It is often said that misery is creativity’s best muse. Many albums have been written about broken hearts, but when a brokenhearted songwriter begins to write about the pain they’re feeling, what comes is often some of the best music of their career. We’ve compiled a list of the best albums written by heart-broken songwriters who turned their angst into some of the most successful and memorable music they ever wrote.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Date of Release: February 1977
Muse Behind The Album: Every relationship within the band disintegrated simultaneously during the writing of Rumours. Singer Stevie Nicks and guitarist/vocalist Lindsey Buckingham broke up after years of being together. Stevie then had a fling with drummer Mick Fleetwood whose marriage to Jenny Boyd (sister of George Harrison’s, and later Eric Clapton’s, ex-wife Pattie Boyd) finally ended for good after marrying, divorcing, and remarrying again. At the same time, keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie and bassist John McVie also filed for divorce.
Success of the Album: Rumours has gone platinum 19 times in the U.S. and 11 times in the U.K. It has sold over 40 million copies and has spent 31 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Rumours received the Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1978 and was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003. It has been included on both VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time lists. Rumours is the 9th best selling album of all time with over 40 million copies sold.
No Doubt – Tragic Kingdom
Date of Release: October 1995
Muse Behind the Album: Devastated by the end of her seven year relationship with bassist Tony Kanal and processing the loss of her brother Eric from the band, Gwen Stefani began writing songs for the first time. Falling in love with the craft, she channeled her heartache into the collection of vulnerable and assertive songs that would sculpt Tragic Kingdom.
Success of the Album: Tragic Kingdom marked the beginning of No Doubt’s new identity as a band, Gwen’s role as lead songwriter, and Gwen and Tony’s new platonic working relationship. Reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 chart in both 1996 and 2012 and achieving two #1 singles on the Top 40 Mainstream charts, Tragic Kingdom transformed No Doubt from an obscure indie ska band to one of the biggest bands of the ’90s. Tragic Kingdom remains their most successful album to date having sold over 16 million copies worldwide. It has been certified Diamond (in the U.S. and Canada), triple Platinum (in Australia) and Platinum (in the UK) status by the RIAA.
Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks
Date of Release: January 1975
Muse Behind the Album: Dylan’s ex-wife Sara Lowndes whom he married in November of 1965. They separated in 1974 during which time Dylan wrote the tracks that would create Blood On The Tracks over the course of two months. While he would later deny that the album was about his marriage, this wasn’t initially the case. In a radio interview with Mary Travers in April of 1975, he said, “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that – I mean, people enjoying that kind of pain.”
Success of the Album: Blood On The Tracks sold more than 1 million copies within two months of its release, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart and is one of Dylan’s best-selling albums earning the certification of Double-Platinum by the RIAA.
Derek and the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Date of Release: November 1970
Muse Behind The Album: Eric Clapton was in love with Pattie Boyd, his best friend George Harrison’s wife. Clapton’s unrequited love inspired Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Eventually Boyd left Harrison for Clapton, but not before three more years of trying to make her marriage work despite Harrison’s many affairs including those with Ringo Starr’s wife Maureen Starkey and Ronnie Wood’s wife Krissy Wood (who also dated Clapton at one point). Pattie continued to be Eric’s muse; she inspired his 1977 hit “Wonderful Tonight” as well as 1985’s “She’s Waiting“. They were married in 1979 but divorced in 1989 after a decade-long marriage filled with drugs and alcohol abuse.
Success of the Album: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs has since been certified gold by the RIAA, has been named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000.
The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Date of Release: May 2014
Muse Behind the Album: Dan Auerbach’s painful divorce from Stephanie Gonis is reflected in the melancholic tones and autobiographical lyrics on Turn Blue. It was the first experience Auerbach had with writing music as a form of therapy.
Success of the Album: Despite of the absence of deliberate singles, Turn Blue was the first of all of The Black Keys albums to debut at #1 in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Rolling Stone called it “the best, most consistently gripping album the Keys have ever made.” Turn Blue scored the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 Chart in both 2014 and 2015 and earned Grammy nominations for Best Rock Album, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance.
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Date of Release: June 1971
Muse Behind the Album: The deeply personal lyrics of Blue narrate Mitchell’s sorrow from giving her baby up for adoption when she 21, the mourning of her failed relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor, and her longing for the past deep connection she had with her ex-lover Leonard Cohen. After hearing Blue, Kris Kristofferson reacted to her exposed lyrics by proclaiming, “Please! Leave something of yourself.”
Success of the Album: The stark honesty of her lyrics made her a trailblazer in confessional songwriting. Blue was immediately regarded with the highest of esteem among her peers and gave her legendary singer-songwriter status – even though the album peaked at #20 on the charts. It has been named one the most significant albums of the last century by the New York Times and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Rolling Stone ranted Blue #2 their Women Who Rock: The 50 Greatest Albums of All Time list and #30 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. It was also voted #14 (the highest rank by a female artist) on VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time. As Graham Nash said, “Blue will be, and really deserves to be, her best work. So stark, so deep, so Blue.”
Leonard Cohen & Joni Mitchell
Graham Nash & Joni Mitchell
James Taylor & Joni Mitchell
Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Date of Release: May 1963
Muse Behind the Album: Dylan’s New York girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who awakened him both politically and creatively, inspired the songs that make up The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In the summer of 1962, Rotolo left Dylan for six months to study art in Italy leaving him alone and heartbroken. In her absence, Dylan wrote about his yearning for her return on songs that would appear on Freewheelin’ and three future albums. With the exposure of his increasing fame, a rumoured affair with Joan Baez, and the weight of an abortion straining their relationship, Dylan and Rotolo’s romance ended in 1964.
Success of the Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was an instant success earning Platinum status. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was one of the first 50 recordings to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002 by the Library of Congress (and is still the only of his recordings in the registry) and is one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Adele – 21
Date of Release: February 2011
Muse Behind the Album: Adele’s ex-boyfriend, ten years her elder, who remains anonymous to date, inspired the emotional songs that became 21. Common speculations point to photographer Alex Sturrock who is ten years her senior and accompanied her to the 2008 Grammys. The morning after her relationship ended Adele recorded “Rolling in the Deep” while sobbing in the studio. During the recording of the album, Adele found out her ex was engaged. The news of his engagement inspired the massively popular hit “Someone Like You”.
Success of the Album: The success of 21 led to Adele taking home six Grammys at the 2011 Grammy Awards including Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. The album reached Diamond status (more than 10 million units sold) in only 92 weeks and was the first ever digital album to sell over 3 million copies. 21 spent 24 weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and reached #1 each year from 2011-2014. It was the first album to hold the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart in two consecutive years since the beginning of Nielson SoundScan data collection began in 1991 and was #1 on the Digital Albums charts from 2011-2013. 21 topped the charts in 30 countries and had three singles reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts (“Set Fire to the Rain”, “Someone Like You” and Rolling in the Deep”).
Although Alanis Morissette’s 1995 breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill contains a few songs pertaining to heartache (“You Oughta Know“, “Your House /Secret Song” and arguably, “Not The Doctor“) and is by far her most successful album, Morissette did not write the album with a broken heart. She wrote the tracks with Glen Ballard in L.A. who, in an interview with CBC said, “People think that she was in this heavy state of mind when making it, the opposite was true. I’ve never been funnier, she laughed at everything I had to say. She was just in a place of wanting fun and laughter, and she was making me laugh, so hard that I couldn’t even sit up. Honestly, it was that fun.” The two of them wrote and recorded a song a day, sometimes choosing a topic, having a philosophical conversation about it and then writing a song based on that conversation.
Reason for Omission: Not written with a broken heart.
Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours
Frank Sinatra’s 1955 album, In the Wee Small Hours was recorded during a time of heavy heartache from his divorce from his first wife Nancy and the failure of his second marriage with Eva Gardner. It is also the first full-length concept album in music history making it a standout album of his career.
Reason for Omission: Frank Sinatra did not write the songs on the album.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Although the 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago was written by Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) when he was suffering heartache from a past relationship and the breakup of his former band, it is not Bon Iver’s most successful album of his career. His second album, 2011’s Bon Iver, won him two Grammys at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
Reason for Omission: For Emma, Forever Ago does not fit the criteria of this list in that it does not mark Bon Iver’s highest levels of success.
Marvin Gaye’s 1978 album Here, My Dear was written by Gaye directly after his messy divorce from Anna Gordy. Although Gaye was going through a breakup during the time he wrote the album, it failed to be a commercial success and is nowhere near his most successful work.
Reason for Omission: Here, My Dear does not fit the criteria of this list in that it does not mark Marvin Gaye’s highest levels of success.
Stephanie Horak is a contributing writer to Indie88.com and is also the founder and editor of Stories Behind The Songs.