Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays people hate to love or love to hate. Its very nature as a celebration of romantic love — not to mention its reputation as a hyper-commercialized Hallmark holiday — puts you in a box: Single? No conventional celebration for you. In a relationship? Here’s a holiday with sky-high expectations (and in many cases, some complicated feelings regarding gender norms, feminism, and patriarchal standards).
But you know what won’t let you down? Music about love — or the lack of it. So in the spirit of celebrating whatever you want, here are 13 songs to make this Valentine’s Day your best one yet, no matter what your relationship status.
1) “Turnin’ Me Up” by BJ the Chicago Kid
BJ the Chicago Kid, a — surprise! — Chicago rapper, has been making music since the mid-2000s, and earned his second, third, and fourth Grammy nods this year in the Best R&B Album, Best R&B Performance, and Best Traditional R&B Performance categories. He didn’t win any awards, but this song is perfect for post-Grammys Valentine’s Day listening. It’s smooth, happy, and full of affection, with a simple singalong chorus to groove to.
2) “With a Girl Like You” by the Troggs
Older love songs tend to make clearer declarations of affection than modern ones do, which is why this Troggs tune from 1966 has an authentic “I’m in love!” feel. The Troggs are best known for their megahit “Wild Thing,” but this more toned-down song is ideal for declaring your fondness to the guy or gal you wanna dance with later tonight.
3) “Shut Up Kiss Me” by Angel Olsen
For anyone fed up with sappy love songs, Angel Olsen’s 2016 single “Shut Up Kiss Me” is an essential girl-in-love anthem. There’s nothing sweet on its surface: Olsen yells her lyrics, shreds her guitar, and crashes the drums. But underneath all of that is a singer in the throes of a crush: “This heart still beats for you, why can’t you see?”
4) “Gonna Make Time” by the Frightnrs
As a true testament to the excellence of the throwback Daptone record label, this 2016 track about making space in your life for a significant other sounds like it was plucked straight out of the 1960s. And this entire Frightnrs album is one to cherish: Just as the four-piece ensemble began recording in the summer of 2015, lead singer Dan Klein was diagnosed with ALS. He didn’t live to see the 2016 debut of Nothing More to Say, which makes the group’s slow-burn success all the more bittersweet. For another top-notch song, February 14–appropriate song, listen to their cover of Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
5) “Boy Problems” by Carly Rae Jepsen
You shouldn’t let this song’s straightforward title deceive you — it’s a track of many layers. At its core, it’s about female friendship. It’s also, according to the Hairpin’s Jia Tolentino, “a beautiful song of gay discovery.” And at the most basic level, it’s a straight-up “forget about your boy troubles” mandate. What more can you want on Valentine’s Day? Jepsen’s got you covered on all fronts with this A-plus pop jam.
6) “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” by Zayn and Taylor Swift
If you’ll be spending your Valentine’s Day in a movie theater watching Fifty Shades Darker, more power to you. If you’ll be out in the open air doing just about anything else, you can still enjoy the one good piece of that movie without suffering through Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan’s awkward lack of chemistry: the soundtrack collab of Taylor Swift and Zayn from One Direction. This song is lite power pop at its finest, and it’s highly addictive. You’ve been warned.
7) “Valentine” by Esmé Patterson
Despite the name of this song, indie folk singer Esmé Patterson isn’t about to give her heart away. In “Valentine,” the performer asserts her independence — “Oh, valentine / Honey, there’s nothing that’s yours and mine” — instead of snuggling in with a significant other on this most sacred of couple-based days.
Of course, it’s no surprise Patterson took this cheeky route; on Woman to Woman, the 2013 album this track comes from, she reimagined famous pop songs from the woman’s perspective, and “Valentine” in particular is a response to Elvis Costello’s “Alison.” Check out the whole thing for Patterson’s takes on “Jolene,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and more.
8) “I Found Love” by the Free Design, Styrofoam, and Sarah Shannon
In the ’60s, the New York sunshine pop band the Free Design released a full stack of folky, soft-psych albums … to very little critical acclaim. The family band’s music was bubblegum sweet in an era when that style sold well (think the Beach Boys), but they didn’t see real success until they were blessed with an incredible 2005 remix. The FreeDesign: The Now Sound Redesign takes 19 of the band’s tracks and lets artists like Super Furry Animals, Belle and Sebastian, and Caribou lay their interpretations on top of the originals.
You might remember the original version of this track about finding love in unexpected places from the first episode of the second season of Gilmore Girls, when Lorelai is walking around town handing out yellow daisies after Max Medina proposes to her. (Oh, wait, that’s just me?)
9) “En Love” by Lizzo
Don’t be fooled by the first 30 seconds of this song: Lizzo isn’t about to start waxing poetic about some guy or girl she’s head over heels for. After a soaring intro, the beat drops, and Lizzo’s real purpose comes out: “I’m in love with myself,” she sings, grinding the melody into a banger with attitude and purpose. If you’re not dancing in front of your mirror at least once a week to this track, you might want to consider adding it to your self-care routine.
10) “Baby” by Donnie and Joe Emerson
This romantic slow jam is subtle, making it perfect background music for a romantic dinner for two. Its origin story makes interesting table conversation, too. After a crate digger in Spokane unearthed a 1970s record from these Washington-native teen brothers in 2008, Donnie and Joe Emerson became something of a 21st-century success story. Their eight-song LP took on a life of its own, with “Baby” getting the cover treatment from Ariel Pink, and Light in the Attic, a reissue label in Washington, rereleasing the entire LP in 2012.
11) “Since I Met You Baby” by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
This love song is a classic from the 1950s, covered a zillion times in the past half-century. But this particular version is special because it comes from Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, an Austin, Texas, blues and soul band better known for alt-romantic songs like “Booty City” and “Bitch, I Love You.” While Lewis crushes a guitar solo, the Honeybears blast out backing brass; the combination of that musical prowess with the pure and sincere lyrics yields a perfectly reimagined love song. (Their first album in six years, Backlash, came out this month.)
12) “I’m Sprung” by T-Pain
We were first graced with the a cappella intro to the pure love song “I’m Sprung” in 2005, back when heavy autotune was a brand new thing. But it stands the test of time — it’s solid and sweet, sending you straight back to whomever you were crushing on 12 years ago. This 2014 New Yorker profile of T-Pain details his success and struggle with the voice manipulation software, but check out his Tiny Desk concert to see him crush a performance without it.
13) “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate
Sometimes there’s only one way to get over the awkwardness that is a holiday focused on love: Dive straight into the cheese. This song has been a longtime standard for wedding receptions and party playlists, but there’s no harm in queuing it up on this most lovey-dovey of days. Everyone knows the words, you can’t help but smile when the boppy beat comes in, and the lyrics, while supremely corny, aren’t incorrect. Even the band’s name is Valentine’s Day appropriate.
By Bridget Henwood
Courtesy of Vox