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This week’s question: What handful of songs would you put on a mix-tape for someone you love or are trying to woo?
Too many songs come right to the point, just spitting out those three unretractable words. But this British band—which burned bright and quick on Creation Records in the ‘90s—spends the beginning of this lengthy, swirling track considering exactly how to say it and what it might mean: “The words to describe this just do not exist / I feel better than ever before,” it goes, before concluding, “There is so much to say / in words of one syllable, I love you.” That’ll get ‘em every time.
Clem Snide, “Bread”
Comparing your beloved to bread doesn’t seem all that romantic, but this spare, gorgeous song (from the incredible Your Favorite Music) drips sweetness, mystery, and intimacy. And it contains this line, which, trust me, sounds great when sung: “You smell like bread / And now the pillow does too.”
Death Cab For Cutie, “Photobooth”
Go ahead, ridicule me. This is a fantastic song, and it’s sort of about breaking up, but it’s still sweet.
Superchunk, “On The Mouth”
Superchunk isn’t the most romantic band, and this rocker—a B-side, but one of the band’s best songs ever—isn’t exactly dripping with lovey-dovey sentiment. But the climax—“When we’re both asleep I’ll kiss you on the mouth”—should woo your indie love.
If you were a sensitive punk in the early '90s, this song was a staple of all the mix-tapes you made for the ladies. Singer-guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach was the patron saint of lovelorn punk-rockers; his raspy voice scratched up the gossamer sentimentality just enough to make it less lame. The music was the same—a mix of punk gruffness and pop hooks, with Chris Bauermeister's bouncy bassline making it one of the genre's most recognizable tracks. At the heart of it all were Schwarzenbach's words, which perfectly captured the high stakes of making the first move: "So now you know where I come from / My secret's come undone / My heart revealed my cause / I'm lying naked at your feet / Don't crush the heart that beats / Take me at my word / It may sound absurd, but I want you." I wrote that on a note to a soon-to-be girlfriend my senior year of high school, and it totally worked! (Although she was bummed when she found later out it came from a song. Oh well.)
R.E.M., "Strange Currencies"
So much of romance comes down to the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of what could be, which R.E.M. captures well in this song from 1994's Monster. As singer Michael Stipe repeats "You will be mine" over and over, it becomes obvious that it isn’t a prediction, but a confidence-boosting mantra—as if just saying it will make it happen. Maybe it will, because he sounds determined: "I'm going to make whatever it takes / Ring you up, call you down, sign your name, secret love / Make it rhyme, take you in, and make you mine."
Mates Of State, "Like U Crazy"
If any group knows how to write lovey-dovey songs, it's the cutesy-poo husband-wife duo Mates Of State. This song from 2006's Bring It Back floats on a waltzing piano arpeggio as Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel harmonize sweet reassurances: "I can't wait to say all the things you can't see / All the things that make you better / 'Cause I can say all the things you can't see / All the things that make you [better]." It's like an updated version of The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You."
Tenacious D, "Fuck Her Gently"
"This is a song for the ladies," Jack Black prefaces over quietly picked acoustic guitar, "but fellas, listen closely." Why? Because it isn’t all about scrote-ramming fuck-fests, bros. "Sometimes you got to make some love," coos Black, "and fuckin' give her some smooches too." As strings swell behind him, he advises you to fuck softly, screw gently, hump sweetly, ball discreetly… at least for a little while. Once she's satisfied, the hard fuckin' can commence!
This fragile, digressive marriage proposal has a way of dissolving the strongest listeners into tears. As Kurt Wagner frets about whether his request will be granted ("Don't think it over so quickly / Look around, I'm still here / Take your time, and not a year"), he meditates in broken images on what she means to him ("Gomer Pyle is just a man / Who served his country the best he can / I am the state, you are the flag / You are the one"). And in the end, his breathless wait for an answer ("There's the phone and here's the number") is redeemed by his own absolute certainty.
Stevie Wonder, "Golden Lady"
You could make a whole Valentine's career out of Stevie Wonder songs, but are there any others as simultaneously yearning and triumphant as this swirling, propulsive tune? "It's so clear to me that you're a dream come true / There's no way that I'll be losing," Stevie sings, before almost wistfully requesting "I'd like to go there." Valentine's Day is all about professing to already have what you don't have yet, and "Golden Lady" embodies that position with lyrical passion.
Mysteries Of Life, "When I Let My Guard Down"
A Valentine's mix can't be all lovey-dovey ballads. This infectious power-pop number from Indiana's sorely-missed Mysteries Of Life celebrates that moment when you give in to a new relationship. "From time to time it's a fait accompli," Jake Smith reports, capturing the giddily romantic sensation of having no choice about falling in love.
Prince Buster, “My Girl”
I’m sure there are bad recordings of this Temptations hit, but I’ve never heard one, and this sweet ska version by Prince Buster is one of the best. Not suggested: X-rated Prince Buster hits like “Wreck A Pum Pum” or “Rough Rider.” Don’t be crude when you woo.
The Delfonics, “Hey Love”
There are few sounds sweeter than ‘70s soul harmonies, and The Delfonics had some of the sweetest harmonies around. This track turns those voices into an intoxicating swirl that’s overwhelmingly romantic even by the era’s high standards.
Dusty Springfield, “The Look Of Love”
Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity protagonist implores readers to give up searching for the kind of world-erasing sensuality suggested in this hit Dusty Springfield version of a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song. But as long as one of the sexiest records ever put into a groove is playing, Springfield’s hope to “let this be just the start of so many nights like this” sounds pretty real.
Blossom Dearie, “Tea For Two”
It really is the singer, not the song. In lesser hands, this 1925 standard sounds like it comes straight from Squaresville, but Blossom Dearie’s languid 1958 interpretation teases out all the sensual underpinnings of the song’s imagined domestic idyll. She makes a couplet like “we won’t have it known that we have a telephone” sound sexy in ways R. Kelly could never imagine.
Roxy Music, “More Than This”
If you have to ask…
Marshall Crenshaw, "You're My Favorite Waste Of Time"
I have no problem at all calling this the greatest love song ever written. It's certainly one of the sweetest.
Sam Cooke, "Cupid"
I've always loved the couplet "Cupid, draw back your bow and let… your arrow go." There's such a strange sense of action there. Plus, it's Sam Cooke.
Frankie Knuckles, "Baby Wants To Ride"
Most Chicago house-music anthems rate as at least a little bit steamy and lascivious, but this one slinks and grimaces more than most. Among the lyrics: "She made me scream, deep, for love." Nice.
Andrew Bird, "Masterswarm"
The Chicago native was made for V-day mixes: The soaring melodies, the smooth violin, the whistling. This track, off his new album Noble Beast, isn’t just one of the more melodic newbies, it also shows off Bird's propensity for deep metaphor: "Oh, burrow into me / This is sure to misspell disaster / Oh, burrow into me / You're feeding from the arms of the master." Ooh, the forbidden love.
Beach Boys, "I'm Waiting For The Day"
And speaking of violins, this Pet Sounds beauty makes perfect use of the instrument near the end. The words tell the tale of a man who comforted his love when her heart was broken by some other cockface. Yeah, it's a bit of a bummer that the singer is still waiting for the good vibrations to reciprocate, but the boys' signature pipes paint an uplifting picture. Plus, everyone loves a guy who sticks with his lady through thick and thin. (At least in romantic comedies, which accurately portray life.)
Ben Folds, "The Luckiest"
Even though it contains the words "I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you," this ditty is anything but hokey. Ben Folds sings about the feeling of meeting his beloved for the first time—if he hadn’t met her and fallen in love with her when he did—and wonders if he would know, deep down in his gut, that this was that girl. Totally interesting. Plus violins. Hmm, maybe there's a theme to my picks…
Arthur Russell, "A Little Lost"
Russell's reputation as the darling of the avant-garde set belies his squishy, sentimental heart, and (if you can get past what my wife terms his "Kermit The Frog voice") the naked vulnerability of his music makes nearly anything he sings sound like a slightly embarrassed confession. That's never more true than on "A Little Lost," which contains the matter-of-fact yet incredibly romantic admission, "I'm a little lost without you / That could be an understatement." Because what's more romantic than utter codependency?
Nina Simone, "Wild Is The Wind"
It doesn't get much more desperate than begging, "Love me love me love me / Say you do," or (speaking of codependency) suggesting, "Like a leaf clings to a tree / Oh my darling, cling to me." But as long as the feelings are reciprocal—and you obey certain issues of personal space and laws regarding acceptable public behavior—there's nothing wrong with being just a tad crazy about love. Real, all-consuming love is a little crazy, after all. Unfortunately, I'm worried that the trailers for Revolutionary Road may have spoiled this song; now it has this subtextual message of "I want to ruin your life" that you probably shouldn't share with anyone, at least not until you're already locked into a 30-year mortgage.
Pulp, "Seductive Barry"
Someone I once dated told me that "the only reason guys listen to Pulp is to seduce women." She's wrong, of course (my gay friends love Pulp), but there's no denying that Jarvis Cocker has an enviable way with the clever come-on, and a song like "Seductive Barry" is practically aural Spanish fly. Except that in my experience, it actually works. It's like a lesson in allure in microcosm: Start with flattery (telling them they're so out of your league, they'd have to "lower yourself to my level"), disarm them by laying it all on the line ("I've wanted you for years / I only needed the balls to admit it"), then get straight to the point ("There's nothing left for us to do but get it on"). By the time this song hits its orgasmic crescendo, you should be well on your way to your own. Admittedly, its focus on doing the deed may be better suited for the one-night stand—but even your spouse enjoys being treated like a sex object sometimes.
Sissy Penis Factory, "Everybody Fuck Now"
Then again, why beat around the bush? (Huh huh… bush.)
Fleetwood Mac, "You Make Lovin' Fun"
This giddy ode to puppy love is all the more affecting because it's sung by Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac’s sad-voiced Edith Piaf, who never again allowed herself to sound so joyous on record. You can almost forgive her for writing a song about banging the band's lighting director, then making her ex-husband play bass on it.
Sam & Dave, "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby"
You could slow-dance with a complete stranger to this song, and by the end, you'd be making out. Guaranteed.
Guided By Voices, "Learning To Hunt"
This is probably a love song, though with Robert Pollard, you can never be too sure. All I know is that it captures, just about perfectly, the sound of lying next to a person who loves you, so at worst, it's a lovely accident.
Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You"
I could try to impress everybody by going with something obscure, or I could pick maybe the greatest love song ever written in the history of mankind. When in doubt, go Dolly.
PJ Harvey, "This Is Love"
Because, really, I can't believe life is so complex when I just want to sit here and watch you undress.
Belle And Sebastian, "Piazza, New York Catcher"
Silly and fantastical, this one has all the fantasy of a runaway relationship for the ladies, and then for the dudes, baseball season. How can you go wrong locked up in a hotel room talking about sad books and drinking coffee and musing about Piazza's sexuality?
Band Of Horses, "No One's Gonna Love You"
The best kind of lovesick, in the end, might be the kind that nearly breaks you, and it sounds like it nearly broke Ben Bridwell: "But no one is ever gonna love you more than I do." Sweet, but also threatening. The future tense here says, “Yeah, if you leave me, Valentine, you'll never have it this good again.”
Aphex Twin (with optional Céline Eia vocal track), "Film"
"Film" is dreamy and exploratory, at times cautious… hey, it's just like falling in love! If a song without lyrics is a stretch, I submit the Céline Eia version. She recorded a French-language love song over the Aphex Twin original about the long-distance yearning of a Paris-New York relationship. (Bonus: It's got the ridiculous, requisite French whispering in the middle: "Je pense… à toi.")
The Only Ones, “Another Girl, Another Planet”
Power-pop is the official music of adolescent heartbreak. Few songs capture the highs, lows, and terrifying, exhilarating disorientation of falling in love as poignantly or perfectly as new-wave cult act The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet.” It’s a love song with a strong psychotic undercurrent, as evidenced by impeccably slurred lyrics like “I always flirt with death / I look ill, but I don't care about it.” “Another Girl, Another Planet” races through a confusing, intense jumble of emotions in a cryptic manner eminently open to interpretation. Like The La’s similarly perfect, similarly ambiguous “There She Goes”, the song could be about drugs or about love. But then, what is love if not the only natural high that doesn’t completely suck?
David Bowie, “Be My Wife”
Written during the darkest days of David Bowie’s cocaine hell, while his own troubled marriage was going flamboyantly down the crapper, “Be My Wife” is a love song that finds the Great White Duke at his most naked and vulnerable. The archetypal chameleon and shape-shifter rips off his mask, or rather his many, many masks, to reveal a ferocious, insatiable need for tenderness and compassion. “I've lived all over the world/ I've left every place,” he laments with a neediness suggesting that for him, home isn’t a place, but a person.
Big Star, “Thirteen”
Is there anything in the world more simultaneously terrifying and life-affirming than falling in love for the very first time? Big Star’s classic acoustic love song suggests not. Big Star songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell dug deep into their memories of adolescent infatuation to deliver a bittersweet ballad that juxtaposes young love with rebellion and a mad jones for rock ‘n’ roll. If Catcher In The Rye were a love song, this would be it.
Stark Reality, “Too Much Tenderness”
Cult jazz-soul-funkateers Stark Reality achieved cult fame among crate-diggers and the vinyl fetishists over at Stones Throw—which put out their anthology Now—by radically reinterpreting the children’s songs of Hoagy Carmichael Sr. on The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop. But its greatest achievement is the trippy love song “Too Much Tenderness,” an acid-soaked valentine from the Age of Aquarius. Lyrics like “When you laugh at me, everyone can see all the happy times I have ever known” and “Every thought of yours is a friend of mine” are terribly romantic in a tripping-three-days, I-can-smell-colors-sort of way.
Ella Fitzgerald, “Things Are Looking Up”
I like to think that if someone were to make a movie about my life, it would end with an ecstatic production number set to Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Things Are Looking Up,” a rapturous ode to the euphoria of meeting that perfect someone. The song captures how love makes the entire world seem better, how it revitalizes a sick, sad, corrupt universe. “See the sunbeams / Every one beams just because of you / Love's in session / And my depression is unmistakably through,” Fitzgerald swoons, prescribing l’amour as nature’s very own answer to Prozac.
Talking Heads, "Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)"
David Byrne reportedly wrote this song to explain how he felt about his new wife. I played it for my own wife before I asked her to marry me. Because we're all just animals, looking for a home. We share the same space for a minute or two.
Ted Hawkins, "Sorry You're Sick"
I confess that I'm borrowing this love song from my friend Jim Ridley, who once told me he sang it to his wife whenever she wasn't feeling well. Now my wife and I sing it to each other even when we aren’t sick. There's just something about the simple idea of doing something nice for the person you love that means far more to me than all the "lasso the moon"-type love songs ever written.
Tony Bennett, "Being Alive"
The climactic song from Stephen Sondheim's Company has been recorded multiple times, but few of those performances are as potent as Bennett's low-key, cocktail jazz version, in which the old master uses his wizened voice to make the case for companionship. As Sondheim expressed so eloquently back in 1970, few people can ruin your day quite like the one you love the most. And no one else can make those days so worthwhile.
Bruce Springsteen, "If I Should Fall Behind"
I can't imagine a more apt and lovely description of a couple's lifelong journey than this: "Now there's a beautiful river in the valley ahead / There 'neath the oak's bough soon we will be wed / Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees / I'll wait for you / And should I fall behind / Wait for me."
Arthur Alexander, "Anna"
If you put this song on a mix-tape for a girl, it's basically like ripping out your still-beating heart, handing it to her, and saying, "Do whatever you want with this." Especially if her name is Anna—but really, this song can transform any girl into a romantic cardiologist.
Prince, "Pink Cashmere"
Ah, infatuation in coat form, and falsetto Prince at his finest: does it get any better than this? This song is also a great way to prove to your mix-tape recipient that you do, in fact, have a sense of humor. It's impossible to listen to it without smiling.
Prince, "Pussy Control"
Every mix-tape should include "Pussy Control," and Valentine's Day mix-tapes are no exception. Plus it's got a great pickup line that anyone can use: "Motherfucker, I know your reputation, and I'm astounded that you're here."