Welcome to The Playlist Project, where we’ll be posing musical questions to Paste staff, interns and writers and then compiling their responses into a handy playlist before opening it up for discussion in our comments section.
Let’s be honest, Valentine’s Day is a weird holiday. Somehow over the course of a couple thousand years, some date originally set to honor a bunch of Christian martyrs turned into the biggest Hallmark holiday of the year. In music, of course, there are love songs and break up songs (each of which could essentially be its own genre). But then there are songs that aren’t necessarily about the big L-word that can sometimes evoke similarly fluttery feelings. We polled our team about this phenomenon, noting the only exception was to exclude songs explicitly about love they found romantic. So, this week’s Playlist Project prompt is…
“Auld Lang Syne”
Every now and then I go through a phase where I think “Auld Lang Syne” is the most romantic song in the world, and it’s entirely because of the last scene of When Harry Met Sally.
The Mammals, “Baker’s Waltz”
“Baker’s Waltz” is a very simple, very pretty little tune from New York folk group The Mammals, with nothing that one would call overtly “romantic” about it. Perhaps it’s the title that first implanted such a strong image in my mind, but whenever I listen to it, I picture an elderly married couple waltzing around the kitchen. They’re in their 60s or 70s, married for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s just such a gentle, beautiful melody, and it conjures an image of flour-caked hands lined with age, clasped together and waltzing around for the hundredth or thousandth time. It sounds like timelessness, and when I hear this song, I think to myself that it’s the piece of music I would want to use for the first dance of my own wedding reception.
The Beatles, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”
Paul once said that this White Album track is about monkeys humping in the streets of India. It’s the weirdest not-exactly romantic song that I guess could maybe be construed like a love song. You know, if you’re into that sorta thing.
Here We Go Magic, “How Do I Know?”
The song begins cheekily, sort of as a cute dissection of minute things that anyone in love (or deeply in like) might think about endlessly, questioning over and over, looking for signs as to what exactly is at the core of such an ineffable, intimate connection between two people. But then it becomes obsessive, and each component of the song builds upon the last, and you wonder if the narrative voice of the song is that of someone who can’t let go, of someone who may even be stalking a former lover. But all the sounds pile on one another beautifully, so much so that the opening riff has practically transformed into something so much softer and graceful, and I can’t help but, even with the super-creep components or interpretations, think of it through the lens of one line—”How do I know, if I love you / When you come out clean from the shower? / You squeak to the touch, and you smell like a flower”—which is just so achingly visceral a way to gauge how you feel about someone. Do you crave moments like that? Or more importantly, does the person you maybe love crave the same? These are tiny, negligible moments, but they become epic in the head of someone in love.
David Guetta ft. Sia, “Titanium”
This song is pretty much perfect proletariat pop: it was shopped around to wildly different singers (Mary J. Blige, Katy Perry?!), is nominally about succeeding despite the jeers of haters, and its video is about some sort of persecuted psychic kid nonsense. But, Sia’s wounded yelping gives the puttering EDM track a defiantly romantic vibe. I have a photo with my ex of us singing along to this in the car ride back from the first time I met his parents, the weekend I asked him to officially be my boyfriend. For the entirety of our two-plus years together, I read the song as triumphant, an anthem about making it through the little bumps in the road that send lesser relationships veering wildly off-course. Post-breakup, I can’t last more than five seconds into the intro before needing to skip to the next track. I don’t think our split tarnished the song for him—he still gets excited about new acoustic covers posted by generic white dudes on YouTube—but this one’s firmly sealed in my fault for the foreseeable…eternity.
The National, “Slow Show”
Would you consider a song “romantic” if it had these lyrics:
“I want to hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up
so you can put a blue ribbon on my brain
God, I’m very, very frightening…I’ll overdo it.”
That’s “Slow Show” from The National, and the rest of the lyrics are even more depressing and strange. At one point, there’s a line about how he spends too much time thinking about his dick. But like many National songs, it has an excellent melody and is eminently listenable. For me, the timing was almost perfect—I was listening to Boxer quite a bit when I met my girlfriend, now wife, and we both liked the band. And for whatever reason, despite the rest of the song, the one line “I want to hurry home to you” resonated with me, because it’s how we both felt. And then, after all the lyrics about his screwed-up life, Matt Berninger ends with this: “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I met you.” I was a bit younger, but close enough.
The Dazz Band, “Let It Whip”
There is nothing romantic about this song. “Let It Whip” mashes up funk, stone R&B and a little bit of punk with a crazy pocket. Purportedly the first S&M song to hit Billboard’s Top 10, the freaky invitation included the line “no torture trip” and a falsetto ad lib that tickled the rafters. But there was something urgent about that rubber bass line that bounced the groove hard, the half-whispered, half-swooped vocal that was as much an invitation as a come-on. Romance? Not a chance. But like the horn they blow before the hunt, “Let It Whip” was a straight up “the race is on” proposition.
To this day, the erotic charge and promise lifts right off the track. It is not tender, seductive or even erotic, but it sure does get one’s juices flowing, heart pumping and hips rolling as you hit the door.
Ásgeir, Dýrð í dauðaþögn” (In the Silence)
Ásgeir Trausti made the leap from his native land to America in 2014, when songwriter John Grant helped him translate his debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn (In the Silence) into English. In words we can understand, the album’s title track is a hopeful meditation on shedding the past, enjoying the present, and dreaming of the future. But in Icelandic, Ásgeir’s emotion comes through more clearly, and the leaping melody may as well be a wordless refrain that lifts your heart to the sky. The song’s huge production, with majestic horns over rich, folksy guitar, makes me want to get married on top of a mountain, Ron Burgundy-style, and enjoy the view from the pinnacle with my bride in the silence.
Leonard Cohen, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”
Sometimes you’ve known a song for many years but you haven’t lived it yet so it’s just another track on an album of someone’s imaginary experiences. But then, one day, you hear the song and it’s a real experience, your experience, and it burns indelibly in your mind. For me that song is Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Cohen’s baritone is imbued with a stoicism as he looks upon his lachrymose lover, but the song is still affecting despite his detachment.
Cohen defenestrates all romance by telling his beau not to cry as they part but it’s a song that has soundtracked my own fare-the-wells in my long-distance relationship. “Now it’s come to distances and both of us must try,” Cohen sings in his atonal drawl. Cohen is bolder and braver than I “Your eyes are soft with sorrow / Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” As he reassures his lover, he reassures me. Don’t cry; it’s going to be okay.