By Jeff Shaw at our sister paper, Citypages.
Love is a many-splendored thing and all, but it's also dependent upon a relationship's context — and so is the associated music. You don't want Al Green's “Let's Get Married” to stream through the car speakers during your third date, you don't want your intended to think you stopped listening to new records after “I Love You Just The Way You Are” was released. . .aaaand you don't want “You Oughtta Know” to come on, well, ever.
Swapping out these embarrassing moments takes planning. Have you just hooked up or are you on the cusp of something more? Are you a hip hop head who just hasn't found the right tracks to put on that gift CD? Or are you just looking for some sweet songs to sip hot cocoa by as you stare into each others' eyes?
Whether you're making a mix for that special someone or just looking for a soundtrack for the day, here are 20 timely tunes to consider for your personal “Favorite Love Songs” list.
FIVE SONGS ABOUT VALENTINE'S DAY
Let's start with holiday-appropriate fare. Given that roughly 92.3 percent of all songs written are in some way about love, it should comes as no surprise that songwriters have produced a good deal of material about Feb. 14.
5. Various Artists, “My Funny Valentine“
Classics usually become so for a reason. This sultry standard originally performed in a 1937 musical has been exhorting Valentines to stay for more than 70 years in the voices of various jazz legends (and more modern artists). The video is a version by Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. For an updated take, try the piano-and-voice version by Ohio duo Over The Rhine.
4. The Get Up Kids, “Valentine”
This tune by the now-defunct emo band is as precious and bittersweet as you would expect. The fact that this YouTube video set to the song was evidently made by a sensitive high school student is also unsurprising and appropriate.
3. Califone, “Black Metal Valentine”
Experimentarians Califone make music that challenges, intrigues, sometimes displeases but never bores. This collection of joyous bumps, bells and bruises mutters along into a memorable groove, and the very notion of a Valentine's song by a black metal band (which Califone are most decidedly not) can't help but amuse. Sample it at eMusic.
2. Carissa's Wierd, “All Apologies And Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine”
If you didn't spend a chunk of the 1990s on the West Coast, you might have missed out on the pleasures of the intentionally-misspelled Carissa's Wierd. Lucky you, it's Valentine's Day, and now is your chance to experience their melodic pop — which is as unlike the so-called “Seattle sound” as it is unlike the Band of Horses, the group Mat Brooke and Ben Bridwell of the Wierd went on to form. Download the MP3 and read an encomium to the band here.
1. Outkast, “Happy Valentine's Day”
If you have the Outkast double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below, you're aware that this Andre 3000 masterpiece is the funkiest track ever to celebrate Cupid. If you don't have it, we all forgive you: now go and get it, even if you're sick of “Hey Ya!” But listen to this first, since Andre just wants to say one thing:
The funk is strong with this one. But so many love mixes are either utterly unfunky or rely too heavily on 70s soul. To remedy this, I propose the following:
FIVE HIP-HOP LOVE SONGS
Growing up in the Golden Age, I've always loved hip-hop. Being a bit of an emo, I also venerate great love songs. For most of my life, I've been searching for that perfect blend of the two.
Here are my favorite five. This list is also a response to the Houston Press' “10 Great Hip-Hop Breakup Songs”. Look, in a macho and often misogynist genre, those are easy. Finding authentically sweet hip-hop love songs that aren't cheesy is a challenge. Complicating matters: many hip-hop songs that seem to be about love are about love of music, or love of one's children.
I love a challenge, and I love these tracks.
5. Handsome Boy Modeling School, “If It Wasn't For You”
This somewhat breaks the “it's gotta be about adult love” rule, since one verse is about a baby and one is about fame. But the sentiment is unabashedly romantic, the chorus is charming without being cloying, and the beat interacts with the rhymes expertly. Worth it for the introductory sample alone. Listen to it, you won't be sorry.
4. De La Soul, “Eye Know”
In 1989, LL Cool J broke ground by releasing the tender ballad “I Need Love” as a single. LL took an immediate ration of undeserved shit for exposing his sensitive side, and an everlasting ration of deserved shit because that song was and remains wack. Two years later, Three Feet High and Rising changed hip-hop, and this under-appreciated song is to my ear the first classic hip-hop love song.
3. Jean Grae, “My Angel is You”
Most recently released of all these tracks, it's a testament to Ms. Grae's talent that this is actually a b-side. That's right, one of her leftovers is one of the best five hip-hop love songs ever released. Featuring fluid rhymes and subtle singing on the chorus, “My Angel” doesn't overwhelm but does get under your skin. Sample it on eMusic.
2. Method Man and Mary J. Blige, “I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need to Get By”
Classics are classics for a reason, and Marvin Gaye's “You're All I Need to Get By” will always be in the pantheon. Even classics need a jumpstart, though, and the combination of Meth and Mary J. is enough to defibrillate a stalled heart. Delightfully, it's almost free of machismo, and though it doesn't celebrate wedlock exactly (“Word life/You don't need a ring to be my wife”), it's a song the celebrates commitment as much it does sensual exchange.
Embedding has been disabled, but check out the full video here: music starts about 45 seconds in.
1. Josh Martinez, “Just a Dood.”
One of the most prolific and slept-on indie rap artists in North America, Vancouver B.C.'s Josh Martinez creates tuneful, diverse and listenable hip-hop that's subtle and creative. Most of his canon is composed of summer-day, windows down, good-time jams. On this track he takes it down a notch. Wait for the hook. It's simple, it's silly, it's irresistible.
That's the “genre” list. Moving along to the “where's the fire?” category:
FIVE SWEET SONGS THAT DON'T GO TOO FAR
Good mixtapes, like good relationships, should leave you feeling warm, comfortable and smiling. Over-reaching is verboten and morbid is right out.
To wit: you might love Death Cab, but in the name of Cupid Valentino The Modern Day Cupid, if you put “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” on that CD then you absolutely deserve to get dumped. In fact, after your paramour gives you the look of horror and drops you like a dope beat, I will come over and dump you myself, just to be sure it takes.
Don't let this happen to you. Go just far enough, with these.
5. The Weakerthans, “The Reasons”
I wholeheartedly endorse everything the Weakerthans have ever done. This song is a wonder for all occasions to show that person — love interest or otherwise — that you appreciate them. The chorus acknowledges its cornball qualities (“I know you might roll your eyes at this/But I'm so glad that you exist”), deflecting the eyeroll onslaught and turning it into harmless giggles. Reading the lyrics isn't enough. Listen to the song.
4. Amadou et Mariam, “Je Pense a Toi”
But why even bother with English lyrics that Convey The Deep Feelings You Have For Your Dear One? French is never a bad choice. It sounds sexy, and unless the object of your desire is bilingual, you don't have to worry about them understanding it. When the music is as rich as Malian masters Amadou et Mariam's, it doesn't even really matter that the title means “I'm Thinking of You.” They'll know it.
3. Beulah, “If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart”
Judicious use of strings, horn and piano can add a lot to a rock song, and the parts in this tune show that. Melodic and multi-instrumental, this track is a journey as implied by the length of the (awesome) title, which appears nowhere in the lyrics. “All we need is a pretty song,” they say: indeed.
This live version has its charms, for sure, but it's the studio sound you want.
2. The Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man”
Above I noted that you don't want to be the guy who stopped listening to music when Christie Brinkley divorced Billy Joel. Conversely, you want to show some appreciation for the indie music that has stood the test of time. There's only one candidate that compares to the Pixies, and Sonic Youth is not going to get you over.
1. Viva Voce, “Mixtape = Love”
The best ending choice to a mixtape ever. I will not brook dissent on this point. Lovely vocal interplay between man and woman, supple harmonies, and a message that wraps things up perfectly. Sample it at Last.FM. Plus, the band is a husband and wife, and you've gotta love that.
Speaking of nuptials … now we come to the payoff.
FIVE SONGS ABOUT MARRIAGE
Mere weeks ago, my marine biologist friend donned dive gear and descended into a shark tank thinking she was taping an educational program. Instead, her musician boyfriend popped a most memorable question. Watch the video of the proposal here.
Aside from being sickeningly sweet, this offers an apt metaphor: if you're not willing to jump into a shark tank for somebody, maybe you ought to reconsider the commitment.
Ready to jump into the shark tank? Already taken the plunge? These are the songs for you.
5. Old 97's, “Question”
Country-rock troubadors the Old 97's penned lots of memorable tunes, but none so memorable as the one about a “question that you should say yes to/once in your life.” This video has a creepy Half-Life deal going on, so you ought to just listen with the window minimized, or try this live version (with French lyrics! Remember what I said about French?).
4. Lou Reed, “Think It Over”
Post-Velvet Underground, Lou Reed was always at his best when effectively doing spoken word material (“Coney Island Baby,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Harry's Circumcision”). So it is with this slow, restrained approach, which somehow manages to keep the emotion percolating just beneath the surface. Yes, this song is about Lou's at-the-time-lover, a transvestite. What's your point?
3. Nellie McKay, “Cupcake”
The best song ever written about gay marriage, this piano ditty is catchy enough to get even your homophobic relatives toe-tapping. Especially if they listen to the lyrics, but not too closely. Hummable hooks and an irresistible vocal breakdown ensure this one will win your heart, gay, straight or wherever you fall on the Kinsey scale. (Nellie's other marriage song, “I Wanna Get Married,” isn't nearly so suffused with romance. Stick with this one.)
2. Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow”
Alone among these songs in that it is a retrospective about a particular, real marriage, it gets an easy nod. Alluding to the authentic hardships suffered by the famous duo, it also sends a positive message: if they can make it, maybe we can, too. Man, do I miss Johnny Cash.
1. The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love”
Everyone should own The Magnetic Fields' magnum opus, 69 Love Songs. They're so inspiring that multiple local bands are joining forces to perform the record in its entirety, and there's truly something for everyone in there. Only if you're serious about someone, though, do you want to break out “The Book of Love,” which builds to an emotional crescendo before the matrimonial end. If this doesn't get the ring on that finger, look elsewhere. Sample this and the other 68 Love Songs at eMusic.