Valentine’s week is saturated with ads for ridiculously overpriced roses and chocolates that you’re supposed to buy your significant other to prove you love them at least for one day a year. It’s also a holiday that obviously excludes those who are single, or those who are still trying to pick up the pieces of a pervious relationship. Some of the greatest albums have been born from this exact scenario.
The most famous of these albums have backstories as interesting as the music. Be it a musician who retreated into the woods of Wisconsin, an artist who chose to follow-up a mega-selling blockbuster with a decidedly unanthematic look at a disintegrating relationship, or a group of musicians who were breaking up with one another under a haze of cocaine, these albums provide the soundtrack to that other side of love.
808s & Heartbreak (2008)
We should have known better than to underestimate Kanye West. After a multi-platinum trilogy of albums, 808s & Heartbreak was West’s first album not to receive universal acclaim. The use of Auto-Tune almost guaranteed West’s jarring, alienating detour would sound dated by 2009. Instead, a strong argument can be made that 808s & Heartbreak is the Kanye West album that has aged the least since its release. Sure, West’s ever-reliable studio innovativeness is one reason the album continues to win new fans, but the overall feeling of heartache stemming from both the tragic death of his mother and the high-profile end to his engagement strike a far more universal cord than anything he’s done since.
For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
The warmth exuded in the intro guitar of the leadoff track “Flume” almost sounds like a salve to a wounded heart. Physically worn down by a case of mononucleosis and the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, Justin Vernon literally hibernated for three months in a cabin. What emerged was a lonely, soulful album that quickly went from indie phenomenon to instant classic.
Almost two decades before “Rolling in the Deep” became an all-purpose kiss-off, Liz Phair sang about turning her disgust into fame. Adele heeded that advice and with 21, she made an album that made so much money that she could retire now and live a life of luxury that most of us can only dream of. The cost, of course, was wading through a tumultuous breakup that poured out in all of 21‘s 11 tracks. When 21 reached the prestigious diamond-platinum sales mark, it marked one of the first times in 20 years that a contemporary 10 million-plus selling album could rightly be mentioned alongside such a similar commercial and artistic blockbuster like Carole King’s Tapestry.
When the Pawn… (1999)
In the late ‘90s, lazy music journalists tried to lump Paula Cole, Meredith Brooks, Joan Osborne, and Fiona Apple into a generic “Lilith Fair” label. Apple herself received a stinging backlash thanks to a so-called controversial MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech when she dared to say that people should follow their own individual path. All it would have taken was a typically weak sophomore slump album and Apple could be regulated to the discount bins of ‘90s nostalgia. Instead, she returned with a lush, complex album that made the concept of love feel like a trauma ward. In “Paper Bag”, Apple sings “Hunger hurts but starving works when it costs too much to love”. In “Fast As You Can”, she pleads a suitor to hit “eject” before things get ugly. She’s made two great subsequent albums rooted in heartbreak, but When the Pawn… is still the preferred accompaniment to a bottle of wine and stack of photographs of a significant other ripe for the burning.
Spirit in the Dark (1970)
In the ‘60s, Aretha Franklin was an unimpeachable figure of strength in both the civil rights movement and in the women’s liberation movement. “Respect” and “Think” were defining statements of strength and empowerment. But in 1970, Franklin released an album that was stripped of heroics and showed a person facing the very ordinary and very painful experience of a dissolving marriage. With tracks like “The Thrill Is Gone (From Yesterday’s Kiss)” and “Why I Sing the Blues”, Franklin provided her own personal wake to the free love moment in the ‘60s. Spirit‘s dark tone initially cost the album in sales, but decades later, it’s an album is regarded as one of her best.