In The Stranger’s Valentine’s Day special feature package, Sean Nelson eloquently explained the allure of listening to music that facilitates wallowing in romantic agony (John Barry’s “Midnight Cowboy” definitely would’ve made my pantheon). I’m a big fan of that activity, too, but I’m also a champion of songs that explode with the euphoria of love.
So, what I’m going to do here is augment Sean’s impeccable list—and Charles Mudede's Slog post—with five of my own picks for soundtracking heartache, and add five songs that fantastically express the joy of its flipside. Music is the healing force of the universe, free-jazz legend Albert Ayler sagely observed, and it works both ways. Maybe these songs will help you get through whatever sorrow you’re experiencing, or augment whatever elation you’ve accrued through your abundant charisma and sheer luck. Pump it up until you can feel it.
The Four Tops, "You Keep Running Away" (1966) Levi Stubbs's voice is powerful balm for what ails you. The archetypal Motown rhythmic buoyancy and ambrosial swirl of backing vocals wonderfully contrast with the obsessed protagonist's woeful tale of an elusive inamorata. I always feel better by the time the first chorus hits.
Nico, "The Fairest of the Seasons" (1967) Tentativeness and ambivalence can be just as wrenching as extreme disgust, as this Jackson Browne/Gregory Copeland song proves. As orchestral-pop classics go, this one perfectly balances the somber and the hopeful, and Nico delivers the words with the gravitas they deserve. Here's a poignant af verse for you: "Now that I've tried/Now that I've finally found that this is not the way/Now that I turn/Now that I feel it's time to spend the night away/I want to know do I stay or do I go/And maybe finally split the rhyme/And do I really understand the undernetting?"
Tim Buckley, "Song to the Siren" (1970) This may be the most sublime expression of unbearable tenderness felt toward an out-of-reach object of affection ever recorded. This Mortal Coil's version—particularly as it's deployed in David Lynch's Lost Highway—is also a luscious ordeal for the heart. "Broken lovelorn on your rocks," Buckley sings, and the floodgates open. "Song to the Siren" is a true time-freezer.
Au Pairs, "Come Again" (1981) Leave it to these British post-punks to deliver one of the most caustic, incisive analyses of problematic sex ever laid to wax. Tense, churning battle-of-the-genders rock for the (r)ages.
John Lennon, “Mother” (1970) There needs to be at least one entry here about maternal love—or the lack thereof. I can't think of another song that more starkly lays out the profound pain of losing one's mother—the source of what is often the greatest, purest love a human will ever know. The first verse—"Mother, you had me but I never had you/I wanted you/You didn't want me"—might be the most shattering in Lennon's canon... even more so than "Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower/Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna/Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe." Even the bass and drums seem to be mourning on "Mother." Lennon shreds in full-on primal-scream mode, and if you're not an emotional wreck by the end of this bleeding-heart-on-sleeve confession, you might be Dick Cheney.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “I Second That Emotion” (1967) The outcome of this concentrated bundle of ebullience is uncertain, but I have to conclude that the "little girl" addressed by the silky, seductive vocalist succumbs to Smokey's abundant charms. Musically, "I Second That Emotion" nonchalantly uplifts and puts a spring in your libido. Don't kid yourself; you need all the help you can get.
Margo Guryan, “Love" (1968) A blessed psychedelic odyssey worthy of inclusion on Love's Forever Changes, or something of that caliber, "Love" kisses the sky and vibrates your chakras to a higher level of angelic eros than most tunes from the late '60s do. Guryan captures love's disorienting effect when she coos, "The reason why a brand new feeling/Comes to take you/Away from reason." The last minute of "Love" achieves escape velocity as gracefully as possible.
Annette Peacock, “I'm the One” (1972) Self-confidence is a potent aphrodisiac in Annette Peacock's hands and throat. The avant-garde composer/vocalist/keyboardist's most famous song is a Technicolor™ explosion of bravado that earns every iota of immodesty through her vocal acrobatics and spectacular synth ejaculations. Strive to embody the spirit of "I'm the One" and you will likely become THE ONE. If not, at least you came to know this stunning, strutting epic intimately.
Van Morrison, “Sweet Thing” (1968) Sometimes you gotta just submit to a very serious Irishman who waxes poetic and bombastic to lilting, orchestral-folk-jazz and sings in tongues about absolute devotion. "Sweet Thing" is on Astral Weeks, the album Lester Bangs vowed he would bring to a desert island, and if that doesn't seal the deal for you about the specialness of this Platonic ideal of romance in song, then you need to reassess some fundamental things about your life. "And I shall drive my chariot/Down your streets and cry/Hey, it's me, I'm dynamite/And I don't know why." Dude, yes...
Birthday Party, “Zoo-Music Girl” (1981) What this list needs is some brute animal sexuality. (Talk about a trainwreck segue from "Sweet Thing"...) Step this way (mind the dung) as Mr. Nick Cave and company slaughter decorum and rut like motherfucking beasts on this noise-rock grunt. "My body is a monster driven insane/My heart is a fish toasted in flame," Cave yelps, and if the recipient of such sentiments doesn't instantly rip off their clothes and unleash all of their kundalini, then we have a real problem on our hands.