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Break-up albums

Chris Isaak’s Forever Blue. Photo credit: Reprise Records

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Welcome, once again, to Three Easy Pieces, the monthly column in which I guide you through three distinctive, defining and demonstrative periods, people and products of a certain topic. This month, we're talking break-up albums, taken here to not mean albums that help to soothe the aftermath of a relationship, but albums that were built on that heartache. For convenience sake, we're only talking about albums produced in the era after rock was founded - otherwise, we'd be here forever.

BIRTH: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

Honorable mention: Joni Mitchell, Blue; Fleetwood Mac, Rumours; Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours

Break-up albums didn't start with Bob Dylan, but they became immortalized via his poetry. After the dissolution of a marriage, Dylan laid down one of his most affecting albums, including classics like "Tangled Up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "Shelter from the Storm." While Dylan's most potent lyrics stemmed from societal concerns, he has always proven himself to be incredibly moving when he sings, ever elliptically, about his own personal struggles.

This album doesn't contain "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)," although it could have. That most legendary of f-you songs is a more on-the-nose mode of bitterness than the kind contained in Blood on the Tracks, but it lacks the high-roading oomph that permeates this album and lends comfort to both Dylan and the rest of us that lay hurting.

DEVELOPMENT: Chris Isaak, Forever Blue

Honorable mention: Amy Winehouse, Back to Black; Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak; Beck, Sea Change

There was a time when Chris Isaak was a star on the rise, a sex symbol destined for greatness, the ‘90s successor to Roy Orbison's legacy. To a certain extent, this remains a valid assessment of the singer-songwriter. While his musical peccadilloes and gorgeous voice might have helped in the Orbison comparison, what really drove that home was his ability to be a forlorn lover. Just as Orbison reveled in being the one that Cupid tended to miss, Isaak managed to play his good looks up for sexy songs, and downplay them for ones where his heart is broken.

Forever Blue is about as stark a declaration of sorrow as a pop album is allowed to get. Beginning with the nasty "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing" and continuing on into baldly confessional fare like the title track and "Somebody's Crying," this album wanders through every bit of grieving that a dusted relationship allows. Pettiness, longing, regret, vast wells of self-denial, and a good dose of unabashed character assassination add up to a beautiful record that never shies away from the ugliness of saying goodbye.

TODAY: Titus Andronicus, The Monitor

Honorable mention: Adele, 21; Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness

Not only one of the best rock albums of the last 20 years, period, but one of the best break-up albums of all time, Titus Andronicus' The Monitor is a frothing monument to both self-loathing and the cleansing freedom of owning your deepest of faults. This is an album that functions like the monolith in 2001, spurring on revolution in the face of abject depression. With rallying, sing-a-long cries of "you will always be a loser" and "it's alright, the way that you live," The Monitor is about eviscerating the downsides of life and making sure you know it's alright to fail.

As with any big break-up, there comes a sense of frantic catastrophe, so it makes sense that Titus Andronicus frame their break-up album as metaphorically relating to the Civil War. With Ken Burns-esque re-creations of historical speeches acting as interstitials, lead singer Patrick Stickles recounts his expulsion from both his relationship and his state as an act of war. At nearly 80 minutes, The Monitor acts as a rock Titanic sinking defiantly into the ocean: it is bigger and better than all that came before it, and it will end its life in song.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Road Movies

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