BBC Culture

10 great break-up albums

About the author

Rebecca Laurence is the deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

    “Breaking up is hard to do” sang Neil Sedaka on a song that has since been covered by everyone from The Carpenters to Nick Carter. But relationship breakdowns have also provided rich fodder for pop music. Recently, Chris Martin revealed that Coldplay’s latest album, Ghost Stories was heavily influenced by the end of his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow (the pair issued a joint statement announcing their “conscious uncoupling” in March). And Coldplay join a healthy musical tradition of albums that are soaked in the bitter tears and regret of break ups: here are 10 of the best.

    Dylan rejected the critics’ autobiographical take on his 15th studio album, written and recorded in 1974 after the demise of his marriage to Sara Lownds. He has however described it as a record borne out of pain − and with the unabashed vitriol of Idiot Wind (“You’re an idiot babe/ It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”), the resignation of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and the longing of If You See Her, Say Hello (“And though our separation, pierced me to the heart/She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart”) – pain and pithy putdowns are clearly present.

  • Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

    With the second iteration of Fleetwood Mac comprising of two couples (Christine and John McVie; Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks) – both of whom split or were in the process of splitting during the album’s recording – Rumours’ genesis was, by all accounts, fraught. Personal disharmony reaped artistic rewards however: the album is widely considered their best. Rumours’ double centrepiece is Nicks’ ethereal Dreams (“Now here you go again/You say you want your freedom”) and Buckingham’s epically bombastic riposte, Go Your Own Way: “Packing up/Shacking up’s all you wanna do”. Ouch. (Warner Bros)

  • Beck – Sea Change

    “It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine” sings Beck on his eight studio album. The subdued, heartfelt tracks he wrote after the end of a nine-year relationship marked a departure from the idiosyncratic sampling of earlier records such as Mellow Gold, Odelay and Midnite Vultures. Produced by Nigel Godrich, Sea Change featured live instruments and strings orchestrated by Beck’s father, David Campbell – a style repeated beautifully on Beck’s latest LP, Morning Phase. (Polydor Group)

  • Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

    On Amy Winehouse’s second and last record, she laid bare her messy split with Blake Fielder-Civil on Tears Dry on Their Own: “I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon”, the title track: “You go back to her/And I go back to black” and Love is a Losing Game, while documenting her troubles with alcohol on Rehab. Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson’s production channelled Motown and Spector, while Sharon Jones’ backing band, The Dap-Kings leant Winehouse’s soul-bearing lyrics musical gravitas. (Island)

  • Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear

    Gaye’s 1978 album was panned on its release, but has since been more favourably assessed: Rolling Stone described it as “one of the weirdest Motown records ever”, but nevertheless included it in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The breakdown of Gaye’s first marriage to Anna Gordy required him to record an album and pay his ex-wife royalties as alimony. From the bizarre album cover (a mock-up of Rodin’s The Kiss with Gaye as a Classical statue) through to the song titles (You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You), there’s evidently a generous pinch of irony to accompany the heartbreak. (Tamla)

  • Justin Timberlake – Justified

    Following a successful run with boy band ‘N Sync and a well-publicised split from Britney Spears, Timberlake had plenty to prove on his 2002 debut solo record, produced to great effect by power-duo The Neptunes, among others. Justified featured several references to his relationship woes with Spears, most evident on the triumphant payback single, Cry Me A River: “Girl I refuse/You must have me confused/With some other guy/Your bridges are burned/Now it’s your turn/To cry, cry me a river.” (Jive)

  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

    Coming off the back of the previous year’s Murder Ballads, Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1997 follow-up marked a departure from character-based storytelling, demonstrating that they were as adept at creating intimate love songs as devilish narratives. Torment came in the shape of Cave’s marriage collapse – to Viviane Carneiro – and the end of an affair with fellow musician Polly Harvey, evident on three songs on the album: Green Eyes, West Country Girl and Black Hair. “Full of all my whispered words, her black hair/And wet with tears and good-byes”. (Mute/Reprise)

  • Adele – 21

    How do you get over a bad breakup? Record the best-selling album of 2011 and 2012, and win a clutch of awards (and a Guinness World Record) along the way – if you’re Adele Adkins that is. The London singer’s second record, enhanced by the knob-twiddling genius of Rick Rubin and Paul Epworth, was book-ended with smash-hit singles in the shape of Rolling in the Deep (a brittle, swampy, southern-inflected stomp) and the more traditional lovelorn piano ballad, Someone Like You: “Don’t forget me I beg, I remember you said/Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead”.(XL Recordings)

  • Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak

    Partially inspired by the sudden death of his beloved mother, Donda and the end of his long-term relationship with Alexis Phifer, West took a 180-degree turn with his fourth studio album. Eschewing rapping and the big hip-hop production of his earlier records, he opted for synth-pop and a liberal dose of Auto-Tune with a sound he described as “pop art”. The heartbreak is evident on the track Heartless, as West sings: “Somewhere along the road, he lost his soul/To a woman so heartless”. (Roc-A-Fella Records)

  • Blur – 13

    “It’s over, you don’t need to tell me/I hope you’re with someone/Who makes you feel safe in your sleeping tonight” croaks Damon Albarn on No Distance Left to Run, as softly despairing a paean to a lost love as any pop song. The songs on Blur’s sixth album are largely considered to result from the end of Albarn’s relationship with Elastica singer Justine Frischmann, while the recording of 13 was racked with inter-band tensions. The record continued the change in Blur’s musical direction marked by their previous, self-titled album – turning their backs on near-parodic Britpop caricatures toward darker, alternative territory. (EMI)