The 30 Best Breakup Albums of All Time

Music Lists Breakup Albums
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15. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Angel Olsen’s beautiful, sad and, ultimately, useful sophomore album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is an experience obsessed with heartbreak, and engaging the record with a heavy heart of your own is excruciating—near-torture. But this is how Angel Olsen deserves to be absorbed, with empathy—knowing her pain and resolve and bravery, and using it for your own strength. It’s an album that tells the world we are not alone. It’s like Olsen was reading the language of heartbeats and sighed breaths and watery eyes. Closing number “Windows” asks “Won’t you open a window sometime? What’s so wrong with the light? Wind in your hair, sun in your eyes.” She so wants to love and to be loved that it’s as plain and simple as an open window and the sun shining in, and it confuses and torments her that her object of desire doesn’t see the world the same way. It’s the tragedy of any love that doesn’t work, and Olsen seems so willing to give that your heart can’t help but break for her. Her dry, almost rusty voice is pain made audible, like this isn’t her first heartbreak, like she’s endured lifetime after lifetime of them. Olsen shares graciously in her music, and if you are willing, Burn a Fire for No Witness will change your world—or, rather, it will change how you see your world. —Philip Cosores

slowdiveeee.jpg 14. Slowdive, Souvlaki
Souvlaki makes for the rare shoegaze album with a lyrical and emotional depth to match its formidable sonic depth. And its not-too-well-kept secret is that it’s a breakup album. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, Slowdive’s dual vocalists, knew each other since school days. Internet legend has it that they were romantically intertwined but dissolved their personal relationship before Souvlaki. The members have only ever hinted at such a scenario, but it would more than explain the heavy pall of heartbreak that hangs over Souvlaki. “Forty days and I miss you / I’m so high that I lost my mind,” Halstead sings on the noisy and desperate “40 Days.” The closing “Dagger” is even more devastating: “You know I am your dagger / You know I am your wound / I thought I heard you whisper / It happens all the time.” Souvlaki, then, is the Rumours for the dream-pop set, a bracing chronicle of heartbreak that finds each contributors to that heartbreak playing equal roles. —Zach Schonfeld

here, my dear.jpg 13. Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear
Marvin Gaye’s 1978 double album Here, My Dear is, quite literally, a divorce album, meaning that, as part of an alimony agreement with his ex-wife, he agreed to give her half the royalties for the record. Allegedly, he intended to handicap the deal by releasing a terrible record but let his anger and frustration at the experience fuel his work instead. And what came out of that was a suite of songs that ranged from the nakedly confessional “You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You” (“Her lawyers worked so hard / tryna take my riches”) to the emotionally shattered to the surprisingly hopeful (“Falling In Love Again”). Gaye vivisects his marriage for all to see. While it had the desired effect of flopping up on its release, the album has gained a deserved reputation as being one of the most ambitious and satisfying of his long career. —Robert Ham

12. Beck, Sea Change
For a man so used to wearing musical masks, Beck lays himself bare on Sea Change. It’s the most aching, honest album he’s ever made, a musical breakup memoir on par with Blood on the Tracks or Shoot Out the Lights. To say his heart is on his sleeve here doesn’t capture the emotional nakedness; his heart is speared on a record spindle, and he lets us listen. And why wouldn’t we? With a full stock of golden melodies, crafty string arrangements, and career-best vocal performances, Beck is maybe the best American songwriter of his generation. —Steve LaBate

blur.jpg 11. Blur, 13
The jury’s still out on which Blur LP is their finest, but they make a strong case on 13. Their 1999 sixth studio album was written in the aftermath of Damon Albarn’s breakup with Elastica lead singer Justine Frischmann. It opens with the Primal Scream-esque “Tender” with its gospel choir vocals and altruistic lyrics like “Love’s the greatest thing that we have,” before descending into a fuzzy rock fit on “Bugman.” 13 might sound like a mad scientist’s experiment gone wrong, but it’s the album’s manic energy and wild experimentation that gives it its charm. The chunky, high-pitched vocal morphs and harmonica passages on “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” and the pulsing, idiosyncratic noise of “Battle” can be interpreted as emblems of the chaotic upending of relationships. Breakups are a chance to take time for yourself and try on a bunch of different hats—and with 13, Blur put on as many sonic hats as they could get their hands on. Songs like “Trailer Park,” “Caramel” and “Mellow Song” reference Albarn and Frischmann’s drug use, which was likely a large point of tension in their relationship. Though “Coffee and TV” was written and sung by guitarist Graham Coxon and doesn’t directly allude to Albarn’s breakup, it represents a similar struggle to return to normalcy, this time referring to Coxon’s relationship with alcohol, and it’s one of Blur’s greatest-ever tracks. —Lizzie Manno

carolekingtapestry.jpg 10. Carole King, Tapestry
With Tapestry, Carole King grapples with the grief, anger and—eventual—hope at the end of a relationship with devastating honesty. Following her divorce from husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, King left New York for Laurel Canyon where she met Joni Mitchell and James Taylor (i.e., Two More Singer-Songwriters Here to Emotionally Wreck You) who encouraged her to perform on her own album. The pair sang backup on Tapestry, which features both originals and covers that King had co-written with Goffin during their marriage, like her ugly cry-inducing version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” From the album’s bare bones cover (featuring King and her cat Telemachus, added for the last photo of the shoot) to her aching lyrical talents (just try to keep a dry eye during “Way Over Yonder”), King’s vulnerability is startling—and wholly responsible for the album’s resonate lasting power. —Katie Cameron

kanyewest.jpg 9. Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak
808s and Heartbreak is a masterpiece in simplicity and huge emotions, making every sound and shift impactful. It’s Kanye at his most vulnerable and destroyed, trying to find some solace after a relationship has ended. The pinnacle of this comes in “Love Lockdown,” 808s and Heartbreak’s biggest single that is iconic of the themes and style of the album. With “Love Lockdown,” it’s all about how these little shifts occur and come together. There’s the basic TR-808 drum machine heartbreak underneath, as Kanye’s distorted voice and basic piano piece go through the first verse before gigantic drums blast in, leading to a conclusion full of animalistic sounds and power. On “Street Lights,” you can almost hear the next wave of hip-hop artists getting inspired for their own work. The gorgeous repetition and hazy sounds are reminiscent of Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, and Drake, especially considering the introspective tone of the album. —Ross Bonaime

backtoblack.jpg 8. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
If all you heard on the radio in 2006 and 2007 were singles “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good,” you’d think the rest of the album was full of fun, upbeat numbers about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. But in the greater context of Back to Black, the two singles were Amy Winehouse’s cry for help, a coping mechanism to deal with her very public on-again-off-again relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. But eventually, the wild partying and refusal to come to terms with her personal life comes to a head on “Back to Black” and “Love is a Losing Game,” where Winehouse finally allows herself to take a long, hard look at her sometimes violent relationship, followed by the brutal acceptance that it simply isn’t working. Few pop-leaning albums are ever this direct, the artists typically leaning towards largely making—at most—veiled metaphors towards their tabloid-dominating love life. What makes Back to Black such a legendary release is Winehouse’s refusal to shroud any of her crumbling personal life in her lyrics even as she was skyrocketing to global stardom, a glowing testament that even in pop music, a genre that routinely sees dozens of songwriters work on a single track, honesty still makes for the best material. —Steven Edelstone

lindaandrichard.jpg 7. Richard & Linda Thompson, Shoot Out The Lights
When husband and wife duo Richard and Linda Thompson began work on their final album together, so much in their lives was in flux. They were without a label and their last LP flopped commercially. Worse still, their relationship was in the midst of falling apart, even with Linda being pregnant with their third child. That uncertainty and frustration bled right into the material they put together for Shoot Out The Lights, with absolute heartbreakers like “Walking On A Wire” (“The grindstone’s wearing me / Your claws are tearing me / Don’t use me endlessly”) and the brutal “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?” sitting alongside songs of fury and the most impassioned and agonized guitar playing of Richard’s career. Don’t let his smile on the front cover fool you; this is a man surveying the damage of a broken marriage and amusing himself with the irony of he and Linda arriving at their best work at their lowest point. —Robert Ham

nickcave.jpg 6. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, The Boatman’s Call
Throughout his storied early career, Nick Cave was terrifyingly confident, a madman behind the microphone screaming tales about murder and sex as his backing post-punk band furiously laid waste to every stage they ever performed on. That all changed with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, a stark and delicate album of endearing and personal piano ballads—about as major of a departure from the group’s previous nine albums as humanly possible. Centered around Cave’s past breakups with Viviane Carneiro, with whom he was married for six years and had a child with, and his subsequent relationship with PJ Harvey, you can actively feel Cave’s pain throughout, especially on tracks like “People Ain’t No Good,” where you can hear a trembling in his voice, a thousand miles away from his pompous and self assured vocals on “Stagger Lee” or “Red Right Hand.” With no thunderous drums or horror movie-esque strings to hide behind, Cave and his piano let it all out one gentle and heartbreaking track at a time. —Steven Edelstone

disintegration.jpg 5. The Cure, Disintegration
When you’re despondent after a break-up, listening to Disintegration is like crawling into a warm cocoon of gloom: It’s OKAY. You’re safe here. Robert Smith is going to take good care of you. The first two songs alone deserve the Goth Medal of Honor. “Plainsong,” with that oceanic rush of synthesizer and Smith’s depressive murmurs, sets a remarkable tone. And “Pictures of You” ought to invoice any emo kid who ever used “There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more / Than to feel you deep in my heart” as an AIM away message. “Lovesong,” which is a real one, written for Smith’s soon-to-be bride Mary Poole, is the brief respite from despair—and good enough that even 311 couldn’t ruin it for good. It feels good to wallow in this record’s gothic sprawl. But yes, listening to it daily is a cry for help. —Zach Schonfeld

lizphair.jpg 4. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
Exile in Guyville isn’t your typical woeful breakup album. It’s about leaving men in the dust and flipping the bird on your way out. The 1993 double album roasted the patriarchal dude rock scenes, loosely known as “Guyville,” a toxic environment that’s not hard to identify in today’s music circles. Exile in Guyville wasn’t just about the subversion of gender roles—Phair flat-out beat men at their own male-dominated indie-rock game (she became the first female artist in nearly 20 years to top the Village Voice critics’ poll). “6’1’’” set the tone early with its catchy-as-hell guitar riff and a take-no-prisoners chorus lyric scientifically proven to register on the Richter scale when any woman sings it (“And I loved my life / And I hated you”). Phair took cues from riot grrrl, but she had a less outwardly overbearing front—almost to knowingly lure men in with her pretty smile and then steal the male “use them and lose them” playbook for herself. She wrote openly about female sexuality—addressing one-night-stands on “Fuck and Run” and her unbridled, almost threatening sexual presence on “Canary.” Exile in Guyville was basically the musical equivalent of an Acme anvil being dropped on that cartoon coyote, but instead of Wile E. Coyote, it’s the self-absorbed egos and pea-sized hearts of shitty indie-rock men and ex-boyfriends. —Lizzie Manno

bobdylan.jpg 3. Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
With good reason, Bob Dylan is most revered for his nearly unparalleled streak of legendary albums in the 1960s (including 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, and 1966’s Blonde on Blonde), but he saved arguably his finest album ever until 1975, making one of rock ’n’ roll’s most jaw-dropping comebacks with the striking, emotional Blood on the Tracks. Despite being recorded in a ridiculous 10 days (barring a last-minute re-tracking of a few songs), the album remains Dylan’s warmest, richest recording—loads of purring organs, shuffling acoustics, and soulful rhythm sections. But as always with Dylan albums, it’s the words that steal the show, particularly on the bitter epic “Idiot Wind” and the haunting, uplifting “Tangled Up in Blue.” Rock’s most critically acclaimed troubadour kept on releasing wonderful albums after Blood on the Tracks—but he never topped it. —Ryan Reed

joniiiiiii.jpg 2. Joni Mitchell, Blue
Arguably the most vulnerable song on Blue, “A Case of You” is an intimate window into Mitchell’s personal life. In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Mitchell said, “The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period in my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” Said to be inspired by her breakup with Graham Nash, “A Case of You” is yearning and raw. And interestingly, that’s James Taylor on guitar in the back, Mitchell’s love interest at the time. The saddest Christmas song ever written, “River” captures a flipside to the season. “River” is off the transcendent Blue, which broke ground as one of the most emotionally raw albums ever recorded at that point. The candor of songs on the album like “River” was scary to many record executives, who warned Mitchell that she was sharing too much. But luckily, she didn’t listen. To this day Blue is one of the most beautiful examples of the strength in vulnerability, and by extension, femininity. —Alexa Peters

1. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Have you ever really been caught up in a band-wide soap opera if you and your fellow bandmates haven’t aired all your dirty laundry on your most famous record? Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is the ultimate breakup record, written in the crosshairs of Christine and John McVie’s divorce, Mick Fleetwood’s crumbling marriage and Stevie Nicks’ and Lindsey Buckingham’s off-again/on-again/really-really-off-again relationship. Each band member voices their take on their failing relationship—the album is the 11-track musical equivalent of one withering game of he said/she said—and only unite for the epic display of collective, cathartic anger on “The Chain.” At times blistering (“Go Your Own Way”) and at others poignant (“Songbird”), Rumours lives up to its reputation as an enduring examination of love, lust and loss. —Katie Cameron

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