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Mad World

Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules

Donnie Darko Soundtrack (2001)

Who would have guessed that a stripped-down cover of an early ’80s synth-pop single would end up, 20 years later, as one of the most haunting songs of the decade? Everything about this song is a fluke — it was re-recorded by two virtually unknown artists (can you name another song by Michael Andrews or Gary Jules?) and released on the soundtrack to “Donnie Darko,” a film which flopped on initial release, and virtually no one knew of the track. But as “Donnie Darko” began to obtain cult status over the next few years, the song was re-released to become a surprise Christmas #1 in the UK, and eventually reached a worldwide audience. But enough with the back story — the song itself is fascinating enough on its own. The lyrics are sad and direct in the simplistic phrasing of a child, referencing birthday parties and the first day of school, longing for guidance and meaning, only to find emptiness. By dispensing with flowery metaphors in favor of plainspoken desolation, the song cuts deep — “I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad / the dreams in which I’m dying / are the best I’ve ever had.” The subdued vocal is perfectly complemented by a stripped-down accompaniment of piano and strings. This song feels like the eye of an emotional hurricane — a brief moment of quiet and calm in the middle of a “mad world.”

Also check out: “Distractions” by Zero 7