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If I asked you to name a bunch of classic angry songs, I'm sure you'd have no problem. You'd let loose a stream of melodic vitriol, thinking back to those songs that really get your hate motor running.

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... and the lamest of you would start your list with Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."

But there are songs out there that are just as venomous as anything that Elvis Costello or Motorhead has sung about, without being as explicit. Songs that seem happy on the surface, but actually hold a deceptive amount of anger. But before we embark on this list, can I just explain the premise again? I'm not talking about songs that sound happy musically but have angry lyrics, like The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks." And I'm not talking about songs that are secretly dark and creepy, like The Police's "Every Breathe You Take" or Sarah McLachlan's "Possession."

I'm talking about cheery-sounding songs, with lyrics you never noticed were actually very angry.

"Common People" by Pulp

Cracked's own Robert Brockway already wrote all about this song in his part wonderful / part horrible article about remakes that were better than the original (This song was the wonderful part. The section where he said Nirvana improved Bowie's "Man Who Sold The World" was the bad part). And because of this article, I really can't thank Robert enough (or tell him to fuck off sufficiently).

But take a listen to Pulp's "Common People":

What It's About

"Common People" tells the story of a rich, pampered girl who wants to go slumming. She likes the poor in the way you like a mutt you play with for a while in a public park, before going home to your nice estate. The singer, one such common person, takes her up on her offer of free booze while showing her the world of the poor, telling her to basically fuck off. You cannot know what it is to be poor unless you are poor, and attempts to claim otherwise are merely insulting.

I must confess, however, that I remember when this song came out, and to my discredit, I never listened to the lyrics. All I noticed was Jarvis Cocker's uber-stylish, fey, mystic, and slick spoke/sung vocal. All I heard was the deliberately synthetic and soulless keyboard arrangement. And though the lyrics are clearly acidic to anyone taking the time to listen, it seemed the whole arrangement only served to hide that vitriol. Yes, of course one could argue the merits of a technique that accentuates darkness by juxtaposing it with a happier delivery (as we'll see in the Lily Allen entry below), but it just didn't have that effect on me here. It didn't make sense until the remake featuring Ben Folds, William Shatner, and Joe Jackson.

Angriest Lyrics

You'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do.
Sing along with the common people, sing along and it might just get you thru'
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they're laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.

"Who's Johnny" by El DeBarge

Do you know this song? I think you might. Not because you're a bunch of twisted 50-year-old El Debarge freaks, but because odds are pretty good that Short Circuit was played on your shitty commercial television on a loop for years and years, and this was the movie's theme song.

What It's About

Well, even though you wouldn't know it from the upbeat tempo, and you sure as hell wouldn't know it from the video, which makes less than absolutely no sense, this is a song about someone who is heartbroken and devastated that the woman he loves is fucking some dude named Johnny and lying about it. Yes, you can see that if you read the lyrics closely, but "Johnny 5" was the name of the robot in the movie, and in the video, some weird female district attorney is asking El Debarge that question. In the song, the cheating girlfriend is asking the singer "who's Johnny?" as a way of lying. She's pretending to have never heard of the man she's having an affair with, and it's killing him.

Angriest Lyrics

Still pretending
Who's Johnny Who's Johnny
Who's Johnny Who's Johnny
"Who's Johnny? " she said
And tried to look the other way
Her eyes gave her away
Girls like her are very special
Girls like her don't rest
'Till you too are a believer
'Till you too have caught their fever
There she goes and knows I'm dying
When she says "Who is Johnny?"

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"LDN" by Lily Allen

Alright, I'll tell you right now. This is the weakest entry on the list, but I wanted a song after 2000 that enough people had still heard of. This is the best I can do. I asked lots and lots of people for ideas, and I learned something: people have terrible ideas. Everyone kept saying "Pumped Up Kicks," but I dunno. I mean, I can't imagine hearing that song and not hearing how it's about a guy shooting kids. And in fairness, it's kind of hard to miss the point of this song too, but if you have a better suggestion for a post-2000 song with deceptively angry lyrics, then please leave it in the comments.

What It's About

It's a simple song about crime in London. It's got a nice uptempo beat, and Lily's singing with a happy lilt as Mexican horns beep and bop away to a shake-your-butt melody. And many of the lyrics are quite happy, like the refrain:

Sun is in the sky oh why oh why?
Would I wanna be anywhere else?
Sun is in the sky oh why oh why?
Would I wanna be anywhere else?

But if you pay a bit of attention (and I'll admit, not that much attention), you'll see this is a song about how the seeming shimmer of London covers a darker side. And that's what Lily's doing with the music too: giving a happy pop song with anger underneath.

Angriest Lyrics

When you look with your eyes
Everything seems nice
But if you look twice
you can see it's all lies
There was a little old lady, who was walking down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco
There were people from the city having lunch in the park
I believe that it's called al fresco
Then a kid came along to offer a hand
But before she had time to accept it, he hits her over the head, doesn't care if she's dead
Cause he's got all her jewelry and wallet

"Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney

"Silly Love Songs" is so deceptively angry that it's impossible to know it's angry at all without knowing the backstory. "Silly Love Songs" is one of Paul McCartney's biggest hits. It has a killer chorus, a monster bass line, and is so gosh darn singable that you might never get it out of your head. On it's face, it is a simple love song, but it's actually a gigantic, passive-aggressive, revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-up-cold fuck you to John Lennon (who totally had it coming).

What It's About

Prior to this song's release, John Lennon wrote a very UN-deceptively angry song about Paul McCartney called "How Do You Sleep," which painted McCartney as a talentless, sellout hack. And then, just to make sure Paul felt really bad, he got George Harrison to play on the track, too. In response, Paul McCartney sings a song about how people still need silly love songs, and asks what's wrong with that.

Angriest Lyrics

I Love You

Now, this might not seem like the angriest lyric in the world, but you have to think of it in context. Lennon accused McCartney of writing vapid love songs. McCartney responds by writing a song with the chorus "I love you." Nothing could be more trite than that. He then sets it to some of the catchiest music he has ever written, and releases it as a single, where it dominates the air waves and commercial rock radio and elevators and malls for the next handful of years until Lennon's death. It is a wonderful response to being attacked, which surely pissed Lennon off. And considering Lennon himself would start writing sappy love songs only a few years later, you really have to consider Paul the good guy on this one.

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"Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel

You might not know this song by name, but odds are you've heard it countless times, especially in movie trailers. It's a song that melodically has come to represent optimism and tranquility. Indeed, a few years ago, when it became fashionable to recut classic movies into trailers for distinctly different genres, someone made great use of "Solsbury Hill" to transform the classic horror film The Shining into a light comedy-drama. It's that powerful a song. It can make The Shining seem cheery.

What It's About

Despite that plucky acoustic guitar and sweet flutey riff, there is tremendous anger under the radar here. The song is about Peter Gabriel leaving his former bandmates in Genesis. After about a decade of playing together, Gabriel'd had enough. He decided to accept an offer from William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) to come to Hollywood and work as an idea man. His bandmates were not pleased. Interesting fact -- go to YouTube and type "Genesis talks about ..." and then complete the phrase with one of their early albums. You'll see that Genesis is, for the most, a very articulate, well-bred group of utter pricks. Even to this day, they speak of each other's musical limitations bluntly, and clearly, being in Genesis meant having to endure a lot of repressed English musical intimidation.

The song has three verses. First, Gabriel is presented with an opportunity, and his heart pounds "boom, boom, boom" with surprise and excitement. By the second stanza, Gabriel has decided to keep this opportunity to himself rather than believe he could assume some other identity. But by the last stanza, he resents his friends for not supporting or believing in him. And now, instead of someone else inviting him to a new place, he has made his own decision to leave. His heart still beats "boom, boom, boom," but now, it is not only with the excitement that comes with embarking on an adventure, but is also infused with the resentment at those who would hold him back. They are mere empty people going through life rudely and blindly.

Angriest Lyrics

Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" I said "You can keep my things,
they've come to take me home."

Also, as a special, bonus, the song is in 7/4 -- the time signature that skips a beat -- only echoing the singer's heart palpitations. It's maybe the most perfect song ever written.


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