Safe? Or maybe you never knew. Here’s a song for every child taken from their mother, evacuated during the second world war to Canada or Australia, never to return, or for Indigenous children stolen from their families: Blind Willie Johnson and Motherless Children.

So what happened to those unfortunate people? Are they scarred by their experiences? Hanni El Khatib’s Gonna Die Alone contains an inkling of what life must be like for people affected by trauma.

Picture the scene: Gatwick airport, 1974. There’s a fault with the ticket to Toronto. It can’t be sorted until the next day. The plane takes off and flies overhead. I watch it go and think of all those happy people on board. Still, I was much luckier in the long run than ticketless Gordon Lightfoot, standing on the runway in Early Morning Rain (“Hear the mighty engines roar / See the silver wing on high / She’s away and westward bound”).

We all know how lonely cities can be. Sometimes that can be a pleasure, which leads one to suspect that the gloom in Jonathan Richman’s Lonely Financial Zone could be self-inflicted. Still, as I remember from growing up on the periphery of a financial district, they can be good places to run around at weekends.

Never mind the financial zone – it sounds as though the protagonist of Brook Benton’s Rainy Night in Georgia is out of pocket altogether, with no money to spare for all the taxis and buses that pass him by. He finds a boxcar in which to spend the night, playing his guitar and pressing his loved one’s picture to his chest.

If ever a song was sprinkled with stardust, it’s Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today. Written by Yardbirds writer and 10cc founder Graham Gouldman, produced by a pre-Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones and graced by John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar, how could it fail? Gouldman tells the tale of walking with his father when they passed a house with a “No milk today” note outside. His dad pointed out that you can never tell why that note was put there: bereavement, abandonment, eviction? Graham suddenly had a hit song.

Another domestic drama plays out in Ray Charles’ Lonely Avenue. This time we know he’s definitely been chucked. Jilted, in fact. He’s sitting at home, sifting through the evidence, trying to work out where it all went wrong. His head is full of alternative scenarios, but he can’t escape the fact that she just wouldn’t say: “I do.”

Love is a wonderful thing, is it not? But when it’s taken away, it can destroy people. The lucky ones find consolation, but others are burned up inside. The Band’s It Makes No Difference is an essay in existential despair: it’s all wrapped up in the prettiest tune, but look inside and you’ll find sculpted loneliness.

For some people, adversity is like body-building – or soul-building. We know the old adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes is the testament of a survivor, a person stricken by adversity and rejection – but whom not even the curse of loneliness can crush.

New theme: how to join in

The next theme will be announced at 8pm (GMT) on Thursday 5 April. You will have until 11pm on Monday 9 April to submit nominations.

Here is a reminder of some of the guidelines for Readers recommend:


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