We all know that the best break up songs—unlike the best love songs, which usually provide a pleasant uplift—can be irritating, painful and downright depressing. You just got dumped after all! Or maybe you did the dumping. Either way, let’s face it—you’re both probably better off. He was no good for you! Cue up one of these kiss-off songs, shed a tear if you must and say goodbye (then download a few dating apps). These tunes will have you spinning something from our list of best party songs in no time.
Best break up songs
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division
Sting gurgled, “If you love somebody, set them free,” and Bono wailed, “I can’t live with or without you.” But neither of them got close to the exhausting, depressive reality of a tortured love affair. Their lyrics never fully summed up the paradox of attraction and repulsion, or the bittersweet pang of nostalgia that comes when something beautiful is dying. They were not, in other words, Ian Curtis.
The lead singer of seminal Manchester, U.K., band Joy Division, Curtis was one of indie rock’s greatest losses—a troubled genius who let his shyness fall away onstage, but lived his personal life in quiet agony. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is Curtis at his most melancholic, and the ultimate chronicle of a relationship’s breakdown.
“When routine bites hard / And ambitions are low / And resentment rides high / But emotions won’t grow / And we’re changing our ways / Taking different roads…” The lyrics are ostensibly about Curtis’s relationship with his wife, Deborah, but they also refer to the inner rifts that contributed to his fragile psychological state and his eventual suicide in May 1980—a mere five months after this track was recorded.
For listeners, though, its eternal chorus—“But love, love will tear us apart again”—says everything there is to say about the mixed pleasure and pain of being in thrall to another human being. The music is postpunk at its minimal best, a sparse synth hook adding a touch of optimistic light to the shade of Curtis’s themes.
It is, without a doubt, the best breakup song ever created: Not just a ditty about dwindling affections, but a searingly precise evocation of human fragility. We are simple beings, it seems to say, made and broken by small moments, and powerless against the tide of our own emotions.—Jonny Ensall
“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette
Purported subject of this song Dave “Uncle Joey” Coulier insists that his breakup with Alanis was amicable. But there’s nothing well-wishing about this most vengeful of jilted-lover odes, the object of many a cathartic karaoke jam since its release in 1995. Like all great rages, Alanis lets hers build: The tune begins like an unexploded bomb, and you can almost smell the cordite in the air as she murmurs: “I want you to know / I’m happy for you…” And then the guitar kicks in, and the uncomfortable questions begin: “Is she perverted like me? / Would she go down on you in a theater?” By the time she’s growling about scratching her nails down someone else’s back and hoping you feel it, it’s already too late, Coulier. This one’s for the most demonstrative of your five stages—white-hot anger.—Jenna Scherer
“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor
Originally written and composed by Prince, “Nothing Compares 2 U” didn’t reach iconic, heart-decimating status until a certain headstrong Irish singer-songwriter tried her hand—and those sad, sad eyes—at covering it in 1990. The video, which alternates between a stark close-up of O’Connor’s despair-wrought face and shots of the dark-cloaked songstress roaming through the Parc de Saint-Cloud (a historic park just outside of Paris), was cited by Miley Cyrus as the inspiration for her 2013 “Wrecking Ball” video. Whatever your opinion of that spectacle, it can’t be denied that more than two decades later, O’Connor’s wrenching rendition still packs a punch.—Kristen Zwicker
“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” by Jimmy Ruffin
What becomes of the brokenhearted? They end up listening to this solid-gold soul classic, over and over again, is what. The sad and newly-single can find solace in its driving, determined verses; tantalizing string refrain; major-to-minor key changes; and knowledge that yes, we’ve all been through it, and survived. Recorded in 1966 for Motown, the song is among the label’s most-covered hits. Anyone who’s turned to music for comfort (that’ll be all of us, then) will understand why.—Sophie Harris
“Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye” by Leonard Cohen
Tear-jerking Canadian troubadour Cohen has many a song in his arsenal to reduce grown adults to pathetic wistfulness, but this 1967 beauty is the most effective of them all. Its setup is simple—two lovers remember the happy times even as they part, via Cohen’s sweet, sad lyrics: “You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me / It’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea.” What makes it a classic, however, is how upbeat Cohen’s picked guitar, mouth harp and evocative similes feel against the reality of the situation, deftly demonstrating that losing someone can be painful but cathartic.—Jonny Ensall
“Don't Think Twice, It's Alright” by Bob Dylan
The man born "Robert Zimmerman" lifted the melody to this wistful folk classic from a traditional country diddy, but inserted his own lyrics—a fortunate change considering the original, "Who's Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I'm Gone?," holds a few too many chicken-related lines to land the same emotional punch. The tune feels weary, lived-in and intimate, with our narrator leaving behind simmering resentment for quiet resignation. It's not so much an optimistic end as a stoic acceptance that "it is what it is"—and what more can you really ask for post-breakup?—Rohan Samarth
“Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac
From one of rock’s most painful breakups came one of rock’s greatest breakup songs. The fallout from Lindsey Buckingham’s split with Stevie Nicks in 1976 may have made the recording of Rumours a living hell for its creators, but who cares? It spawned one of the most defiant and furious songs of a generation. No pain, no gain.—Oliver Keens
“Someone Like You” by Adele
You’d have to be some kind of monster not to mist up a bit at Adele’s 2011 tear tugger. A Saturday Night Live sketch has been written about its irresistible emotional pull; even dogs, it seems, are not immune. Part of what gives the song this power, paradoxically, is its rejection of sadness. The heartbroken singer enacts a performance of brave stoicism (she’s fine, she’ll move on, she’ll find someone else), but we know that she is fooling herself (she’s a mess, she’s still stuck, the best someone else is still the guy she has lost). But her willful refusal to cry about it lets us do the sobbing for her.—Adam Feldman
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers
Love crashes into a wall—specifically, producer Phil Spector’s trademark “Wall of Sound”—in this blue-eyed-soul lament, the 20th century’s most-played song on radio and TV. Cowritten by Spector and Brill Building hit makers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the song begins with a sharp observation (“You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips”) that leads to the chorus’s pained conclusion. But the song’s slowness and length—in 1964, 3:45 was an eternity for radio pop—give it an aching tenderness that makes its final exhortation to “bring back that lovin’ feelin’ ” sound like it has some hope of success.—Adam Feldman
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston
Dolly Parton wrote and recorded this song in 1973 as a rueful envoi for her mentor and champion, Porter Wagoner, and later reprised it in the 1982 movie musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Although both of those versions hit the top of the country charts, the song reached its cultural apotheosis in Whitney Houston’s epic 1991 version from the soundtrack to The Bodyguard; at the time, it was the best-selling American single in history. In Houston’s soulful account, the song moves from a quiet, a cappella intro to a blast of gospel-inflected nobility and suffering—and then drifts upward into quiet again at the very end, as though ascending to a state of grace.—Adam Feldman
Listen to Time Out’s 50 best break up songs playlist on Spotify
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