The 30 Best Breakup Albums of All Time

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The 30 Best Breakup Albums of All Time

While Valentine’s Day and its host month February are presumably about love and feeling it/showing it/making it whenever and wherever you can, this gray, dreary month can feel a little lonely if you’ve recently weathered a breakup. Thankfully, February 2019 also brought us a slew of great new breakup albums (Martin Frawley’s Undone at 31, Julia Jacklin’s Crushing and, yes, even Ariana Grande’s thank u, next), just in time to help those of us feeling a little broken block out the swarm of pink and red, flowers and candy.

Those albums got us thinking about our other favorite breakup albums, those records we turn to when music is the only thing that numbs the pain. These are the albums in your record collection that might prompt a chorus of “Who hurt you?”s from friends and family. And, to be fair, “Are you okay?” seems like an appropriate question if you’re exclusively listening to The National after a breakup. But these albums aren’t for when you’re okay. They aren’t the get-up-and-go records for cheering you up when you’re sad. These are the albums in which you can wallow. So crawl under a blanket, fetch a bucket of ice cream and crank up Lorde’s Melodrama until you can’t hear your own thoughts. This is a safe place to sob.

Here are the 30 best breakup albums of all time, as voted by the Paste Staff:

Body_Talk_by_Robyn.png 30. Robyn, Body Talk
We can’t talk about heartbreak in music without mentioning Robyn. Whether you need to sob into your pillow or sweat yourself into oblivion at the club, the Swedish pop diva is always there with the right remedy for your pain. Her latest album, Honey, is a stunning dancefloor masterpiece with a few heartbreak tunes mixed in with the electro bliss, but 2010’s Body Talk is home to arguably one of the greatest breakup songs of all time, “Dancing On My Own.” After an expertly placed appearance in a scene from the third episode of GIRLS, even more people recognized “Dancing On My Own” for what it really is: a juicy, devastating wave of catharsis. And upsetting as it is, Robyn’s recount of watching her ex-lover run away with someone else isn’t exclusive to the broken-hearted among us. Like Lena Dunham’s Hannah, sometimes you just need it as a boost, to remind yourself that you’re okay—maybe even better—on your own. —Ellen Johnson

tunnelofLoVe.jpg 29. Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love
Following a series of uplifting anthems and albums that touted his role as an American Everyman, Bruce Springsteen reached his moment of true reckoning with the decidedly downturned Tunnel of Love. The reasons were clear. His marriage to actress Julianne Phillips was falling apart, and his relationship to his erstwhile backing ensemble, the E Street Band, was frayed due to separation. Consequently, Springsteen chose to record the album on his own, overdubbing the instruments and limiting the group members’ participation to only a few cameos. The songs themselves were telling reflections of Springsteen’s somber perspective and loss of faith in any ability to sustain a real relationship. One song in particular, “Brilliant Disguise,” summed up the sentiment: “So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes / Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise…” That’s but one of many offerings that express doubt and despair, and it captures the anguish felt by anyone who finds it difficult to discern the connections that can be counted on versus those that are transient and untrue. To quote again from the same song, “God have mercy on the man / Who doubts what he’s sure of.” Indeed! —Lee Zimmerman

frankiefrankmcfrank.jpg 28. Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely
After a tumultuous divorce from Ava Gardner in 1957, Frank Sinatra released Frank Sinatra Sings Only for the Lonely the following year. Already prone to depression (Sinatra made three suicide attempts during his relationship with Gardner, famously calling himself “an 18-Karat manic depressive”) Sinatra repeated his recipe for sullen success that he had perfected on 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours on Only the Lonely—the albums even share the same visual motif of Sinatra lit by a lone lamppost. Only the Lonely features a range of saloon songs, and if it weren’t for Nelson Riddle’s decadent string arrangements, the album would sound like a private performance for Sinatra’s bartender. (The album literally features “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” which is directly addressed to a bartender.) “Come Fly With Me is one Sinatra. All the Way is another Sinatra. A Sinatra singing a hymn of loneliness could very well be the real Sinatra,” reads the back cover of the album—with songs this sad, maybe it’s true. —Katie Cameron

27. Lorde, Melodrama
On Melodrama, Lorde’s glittering electropop triumph, the New Zealand singer-songwriter finds herself immersed in exhilarating, champagne-soaked parties and soul-crushing one-night stands, and witnessing the inevitable disintegration of her youth. Her continued fascinations with the highlife, royalty and growing old that formed the core of her debut album—2013’s Pure Heroine—are still present but she now possesses a deeper layer of self-identification and a startling vulnerability. The percussive buildup and splashdown on the post-disco opener, “Green Light,” sets a happy/bitter tone: her breakup has left a scar that she’s happy to show off. The rapidly reverberating percussion of “Homemade Dynamite” brings an absolutely liberating chorus, but the glut of lyrics on the tamer “The Louvre” doesn’t quite let the song’s “broadcast the boom” anthem stand out. She continues to detail her failed relationship on the tender piano ballad “Liability” while acknowledging her shelf life as a musician is extremely perishable, and the buoyant “Supercut,” with its fusion of ’80s pop with an electro-house beat, echoes Pure Heroine’s brazen drive. Her early wisdom signifies an old soul. Where Pure Heroine was her global, future-forward debut, Melodrama is the red-eyed, no-rules afterparty, where the lost and loveless go for comfort. —Emily Reily

FrightenedRabbit.jpg 26. Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
Never before has a breakup album felt this honest, vulnerable, and just plain raw. The Midnight Organ Fight, a no-holds-barred account of the dissolution of the late, great Scott Hutchison’s on-again-off-again relationship that would seemingly never end, is as bleak as it is beautiful, equally dark and life-affirming. Beginning with a longing for things to be normal again (“You should sit with me and we’ll start again / And you can tell me all about what you did today” from “The Modern Leper”), Hutchison’s account shines a light on every distressed moment following the initial dreaded conversation to end a long-term relationship—from jealousy (“I don’t want you back / I just want to kill him” from “Good Arms vs Bad Arms”) to longing for meaningless sex (“You twist and whisper the wrong name / I don’t care and nor do my ears / Twist yourself around me / I need company I need human heat” from “The Twist”) to revisiting his ex for yet another failed attempt at reconciliation (“I’ve been working on my backwards walk / There’s nowhere else for me to go / Just back to you just one last time / Say yes before I change my mind” from “My Backwards Walk”) to devastating acceptance (“And now we’re unrelated and rid of all the shit we hated / But I hate when I feel like this / And I never hated you” from “Poke”). Rarely, if ever, has a songwriter allowed him/herself to be as open, exposed, blunt, and poetic concerning the slow, painful march towards a final breakup following months—or years—of being unable to finally cut the chord and the brutal period that follows. We will likely never again see a record quite like The Midnight Organ Fight, a true masterpiece that becomes more revered over time as additional people find a helping hand in Hutchison’s words as they suffer through similar circumstances. —Steven Edelstone

hooraycarlyrae.jpg 25. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion
At first glance, a record with songs like “I Really Like You” and “Run Away With Me” may not seem like obvious choice for a stellar breakup album. To that, we say, you clearly haven’t cried while listening to E•MO•TION by Carly Rae Jepsen. Post-breakup, you don’t just wallow in sadness or stew in bitter anger. You mourn what might-have-been and even dream about your ex running through the proverbial airport to tell you they made a huge mistake. Everything about E•MO•TION, including its fantastical retro-inspired pop sound, screams rose-colored glasses. Besides obvious breakup songs like “Emotion” and “Your Type,” the album is filled with tracks that, if anything, feel like desperate, unattainable fairytales. And let’s not forget the album’s most underrated song, “Boy Problems,” which feels like a glittery chorus of every pal ever who’s reminded you that friendship comes before an obnoxious S.O. If a Disney princess made a record after being dumped, this masterpiece would be it. —Clare Martin

24. Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
Though most of Are We There steers through the tumult of a relationship that has since ended (the song titles tell the story: “Your Love Is Killing Me,” “I Love You But I’m Lost,” “Nothing Will Change,” “Break Me”), Van Etten never wallows, nor turns vengeful or bitter. Rather, these songs are her attempt to make sense of it all, and she sifts through the promise, the heartache and the loneliness with dignity, even elegance. That’s not to suggest she hides her anguish. Van Etten lets loose on “Your Love Is Killing Me,” her voice throbbing as she fights, essentially, for the space to catch her breath. She is sorrowful over eddies of guitar and thundercloud drums on “You Know Me Well,” while a sympathetic horn vamp acts as a keel to keep “Tarifa” right-side up against Van Etten’s forceful swings between wild hope and despair. —Eric R. Danton

sunshapedlake.jpg 23. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Most Thom Yorke lyrics hang suspended in a dream-like state, blending imagistic poetry with vague emotional outcries—an ambiguity that keeps the songs relatable, even if we don’t know what’s fueling the melancholy. A Moon Shaped Pool finds the frontman brooding even more than usual: He observes “gallows,” a hovering “dread,” a “spacecraft blocking out the sky.” On moon-lit reverie “Glass Eyes,” he exits a train at a “frightening place” and encounters faces of “concrete grey”—but instead of turning back, he trudges forward down a mountain. “I don’t know where it leads,” he croons over crystalline strings and piano. “I don’t really care.” Yorke’s never approached strict confessional songwriting, but it’s hard not to read between the lines: In 2015, he separated from his longtime partner, Rachel Owen, and the ghosts of lost love linger in some of his barest lyrics. “You really messed up everything,” he intones on kraut-rock thrill ride “Ful Stop”; “Broken hearts make it rain,” he squeals, enraptured, on “Identikit”; the symphonic surge of “Daydreaming” closes with Yorke reversed and pitch-shifted, like a fire-breathing dragon: “Half of my life,” he huffs, a possible reference to his past relationship. The crushing blow is unavoidable—though projecting in too much backstory is a fool’s errand. —Ryan Reed

heyjoanhey.jpg 22. Joan Baez, Diamonds & Rust
After making her name as the forlorn godmother of ’60s folk, Joan Baez made an abrupt turn in her trajectory and opted for her first real attempt to lure a mainstream audience with the emotionally charged Diamonds & Rust. To be sure, it didn’t dispel her downcast demeanor, given that a solid portion of its songs focused on themes of love and loss, especially of the decidedly splintered variety. The title track was clearly directed at Bob Dylan, her onetime paramour and the man with whom she was bound both musically and romantically. Her take on Bob’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” culled from Dylan’s own rumored break-up album Blood on the Tracks (also on this list), reinforced the tender yet tenacious trappings. Add to that, the honeyed heartache of Jackson Browne’s bittersweet “Fountain of Sorrow,” John Prine’s sad but serene “Hello in There” and Stevie Wonder’s longing lament “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” and it’s all too easy to see how the sense of separation had intruded on the ambiance overall. The result is one of Baez’s best albums by far, but also one that ranks among her most decidedly despondent. —Lee Zimmerman

rilokileyADVENTUREEEE.jpg 21. Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous
Heartbreak is a universal experience with few comprehensive truths. In Rilo Kiley’s tumultuous search for happiness, for answers, for anything at all, they tackled those truths as they came. One of them materialized as 2004’s More Adventurous, which exposed the harsh reality that heartbreak thrives in indifference, but often exists as a result from caring too deeply—which is probably why the album also serves as the reminder that we’re all just fox food in the end. More Adventurous shows us that heartbreak can manifest from the loss of love, will or sympathy. That sometimes it generates vitriol, regret or uncertainty. That sometimes it comes without warning, and sometimes with too much. And that sometimes, it just is. —Montana Martin

pajamas.jpg 20. PJ Harvey, Rid of Me
Rid of Me is breakup album as exorcism. Across these 14 tracks, a 23-year-old Polly Jean Harvey howls, moans, flirts with murder, relives the Book of Genesis, and shrieks at the listener to lick her legs. At the center of it all is her extraordinary voice, an unrelenting banshee wail that’s the aural embodiment of the album’s prevailing preoccupation with love as a form of violence. Harvey’s masterpiece draws on Captain Beefheart, feminist rage, mid-century blues, and Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”; its production and engineering by Steve Albini, who achieved an uncompromising dynamic range rarely heard in modern recordings, has become as shrouded in myth as the songs themselves. It seems difficult to imagine circumstances that could produce songwriting this extreme—Harvey herself has cited a sense of exhaustion, malnutrition, and something close to a nervous breakdown—but generations of scorned lovers are grateful for its existence. —Zach Schonfeld

crazyforyaboo.jpg 19. Best Coast, Crazy for You
Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino digs the simple pleasures: California summers, her cat, Snacks, and love. She really digs love. That penchant for simplicity bounces all over Best Coast’s debut, Crazy For You. After a string of sunny but sludgy EPs, Crazy features 13 tracks in 30 minutes. It’s the tightest, brightest music Cosentino and sole bandmate Bobb Bruno have pumped out yet. These tunes approach love and longing like a teenage diary entry (“I wish he was my boyfriend / I’d love him to the very end” pines Cosentino in “Boyfriend”), matching ’60’s girl group melodies with fuzzed-out guitars. There’s little variety here, but like The Supremes, the straight-ahead formula works: Sing about love, and make each chorus stick. And they do. —Justin Jacobs

for-emma.jpg 18. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
Not since a creek drank a cradle in 2002 had anyone so quietly overtaken the indie-music community as Justin Vernon did in 2008 with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, when Jagjaguwar gave the album a wide release after Vernon pressed 500 copies himself the year before. This lonesome post-break-up album—with its mythic origin story in a remote Wisconsin cabin—is drenched in the kind of melancholy that feels a lot like joy, and sounds just as vivd. Rather than wallowing in loss, Vernon’s otherworldly falsetto and warm acoustic guitar provide a hopeful contrast to impressionistic lyrics like “Saw death on a sunny snow.” Vernon’s real trick was imbuing such hushed music with so much feeling and such seemingly nonsensical lyrics with such specific meaning to individual listeners. It was less like the end of a relationship and more like the promise of a new beginning. —Josh Jackson

17. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Trouble Will Find Me may be The National’s funniest album to date. Not that it has a whole lot of competition. The bookish Brooklynites don’t typically drop punchlines, although Matt Berninger has snuck a few sharp absurdities into his lyrics. On the band’s sixth album, however, he actually foregrounds the humor, which is a welcome change for the band so deep into its career. Berninger’s self-deprecating humor nicely complements the album’s pealed-back sound. If High Violet was an ambitious statement album that propelled the band to new heights of mid-life/middle-class existentialism, Trouble Will Find Me is looser, easier and rawer—as laidback as The National ever get. Dense with allusion and mythology, Trouble portrays The National as a band that has soaked up so many influences that they’re bleeding out into the words. And yet, you don’t need to know who sang “Blue Velvet” or get the Elliott Smith reference on “Fireproof” to appreciate the band’s stripped-down sonic assault or sympathize with the confused protagonists wandering through these songs. —Stephen M. Deusner

beachboizzz.jpg 16. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
While there is admittedly nothing original left to say about Pet Sounds, anyone who says the 1966 album is overrated is, without exaggeration, lying to you and to themselves. In the early ’60s, The Beach Boys’ songs about summer and cars and girls marketed them as an idyllic portrait of the white (and whitewashed) picket fence version of the American Dream; in reality, Brian was an anxious young man with an abusive father. In Pet Sounds’s 36 minutes, Brian creates an album whose thematic arcs of growing up and disillusionment implode the happy-go-lucky narrative surrounding the band. The album opens with a tinkling 12-string guitar solo on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” when—crash!—in comes Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine with a drum smack to successfully eliminate whatever innocence you thought Pet Sounds could harbor a whopping seven seconds in. There’s no throwaway tracks on the album, even in its two instrumentals. Brian denies the inevitable end of a relationship on the too dreamy “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and experiments with a ghostly sounding Theremin on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (it’s use on Mad Men haunts me to this day). Pet Sounds is an album of upending expectations—“God Only Knows” is possibly the most moving love song ever written, and its opening line is “I may not always love you,” so come on—of the studios who wanted commercial hits, of the audiences who wrote The Beach Boys off as surf rock noise and of the critics who felt that rock music had to sound a certain way. Its coming-of-age themes are as universal as they are painfully personal, making Pet Sounds, without a doubt, “a complete statement.” —Katie Cameron

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