Just like you can’t have love without romance, we can’t really have hearts without heartbreak, either. So it’s really no surprise that broken heart ballads have been all over the radio since the start of popular music. So, who needs all those happy-in-love songs for Valentine's Day? Instead, we spotlight the 20 most poignant breakup songs of all time.
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift
For the record, Taylor never did get back with Harry Styles. Those words carry weight!
"Crying" by Roy Orbison
Orbison didn’t actually cry in the recording booth, but the way he runs through the titular word in this 1961 hit gives you all you need.
Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
"I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton
About 20 years before Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard rendition brought it back into the spotlight, Dolly wrote and performed this sentimental standard about her professional split from Porter Wagoner, the country legend who discovered her (the country star performed the song in the 1982 movie musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, above). She’s well known for her sassy sense of humor, but Dolly’s got heart, too.
"Yesterday" by The Beatles
Just after the love-at-first-sight giddiness of “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” The Beatles’ Help! hits you with the heartbreak of “Yesterday.” Paul McCartney’s two-minute acoustic confession proves just how quickly emotions can shift, even on a track listing.
"Love Lockdown" by Kanye West
Kanye’s dark period brought us this career curveball -- a sharp left turn from the euphoria of Graduation that changed the rap game forever. Aside from paving the way for Drake and Kid Cudi’s sensitive careers, 'Ye bared his soul and showed us how even the biggest egos can succumb to heartbreak.
"You Keep Me Hangin' On" by The Supremes
Even in her early days with The Supremes, Diana Ross’ passion couldn’t be denied. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is one of the most desperate, impassioned Motown songs you’ll hear, so it’s no surprise it grew with the times. Kim Wilde famously covered it in 1986 and brought it to the top of the Hot 100.
"Burn" by Usher
“Climax,” “U Don’t Have to Call” -- there are plenty of Usher songs we could have picked for this list, but this Confessions slow jam just hits the hardest. In the chorus, he pledges to let the breakup run its course, but by the next verse, wonders what it’ll take to get his shorty back. Love is confusing.
"Someone Like You" by Adele
Unlike many of the songs on this list, this one isn’t bitter, or even sarcastic. Adele’s anthem to taking the high road -- despite the heartbreak it entails -- is one of the truest ballads the 2010s have give us so far.
"You're So Vain" by Carly Simon
Who is this song about? Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? David Cassidy? Simon’s never told us for sure, but that’s probably helped this song’s legend grow. Who doesn’t know someone they could fit the “so vain” bill? Okay, maybe not the parts about the Learjet and the yacht.
"I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor
Like “Since U Been Gone” for an earlier generation, “I Will Survive” was a women’s strength anthem for the disco era. Really though, this track would have been pure fire in any generation.
"Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac
Even if you’re not breaking up with another famous member of your band, it’s easy to get behind “Go Your Own Way,” which conveniently doubles as a great running song (just ask Forrest Gump).
"You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette
There had been plenty of breakup songs -- even bad breakup songs -- before Alanis, but few female artists in the mainstream really went there like she did here. Mr. Duplicity is still feeling the burn.
"Marvin's Room" by Drake
Drunk texting isn’t a good idea, even if you’re Drake.
"Without You" by Harry Nilsson
Listening to this song, it’s hard not to envision the overwrought heartbreak scene in some B-movie. Cheese factor aside, the sound of Nilsson’s voice blasting through this Grammy-winning Badfinger cover is the sound of someone who literally “can’t live anymore.
"Leave (Get Out)" by Jojo
“At 13, I didn't even have my first kiss yet,” a 22-year old Jojo told Billboard in 2013. “What the fuck was I talking about? 'Get out'? Get out of where -- my playground?" She’s grown older and wiser, but her 2004 hit is still a breakup playlist essential.
"Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson
Even executive producer Clive Davis reportedly doubted the pop potential of Kelly Clarkson's heartbreak rock, but she proved him wrong.
"Cry Me A River" by Justin Timberlake
The end of the Justin-Britney relationship coalesced in the start of the Justin-Timbaland connection, and we can’t argue with the results. Ice-cold sarcastic shade rolls off JT’s tongue over studio work from Timb that hints at the wonders of the years to come.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division
Debilitating epilepsy and his own infidelity were ruining Ian Curtis’ life when he wrote the harrowing words to “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” now seen as one of indie rock’s most lasting statements. The single was released three months after his suicide in March 1980 and its title was inscribed on his tombstone.
"Unbreak My Heart" by Toni Braxton
Toni’s timeless slab of emotion over a luscious R&B beat earned her 11 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 1996 and 1997.
"Every Breath You Take" by The Police
Before it soundtracked “I’ll Be Missing You,” the tribute to Notorious B.I.G., Andy Summers’ immortal guitar line soundtracked one of the '80s biggest soft rock jams. It’s a stirring tale of post break-up devotion… perhaps a little too much devotion, considering Sting admitted its undertones of control and surveillance.