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This algorithm thinks it’s found the top-5 saddest songs in Billboard history

A data journalist boiled down data from Spotify’s API to put together a list that, in all honesty, raises more questions than it answers.

This algorithm thinks it’s found the top-5 saddest songs in Billboard history
[Photos: John Levy/Creative Management Associates/Wikimedia Commons; Carl Lender/Wikimedia Commons]

Spotify’s API lays bare basic information about its catalog of songs, like “key,” “tempo,” and so forth.

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But how exactly does one measure “energy,” “danceability,” or “valence”? The latter dataset, which is defined by Spotify as a song’s positiveness, has become a key component in creating a gloom index for Radiohead songs and or finding out which Christmas song is the most depressing. Now, data journalist Miriam Quick has used Spotify’s data on the “energy” and “valence” of all the number one songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 in its 60-year history to pinpoint the top five saddest songs to top the charts.

Let’s count them down:

5. “Still” — Commodores

4. “Mr. Custer” —  Larry Verne

3. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” — Elvis Presley

2. “Three Times a Lady” — Commodores

1. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” — Roberta Flack

It’s a fun exercise, yes, but one that raises more questions than it answers. “Mr. Custer” is sad for many other reasons than what we’re here for. It’s hard to classify “Three Times a Lady” or “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” as sad songs, per se. They’re slow, and they both espouse the unending love for a significant other. As Quick mentions in her post, what isn’t taken into account with Spotify’s API data is the lyrical content of its songs.

The data Spotify creates and collects helps to parse its catalog to create playlists. While much of the heavy lifting is done by algorithms, there are indeed humans tasked with fine tuning the curation. But it all calls to mind the conversation around man vs. machine in providing recommendations through services like Spotify or Netflix. It’s something Tim Cook flagged as a concern in an interview with Fast Company recently. Apple Music leans on human curation for its playlists, and while he didn’t mention Spotify directly, he did note that he’s worried “about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft.”

If the humanity completely dies in music curation, at least we’ll know where to go to find a sad (sad-ish?) song to play at its funeral.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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