Though they are both still relatively young, Adele and Taylor Swift are long-standing icons of heartbreak music, and with each artist dropping new tracks this month, my emotions are fully in their control. I’ve already argued that you should embrace this sad girl autumn (don’t be deterred by the name; you can be a sad girl regardless of age, gender, or emotional state), and right now, it certainly feels like ‘tis the damn season.
Today, Swift unveiled Red (Taylor’s Version), a rerecording of her acclaimed 2012 album of the same name. One of the biggest regrets of my life is wasting so much of my precious teen angst on hating Taylor Swift instead of embracing her talents. A huge part of my newfound love for her comes from my desire to support the artist’s right to her own music; the rerecording project is Swift’s countermeasure against the changed ownership of the masters for her first six studio albums.
On the power ballad side of things, Adele’s newly released “Easy on Me” is part of 30, the artist’s first album in six years. Adele revealed the forthcoming album touches on “the most turbulent period” of her life. (Since her last album, 25, the artist has gotten both married and divorced).
But which of these titans of the perfectly phrased kiss-off reigns supreme in our broken hearts? Why choose? Just mix together the best of both. When it comes to the perfect breakup song, we all need something a little different depending on what stage we’re in — catharsis, nostalgia, yearning, regret, or any of the swirling emotions that come with the end of a relationship. (My stance is that any song can be a breakup song, actually, if you’re sad enough.) This mix covers all the bases.
Taylor: “Last Kiss”
So I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep / And I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe / And I’ll keep up with our old friends just to ask them how you are / Hope it’s nice where you are.
Going through the motions of a breakup can be as fraught as any sort of grief. “Last Kiss” perfectly captures the need to cling to all the best memories that you know are about to fade away. In a since-deleted post on her website, Taylor explained it best:
The song ‘Last Kiss’ is sort of like a letter to somebody. You say all of these desperate, hopeless feelings that you have after a break-up. Going through a break-up you feel all of these different things. You feel anger, and you feel confusion, and frustration. Then there is the absolute sadness. The sadness of losing this person, losing all the memories, and the hopes you had for the future. There are times when you have this moment of truth where you just admit to yourself that you miss all these things. When I was in one of those moments I wrote this song.
When to listen: You’re still coming to terms with the breakup and desperate to remember all the little moments in as vivid detail as possible.
Adele: “Someone Like You”
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you / I wish nothing but the best for you, too / ‘Don’t forget me,’ I beg / I remember you said / ‘Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’
This one will go down in history as one of the definitive breakup songs of its generation. It has it all: Catharsis. Brooding. Storytelling. Pain. Maturity. I could go on, but explaining why “Someone Like You” is an ultimate breakup song feels like why the sky is blue, or why cereal goes in the bowl before milk.
When to listen: You still feel theatrically heartbroken, but you’re ready to talk yourself into moving on.
Taylor: “champagne problems”
Because I dropped your hand while dancing / Left you out there standing / Crestfallen on the landing / Champagne problems
On the surface, this song tells the story of a broken engagement in which Swift has done the breaking. The phrase “champagne problems” is her self-deprecating way of framing the issue; to me, the song articulates what it’s like when you know your breakup isn’t the end of the world, but certain elements still feel like that to you, or to someone you care about.
When to listen: Maybe you ended things, but you’re still rightfully forlorn.
Adele: “When We Were Young”
“But if by chance you’re here alone / Can I have a moment? / Before I go? / ‘Cause I’ve been by myself all night long / Hoping you’re someone I used to know.”
Does it get more nostalgic than this? One of the biggest themes of this list is my belief that breakup songs are first and foremost about reminiscence. Adele’s unique ability to belt out sadness is enough to make you feel like you’re watching your own life like a movie.
When to listen: You need to romanticize the past.
Taylor: “Cornelia Street”
I hope I never lose you, hope it never ends / I’d never walk Cornelia Street again / That’s the kind of heartbreak time could never mend / I’d never walk Cornelia Street again
This song appears on Lover, which universally ranks pretty low in Swift’s discography. However, the live versions of “Cornelia Street” really hit different, likely because the pop-y elements are stripped away and replaced with so much vulnerability. Then again, I’m a sucker for songs that name the people and places in them. (In a uture article I’ll detail my theory that all songs should be named after streets or pretty girls, and nothing else).
When to listen: When there’s a very specific place that sends your nostalgia levels into overdrive.
Adele: “Chasing Pavements”
Should I give up? / Or should I just keep chasing pavements? / Even if it leads nowhere / Or would it be a waste?
This is one of the earliest songs that alerted the world to Adele’s power. We’ve all hit a point in our romantic lives where it feels like nothing is ever going to fall into place. And if you’ve never hit that point, I’m definitely not bitter and envious of your love life at all.
When to listen: It feels like love is a lie and you’re tired of all the dead ends.
Taylor: “White Horse”
I was a dreamer before you went and let me down / Now it’s too late for you / And your white horse … ‘Cause I’m not your princess, this ain’t a fairytale / I’m gonna find someone someday who might actually treat me well.
Listening to this song reminded me of how innocent and “country” Swift used to sound, a fitting realisation given this track’s themes of growing up. “White Horse” is about finally understanding that your love life is not a fairy tale. At the same time, the lyrics don’t make Swift sound foolish or overly dreamy. If anything, this is the perfect song for recognising that even when things aren’t like the movies, you’re still going to be ok.
When to listen: You’re on the brink of getting over a relationship, but you’re still mourning the hope you had before it ended.
Hello from the outside / At least I can say that I’ve tried / To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart / But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore.
A perfect listen for Thanksgiving (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please watch this 2015 SNL sketch). I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the chorus has the power to heal wounds.
When to listen: You’re thinking about calling your ex. Don’t! Just sing-scream “Hello” alone in your car.
Taylor: “Back to December”
Maybe this is wishful thinking / Probably mindless dreaming / But if we loved again, I swear I’d love you right … I’d go back in time and change it but I can’t / So if the chain is on your door I understand.
Yet another nostalgia-fuelled pick, “Back to December” stands out for the way it taps into feelings of regret. It’s not easy to recognise when you’re the one to blame for hurting someone you ostensibly cared about. This song is about that desire to go back in time and make things right (even if you still don’t want to be with that person).
When to listen: You need to work through your regret over how things ended.
Adele: “Don’t You Remember”
When was the last time you thought of me? / Or have you completely erased me from your memory? / I often think about where I went wrong / The more I do, the less I know.
Few things are more confusing and painful than when someone falls out of love with you. You could argue this sort of slow fade is worse than cheating or screaming matches, since it feels impossible to pinpoint why the relationship is ending. Why must you hurt me, Adele? Why must you take the feeling of unrequited love and make the perfect soundtrack for it?
When to listen: You’re still confused and hurt over someone rejecting you or, even worse, simply falling out of love with you.
Taylor: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
I used to think that we were forever ever, ever / And I used to say, “never say never…”
This is the only upbeat song on this list, because breakup bops should be all about wallowing. I still included this one on because I like to imagine what it would feel like to sing it less like a declaration, and more like a realisation. Picture it: “Wow…I’m never ever getting back with that person, am I?” Nice! I made the happy song sad!
When to listen: You need to remind yourself why you are never going to text them back. Like, ever.
Adele: “Easy on Me”
I had good intentions / And the highest hopes / But I know right now / That probably doesn’t even show.
Easy on the ears, but not so easy on the emotional wellbeing. I hope I don’t ruffle any feathers when I say this isn’t one of my top Adele tracks; nevertheless, I can appreciate all the heartbreak wrapped up in its calming, soulful melodies. The growth that Adele conveys here sets high expectations for what’s to come when her new album drops in a week.
When to listen: You’re older and wiser and feeling extra reflective.
Taylor: “All Too Well” (10-Minute Version)
And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest / I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here / ‘Cause I remember it all, all, all / Too well.
I’ve saved “All Too Well” for last because I believe if a team of scientists were to study it, they would determine it to be — objectively, empirically, undeniably — the ultimate breakup song. Taylor Swift has long said that when she was writing this song, she could have gone on for ten minutes. Well, now those ten glorious minutes are here. Listen, feel, and rest your vocal chords for the short film premiering tonight.
When to listen: Really, when not to listen?