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The 25 Greatest Breakup Songs of the 1970s

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The 25 Greatest Breakup Songs of the 1970s

We recently assembled the greatest love songs of all time, but let's face it: while love has inspired some great songs, the majority of classics come from a darker place. Our rules this time were simple: a breakup song can be vengeful, dignified, devastated, or whatever else, as long as the lyrics make explicit reference to a relationship that is ending or has ended. Again, we limited it to one song per songwriter (not necessarily per band). Come back next week for the best breakup songs of the '80s, and let us know what we missed in the comments. Also, feel better. You're going to get through this, and to help with that, here's a Spotify playlist of this week's list, and here are the greatest breakup songs of the '60s. — The Nerve Editors

25. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, "The Love I Lost" (1973)

Very few breakup songs make you want to shake your extremities, but sometimes that's the best cure for heartbreak. "The Love I Lost" has some somber lyrics, but the beat begs to differ. It's perfect for when you want to atone for your relationship sins on the dance floor. — Rachel Krantz

 

24. Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel #2" (1974)

The Hotel Chelsea has seen a lot, not least of which was a brief, unlikely fling between Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. The honesty of Cohen's lyric about the encounter extends well beyond its frank sexual details. It's loving, but also distant — "emotion recollected in tranquility." — Peter Smith

 

23. Talking Heads, "I'm Not In Love" (1978)

David Byrne's early persona — kind of a visiting Martian's take on human experiences held to be normal — gets profound here. A relationship is falling apart, but Byrne's observing from a distance, trapped in his own head, cold, and unable to connect. "There'll come a day when we don't need love," he says, like some autistic visionary. Like many great Talking Heads songs, "I'm Not In Love" is both chilling and highly danceable. — P.S.

 

22. Rod Stewart, "Maggie May" (1971)

The deceptively nuanced lyrics, Stewart's wistful vocal, and the band's rustic, ramshackle feel make "Maggie May" one of the most heartfelt portraits of a disintegrating relationship ever recorded. That it's a May-December relationship doesn't make any difference — this relationship wasn't a novelty to the people in it, and it shouldn't be to the listener, either.— A.H.

 

21. Led Zeppelin, "Tangerine" (1970)

"Tangerine" should probably appear in the dictionary next to the word "wistful." With its sweet vocal harmonies and beautiful slide guitar, it's a perfect picture of a past relationship that hasn't quite lost its ache in the recollection. — P.S.

 

20. Fleetwood Mac, "Never Going Back Again" (1977)

Tempted though we are to go with the wounded "Go Your Own Way," we must ultimately defer to this. Featuring Lindsay Buckingham's delicate fingerpicking and a simple set of lyrics about picking yourself up after a breakup (via a fling with someone else), it's almost prayerful. — P.S.

 

19. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive" (1978)

This red-hot track was all about girl power before it was cool to say "girl power." "I Will Survive" recounts the events following a breakup and how they shape a woman into a badass who no longer needs the man who caused her grief. This is the anthem for those who've spent their lives crumbling. "I'm not that chained up little person still in love with you" are the words of someone who's decided enough is enough. — Jeremy Glass

 

18. The Buzzcocks, "Ever Fallen In Love… (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" (1978)

Of the great early punk bands, only The Buzzcocks were predominately concerned with love. "Ever Fallen In Love" has a weary fatalism that belies the fact that it was written by a twenty-three-year-old. Having fallen in love with the wrong person, the singer finds himself completely at her mercy; he doesn't seem to get a vote in things. — P.S.

 

17. Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You" (1974)

Forget everything you ever knew about Whitney Houston's version of this song. You can hear the heartbreak in Dolly Parton's voice as she gracefully ducks out of a tumultuous relationship. There's something comforting about the dignity the song finds in ending a relationship peacefully, even if things are usually a lot messier in real life. — J.G.

 

16. The Police, "So Lonely" (1978)

In its improbable fusion of Bob Marley and early punk, "So Lonely" captures both the gloomy and the manic sides of a breakup. If you like dwelling on heartbreak, but hate moping, this is your song. — J.G.

 

15. The Cars, "My Best Friend's Girl" (1978)

Have you been in this situation? We probably all have at some point, and let's be honest: it fucking sucks. And the Cars make it sound so sunny, so goddamn bouncy! That's talent. — A.H.

 

14. Ann Peebles, "I Can't Stand The Rain" (1973)

This bittersweet R&B song, a John Lennon favorite, celebrates those little flashes of memory that keep you holding on to a person well after a relationship has ended. For all of those who wish the procedure from Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind were real, "I Can't Stand The Rain" is there with you. "Hey, window pane, do you remember how sweet it used to be?" This is a song for dwellers. — J.G.

 

13. Blondie, "Heart Of Glass" (1979)

"Heart Of Glass" is a dreamy recollection of a past relationship, delivered with a confident, almost cocky air. Even the punks who rebelled against Blondie's "selling out" with a disco track probably danced to this song's incredibly catchy melody. As usual, Debbie Harry exudes pure badassery. — J.G.

 

12. The Clash, "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)" (1979)

There's real indignation at the heart of this song. When they sing "You must explain why this must be," it's not a plea — it's a demand. The Clash felt as strongly as anyone that the personal is political, and sometimes lovers should be held as accountable as politicians. — A.H.

 

11. The Band, "It Makes No Difference" (1975)

Rick Danko was a bit of a goof, but his voice was so fantastically agile and emotive that even singing backup on nonsense songs like Bob Dylan's "Million Dollar Bash," he sounds close to tears. Which is why "It Makes No Difference" is so heavy — his quavering, wheezy vocal sounds like a man truly at the bottom of a deep pit of heartbreak. And those chorus harmonies — I'm sorry… I'm gonna need a minute. — A.H.

 

10. Earth, Wind & Fire, "After the Love Has Gone" (1979)

"After the Love Has Gone" keeps moving upwards, ratcheting its hook higher and higher into previously-unreached levels of feeling — those falsetto harmonies! Also, it has a saxophone solo. Seriously, what more do you want? — A.H.

 

9. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up In Blue" (1975)

For all of "Tangled Up in Blue's" time-shifting and meditation on memory and perspective, it is still the story of a relationship that doesn't exist anymore. Through a collection of moments, where the chronology doesn't matter, Dylan tells us about a love that once was, but now is no longer. A desire to keep on keeping on is tough, when you realize that everything breaks down to simply having a different point of view. — Sean Morrow

 

8. Elvis Costello, "No Action" (1978)

This is one of the earliest sneers and one of the greatest from a guy who made his name on them. Like "Alison" before it, "No Action" tells a whole story in just a few vicious, economical lines. Elvis doesn't care about his girl, tells her he doesn't want to kiss her, tells her they're just good friends… but then she gets with some guy with a cool car, and that's when it starts to hurt. — P.S.

 

7. Joni Mitchell, "A Case Of You" (1971)

You really can't talk about breakup songs without talking about Joni. There are lots of strong contenders on Blue, but "A Case Of You" is the one track we don't want to get over. This song could be about a lot of situations — an already broken relationship, a relationship in the process of breaking, or the anticipation of doomed love. So "A Case Of You" will be what you need it to be. — R.K.

 

6. Aretha Franklin, "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" (1973)

Obsessive, borderline-terrifying stalking never sounded so sweet. Facebooking your ex is too easy — back in the day, you had to call someone on the phone, tap at their window, knock at their door, and camp on their steps until they came back to you. Or took out a restraining order. — A.H.

 

5. Harry Nilsson, "Without You" (1971)

When he first heard Harry Nilsson sing, Little Richard was supposed to have said, "My! You sing good for a white boy!" That is a dramatic understatement. "Without You" is such a commanding performance carried off with such tenderness that when Nilsson's voice cracks on that heroically high note at 2:09, you're a little unsure as to whether it was too tough on him physically or emotionally. Either way, wow. — A.H.

 

4. Rolling Stones, "Angie" (1973)

While most breakup songs come from a place of anger or devastation, in "Angie," Jagger/Richards insist on ending the relationship on a joyful note: "Ain't it good to be alive?" As Mick croons the story of his relationship's painful past, it only serves to emphasize how much better things are going to be now that the relationship is over. It's a breakup song for grownups. Natasha Ochshorn

 

3. Joy Division, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (1979)

This must be the most sepulchral song ever to have become a massively influential international hit. Maybe it's only in retrospect, but it's almost impossible to hear "Love Will Tear Us Apart" without thinking that someone's about to kill himself. — P.S.

 

2. Fleetwood Mac, "Landslide" (1975)

Unlike most breakup songs, "Landslide" speaks from the moment right before things actually fall apart. Stevie Nicks wrote it while stranded on a mountain in Colorado, contemplating the coming end of her relationship with Lindsay Buckingham; it's melancholic and uncertain, but like many of Nicks' songs, it also has an appealing toughness. Time makes you bolder, after all. I thought this song was sad and pretty when I was half the age I am now; today, I see more in it than that. — P.S.

 

1. Bill Withers, "Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone)" (1971)

"Ain't No Sunshine" is in an unusual key — "pure minor," which is rare in pop music. Maybe it's that, or Withers' devotional repetition of "I know" in the third verse, but the song comes across less as vintage '70s R&B and more as something older; something sacred, even. — A.H.

 

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