Ah, the breakup song. A proud tradition in popular music, it seems like every reputable musician has at least one kiss off to their ex floating around somewhere in their discography. Some people even build their whole careers on it. If you’re looking for the best tunes to pull you through a nasty split, here are 40 of the best songs to play post breakup, sorted by which stage of the breakup you’ll want to listen to them during.
Songs to Wallow in Your Own Pity
“Hard to Love a Man” – Magnolia Electric Company
“True Love Waits” – Radiohead
“Guess I’m Doing Fine” – Beck
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – Hank Williams
“River” – Joni Mitchell
If it wasn’t for Joni, this would be the “whiny crybaby white boy” section. That’s not to say these songs don’t contain serious pathos though, just that most of these artists (again, Mitchell notwithstanding) aren’t commonly associated with heartbreak. Magnolia’s Jason Molina often cared more about the mind’s deterioration than the heart’s, Thom Yorke is a famous sad sack but was usually more opaque than the crystal clear heartache of A Moon Shaped Pool, Hank Williams rarely dove this deep into desolation, and Beck had been going on a full decade of slacker sex jams before slowing it down for Sea Change. That leaves Mitchell, who could make up an entire breakup list with just her songs.
This is the first stage of the breakup: sorrow. That feeling that you’ll never love again, no matter how illogical you know it is.
Songs to Embrace Your Anger
“Fuck You” – CeeLo Green
“Before He Cheats” – Carrie Underwood
“Dye It Red” – beabadoobee
“Sorry” – Beyonce
“You Oughta Know” – Alanis Morissette
Welcome to the second stage of the breakup: rage. Time to key your ex’s car, insult their new beau, recount all the fucked up things that they may have done to you, and to scream about it at the top of your lungs. Maybe that message is an unequivocal fuck you”, or maybe it’s a more shady “I ain’t sorry”. Sometimes the best messages aren’t delivered with words, but rather with Louisville sluggers. This is the time to dye your hair red because your ex didn’t want you to. This is the time to mention how no one else will go down on them in a theater (if that’s your thing. Nobody should be doing anything in a theater right now though, especially if it involves bodily fluids).
This is the point in the list where the artists turn from majority male to majority female. I don’t know if it’s my own personal preference or what, but there seems to be something about breakups from a woman’s perspective that translate into great songs. They sound angrier, more mournful, more emotionally devastated, more powerful, and more nuanced. Young men are not exceptionally well known for expressing their feelings, even in song.
Songs to Memorialize Your Ex
“So What” – Pink
“Rolling in the Deep” – Adele
“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” – The Smiths
“Missing Pieces” – Jack White
“Heartbreaker” – Pat Benatar
These mostly come in the form of scathing and vitriolic kiss offs, as is the case with “So What” and “Rolling in the Deep”, but not always. Sometime its all about false alarms and depression, as in “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”. Sometimes it’s admitting that someone took a lot more from you than you care to admit, like in “Missing Pieces”. But let’s be real: it’s mostly about talking shit. So let’s end it on another scorcher: Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker”, one of the slickest example of calling someone an asshole to their face.
Songs For All the Conflicting Feelings
“Motion Sickness” – Phoebe Bridgers
“Man” – Rosie Tucker
“Pedestrian at Best” – Courtney Barnett
“Without Me” – Halsey
“I Will Always Love You” – Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston
This stage of the breakup is probably the hardest: you’ve been through the initial hell of heartbreak and the gut reaction of anger, but what comes after the blues? This is the time when the breakup is still fresh enough in your mind that you’re overthinking it, over analyzing it, trying to be objective but still having an emotional reaction that gets in the way.
This can come out in different ways. If you’re constantly swinging between love and hate, “Motion Sickness” is here for you. If the whole world is still in pieces and you’re just trying your best to make sense of it and move on, “Man” knows the feeling. “Pedestrian at Best” is for the stream of conscious jumbled thoughts, mixed in with a fair bit of leftover anger, and “Without Me” is for when that anger turns into indignation. Eventually you might realise that there’s always going to be a part of you stuck in that other person, and “I Will Always Love You” knows that you can admit you’re not ready but still move on. Whenever you feel like a mess of feelings, turn to these songs. They speak the same language.
Songs to Build Yourself Back Up
“Just Friends” – Amy Winehouse
“Stronger” – Kelly Clarkson
“Don’t Stop” – Fleetwood Mac
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon
“Piss Up a Rope” – Ween
After you’re done feeling conflicted, it’s time to bring in a little hope, a little optimism, and maybe even a little humor. It’s time to think about the future. If you want that platonic ideal of a breakup in the most literal sense, “Just Friends” is the realistic answer to whether friendship is even possible after a relationship. If you can’t reason with them, maybe it’s worth it just to focus on yourself. “Stronger” is the ultimate celebration of me, myself, and I after being part of a pair for so long. “Don’t Stop” is probably the only song on the drama-heavy Rumours to handle the end of a relationship with some hope for the other partner, and it’s increasingly rare to see breakup songs with so much sympathy. From there, all you can do is laugh. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” brings some much needed levity to the breakup song genre, while “Piss Up a Rope” counters with gleefully juvenile humor. Whatever you choose, it’s time to stop moping and lighten up a little.
Songs to Celebrate Your Freedom
“I’m Free” – The Soup Dragons
“Traveling Alone” – Tift Merritt
“No Scrubs” – TLC
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift
“Dancing on My Own” – Robyn
Welcome to the best stage of post-breakup life: the glow up. All of a sudden, you realize how much better you are without that dead weight. You’re hot, single, and the world is your oyster. There’s something really fantastic about this stage, because you’re not reliant on being with someone else to feel happy. You’ve built yourself back up, and now it’s time to celebrate.
Sometimes these are just straight shots of adrenaline, like “I’m Free”, or maybe you’ll take the opportunity to sneak in some last potshots at your ex, like in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. There’s always time to warn any future fuckboys about what you’re not going to put up with, like in “No Scrubs”, and if in doubt, you have the confidence and strength to hold your own wherever you go, like in “Dancing on My Own”. But these feelings of freedom aren’t always joyous and bombastic. For the times when you’re feeling more quietly triumphant, go with Tift Merritt’s “Traveling Alone”.
Songs for When You Meet Someone Else
“Shut Up Kiss Me” – Angel Olsen
“Just Like Heaven” – The Cure
“Cuz I Love You” – Lizzo
“Don’t Start Now” – Dua Lipa
“She’s My Best Friend” – Lou Reed
Ah yes, the rebound. In every breakup story comes the time to find someone else. Whether you’re just looking for a temporary hookup or something more meaningful again, the importance of replacing your ex with someone else is a big necessary step towards the final step of moving on. Here we’re going big on the dizzying euphoria of love, or lust, or at the very least attraction and affection. “Just Like Heaven” shows the magic of love while “Cuz I Love You” brings a once love impaired narrator into full-on crazy tat your name territory. “Don’t Start Now” taunts Dua Lipa’s ex with how moved on she is (spoiler: it’s scary), and “She’s My Best Friend” hypes the new bae up past man’s other best friends (dogs and cars, respectively). “Shut Up Kiss Me” is really the only song here with some shades of grey, incorporating some desperation and maybe even the implication that she’s trying to get back with an ex, but there’s no such thing as a perfect linear path out of a breakup, so let’s bring some realism in by admitting that your next “someone else” might actually be an old “someone else”.
Songs to Move Forward
“I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor
“Come On Let’s Go” – Broadcast
“Every Time I Hear That Song” – Brandi Carlile
“Walk” – Foo Fighters
“Thank U, Next” – Ariana Grande
We’ve made it, boys and girls. Every stage of the breakup has now been completed, and it’s time to graduate from thinking about your ex.
We all know what Gloria and Ariana and Dave Grohl would say to us, so let’s examine the other songs. “Come On Let’s Go” is that intangible feeling pulling you out of the fog of a breakup and pushing you forward, personified in song form. It’s not triumphant or celebratory or even romanticized in any way. Everybody has to move forward. Come on, let’s go.
Finally we have “Every Time I Hear That Song” which probably has the ultimate chorus for moving on: “By the way, I forgive you/After all, maybe I should thank you/For giving me what I’ve found/Because without around/I’ve been doing just fine.” If you reach that level of understanding, you no longer need any breakup songs. At least until the next breakup.