Back in August of 2011 a woman with whom I was then on friendly terms, we are no longer friends, sent me a link to some clown lip-syncing to something called "The Yuma Yuma Song." I hated it, and told her so. She told me that it was about the brilliance of his lip-syncing. I went berserk, and sent her an email that included this sentence: "There is [are?] 1,500 years of music, almost all of it better than this, some of it so beautiful that it will break your heart, tear it into tiny little pieces, and then stitch it back together again, and you like this?" So it seems fair to ask, what music meets this criterion?
Lets get the preetentious, i.e., classical music out of the way first.
Berg's Violin Concerto is one piece. Alma Mahler, in the process of a marital career that included Gustav Mahler and Franz Werfel, a career that would be commemorated by Tom Lehrer in his song "Alma" made a pit stop at Walther Gropius. They had a daughter, Manon, who died at the age of 18 or 19. Manon contracted polio in 1935, and after a period of prolonged struggle died. Berg made her the dedicatee for the concerto. The picture to the left shows the basic tone row on which Berg based the concerto. As you can see it uses the whole chromatic scale and goes from a G minor triad through D major, A minor, and E major triads before concluding with the last four notes, which make up part of a whole tone scale. (See the Wikipedia article on Berg's concerto for a better analysis than I can give.)
The BBC Music magazine has a regular feature on building a music library. A recent article suggested recordings by Isabelle Faust and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Links to both of those can be found at the right.
Henryk Górecki had a modest swell of popularity back in the '90s when Dawn Upshaw gave voice to the soprano part in his Third Symphony. The symphony comes in three movements, and each movement has a vocal element to it. All of the vocals are in Polish. The first movement incorporates a 15th century lament, the second a poem written on the wall of a prison, and the third a song from the Silesian uprising. (See the Wikipedia article for a discussion of the structure of the symphony, and its sources.)
I haven't listened to it for a number of years, but my recollection is that it moves through sorrow to exaltation. There are a number of recordings, but the one with Dawn Upshaw is the one that started the swell of interest in an otherwise unknown Polish composer.
Lets move on from classical to country and jazz. The late George Jones would be at the top of the list of singers who can break your heart. The one that comes to mind is, of course, "He stopped loving her today." There are probably too many others for me to think of at the moment. Johnny Cash is another one who breaks hearts. Again there are too many to name just one.
Holly Cole has a number of songs, particularly on Dark Dear Heart that get very close to the emotional depths. Check out "Onion Girl," and "I Told Him That My Dog Wouldn't Run."
Audra McDonald, before she starred in the wretched Mister Sterling and Private Practice was a singer. Her album How Glory Goes contains a very good version of "Bill" from Show Boat, and a moving lullaby, "I Won't Mind."
I can't comment on the current pop scene. Probably the most moving singers are from the generation that started in the '30s and continued into the '80s, guys like Crosby and Sinatra. That no doubt reveals me as an old fogey, but that's the way it goes.
If you've got any other nominees, let me know, and if I can think of any others, I'll post updates here.