An epic breakup deserves an epic playlist, but here’s the problem. Like the beautiful, delicate snowflake that is new love, every sordid, sad split is unique. There are the breakups we caused, the breakups that crushed us, the breakups we sort of suspected were coming from the first date. And within each of the hundreds of different kinds of breakup playlists, there are special songs whose opening notes make only one person gasp in pain — the song that perfectly describes his strong shoulders, her tangled hair, or was the song the two of you heard that one time when you were at that one place you used to go (and now you’re choking back a sob again).
So putting together a ten-song breakup playlist is very much like that relationship slated for failure from the get-go: I can’t know I’ll get it right. But using the Kübler-Ross model of grief as our rough guide, we’ll start with the wallowing, move next to resignation, and finally progress to a hearty (if fake for now) pledge to find someone better next time.
1. Sometime Around Midnight by The Airborne Toxic Event
You are alone, and you are lonelier than anyone who has ever been alone has ever felt. How did this happen? How could your beloved not just leave you, but also have the nerve to go on with the rest of his/her life? What is the word to describe this feeling? There is no word. But there is the mighty vocal crack at the 3:40 mark in this song by The Airborne Toxic Event, which begins to hint at the edge of the shape of that word. Even the band name reflects your current state of all-encompassing environmental crisis.
2. I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You by Tom Waits
In this slow song, Waits’ trademark growl is riven through with emotion and vulnerability, plus a glimmer of optimism whose opposite is crushing repudiation and disappointment. Let the tears flow. Because you’ve found yourself way past the title of this song.
3. F*ck Was I by Jenny Owen Youngs
And now, we get mad. Think about things like this: how your ex couldn’t seem to remember whether you take skim or whole milk in your coffee. How he/she rarely thanked you for doing the dishes, and then only if you pointed out that you’d done them. You made some awfully nice (and unappreciated) meals in the skillet on the stove, but maybe it’s time to consider what else you could have done with it.
4. One by Filter
A cover of the gentle, sad Three Dog Night song, this version by ‘90s industrial rockers Filter (and from the 1998 X-Files movie soundtrack) is the opposite of soft. It’s infused with all the anger and disappointment and grey rain that fills you right now. Feel free to scream along; it’ll be cathartic. Just wait until the neighbors leave for work.
5. Wicked Game by Chris Isaak
Hey, you know what? This breakup wasn’t necessarily your fault. You may have been a pawn in a much bigger game, blinded by the beauty of the other player (Chris Isaak or Helena Christensen in this case, take your pick). And now look at all the rolling in the surf with a half-dressed partner that will be denied to you. Time to crack the cover on a new box of tissues.
6. She Thinks I Still Care by George Jones
Look, we’ve all been there. Calling the ex’s phone and hanging up before he/she can pick up. Driving by his/her house so you can see if he/she’s peeled off the bumper sticker that the two of you bought when you drove to that kitschy off-road tourist attraction last summer. It’s okay, we get it. But here’s the thing: so does he. Or she. Slow your roll, cupcake, unless you want your ex bragging to his or her friends that you can’t get over the relationship.
P.S. If you prefer a single varietal breakup playlist, you could do worse than George “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Things Have Gone to Pieces” Jones. His breakup misery was truly bottomless.
7. Long Hot Summer by The Style Council
“The tears [are] for real, not acted anymore.” Could the outcome of this relationship have been different if everyone involved had tried harder? Don’t beat yourself up with the what-ifs. As Paul Weller sings in this long and luxuriant ode to a summer’s worth of misery, sometimes we just end up hurting each other too much to hold on. “What once was pleasure now’s pain for us all.”
8. Nothing Compares 2U by Sinéad O’Connor
Sinéad is all about embracing her new single life here — with the newfound ability to eat her dinner in a fancy restaurant and hug male strangers on the street. But given that she tells us in the first line exactly how long she’s been free to do this — seven hours and fifteen days, to be exact —we know exactly how miserable she is. Even her flower garden died of her heartbreak.
9. I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bon Iver
You may be miserable, you may still be in love, and you may believe you were dealt a raw hand. But at the end of the day, you can only control yourself. Let powerlessness wash over you like a cool breeze on a stifling day.
I choose the Bon Iver version over the Bonnie Raitt original only because I find Justin Vernon’s falsetto so inherently heartbreaking. He could be reading a phonebook in falsetto and I’d cry.
10. The Only Way Is Up by Yazz
I admit it: I am that annoying friend who tells you that you’re better off, that there is a larger plan, that you have to let go of what was to find out what is supposed to be, unicorns birdsong lollipops wine. Sure, I will let you swim around in your misery for a while, but the day will come when I go into your closet and dig out your bike shorts, your multicolor bomber jacket that is decorated with flair and your booties and say, “Put these on, we are going into full Eighties Party Dance Mode until you snap out of it.” You’ve been through the shadow of the valley for nine songs. It’s time to shut off your breakup playlist and get back out there and find the partner for that brighter future.
Clearly, this capstone song is a GenX-centric choice. So depending on your age, feel free to substitute in Gloria Gaynor with “I Will Survive” (Boomers) or Kelly Clarkson with “Stronger” (Millennials.) But the getting out and dancing part is non-negotiable.
(All videos via YouTube)