The 20 Best Breakup Songs of the 80s
Love hurts. Love scars. Love wounds. So sang Gram Parsons, and we’re not inclined to disagree. When it’s good, it’s great, when it’s bad, it sucks, and when it’s over, there’s really nothing else you can do except wallow in the misery, grab some kleenex, and listen to someone else going through the exact same thing. If your heart is breaking, start the healing process with these 20 best breakup songs of the 80s.
20. Willie Nelson – Always on My Mind
It’s been covered by a score of different artists, but no one, not even Elvis Presley himself, handled Always on My Mind with quite so much sincerity and humility as Willie Nelson did on his 1982 album of the same name. His plea for forgiveness sounds genuinely repentant. He’s a man who opened his eyes, realized what’s he’s lost, and will do anything to get it back. It’s dazzling. His fans clearly agreed, lapping up enough copies to send it soaring to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. The following year, it bought home three wins at the 25th Grammy Awards.
19. The J. Geils Band – Love Stinks
The J. Geils Band may have intended Love Stinks to be a novelty song (they’ve never actually confirmed as much, but the title and content certainly seem to suggest as much) but this wild rant against love proved an unexpected hit, charting at No.18 on the Billboard Hot 100 on its release in 1980. It’s since been covered by a heap of artists, including industrial metal band Bile, but none can quite match up to the original, nor its iconic, weirdly rudimentary music video. That said, Adam Sandler did come pretty close on “The Wedding Singer.”
18. Guns n’ Roses – Used to Love Her
Back before Guns n’ Roses got so caught up in their own mythology they stopped being able to see the wood for the trees, they were always good for a laugh. Take Used to Love Her as an example. The protagonist is so fed up with his nagging girlfriend, he ends up breaking up with her and burying her six feet under the ground… and even now he can still hear her complaining. Hysterical right? The problem is, what we took for a black-humored joke in 1989 now sounds more like a True Crimes storyline.
17. Elton John – I’m Still Standing
Elton John might do his best work when he’s sat at a piano. but back in 1983, he was still standing after a nasty breakup left him newly resolved to hold his chin high and move on with his life with no regrets and, even more importantly, no ex holding him back. Written in the defiant tradition of Gloria Gaynor’s empowering I Will Survive, it proved a huge hit on both sides of the pond.
16. Motley Crue – Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)
Motley Crue may well be the sleaziest band that ever graced the charts. They didn’t do subtly, they didn’t do nuance, and judging by Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away), they didn’t really do romance either. They don’t really care how the relationship ends, they just want it to be done so they can move on to the next one. They make their point- it’s not a pretty point and it’s not going to make you feel better about the state of your own love life, but at least they make it quickly.
15. Sammy Hagar – I’ll Fall in Love Again
As ultimateclassicrock.com points out, anyone who’s paid any attention to Sammy Hagar’s career will know he’s not the kind of guy to be found crying into his beer over a breakup. On the defiant I’ll Fall in Love Again, he’s neither battered nor bruised, cheerily declaring “Oh but it’s all right with me now/ I’ll get back up somehow/ And with a little luck I’m bound to win/ And I’ll fall in love.”
14. Biz Markie – Just a Friend
Named as one of the best 80s breakup songs by liketotally80s.com, Just a Friend is a tragic tale about a girl who relegated Biz Markie to the friend zone before breaking his heart into a million pieces. It was a nasty thing to do, and judging from Biz’s pained delivery, something that he’s still very far from over.
13. Pat Benatar – Love Is A Battlefield
Pat Benatar ruled in the eighties, scoring two multi-Platinum albums, five Platinum albums, and 15 Billboard Top 40 singles. One of her biggest successes was the platinum-selling Love Is A Battlefield, a spunky, punky breakup song that perfectly captures the ups and downs of young love. Released in 1983 off the album Live From Earth, it reached No. 1 in the Netherlands, Australia, and on the US Rock Tracks chart, and No 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
12. Oran ‘Juice’ Jones – The Rain
The Rain is a little bit hip-hop, a little bit 80s soul, and 100% the kind of song you should be listening to if you want to inject some cheer into your life after a breakup. The spoken word section in which Juice reconsiders doing “a Rambo” on his rival after deciding he “don’t wanna mess up this $37,000 lynx coat” is phenomenal, with just the right amount of humor to keep things light.
11. Human League – Don’t You Want Me
Don’t You Want Me might be the creepiest song to have ever filled a dancefloor. The girl is ready to move on, the guy isn’t prepared to even consider it. It’s all a little bit stalkery, and John Wait’s bitter delivery doesn’t help matters one bit. Still, it’s impossible not to sing along, even if you do shudder as you do it. Released in November 1981 as the fourth single from the Human League’s third studio album Dare, it became the band’s best known and most successful song, selling over 1.5 million copies in the UK and topping the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks.
10. The Cars – Drive
Earnest, melancholic, and delivered expertly by bassist Benjamin Orr, Drive finds The Cars indulging in a moment of quiet reflection. There’s none of the snappy energy we’re used to from the band, but the heartfelt songwriting and soothing melody are hard to resist. Released in March 1984 as the third single from the band’s Heartbeat City album, it became a monster hit, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 5 in the UK.
9. Simple Minds – Don’t You (Forget About Me)
It was the song that played during the opening and closing credits of “The Breakfast Club,” and for anyone of a certain age, it’s always going to bring on a nostalgia rush. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still a sensational breakup song, and one that manages to capture the trials and tribulations of high school romance perfectly.
8. Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart
Obviously, it’s far, far too long, but length aside, Total Eclipse of the Heart is a glorious thing, with Bonnie Tyler’s powerful pipes serving as the perfect instrument to convey the tragic, overblown sentiment of the lyrics. When you want to embrace the pain, grab a box of kleenex, stick this on repeat, and let the tears flow.
7. Soft Cell – Tainted Love
No list of the best breakup songs of the 1980s would be complete without at least one mention of Soft Cell. Pretty much any of their songs from the decade would have done the job, but here we’ve gone for Tainted Love, a synth-laden, faintly menacing piece of new wave about a man who’s well and truly over a hopeless romance. A major global hit, it became one of the biggest selling hits of the year in the UK and set a new record in the US for the longest consecutive stay on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. U2 – With Or Without You
Remember the one where Ross and Rachel broke up on Friends? It doesn’t really matter which break up we’re talking about, if one of them was walking away, there was a good chance Bono was droning “can’t live with you; can’t live without you” in the background. Released as the lead single to The Joshua Tree in March 1987, With Or Without You became U2’s most successful single until that point, securing the band their first number-one hit in both the United States and Canada. In the years since, it’s become, as udiscovermusic.com says, their most enduring breakup song.
5. The Police – Every Breath You Take
Inspired by the end of Sting’s marriage to his first wife Frances Tomelty, Every Breath You Take is the ultimate obsession song. There’s nothing positive about its lyrics and nothing light about its delivery – it’s deeply, deeply disturbing, and anyone who thinks otherwise is definitely not the kind of person you want to be snuggling up to at night. According to liveabout.com, even Sting has admitted being disturbed by those who see it as a positive love song rather than something ugly and sinister. The single was the biggest US and Canadian hit of 1983, topping the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for eight weeks, the Canadian RPM Chart for four weeks, and spending four weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart.
4. Elvis Costello – I Want You
If you’re in the middle of a breakup and are looking for something to make you feel better, don’t listen to Elvis Costello’s I Want You. Whereas some breakup songs are designed to empower you and make you realize you’re better off alone, this isn’t that kind of song. Its portrayal of the dark side of romance- the anger, the jealousy, the obsession, the infidelity, and the eventual deterioration – is enough to make you crawl under your duvet and never come out again. Amazingly enough given its inherent darkness, it was released as a single. Even more amazingly, it was a moderate success, peaking at No. 79 in the UK charts in 1986.
3. Womack & Womack – Teardrops
Described by Time Out as “a classic in the genre of Songs to Cry to in Clubs,” Teardrops is all about infidelity. Unusually, the narrator is the one who’s been unfaithful, but as we learn from the lyrics (Footsteps on the dance floor / Remind me, baby of you / Teardrops in my eyes / Next time, I’ll be true), it’s not something they’re feeling proud about. Womack & Womack were huge during the 80s and 90s, but this 1988 electropop breakup anthem was by far their biggest hit, peaking at No. 1 in the Netherlands, No. 2 in Australia, West Germany, and Switzerland, and No. 3 in the UK.
2. Prince – When You Were Mine
As the Guardian says, When You Were Mine is a very Prince-ish breakup song, in which he seems to be more outraged at himself for letting his ex wear his clothes and her general lack of hygiene (“You didn’t have the decency to change the sheets”) than he does about the failed relationship. A taut, brilliant piece of power pop, it was one of the highlights of his 1980 album, Dirty Mind.
1. ABBA – The Winner Takes It All
“I don’t want to talk,” ABBA declare at the opening of The Winner Takes It All, before proceeding to spill their guts like every brokenhearted drunk you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit next to in a bar. Still, when the story is this good, this real (Agnetha Fältskog is singing lyrics by ex-husband Björn Ulvaeus that describe the story of their divorce and his relationship with another woman from her perspective… and yes, it really is that complicated), and this coated in sugary pop perfection, it’s impossible to resist. Released in 1980, it was a huge international hit, peaking at no.1 in numerous countries and breaking the top 10 in the US.
It was 1983 when the love of my life left me; not for anything I had done. That was 40 years ago and she left a hole in my heart. I thought I was able to shake off the pain and carry on. I wasn’t aware of my damaged heart. I became successful and had all the toys and houses money could buy. Been married 3 times and concluded it wasn’t anyone’s fault but mine. I couldn’t love them like I loved her. Well I stumbled onto her on Facebook. The guy she left me for is dead and she has not remarried. I told her I would travel to see her in the spring. But I mostly want to see if looking in her eyes resurrects the passion I once had for her; or was it the infatuation of a young man just starting to make his way in the world. Sometimes we need to go back in time and revisit events that hold us hostage so we can understand as wiser souls and be free from regret.