Last year, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon celebrated February 14 not as Valentine’s Day, but as Anna Howard Shaw Day, in commemoration of the birthday of Women’s rights pioneer Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw was the first ordained female minister in the Methodist church, a practicing physician, and a strong activist in the suffrage movement in the early Twentieth Century. Valentine’s Day means a lot of different things. Whether it’s a celebration of your love, a chance to spice things up, or a day to flaunt being single and proud, each of these sets of songs is guaranteed to suit your needs.
For the Romantic:
Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
Having worked as a DJ at wedding receptions, I cannot tell you the number of times I have played this song and saw every couple in the hall, from the grandparents to the newlyweds to awkward teenagers, dancing like this song was written just for them. Green is a wonderful singer, the lyrics are sweet, and it’s got a great beat. What else do you need from a perfect soul tune?
You Really Got A Hold On Me – The Miracles / The Beatles
For all intents and purposes, The Beatles did Smokey Robinson’s Motown original one better. John, George, and Paul share a beautiful three-part harmony. The song might actually be about a slightly cruel lover, but lyrics like “You treat me badly / I love you madly” are made up for by the overall message of love being a sincere bond.
Walk With Me – Neil Young
Neil stands as a rarity in the rock world, in that he has been happily married to Pegi Young since 1977. They’ve endured thick and thin, from having a child with cerebral palsy and Neil’s embarrassing lawsuit from Geffen Records for making music that didn’t sound enough like Neil Young to renewed artistic success amid the birth of grunge and alt-country in the 90’s and 00’s. As a result, his love songs since then have reflected a very mature brand of love that those of us under 30 can only hope to have by the time we’re his age. Lines like “I feel the patience of unconditional love / I feel the strength, I feel your faith in me” aren’t the words of blind romanticism, but rather the end result of time-tested love.
Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney
Sir Paul had a relationship with Linda that was much like Neil and Pegi Young’s marriage, tragically cut short by Linda’s passing from breast cancer in 1998. He claims the only nights they spent apart as a married couple were the eleven nights he spent in a Tokyo prison after a marijuana bust. His love songs, derided by critics at the time as schmaltzy, are infinitely more authentic than anything put out by his former songwriting partner, whose personal life was in constant disarray. “Maybe I’m Amazed” shows a young couple, with Paul praising Linda for “the way you help me sing my songs,” but also how she isn’t afraid to “right me when I’m wrong,” demonstrating a partnership of mutual respect.
My Guy – Mary Wells / My Girl – The Temptations
This pair of Motown hits seem analogous, each one demonstrating one side of a very happy relationship. Both are also written by Smokey Robinson, giving him a whopping three songs on the same list. Mary Wells pledges her fidelity, that “no handsome face could take [his] place” and that “no muscle-bound man could take my hand.” “My Girl” highlights the positive effects the lady has on her man, her magical charms making bad weather seem inconsequential. With the weather that usually accompanies mid-February, we can all hope to be as lucky.
This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) – Talking Heads
Talking Heads songwriter David Byrne admittedly avoided love songs prior to this 1983 tune, opting instead to always serve up any romantic lyrics with some sort of strange or ironic twist. Not here. He stated his aim was to make as honest a love song as possible, avoiding anything too syrupy:
“We drift in and out,
Sing into my mouth.
Out of all those kinds of people,
You got a face with a view.
I’m just an animal looking for a home,
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you’ll love me till my heart stops
Love me till I’m dead.”
Mission accomplished, Mr. Byrne.
In The Still Of The Night – The Five Satins
For me, there are few things more beautiful than a doo-wop ballad, provided it’s in the right hands. This song, while a minor hit in its day, was resurrected after its inclusion in Dirty Dancing. Fred Parris, the leader of the group and author of the song, has the tenor voice of an angel, showing that formal musical training is no match for natural talent. This song was made to be listened to without lights on. Candles are okay. Avoid The Beach Boys’ cover, from 1976’s 15 Big Ones album, at all costs.
God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
And speak of the devil! Paul McCartney considers this his favorite song of all time, and it’s easy to see why. It is elegantly orchestrated, with an intro of accordion and French horn. Lyrically, it reflects on what the singer would be without his lover, promising his love “As long as there are stars above you.” Chief songwriter Brian Wilson recorded a version with himself on lead vocals – it’s great, and worth a listen – but he graciously handed the song over to kid brother Carl, whose breathy delivery makes it perfect.
I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) – Stevie Wonder
Recorded entirely by Stevie Wonder – itself an impressive feat for any musician to do – this is a piece I place in the realm of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Frank Zappa’s “Strictly Genteel,” or Lou Reed’s “Rock And Roll” as an objet d’art that transcends music. It is four and a half minutes of musical heaven, with the remaining half-minute in a funky clavinet-driven groove.
I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos
This song was originally written in 1934, becoming a hit in its day, but the doo-wop rendition by The Flamingos in 1959 is the only version that matters. Musically, it is such a weird song – the piano plays the same high chord throughout the entire song, the backing vocals echo with an almost eerie ambiance, and the harmonies are in potentially atonal intervals, but it works. It’s a song that speaks for itself.
For the Singles:
Glad To See You Go – The Ramones
This kiss-off uses murder as a metaphor for a recent ex-lover. Its explicit reference to a certain failed musician-turned-cult-leader – “And in a moment of passion, get glory like Charles Manson” – generated some controversy in its time. Still, that chorus is perfect for a newly-liberated individual.
You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
All these years since the song’s release, and Miss Simon still isn’t spilling the beans as to who it’s about. It could be about Mick Jagger (who is a backing vocalist on the song’s chorus), Warren Beatty, James Taylor, and a number of others. Simon has revealed three letters of the person’s name over the years: A, E, and R. Unfortunately, those letters are in each of the three above-mentioned men’s names. Never mind the actual object of the song, it stands as a look back on a self-absorbed lover.
It Ain’t Me, Babe / It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Bob Dylan
Both of these breakup songs, allegedly about Joan Baez, provide intelligent and rational glimpses into the end of a relationship. In the former, Dylan confesses his own weaknesses as an inability to carry on. In the latter, which I consider a sequel to “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” he is urging his ex-lover to move on with her life. The song’s title reflects a sense of melancholy perfectly.
Don’t Bother Me – The Beatles
George Harrison’s songwriting debut is a dark and moody number, perfectly matching his persona in the early days of The Beatles as “the quiet one.” Dealing with a protagonist reeling from a breakup, he prefers to be alone in his sorrow. The song’s dark edge is enhanced by the addition of some exotic percussion, which must have sounded almost alien in 1963.
Divorce Song – Liz Phair
Two lovers on a road trip slowly fall apart, starting with petty issues (“It’s true that I stole your lighter / And I’m sorry I lost the map”) growing into a massive fight (“But when you said that I wasn’t worth talkin’ to / I had to take your word on that”). On the song’s choruses, Phair uses some slightly uncomfortable chords that provide an undercurrent of anger just under the surface: “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead / But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.”
No More Looking Back – The Kinks
Ray Davies’ songs play like miniature movies, and this song is a perfect example. The narrator is so haunted by his past relationship that seeing a small artifact that he goes into a Proustian fit:
“Just when I think you’re out of my head
I hear a song that you sang or see a book that you read
Then you’re in every bar, you’re in every café
You’re driving every car, I see you every day
But you’re not really there, ‘cause you belong to yesterday”
Davies has used song to express madness before, and he would do it again many times after this 1976 song, but it would never be better.
Dead Flowers – The Rolling Stones
This melancholy country-rock number is almost shockingly frank. In the aftermath of losing a relationship, Mick Jagger observes his ex in her social ascent while he turns to casual sex and being “in my basement room / With a needle and a spoon.” It’s heartbreaking, but the chorus gives the narrator vindication:
“You can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Say with dead flowers at my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave.”
These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra
This 1966 pop hit is an angry confrontation between the female narrator and her soon-to-be-ex, who is cast in a negative light throughout as a dishonest and unfaithful dog. She states her case brilliantly, and by the time she shouts, “Are ya ready boots? Start walkin’!” we can’t help but hope she shows no mercy.
Ever Fallen In Love? – The Buzzcocks
This song only proves that a gorgeous pop song can be convincingly wrapped up in a punk setting and make a stunningly beautiful end product. Although the verses have singer Pete Shelley trying to negotiate a compromise, the chorus – “Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?” – perfectly captures the bitter realization that, no matter what, it’s not going to work.
Tainted Love – Gloria Jones / Soft Cell
In another case of genre-bending, the original “Tainted Love,” sung by American soul singer Gloria Jones, is a powerful performance about breaking away from an abusive lover. Seventeen years later, the British New Wave duo Soft Cell gave a synthesizer-driven update, just as easy to dance to as the original, but incorporating their own version of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” a medley of two American soul tunes about bad relationships. For an extra thrill, check out Marilyn Manson’s 2001 cover.
For the Adventurous:
Dinah-Moe Humm – Frank Zappa
There are a number of Zappa songs that deal with deviant sexual practices – most of which couldn’t be broadcast over the radio. Many of them are just a little too idiosyncratic to be taken seriously, but this song about a threesome is funky as all Hell, with Zappa’s insinuating voice rivaling Barry White’s in terms of sexual prowess. If you have kids, make sure they aren’t around, otherwise you’ll find yourself having to explain what a lot of words mean.
The Bad Touch – The Bloodhound Gang
The lyrics are juvenile, but they are both hilarious and clever – “Put your hands down my pants / And I’ll bet you’ll feel nuts,” while the chorus (“You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals / So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”) reduces sex to what it truly is, stripped of all gilt-edged pomp, chocolate, and red wine. Even if you ignore the lyrics, it’s got a great beat.
Back Door Man – Howlin’ Wolf
Somewhere between then and now, this song has been mistaken for being about something completely different – think about it – but when this song was originally written, a “back door man” was the lover of a married woman who had to sneak in and out of the back door of her home to avoid being caught. There’s an inherent sexual nature to Howlin’ Wolf’s brand of electric blues, mostly related to the slow shuffled rhythm and loud guitars, but Wolf’s voice is unparalleled.
I Touch Myself – The Divinyls
Most songs about, um, auto-erotic activities are pretty abstract, or at least written in double entendre, like “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello or “Pictures Of Lily” by The Who, but this one leaves nothing to the imagination.
Any mid-tempo rock song by The Rolling Stones
Whether it’s “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Monkey Man,” or any number of songs in roughly the same tempo range, there is something naturally alluring to the swagger of The Rolling Stones. Even if the song isn’t about sex (and most of them are), they at least sound like it. One word of warning, though: the title track from their 1978 album Some Girls has lyrics that warrant Mick Jagger getting his face slapped, while 1973’s “Star, Star,” an open letter of sorts detailing his wife Bianca’s infidelities, is fairly un-sexy.
Pour Some Sugar On Me – Def Leppard
I hate most hair metal, but this song – another tune guaranteed to get people moving at wedding receptions – is laced with enough coy (and crass) lyrics that it transcends most of the trappings of the period.
You Really Got Me – The Kinks
Considered by a lot of critics (myself included) to be the first metal song, this song does a lot with a little: a simple, yet iconic, guitar riff, repetitive lyrics, and a sloppy guitar solo that takes an already unbridled song into the stratosphere.
Closer – Nine Inch Nails
By and large, I consider Trent Reznor to be a guy too angry for his own good, but I will give him “Head Like A Hole,” and I will definitely give him this song. Not too many songs about carnal matters are so simply graphic, with two blunt verses and a chorus about as subtle as an atomic bomb blast. With its chorus featuring the queen mother of all swear words, it’s surreal that an edited version of this song became a massive hit in 1994.
Physical – Olivia Newton John
We all know that great video, where Newton John turns a room full of sweaty grotesques into a group of well-built male models, but have you ever heard the lyrics? It’s pretty steamy stuff, with Newton John taking the initiative on a date to instigate sex after dinner and a movie.
When Doves Cry – Prince
Prince is no stranger to suggestive lyrics – his “Darling Nikki” triggered the censorship scare in the mid-80’s – but “When Doves Cry” perfectly gets that strong sexual overtone into a danceable tune, with lustful vocals and an incredible beat.