Last week, Treble delivered a list of 10 essential albums to play during physical intimacy, but now that Valentine’s Day is over, we thought it necessary to offer up the flipside of that concept: 10 essential break-up albums. Pop music history is littered with examples of broken hearts, pain and misery. There’s a very strong chance that anytime you turn on the radio, you’re going to hear someone singing about their personal emotional anguish. And there’s definitely more than a few albums in your collection that deal with that very topic exclusively.
So, now that the chocolates have all been eaten and the bottles of wine emptied, we present ten of our favorite albums devoted to artists’ documentation of fragile emotions, missed connections and tearful goodbyes. Keep some tissues handy.
Perhaps the only album on this list that could have just as easily ended up on our recent list of between-the-sheets albums, Al Green’s Call Me deals as much with sexy, soulful sounds and carnal needs as it does with sadness and isolation. Across the album’s nine songs, Green never sounds bitter or angry, and often leaves the door open, as he does on the funky, mesmerizing title track. But an album that contains both a Hank Williams cover and a Willie Nelson cover is bound to have its share of heartbreak, though Green’s own compositions most certainly hold their own in that department. On the other hand, should those fences happen to be mended, and bygones let go, “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” is a fine companion for physical reconciliation.
Bob Dylan – Blood On the Tracks
During the ’60s, Bob Dylan largely avoided writing songs from a deeply personal or emotional standpoint, but in 1975, after separating from his wife Sara, that all changed. Blood On the Tracks, considered by many to be Dylan’s best album, is also the one that finds him the most exposed, with sorrowful songs like “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” showcasing a kind of inner turmoil that had previously been something of a rarity on Dylan’s albums. Dylan himself has a contradictory take on the subject, having long denied that the songs are personal, and that he doesn’t write “confessional songs.” And yet, even more telling, Dylan has said he doesn’t understand why so many people enjoy the album: “It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Fleetwood Mac began life as a British blues band in the 1960s, but by 1977, not only had the lineup, sound and direction of the band completely changed, so had the storyline. By the mid ’70s, the band contained two pairs of couples – John and Christine McVie, and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. But in the lead-up to Rumours, the McVies divorced, Buckingham and Nicks split up, and Nicks ended up having a second romance with drummer Mick Fleetwood. The resulting album to come out of these love triangles and pentagons is one of the most frank and often bitter documents of failings in personal relationships in pop music, albeit set to gorgeous and lush AM rock melodies. Though it’s sometimes handled playfully, the band covers some pretty dark and emotionally wounded ground, going from regret (“Dreams,” “Go Your Own Way”) to anger (“The Chain“) and depression (“Gold Dust Woman”). Nothing was off limits on Rumours, but the honesty, even at its most brutal, is always made more savory through some of pop music’s most perfect tunes.
A lot of albums on this list were inspired by very real break-ups or divorces, but not all of them actually got tangled up in the terms of a divorce settlement. Following his 1976 album I Want You, Marvin Gaye and then-wife Anna Gordy Gaye split up, and the fallout from their bitter break ended up fueling the epic double album Here, My Dear. Under the terms of their divorce, Gordy was entitled to a certain share of royalties, in addition to a significant portion of the advance for his next album. And though initially Gaye didn’t feel up to the effort of creating an album for which he’d see essentially no benefit, instead he let it bleed all over two LPs worth of pain, misery and funk. It’s almost uncomfortable listening to the dirty laundry on the album. It’s so personal and so brutally honest, it’s hard not to get the awkward feeling that maybe you shouldn’t be listening. But then again, it’s pretty damn funky, so even if the album is a document of two souls’ private turmoil, it’s surprisingly easy to enjoy.
Blur – 13
In contrast to their “arch-rivals” Oasis, Blur was never a band prone to repeating itself. Each album in the band’s catalogue found them exploring new sonic territory. And by the end of the ’90s, as Blur drifted further and further from the Britpop sound they helped define, it was the end of a seven-year relationship between Damon Albarn and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann that set 13 up to be the chaotic catharsis it turned out to be. Even as a desperate Albarn is urging himself to “Come on, come on, come on, get through it,” he’s later admitting, “I got no soul/Don’t sleep at night.” It’s a recklessly off kilter album that frequently paints Albarn in a self-destructive light. But even as Blur are seen going off the rails here, one listen to “Coffee and TV” or “Tender” reminds listeners that even a broken-hearted Blur still hits those perfect melodies.
Some ‘break-up’ albums serve as a friend who can handle a good cry. Domestica is your bitter and intoxicated, yet witty comrade who encourages you to scream your heartache out. Built on the backbone of Tim Kasher’s (guitar/lead vocals) own disastrous divorce, and sporting instant post-hardcore classics like “The Martyr,” this is definitely the right album to accompany your anguish. After all, sometimes sicknesses can only be cured by cynical poetry, accompanied by taut rhythms and shrieking guitars. Add to that Domestica‘s significance as Cursive first release after reuniting and the first appearance of guitarist Ted Stevens (Lullaby For The Working Class) and you have an instant classic. So put down your ice-cream carton and raise your fist – you should be cheered up in no time… or at least a little more amped about your depression.
Although we had caught glimpses of Beck in pensive mode on Mutations and, to a lesser degree, One Foot in the Grave, I don’t think anyone expected him to follow up the dance-heavy, Prince-like party music of Midnight Vultures with an entire album dedicated to heartbreak. Needless to say, given Beck’s irony-laced, sample-driven past, when Sea Change‘s sincere ruminations on lost love and solitude arrived it was somewhat of a shock to the system. But with the help of Nigel Godrich’s masterful production, Beck took his folk songs out onto the loneliest open highways where “You gotta drive all night just to feel like you’re okay.” Sea Change is easily the most gorgeous set of songs Beck’s ever put out, one that proves even the king of irony feels the stings of failed love as deeply as the rest of us.
The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee isn’t a breakup album in the truest sense, because the fictional couple on which the album is focused never actually break up. The Alpha Couple, which graced John Darnielle’s songs on albums prior, engage in a turbulent, scathing and frequently devastating drama that seems doomed from the start, but they never quite reach the point of putting an end to it, rather ending up in mutual self-destructive cycles that act as a poison to everything that comes in contact. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “No Children,” a sprightly highlight with a painful sting: “I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow/ I hope it bleeds all day long/ Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises/ we’re pretty sure they’re all wrong.” It’s not all doom and gloom, and much of the album begs for drunken singalongs, but the pain lingers throughout, as well as the uncomfortable suggestion that love, even if it can endure all things, maybe sometimes shouldn’t.
In the ’90s, New Jersey’s The Wrens weren’t the most prolific band, but when they did deliver a set of new music, it was typically raw, energetic and bursting with snotty, youthful exuberance. When the band emerged from a seven-year hibernation in 2003 with The Meadowlands, however, that exuberance had become a lesser role in the band’s newfound moody and melancholy art rock, displayed in a complex and sprawling pop opera that essentially documented a decade of dashed hopes, wounded emotions and ruined relationships. Clearly, a lot had happened in those seven years, and singers Greg Whelan and Charles Bissell get a lot off their chest in this hour-long therapy session. The Meadowlands‘ 13 stages of grief span from melancholy (“Happy”) to angry (“Hopeless“) to resigned (“This Boy Is Exhausted”) to utterly and hopelessly broken in spirit (“13 Years in 6 Minutes”). And somehow, all that spite, misery, anger and frustration ends up sounding positively triumphant on “Everyone Choose Sides.” It’s no coincidence that the band’s most personal, most serious album is also their best. The Wrens spared no detail, and as a result ended up revealing more in one hour than they had in the previous ten years.
Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak
Kanye West blessed his first three critically lauded albums with intelligently juvenile sexual innuendos (“It’s a party tonight and, ooh, she’s so excited/ tell me who’s invited: You, your friends and my dick“), charmingly makeshift rhymes (“If my manager insults me ag-ain, I will be a-ssault-ing him“) and all of it over stadium-sized, soul-powered production. Meanwhile he yielded videos featuring Delorean-driving grizzly bears and somehow kept a manically consistent blog featuring exotic models and $100,000 jetpacks; Kanye West seemed to be wearing the crown as rap’s larger-than-life patriarch. However, the neon on his reign burned out abruptly; in a short span of time, West’s mother tragically died after complications from surgery and his engagement to his longtime girlfriend dissolved. The tears began to steadily drip from out of Kanye’s shutter shades. The result was perhaps the most artistic buzz-kill ever: 808s and Heartbreak.
An abrupt departure from Kanye’s big-headed zeitgeist, Yeezy swaps his bombastic braggadocio rap for melancholy crooning about failed relationships and existential loneliness. Utilizing the oft-maligned auto-tune throughout 808s, Kanye rails against overbearing significant-others (“Robocop”); he tries to rationalize an ex’s callousness (“Heartless“) and also muses on the emptiness of past rap excess: “…he said his daughter got a brand new report card/ and all I got was a brand new sports car.” 808s and Heartbreak punctuates with the Lil Wayne-assisted “See You in My Nightmares” where the duo go hoarse as they despairingly liken their estranged exes to one Frederick Charles Krueger. Ouch.
You might also like: