Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Upbeat Songs
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Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Upbeat Songs

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Andy Hammersmith
Can a song be heartbreaking and upbeat? Yes. For this list, we'll be looking at the best examples of tunes with happy music and sad lyrics. Our countdown includes "Mamma Mia," "Kyoto," "Time to Pretend," and more!
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Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Upbeat Songs


Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Upbeat Songs.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the best examples of tunes with happy music and sad lyrics. With a closer look, these tracks have an upbeat energy that easily hides their emotional narratives.

Did we forget one of your favorite tracks? Let us know in the comments below.

#10: “Hey Ya!” (2003)
Outkast


“Hey Ya!” was a huge cultural phenomenon as well as a catchy song. It’s also a perfect case of being selective about lyrics. You probably remember the chorus and the lines about shaking Polaroid pictures, but André 3000 also includes a story about a relationship that’s reached a breaking point. The singer contemplates staying with someone if it costs him his happiness. In between some of the best and most engaging beats of the 2000s, the words portray the complexities of modern love. Outkast questions the validity of romantic traditions in a crossover hit with much more to say than people remember. Whether or not love really lasts forever, this song certainly will.

#9: “Mamma Mia” (1975)
ABBA


Despite the amazingly energetic 70s production, “Mamma Mia” tells the story of a much more complex relationship. The typical ABBA song might be about dancing or falling in love, but this narrative changes the formula. This time, the writers have the love sick narrator detail her on and off romance. In between a rousing musical number, listeners find out that the singer falls back in with their old partner even after they cheat. While it's not clear exactly what happens, it's safe to say that the two can't seem to keep away from each other. ABBA doesn’t get enough credit for their sometimes nuanced and detailed lyrics in tracks like “Mamma Mia.”

#8: “Electric Avenue” (1983)
Eddy Grant


In his hit "Electric Avenue," Eddy Grant’s funky synth grooves work great without knowing any of the verses. Listen closer and you’ll find clues about the real inspiration for the song. Using references to violence in the streets, the singer is actually discussing the Brixton Riot of 1981. With growing unrest in the Brixton section of London, Black community members protested against unfair treatment and discrimination from police. The performer takes the angst and unrest of that moment and turns it into an incredible piece. With a not-so-secret political angle, “Electric Avenue” operates as an awe-inspiring anthem.

#7: “I’ll Be Around” (1972)
The Spinners


As frequent guests on the Billboard charts, The Spinners made classics out of R&B staples like “I’ll Be Around.” In the classic 70s song, the singer knows the relationship is at a fork in the road. Instead of moving on, the singer holds on to his feelings after the breakup. He also promises to be there should she ever need him. No matter how smooth the delivery is, it will always sting a little knowing that there’s still love left to give. The soulful production and a laid-back groove counteract the emotional narrative behind it all. Thankfully for us all, The Spinners’ supreme vocal talents make the heartbreak go down easier.

#6: “Kyoto” (2020)
Phoebe Bridgers


Phoebe Bridgers is a master of melancholic indie folk music. Her song “Kyoto” trades in her softer and downbeat trademarks for a more upbeat rock production. Even with the new direction, she doesn’t forget to bring along a host of deeply personal lyrics. The story delves into her struggles with dissociation and imposter syndrome while touring abroad. If you don’t listen too closely, you might think it's just a catchy alternative rock tune with some great instrumentation. Bridgers explores the depths of her soul and her parents’ divorce in a wonderfully expressive way. Emotional to the core, "Kyoto" allows her to rock out while also discussing her family life and mental health journey.

#5: “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)
Bruce Springsteen


As a champion of the American working class, Bruce Springsteen creates enduring songs that also tackle serious issues regarding the country. With this popular single, the singer manages to confuse some listeners into thinking it's just a patriotic anthem. Real fans listen to it knowing the lyrics critique the concept of American exceptionalism. This didn’t stop conservative leaders from hijacking the track and using it on the campaign trail. In richly detailed words, “Born in the U.S.A.” offers a message about sending soldiers to war and being unable to support them when they come back. It just goes to show that if you only pay attention to the chorus, you’ll likely miss the importance of a song.

#4: “Semi-Charmed Life” (1997)
Third Eye Blind


Third Eye Blind came to prominence in the late 90s with their memorable singles like “Semi-Charmed Life.” Singer Stephan Jenkins and his bandmates created a rock staple at the end of that decade with a dark inspiration. After wading through the hypnotic guitar riffs, listeners can find explicit mentions about using crystal meth. Jenkins was inspired to write the song after he spotted his friends using the substance. Simulating the frenzied state, the track keeps a faster pace as it describes the many low points of substance use disorder. It's all food for thought the next time you find yourself singing along to the “doo-doo-doo” part.

#3: “Time to Pretend” (2008)
MGMT


Indie rock band MGMT bring together the modern classic “Time to Pretend” with a groovy electronic production. While some of the lyrics are open to interpretation, the bulk of the narrative revolves around their ill-fated dreams of rock stardom. The band takes the concept to the next level as they imagine marrying models and using substances. With a satirical tone, the entire track takes on a darker side as the various details reveal the emptiness of celebrity. By the end of the tale, they leave their families and lose themselves in their fantasies. MGMT’s supreme synth sound elevates the irony within the song’s words.

#2: “Pumped Up Kicks” (2010)
Foster the People


Foster the People’s defining hit is an indie pop single about much more than shoes. With singer Mark Foster’s history of writing jingles, he fashioned together an iconic melody with pointed words. Not only did the song achieve recognition on the Billboard charts, it also attracted attention for its gruesome subject matter. Dealing with the story of a troubled student, the lyrics take a turn as he seeks revenge on his classmates. Given the dire topic and its continued prevalence, the track garnered controversy and even a temporary radio ban after the events at Sandy Hook. The inventive hook walks a thin line between being catchy and also taking a serious look at gun violence in schools.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“99 Luftballons” (1983), Nena
This ‘80s Track Describes the Releasing of Balloons That Accidentally Trigger a Nuclear War

“Jump” (1983), Van Halen
Singer David Lee Roth Was Inspired by a TV Broadcast about a Man Leaping to His Death

“Mr. Brightside” (2003), Killers
The 2000s Alternative Rock Track Follows a Man Watching as His Partner Cheats on Him

“Piano Man” (1973), Billy Joel
Joel Recounts His Days at a Piano Bar Playing for a Series of Sad People

“No Rain” (1993), Blind Melon
The ‘90s Hit Is About Dealing with Depression & Avoiding Sunny Days

#1: “Today” (1993)
The Smashing Pumpkins



The Smashing Pumpkins hit the mainstream with their album “Siamese Dream” and singles like “Today.” In this tune, the rock act uses heavily distorted guitars and seemingly upbeat lyrics to tell an unexpectedly difficult story. Billy Corgan wrote the song about a particularly volatile period in his life. On the cusp of his breakthrough success, Corgan struggled through depressive thoughts and the band’s various personal problems. He even contemplated ending it all as he tried to write their upcoming record. Even with the large contrast between the track and its greater message, the group still makes it a supercharged rock adventure. The ultimate meaning behind “Today” makes it all the more powerful.
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