A good breakup song can be life-changing, life-affirming, horrible, and everything you need all at once. But, how does a great breakup song work its magic? Why are some breakup songs almost like musical witchcraft while others fall so, so very flat? Let’s take a look at some of the best indie breakup songs that have made their way into our heartbreak history to find out.
Breakup songs come to us at a time when we’re sad and we want to be even sadder. A great breakup song will act as a mirror, telling us exactly how we wish we weren’t feeling.
Breakup songs throughout history
A good breakup song is nothing new. It’s almost as old as heartbreak itself. And, not all great heartbreak songs will make the best indie breakup songs list. We have some incredible heartbreak history in the world of country, chamber pop, rock, punk, and everything in between.
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While it’s tempting to think we’re the generation that invented heartbreak, classic artists like Etta James and Roy Orbison have created some of the most iconic breakup songs of all time.
Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” is an enduring breakup song that has stood the test of time for a good reason. It’s amazing. And, Roy Orbison literally has a song called “Crying”. Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us” deserves a mention, too if we’re talking iconic heartbreak songs. Sometimes, breakup staples like this from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s can be exactly what we need. They remind us that we’re far from the first people who have gone through a breakup. That’s almost comforting.
The 80s saw a new generation of breakup songs with hits like Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him” and “Best Friend’s Girl” by The Cars. Songs like this are almost breakup songs in disguise because they take a more upbeat approach, contrasting the feel of the music and beat against the meaning of the lyrics. They help us express a more modern approach and let us dance through the tears.
The history of breakup songs is essentially the history of music and of heartbreak. And, unfortunately, we don’t have time to cover all the hits. People have been working through broken hearts and writing songs about it forever. At least this gives us a lot to love when looking for the best breakup songs ever.
The 25 best Indie breakup songs
This is our master list of the 25 best indie breakup songs (and growing). We’ll point you to some winners and explain why you should check them out. We’ve included some unexpected ones as well. Some are more indie influences than your traditional indie band might be. But, they’re all great.
If you’re going through a breakup or a rough patch, these songs are guaranteed to remind you that someone, somewhere knows exactly what you’re going through.
1. Maps – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Simple, to the point, and utterly classic, Maps says everything you need it to in aching simplicity. It’s perfect because it captures the feeling of knowing your relationship was one-of-a-kind.
This one is all the more heart-wrenching when you read that Karen O’s tears were very real in the performance of the video. Have a watch if you haven’t seen it yet.
2. Purple Rain – Prince
We’ll take any excuse to put Prince on a Best Of list, honestly. Purple Rain is emotional all the way through, the deliberate pauses that come before the chorus building us up for all all-out sobfest.
3. New York – St. Vincent
There’s nothing quite like St. Vincent’s soulful voice, and when she’s joined by the chorus in New York, it gives us shivers. It’s a pared-down, bare-bones entreaty, a song that’s more of a eulogy for the places that will never be the same without the person you were there with.
4. Oh Well, Oh Well – Mayday Parade
We have to give it up to the emo bands like Mayday Parade who take breakup songs to a whole new level. Oh Well, Oh Well is iconic of the genre, blending angsty lyrics with loud, angry guitars so you can dive into the mosh pit where no one can see you cry.
5. The Chain – Fleetwood Mac
If Fleetwood Mac didn’t invent the breakup song, they really took it to a whole new level with Rumors (1977), which was famously written during Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks’ breakup. The Chain packs a powerful punch, especially in context. The entire album does, really. If you just went through a breakup, this one is guaranteed to inspire some cathartic tears.
6. Somebody I Used to Know – Gotye
Gotye does something really cool with this piece. His sound was so different from everything else on the radio at the time, and when paired with Kimbra’s girlish voice, the duet just hits differently. It’s catchy, it’s depressing, and the verses are so oddly specific yet broadly relatable.
While it may have found some more prominent radio play than your typical indie hit, it still has a bit of edginess that makes it feel not quite mainstream.
7. The Winner Takes It All – ABBA
Eurovision stars ABBA have put out a metric ton of music over the years, and have influenced loads of electropop bands. But, “The Winner Takes It All” has a special place in our hearts. This song sings of the specific pain of feeling like the person who left you is on to bigger and better things when you can’t even think of moving on yet.
8. She’s Gone – Hall and Oates
We love a good Hall and Oates song, but this one hurts a little. Who can’t relate to well-meaning family members giving us a lecture or the simple ache of seeing all the places in your apartment where your lover’s things used to be?
9. Stay With Me – Sam Smith
Someone must have hurt Sam Smith and hurt him badly. Stay With Me is our pick, but this singer has a ton of breakup songs to choose from. It’s a driving, gospel anthem that pleads with your ex to reconsider the breakup for some of our weaker moments when we wish we could just pretend it never even happened.
10. Skinny Love – Bon Iver
Skinny Love is the kind of song you need to hear if your love was threadbare for a while before the split. If you were really dragging the relationship out, putting it on life support long after you should’ve called it quits, add this to your ultimate breakup playlist right now.
11. No Distance Left to Run – Blur
Blur’s painfully real take on the heartbreak anthem taps into that tender emotion of genuinely wishing the best for the person who ripped out your heart and stomped on it. The languid instrumental and vocals practically drip with depression.
12. Teardrop – Massive Attack
With lyrics more poetic than literal, Teardrop packs a punch with its soft, almost low-fi backtrack, and the somber piano chords of the intro alone let you know you’re not headed to a happy place. Still, the lyrics are cathartic for anyone who likes a little symbolism in their breakup songs.
13. Good Woman – Cat Power
The lyrics to Good Woman remind us a little of the sentiment Fleetwood Mac wanted us to understand. Sometimes, two people aren’t meant to be together, and they’d be better partners to others than to each other. It’s a unique flavor of heartbreak and why Cat Power makes our list.
14. Eventually – Tame Impala
Tame Impala gives us the perspective of the heartbreaker, which isn’t an easy role to play. The lyrics will ring true for anyone who’s been in the impossible position of ending a relationship. The sentiment of wishing you’d never gone beyond friends is a potent pairing with the distorted instrumentals.
15. Song for the Dumped – Ben Folds Five
Classic post-breakup anger distills in Song for the Dumped. It’s pure catharsis. Put this one at the end of your playlist, or maybe follow it up with something a little more forgiving. This is a breakup song that will make you feel better the same way keying her car might.
16. Every Day I Love You Less and Less – Kaiser Chiefs
We love a heartbreak anthem you could accidentally mosh to if you weren’t paying close attention, and Kaiser Chiefs nail the dissonance between exciting instrumentals and distressing lyrics perfectly.
17. Ex-Factor – Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill leverages her soulful voice to deliver the tried and true heartbreak cliches in a way that cuts right to the heart of the issue. Her lyrics have a certain frustration that anyone who has felt trapped by their own toxic feelings can relate to.
18. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
A staple for a reason, we all reach for the lyrics to Hallelujah when we want to express our dismay. It’s been covered approximately a million times, but Jeff Buckley brings a fresh vibe to Leonard Cohen’s classic.
19. It’s Too Late – Carol King
Carole King’s breakup song addresses the terrible moment when you realize it’s time to give up trying to make things work. It’s a bittersweet hopefulness by the end when she sings about how better days will come, if only they can overcome their breakup.
20. Break Up Together – Theo Katzman
There’s something about Theo Katzman’s voice. We can’t quite be sad when we’re listening to him even as he’s singing about staying “connected through our suffering” with his ex. Check out the live recording here.
21. Made for Ending – Jukebox the Ghost
Don’t show me a breakup playlist unless Jukebox the Ghost is on there somewhere. They self-describe their music as upbeat dance anthems about breakups and the apocalypse, and Made for Ending delivers just that. The lyrics describe that specific feeling of knowing you were probably doomed from the start.
22. Sisyphus – Andrew Bird
While not as overt as some of the others, Andrew Bird once said in an interview that he thought the myth of Sisyphus was about “being addicted to your own suffering,” which sounds exactly like some of the more toxic relationships we could think of. Maybe the best thing to do in that situation is to let it go, right?
23. Nothing Better – The Postal Service
We have a great deep dive on The Postal Service in another article, but Nothing Better deserves its place on our list as a truly haunting breakup song. The duet between Ben Gibbard and Jen Wood is a poignant and masterful back and forth between a couple in the midst of splitting up.
24. Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out – Mayer Hawthorne
Sweet, soulful crooning. Regret. Saying goodbye. All the ingredients for a classic breakup song. Mayer Hawthorne does breakup songs in his own unique way, and this is one that you will never get out of your head, thankfully.
There’s a little bit of playfulness in this song too, so if you need something a little lighter in your breakup world, this one might be for you.
25. Sparkle Tape Break Up – Hiatus Kaiyote
The final song on our list (for now) really hits home for people who’ve been wrapped up in the hypotheticals. Hiatus Kaiyote’s disjointed lyrics and sound perfectly capture the feeling of wondering how things could’ve been different – or accusing each other of not trying hard enough to save things.
Why breakup songs are popular
If this list hit all of the right notes for you, it might make you wonder why we’re so obsessed with being sad all the time. Why are breakup songs so popular? What makes a breakup song so good?
Breakup songs are so popular because they help us connect to each other in a deeply personal way. Humans love to tell stories and listen to stories, the more relatable the better. Since we all experience heartbreak, and it’s arguably the time you feel most alone, it’s also when you need community the most.
Breakup songs fall flat when they miss this piece, when they’re too cliched, or when they just don’t ring true to the experience for you. Everything on this list is totally spot-on for at least someone, somewhere.
So, chances are, you’re going to connect with the artist because you feel for them – and they feel for you, too!
25 Best indie breakup songs – Final thoughts
Breakup songs come to us at a time when we’re at our lowest, and they comfort us just as much as kick us while we’re down. It’s strange that humans like to feel worse when we’re already feeling bad, but there’s something so bittersweet about crying to a sad song after a bad breakup.
Were any of the ones on this list already on your playlist? What songs have you used to cope with a breakup? Let us know in the comments.