Break-up music has changed a lot in the last twenty years. Once upon a time, a list of heartbreak albums would have been made up of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue', or Nick Cave & the Bad Seed's The Boatman’s Call, or Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, these days some of the saddest songs aren't warbling numbers about how your ex doesn't know what they're missing. A decent chunk aren't even actually anything to do with heartache.
True, this century has still familiar heartbreak music thanks to the piano ballads of Amy Winehouse or the guitar chords of Bon Iver, but the sound of sadness has branched out. Thanks to the rise in Auto-Tune music, even supposedly upbeat records are now often tinged with a sad sound. Elsewhere the rise in ambient dance music, by artists like Bonobo, Floating Points and Caribou, as well as the rousing electro-pop of artists like Robyn and Lorde, has given us bass-heavy dance-floor tracks which can make you stand still longing for someone in a crowd of people.
These albums have lyrics about heartbreak as their artists navigate loss and grief and distill it into words. But there's also songs that have an ineffable sadness to them without any reason you can put your finger on, a sound which feels nostalgic and wistful even though it's joyful too.
Here are our favourite albums to check out this Valentine's Day, whether you're heartbroken or in a relationship. Because nothing says, "Roses are red, violets are blue" more than "I want to listen to depressing autotune music with you."
Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
With a deflated heart-shaped balloon on the cover artwork and lyrics exploring the recent death of his mother after surgery complications, as well as the break up of his 18-month engagement to Alexis Phifer, West's fourth studio album is uniquely opaque considering how personal it is. After experimenting with Auto-Tune in College Dropout, West made it the central sound of 808s & Heartbreaks, giving the album a distant and robotic feel that sounds both dejected and moving. In 'Heartless', West repeats the refrain of, "How could you be so heartless?" confused at how people can make us feel, while 'Streetlights' conjures the melancholy image of watching cars go past like life going passing you by.
Any one of the Swedish singer's Body Talk trio could have made this list, but her 2018 release, after eight years away and which dug into the death of her friend and break-up of a relationship, is perhaps her most moving music ever. From the humming, shuddering rhythm of the title track, to the sadness in thundering dance track 'Missing You', which soars as she sings "There's this empty space you left behind / Now you're not here with me", Honey perfectly captures a new kind of heartbreak music.
James Blake – James Blake
When the English singer and songwriter released his eponymous debut album in 2011 it felt like a telegram from the future of robotically warped, digitally downcast and deeply moving music had arrived. As well as two beautifully sparse and inventively reimagined covers in the form of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love' and Joni Mitchell's 'A Case Of You', the reverberating vocals of 'The Wilhelm Scream' are hauntingly sad: "I don't know about my dreams / I don't know about my dreaming anymore / All that I know is / I'm falling, falling, falling, falling / Falling".
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
It is difficult to separate the heartbreak of the neo-soul singer's extraordinary album 2006 from the tragedy that followed it, but the sadness that lurks in every corner of Back to Black is diary of the pain that Amy Winehouse was suffering. Heartbreak is everywhere; from the downcast lullaby of 'Love Is A Losing Game', to the jazzy faux-sunshine of 'Tears Dry On Their Own', to the swaggering bitterness in 'You Know I'm No Good', where she sings, heartbreakingly, "'There'll be none of him no more' / I cried for you on the kitchen floor".
Caribou – Our Love
Canadian DJ and producer Dan Snaith jumped around genres in his early before exploding in popularity with his 2014 album Our Love. The winning formula he stumbled upon was creating a uniquely moving sound which straddles ambient, dance and pop, songs that move you with their sense of wistful longing, while also being something you can move to. The breakout single from Our Love was 'Can't Do Without You', which loops those words over heartstring-tugging chords.
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
In 2007 Justin Vernon released an album which – as he did after experiencing heartbreak – made you want to move to a hunting cabin album in Wisconsin and stare out at the snow in longing, even if you were actually perfectly happy in your relationship. Despite many of the lyrics being near unintelligible, Vernon's voice, stripped back and against sparse instruments, has a sadness that sounds like a wounded animal.
Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
Over her first three albums the Missouri-born singer evolved into something of a hardened soul, with world-wearied lyrics and guitars strummed with a jaded sentiment. Her fourth, All Mirrors, follows a break-up and retreat into nature to refocus on songwriting with simpler guitar melodies at their core. The result isn’t Bon Iver-level of sparse melancholy, but her same sardonic rock music with slightly softer edges, as seen in the dazzling ‘All Mirrors’ and the sweet mumbling of ‘Too Easy’.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Frank Ocean does heartbreak with a light touch on his 2016 album, Blonde, dropping ideas before brushing them off while his Auto-Tuned voice has a weighty sadness threaded through it. Released after his public coming out letter, Blonde is littered with clues without giving us a map of his pain: discussing broken love in 'Godspeed' and contemplating ending up alone in 'Solo'. There's other types of pain too, as with 'Nikes' where he touches on police brutality in America and the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Lykke Li – I Never Learn
After a life-shattering break-up at 28, singer Lykke Li moved from Sweden to Los Angeles and poured her heartbreak into what would become the 2014 album, I Never Learn. At times the album feels like it burns with the righteous anger that being hurt can give you, as with the marching energy of the title track, and the angry anthem 'Gunshot'. When she slows, as in the swaying sadness of 'Never Gonna Love Again', you can hear the emotion in every word.
Lorde – Melodrama
Managing to do what so few pop stars can, 20 year-old Ella Yelich-O'Connor's 2018 album captured the turbulent, fun, traumatic and confusing experience of girlhood with profundity and genuine excitement. In piano ballad 'Liability' she sings about an emotional taxi journey, her voice recalling how she felt with the closeness of a diary entry, while in the Robyn-inflected 'Supercut' she sings about the clarity that comes after a breakup when the illusion is broken.
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