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The 8 Ball 2.15.14: The Top 8 Breakup Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 02.15.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Breakup Songs

Welcome to the 411 Music 8 Ball, folks! Friday was Valentine's Day, of course, and hopefully you had a day full of love, candy, flowers or whatever your heart wanted. Unfortunately, I can say with certainty that not everyone reading this did because bad things can and do happen, even on the day named after a Roman bishop who was beheaded for marrying lovers against his king's wishes. For those people, I present a different side of love songs: the breakup song. There is no tradition in the music industry more prevalent than that of the breakup song; it is nearly a required part of anyone's repertoire, regardless of genre. As Rob in High Fidelity says, "What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

So this week, we're going to take a look at my favorites among breakup songs. So open up the bottle of whatever you're drinking, put the tissues down and let's delve into the heartbreak.

Caveat: For this list, I was looking specifically at songs that dealt with the ending of a relationship. It didn't have to be depressing or angry; it simply had to involve the message that "this is over" or a reaction to the fact that it is over. It's sort of a fuzzy line, but I basically tried to avoid songs that were about moving on, reminiscing about the happy times of the relationship or so on. And obviously, the song had to take place either during or after the breakup, not before.

Just Missing The Cut

Whitney Houston - "I Will Always Love You"
Phil Collins - "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)"
Meat Loaf - "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad"
Don Henley and Patti Smith - "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough"
Joni Mitchell - "A Case of You"

#8: Adele - "Rumour Has It"

It's been a while since we've heard anything from her, so perhaps the complaints of overexposure have eased up at last. The British singer took the world by storm in 2011 when 21 smashed its way onto the charts and radio, where it proceeded to stay near the top for the better part of two years. Adele is quite the talented writer when it comes to breakup songs and this one is my favorite of hers in that category. "Someone Like You" is great but not quite at this level, and "Rolling in the Deep" is her biggest hit but not her best song on the album. "Rumour Has It" is her most retro-sounding song; the track features a distinctly 1960s feel in the musical composition that works very well. What's more, where most of the songs on 21 are more somber or at least passive, this one is very active and spirited. Adele carries a bitter but defiant and even fiery quality to her voice to fit into the lyrics of a woman who finds out that her man has been cheating on her behind her back, and thus decides to turn the tables and leave him for someone else. This is a song not about being broken down by the disintegration of a relationship, but instead of standing up for yourself and moving on. Most people fell in love with Adele's music after hearing "Rolling in the Deep," but this song and "Set Fire to the Rain" were what did it for me. You have to love the immediate pounding aggression of the song and let's be honest...we've all had that moment in a relationship where they just say "screw it, I'm done." This is the song for that time.

#7: U2 - "One"

"One" is one of my all-time favorite U2 tracks, and it also happens to be one of the greatest depressing songs of the 1990s...if not ever. I've always found it interesting how popular this song is at weddings when it is clearly about a breakup. The song came about at a time when the band was reportedly near the point of breaking up over a disagreement in their musical direction. While working on the song that would eventually become "Mysterious Ways," they stumbled upon the melody for this one. What makes it work so well as a breakup song is how it manages to be so emotionally devastating without going into histrionics. This is about that terrible time in a relationship when hope has left and you are forced to accept that it is the end. That time is the absolute worst time in the life cycle of romance, even worse than when you're panicked and racing to salvage what's left or shocked to even imagine that it's over. This is the calm, resigned, soul-crushing period and Bono and company capture it perfectly. People love to consider U2 an overrated group, but songs like this one prove that they can achieve that rare accomplishment of capturing an emotional moment so perfectly. "One" is evocative, poignant and incredibly powerful; in many ways it is the quintessential U2 song and certainly a great breakup track.

#6: Concrete Blonde - "Caroline"

If there is any group that deserved more attention in the late 1980s and 1990s, it would be Concrete Blonde. They became one of my absolute favorite bands during that era and have remained in that category ever since. While most people know them for their one big hit "Joey" (and make no mistake, that is a great song), they did so much more. One of my favorites of theirs is "Caroline," which is truly a fantastic breakup number. With one of the great female rock vocalists of the era in Johnette Napolitano, they paint a vivid picture of a woman who is dealing with the dissolution of a relationship without spelling it out. There's no paint-by-numbers style here; the song makes allusions to what occurred and that gives it a universal appeal that is truly gut-wrenching with lines like "It doesn't matter what address you're listed under/I only know they'll never make you stay." Right there, you've just been given a pretty definite explanation as to where this relationship broke down. The sound of this track is mournful and somber but tempered as well, with Napolitano's powerful voice delivering the kind of heartbreaking emotion that truly sells the story. This is a perfect portrait of how you feel in post-breakup depression.

#5: Bob Dylan - "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"

As a person, I have certain pet peeves like anyone else. I think the one that drives me insane above everything else is a passive-aggressive attitude. And yet leave it to none other than Bob Dylan to make something as infuriating as that attitude sound well and truly brilliant. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is a deeply passive-aggressive song from the opening salvo "Ain't no use to sit and wonder why, if you don't know by now" straight on down to the final lyrics "You just kinda wasted my precious time/But don't think twice, it's all right." This song was reportedly inspired by his girlfriend Suze Rotolo (who appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) decided that she was staying in Italy for a longer time during a very bad part of his relationship and you understand exactly where Dylan was emotionally in that point of time just by putting this one on. Some people consider the title to be sarcastic but I don't see it that way; this is instead a man who was at the end of his rope emotionally. Whether he's trying to take shots at her or not, it does come off as bitter and that's just the way it happens when you're trying to be conciliatory at the end of a bad relationship. That probably reveals more about me that I care to admit, but that's how I see it. Dylan's masterful finger-picking work with his guitar keep it mellow and low-key, giving the American master of poetic lyrics one of the great songs about a relationship's fall.

#4: Fleetwood Mac - "Go Your Own Way"

Few groups could do songs about heartbreak quite as well as Fleetwood Mac, perhaps because they inflicted it so much on each other. The band's personal trials and tribulations are the thing of legend and yet, as we all know, it brought about some of the best music of the 1970s. Rumours is one of the best pop/rock albums in history and "Go Your Own Way" is one of the absolute highlights. It's funny that this is actually a fairly upbeat-sounding song, but the lyrics make it clear what's going on here: Lindsay Buckingham is telling Stevie Nicks that he loves her but things are too damaged for them to continue and he's ostensibly giving her permission to "Go Your Own Way." But there is in fact some hope in there too, which honestly makes it all the more painful. This is a song about trying to make to convince someone to stay with you when it's all gone. As much as he keeps saying that she can go her own way, he also switches gears at the end of the second verse and says "open up/everything's waiting for you." This song captures the complicated emotions of bitterness, fear, hope and sorrow that often war and crash against each other in deeply-conflicted ways inside someone's heart when everything has gone wrong in love. And it does so with agonizing brilliance.

#3: Sinead O'Connor - "Nothing Compares 2 U"

People love to laugh at Sinead O'Connor now, but for those who remember this song at its height there's nothing to laugh at. This song cuts right to the core of a breakup straight from the opening line "It's been seven hours and fifteen days." If after half a month you're still counting the hours since an event, you know that it has marked you for good and that's exactly what this song is about. The song's story is well-known of course; it was written for one of Prince's side projects known as The Family but never took off. When O'Connor recorded it for her album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got in 1990 she captured the true essence and launched herself into pop music history. The way she sings like it's her final bow, the mournful tones of the music...everything perfectly captures that time after a break-up when there is only one thing in your mind and no matter what you do, nothing can lift you out of that despair because, as the title says, nothing compares to your lover. The music video, which is truly an iconic moment of 1990s pop, further lifted the stature of the song but it's intensely powerful on its own.

#2: Nine Inch Nails - "Something I Can Never Have"

It may be "only" #2, but Nine Inch Nails' "Something I Can Never Have" is a very, very close #2 in terms of breakup songs and it has nothing to do with its power. I cannot think of a song by anyone that is more evocative of the depths of relationship despair for me than this one, in which Reznor sounds like he's about five seconds away from ending it all. This was the first song I ever heard from Nine Inch Nails and I was instantly hooked. It's such an incredibly powerful piece of music, written in a moment of what seems to be agonizing pain and it carries through the music. This is one of those songs about the soul-crushing despair stage of the breakup, when all hope is gone, and Reznor conveys that about as well as anyone could ever hope to. It is probably NIN's slowest and moodiest song and the soft, almost gentle touch it displays just makes it that much more depressing. It has often been interpreted as any number of emotional traumas, but I've always heard it as a relationship breakup song first and foremost. "Everywhere I look, you're all I see/just a fading, fucking reminder of who I used to be" paints as clear an image as you can possibly imagine. Ah, Trent. No one does depression quite like you.

#1: Joy Division - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"

From Joy Division, the band that was gone far too soon, comes the most perfect musical documentation of a relationship's that I can imagine. This song was written by Ian Curtis (and the rest of the band) for the love of his life, Deborah Curtis. It almost seems odd at first as a breakup song because much like "Go Your Own Way" it's practically an upbeat number. It is a rare thing when an artist can create a song that expresses such love and yet know that it's falling apart; that it is destined to fail. The bittersweet beauty--and even the horrifying aspect--of this song is that you can hear in Curtis' voice the torment he was going through in the last days leading up to his suicide and the problems in his marriage. There are terrifying implications in lyrics like "Do you cry out in my sleep/all my failings exposed? And there's a taste in my mouth as desperation takes hold." And yet, there doesn't seem to be any inclination that he wanted to change things. As much as it's a song about pain and loss, it also comes across to me as a song about knowing what awaits and accepting it. That's depressing as hell considering what resulted in May of 1980, just one month after this song's release, but it does certainly add that extra edge that pushes it over the top for me.


Are you not depressed enough? Well, we've got one more shot to the gun in this week's Video A-Go-Go. Amanda Palmer's "The Bed Song" isn't about a breakup but it is about a relationship gone wrong. It's one of the most crushingly beautiful songs of the last several years and the video is amazing as well. Check it out below!

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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