Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s Valentines Day. Hope you get a hundred teddy bears and a box of chocolates that isn’t mostly coffee cremes.
But be honest – were you expecting us to put a top ten lovely, lovely songs or something? Don’t be silly. That would be way too off brand.
So while you’re opening your cards and putting your flowers in a vase, have a listen to our top ten breakup songs and store them in your mind in case you need them later.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
The National – ‘Guilty Party’
This one slays me. I am glad I haven’t been through a breakup since this song came because it would definitely reduce me to a quivering wreck if I had.
In a conversation with someone who is no longer listening, Matt Berninger imagines the dissolution of his marriage in perhaps the most mournful tone he’s ever managed. It’s a thing of beauty. But it’s also a kick to the stomach of the hardest kind.
Frightened Rabbit – ‘My Backwards Walk’
With The Midnight Organ Fight, Frightened Rabbit made the best breakup album of all time. It took us through the pain, the denial, the fumbled attempts at moving on, and the endless memories of a lost love.
‘My Backwards Walk’ stands out to me for a couple of reasons. Partly, it’s the ambiguous ending to the songs when our protagonist seems to be offering themselves to their ex lover but we never know what was said in return. But it also stands out because of a couple of lines that right so true and still hit hard nearly fifteen years after I first heard them (when I was right in the middle of a brutal breakup).
‘I’m working on erasing you / Just don’t have the proper tools / I get hammered, forget that you exist / there’s no way I’m forgetting this.’
Scott Walker – ‘On Your Own Again’
The second song on Scott Walker’s arguably greatest album is 1 minute and 45 seconds long. Yet, in its brevity, he summarises what it feels like at the end of a relationship more accurately than any song I’ve ever heard.
Who needs repetition when individual lines cut to the chase so perfectly like these? The contrast between the soaring, cinematic beauty of the strings and the melancholy truth of the lyrics hits me right in the heart. A classic of concise songwriting.
Mitski – ‘Lonesome Love’
And at 1:50, here’s another example of how the universal relatability of a break up lends itself to brief expression. Mitski’s tremendous 2018 record Be The Cowboy is full of short gems like ‘Lonesome Love’, where she says so much in just a few lines.
This is an ode to messy endings, where one’s logical and rational intentions (“I call you to see you again, so I can win and this can finally end“) are sideswiped by emotions and human nature (“then you say hello, and I lose”). The combined use of humour, self-deprecation and honesty in the song is close to perfection.
Taylor Swift – ‘All Too Well’
Someone had to pick a song from Taylor who seems to have created albums worth of songs following breakups. I’ve picked All Too Well, not just because it’s arguably the best thing Taylor Swift has ever written or recorded, but because it captures that sense of desperate confusion and longing for the small things after a breakup.
‘You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest’ is legendary storytelling, but I’d also mention ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age’ from the 10 Minute Version of the song for one of Swift’s most cutting and direct stabs at an ex. Who knows if her ex really did keep that ‘old scarf from the very first week’, but if you want to listen to a break up song, you can’t do much better than this.
Alanis Morissette – ‘You Oughta Know’
Yes it’s an obvious one, but it’s still bloody great. This does break-up sardonic rage better than any other, yet still manages an emotional range from devastation to vulnerability.
The interrupted dinner gives Alanis a longed for moment of control and power over the situation. He’s moved on, but there’s no way Alanis is going to let him forget. She pulls no punches and as a result gives one of the most authentically felt accounts of a break-up ever sung. Great lyrics too.
Marvin Gaye – ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’
Another choice of a big song from me but I wanted to include it because it looks at a break-up in a different way.
Most songs on this subject dwell on the past relationship and what was lost. This, albeit based entirely in the unreliable rumour of the eponymous grapevine, deals with the break-up before it happens. The protagonist is torn between not wanting to believe what he’s heard and wanting to challenge his partner’s intentions.
Plus it’s not a sad sounding song, opening with that unmistakable groove and layering the soaring strings and upbeat ‘ooh’-ed backing vocals. We couldn’t have this whole list being totally miserable now could we?
Beyonce – ‘Irreplaceable’
I was racking my brain for another pick of a break up song, before I remembered one of Pop’s greatest has made a career of massive break up records. Ring The Alarm, Beautiful Liar, If I Were A Boy, Best Thing I Never Had, Hold Up, Don’t Hurt Yourself; the list is endless. But there’s one that literally every person reading this has sung along to at one point of my life.
We have surely all wanted to tell an ex to go ‘To the left’ and Beyonce tells it exactly how it is, ‘I can have another you in a minute/Matter fact he’ll be here in a minute’ is such a boss move that none of us could ever aspire to reach. Singing along to this surrounded by thousands of fellow Beyonce fans? Enough to heal any wounds from a break up.
Kelis – ‘Caught Out There’
When it comes to getting catharsis around a relationship I’m not sure you can do much better than ‘Caught Out There’. While other picks are going to have beautiful lyrics and heartfelt swells of music, this just is direct and to the point. Kelis’s repeated chant of “I hate you so much right now”, and literal screaming are a perfect emotional release. Plus it’s a fun listen when you don’t have relationship bullshit to deal with.
The Knife / José González – ‘Heartbeats’
Either artist’s rendition of ‘Heartbeats’ are absolute classics. Whether you want synth-pop or folky acoustic guitar this song has you covered.
Every chorus there is a reminder that the relationship “Wouldn’t be good enough for me, no”. But, in the moment they are succumbing to it. As the song progresses though is a realisation that it won’t work as they have ‘different heartbeats’. It was a perfect soundtrack to my years of OkCupid and Tinder misadventures.