Joshua: We are so obsessed with breakup songs, we couldn’t leave it at just describing the stages we go through. Here are our all-time, top five favorite breakup songs…plus a few more we just had to mention.
Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind”
Etta James has completed the Love and Stuff Month triathalon: She’s on my Top 5 Love Songs (Sunday Kind of Love), Top 5 Songs for the Grown and Sexy (I Just Want to Make Love to You), and Top 5 Breakup Songs (I’d Rather Go Blind). I’ve never been able to shake the image from the chorus here—”I’d rather be blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me.” An achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful song, one that conveys raw, almost to the point of numbness, pain.
Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”
For the blank-faced times, the too many drinks alone time, the finding a song to cry to times. Sort of a theme for “Speak for Yourself” (the album this song is from), so if you’re looking for a prolonged spell of crying jags and blind rage, queue up “Headlock” and “Have You Got it In You?”
A Fine Frenzy, “Ashes and Wine”
A Fine Frenzy does a couple things we all have to do after a breakup. Here’s a breakdown:
- Feels nothing. Feels end-of-the-world-depressed. Feels suicidal in a “Yeah, that’ll show you way.” Then feels bad about all that and insists that this will be amicable, damnit.
- Imagines her ex kissing someone else. Feels alternately ill, guilty about feeling ill because she has no claim on him anymore, sad about the realization that her claim is gone
- Wonders relentlessly if somehow they’re going to muddle through this breakup and get back together. Asks that pleading question, albeit in a much more poetic way, “Are we going to get back together? Ever?”
Beck, “Lost Cause”
You’ve given up. You didn’t want to, this isn’t some big confident show of how over it you are, no. But you’re done trying. And it’s all sad and terrible but maybe a little hopeful, because it can be over now. Not over for real, not yet, but there’s a promise that it will be some day. And that’s something.
Joni Mitchell, “Down to You”
An oddly comforting song that, when you’re in the throes of your breakup, reminds you that this too shall pass. This is my all time favorite Joni Mitchell song. I remember driving around listening to this, about a month after a breakup, and those first lines clicked with me immediately: “Everything comes and goes/Marked by lovers and styles of clothes/Things that you held high and told yourself were true/Lost and changing as the days come down to you.” Also the part where she suddenly shrieks “Love is gone” with a chorus is hilarious. I know it’s not supposed to be, but it’s a much needed laugh. Between Joni Mitchell’s zen-like wisdom and so-serious-it’s-funny-choral-moment, this song feels like a huge relief.
Billie Holiday, “I’ll Be Seeing You”: Nobody does wistful like Billie Holiday.
Martha Wainwright, “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole”: It’s nice to hear a pretty song turn so filthy. Martha Wainwright is angry, is not interested in hiding it, is about to spend a full minute repeating “You bloody motherfucking asshole.”
Lauryn Hill, “Ex Factor”: If you’ve ever been through a breakup without “There for me there for me, said you’d be there for me/Cry for me cry for me, you said you’d die for me” running through your head at some point, you apparently missed out on the very crucial experience of listening to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” on repeat for two years. Fix that.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” by Cake
A wonderful cover of the creator of nasty breakup songs, Willie Nelson. He can’t possibly begin to forgive his ex. She done him wrong. And he ain’t got no one to tell it to but his guitar and the tech recording his song. I hope whoever Nelson wrote the song for (and John McCrea sang the song for) actually heard the song. But it’s almost better if she didn’t, right?
“Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by Jeff Buckley
I’m not sure if this is actually a breakup song or not, I’ve just always used it as one. Maybe it’s the accordion. Maybe it’s the wide open D-chord transitioning to the horrible E-minor. Maybe it’s Buckley’s naturally wilting, wistful voice. You can’t help but wish…no, know, that she should’ve come back to him. He knows exactly what he’s done wrong. He’s a fucking idiot. Can’t he make a mistake? Unfortunately, he knows the answer, and it’s not good.
“Accidentally Like A Martyr” by Warren Zevon
This was a serious candidate for the breakup sex entry for me for a while. The chorus describes exactly that: “Mad love, shadow love, random love, and abandoned love.” Can you think of a better description for sex you shouldn’t be having? But it’s much better describing that period after you finally break off all contact with your ex and then force yourself to remember over and over again all the times you had passionate, uninhibited sex with her/him. It’s torturous, and Warren Zevon knows exactly what you’re going through.
“No Children” by The Mountain Goats
This song isn’t actually written from the perspective of a couple already broken up; rather, a couple that should be ending but can’t bring themselves to kill it. Or each other. Or themselves. I love the line: “And I hope when you think of me years down the line, you can’t find one good thing to say.” I’ve oft felt like this: I know I’ve never done anything to truly hurt someone, especially someone I’ve loved, but there’s a certain romantic charm in being hated in perpetuity by someone who once loved you. Maybe that’s insanity, but I have a feeling I inspire that kind of long-standing revulsion with my exes, and it’s rather comforting.
“So Very Hard To Go” by Tower of Power
After that, I had to end this entry on a positive note. And what better a song than this to express positivity of a breakup? The singer is, unfortunately, deeply in love with the person he’s singing it to, but he’s realized that it’s better for her in the long run if they weren’t together anymore. He can’t bear the thought of his girl being unhappy, especially if it’s because of him. He must make the ultimate sacrifice to step aside, but, in the end, he’s ok with it. It’s hard now, and it’ll get better, but goddamn, if this shit doesn’t suck. I one day hope to be that mature to realize when I should do what he’s doing…Cuz I’ve never done it before.
“Break Your Heart” by Barenaked Ladies: Ok, this is only on here because I’ve never been on this side of a breakup. Move along.
“Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes: A shuffle written about dying love. A straight up amazing classic.
“For No One” by The Beatles: Uh…damn, Paul. Damn. This is some fucked up shizz right here. And I’ve been there.