Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that? Nothing, in theory. In practice, though, 99.9% of those songs are wack as hell, with a target demographic of people who think greek yogurt is exotic and Barack Obama was born in Africa.
The rest of us need love songs, too, even if some may try to run away from the problem with anti-Valentine events this time of year (which I would contend are at least as boring as heart-shaped chocolate boxes and candlelit dinners). Below, I’ve pulled together some true romantic classics to share with your valentine, well outside of the universe where Celine Dion resides. A few might be too wild for some, I guess, but if you dig ’em and your sweetie does not, maybe that’s a good sign that this should be your last Valentine’s Day together?
“New York City”
Come Out Come Out | 1995
My general rule for this mix was “the weirder, the better,” but let’s get a relative exception out of the way upfront, shall we? The only thing at all weird about this 90s “cuddlecore” nugget is that it isn’t being played on the radio hourly until the end of time. This Vancouver, British Columbia trio’s unabashedly joyous, funny paean to big city love was a staple of the late crush mixtape era, and it’s nearly impossible to be immune to its charms.
Fun fact: Neko Case got her start in an early iteration of this band!
THE LEGENDARY STARDUST COWBOY
“Standing in a Trash Can (Thinking About You)”
Single | 1989
…I think this is a love song, anyway? “The Ledge” was a howling maniac who achieved some notoriety in the 1960s for his rockabilly freakout “Paralyzed,” a minor hit that Mercury Records surprisingly saw fit to release. Really, he’s probably more famous for having his name periodically dropped by David Bowie, who was inspired by The Ledge to adopt his “Ziggy Stardust” alias.
“Rhythm In Your Eyes”
Forgotten Lovers | 2011
Despite being Endicott, New York’s greatest gift to popular music, Gary Wilson was always a little too art-damaged for mainstream attention; his initial goal as a musician was to marry the experimental preoccupations of composers like John Cage with the preening and posing of the 1950s teen idols he admired as a kid. Still, he’s racked up more than a couple high-profile fans over the years, among them Beck (who namedrops him in his early hit “Where It’s At”), Questlove (who brought him onto Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), and Earl Sweatshirt (who sampled “You Were Too Good to Be True” in his song “Grief”). This particular track finds Gary and his band the Blind Dates at their most upbeat, launching 60s frat rock into deep space.
THE BOYS NEXT DOOR
Door, Door | 1979
Not many love ballads start off with “I’ve been contemplating suicide,” but then, not many love ballads were written by Rowland S. Howard when he was an anguished teenage proto-goth. The Boys Next Door were the original incarnation of the Birthday Party, Howard’s legendary combo with Nick Cave, but “Shivers” came out before they changed their name and leaned full-bore into the unhinged aggression which would become their trademark. What we have here instead is a bitterly ironic new wave love ballad; the lyric was intended to be funny, but many people latched onto Cave’s hurt, melodramatic delivery and took it at face value, much to Howard’s chagrin for the remainder of his life.
JERRY (J.G.) GREEN “THE VOICE MASTER”
“I Finally Found The Love I Need”
7-inch | 1970-something
This homemade Detroit robo-soul single (which was featured on the excellent compilation Personal Space a few years back) is one of those records that goes for obscene amounts of money nowadays, even though its first big fan probably found it in the dumpster behind a record store. Whatever the case, it slaps in truly singular fashion, replete as it is with clattering drum machines and groaning synths. Green belts through the decidedly lo-fi production like he’s escaping a fiery cataclysm, handily earning his (undoubtedly self-declared) title. If that doesn’t say “I love you,” what does?
“Like A Sparrow”
The Third Testament | 1968
A personal note: I’ve put this shambling, perfectly imperfect tribute to domestic bliss — courtesy of these sloppy, proto-indie New York oddballs, a flagship “rock” band on the inimitable ESP-Disk label — on every crush tape/CD-R I’ve made since 2002 or so, and it’s worked every time. I mean, it was either this song, my steady diet of burritos, or my clinical anxiety; given the choices, there doesn’t seem to be any other sensible conclusion.
“Babe I Love You”
Lost Cause | 1992
This mystery man is probably the king of “outsider” musicians (though a case could be made for fellow Texan Daniel Johnston, or Chicago’s own fallen hero Wesley Willis). Whatever his royal status, he recorded dozens of inscrutable records over the course of over two decades before he ever appeared in front a live audience, and when he finally did, it raised more questions than it answered. Does he play guitar that “wrong” way intentionally, or has he just never figured it out? Is he a high-minded artist, or just an oddball? What’s up with his insistence of changing instrumentation every show and collaborating with local musicians who’ve never met him, much less practiced with him (When I saw him perform in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2008, he insisted on a backing band consisting of muted trumpet, harpsichord, and an interpretive dancer)?
Anyway, this might be the closest he’s come to a blues song, but as I’ve never been able to make it through all of his 90-plus releases, I can’t say that with complete confidence.
“I Want Love and Affection (Not the House of Correction)”
I Want Love and Affection (Not the House of Correction) | 1962
Wherein Detroit’s late, great R&B legend — Nay-Dog to his friends — speaks not just for himself, but for us all.
“All I Need”
Sister Honey Demos | 2015
Ms. Loucks is a current exemplar in that proud tradition of whip smart, nigh-whispered bedroom songcraft recorded using the simplest means at hand, resting comfortably in the hole left behind when Liz Phair abandoned this form in hopes of breaking into the Sheryl Crow market. I’m not sure if this was recorded on an actual cassette deck or some digital equivalent, but the effect is more or less the same: it’s the kinda thing that makes you lean in close to listen, but simultaneously afraid to get too close, lest you make Mia uncomfortable enough to stop playing.
We Are They Who Ache with Amorous Love | 1990
Jad Fair’s eternal slop-rock combo, which he started with his brother David in the mid-1970s, were hopeless romantics from the start, but for the first few years of their existence, that romance was filtered through a thick bramble of willfully unlearned guitar/drum noise. This is from a few years after they dialed the racket back a shade and started making more college radio-friendly fare, influencing both Kurt Cobain and a fair share of nerdy makeout sessions.
“I’m In Love With the Ooo-Ooo Man”
Permanent Damage | 1969
As famous Southern California groupies (see our recent piece on them for details), the GTO’s had a lot of love to give, and most of their beneficiaries of that love at the time of this recording were famous rock stars. This sweet, funny tribute to one of those rock stars (the lyrics suggest Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas, though that’s never been 100% confirmed) is funny, sexy, and even legit romantic, shooting at least a partial hole in common notions about the rock star/groupie dynamic.
SUN RA & HIS SOLAR ARKESTRA
“Love in Outer Space”
Horizon | 1974
Sun Ra innovated in a lot of fields: free jazz, big band, doo wop, headwear. Turns out love songs were just another thing that he casually mastered, then vastly improved by pulling them with him into the cosmos.
THE LANGLEY SCHOOLS MUSIC PROJECT
“God Only Knows”
Innocence & Despair | 2001
If a potential sweetheart isn’t charmed by these rural Canadian kids leaning into the most romantic Beach Boys song in a middle school auditorium in the mid-70s, it’s their loss, and you could probably do better.