[I RECOMMEND YOU HIT PLAY AND LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST AS YOU READ THE ARTICLE]
Is there anything the human race spends more time and effort on, and fails more consistently at, than romance? I know I don’t really know how to make it work, or spice things up in the bedroom, or keep a woman happy and satisfied. What I do know how to do is arrange for an exchange of mixtapes (or CDs or playlists, or whatever) between me and my partner that will fulfill all our yearnings and solve all of our problems for 45-90 minutes.
Just read this totally free article, and you can apply my method too!
As a hopeless romantic pretending to be a normal, emotionally balanced, functioning member of a society that can be ruthless in its ability to break down and sterilize the bubbling turmoil that is my inner experience of love and sexual attraction, I sometimes see my life’s narrative as a collection of fleeting moments when I found my persistent eroticism reflected in another person. The collection is not just a catalog of orgasms. Rather, I’m holding onto scattered memories of the ephemera of passions past: a glow of blue-toned television light hovering over the round hip of the first girl I ever saw naked, or the salty smell of another woman’s hair as she leaned against me and we watched the waning sunlight glimmer in a stripe over the Caribbean Sea.
Emblematic of my tangible romantic experiences are about a cassette tape’s capacity of pop songs my lovers have copied onto mixes for me over the years. When someone makes you a mix, are you like me? Do you take each song and turn it over in the pit of your stomach, imagining the object of your affection had it written just for you, rather than simply appropriated something readily available to millions of strangers? If yes, then this list of ten songs may make a lot of sense to you. If not, well, I encourage you to try to squeeze some sensation out of your cold, sedimentary heart and imagine what it’s like to be this much of a sap. These are some of the songs I’ve received that have moved me the most:
- “In the Cold, Cold Night” The White Stripes, Elephant, 2003
I’m not a guy who has ever been chased by droves of women. But now, as I hurtle at uncontrollable speed toward middle age, I remember fondly one six month period back in 2004 when I had at least a handful of admirers. I was in my second semester of grad school when three different women awarded me mixtapes that prominently featured the reluctantly amorous vocal stylings of Meg White.
The song uses Meg’s slyly tempting voice to tell the story of a deeply male fantasy. It is just insanely hot to imagine that there is some shy girl thinking of you from afar, quietly waiting for you to come over and release the pressure on her secretly boiling kettle of sensuality. Oh man, those were the days when I really had it. Or at least that’s how I like to remember them.
- “Alley Flowers” Jolie Holland, Catalpa, 2003
Part of the exhilaration of new love is knowing that someone else recognizes and appreciates something special about you, maybe something that has gone unnoticed by others. When a person is able to express that appreciation by introducing you to a hidden gem, a song or musician you haven’t heard of before, it can add an aura of mystery to your budding attachment.
Back in 2002, Jolie Holland decided to forgo the emerging cult stardom of the Be Good Tanyas, in order to go her own way and record a delicately arranged, uniquely executed solo album. Her Louisiana accent, paired with jangling bells and echoing percussion, singing, “Ain’t nobody’s got the shine like you/Like you got the shine/In this world,” takes me back to a few weeks one May I spent walking through cool Iowa dusks with a woman I never expected would choose me.
- “Sweet Thing” Van Morrison, Astral Weeks, 1968
One great thing about being a teenager is that there are a lot of experiences it is still possible for you to have for the first time; among the best of them may be falling in love, and listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
There is just something about “Sweet Thing” that perfectly captures the butterflies-in-your-stomach drunkenness of a first love. The akimbo notes teetering from the flute, the persistent urging of the repetitive high hat, the saccharin pull of the violins, and finally Van’s raggedly improvisational howling, “I will raise my hands into the nighttime sky/The kind of stars that shine in your eyes/Just to dig it all and not to wonder/That’s just right.” Jeez, love and music will never be that pure and naïve again.
- “Will Do,” TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light, 2011
We don’t stay that naïve very long, though. Growing into a jaded adult and managing to open yourself up to a new experience can require feats of psychological gymnastics, and a lot of patience, to deal with your own (and your probably equally damaged partner’s) trust issues.
The simply danceable beat of TV on the Radio’s second-biggest hit evokes the speeding heartbeat of someone in their thirties falling in love (or having an anxiety attack (or both simultaneously)). The lyrics offer the kindness and solace we’ll need to find our way through the process: “Your love makes a fool of you/You can’t seem to understand/A heart doesn’t play by rules/And love has its own demands/But I’ll be there to take care of you/If ever you should decide/You don’t want to waste your life/In the middle of a love sick lullaby.” And the bridge erupts into a passionate crescendo of sexual lava that any grown man or woman knows a relationship just isn’t going to work without.
- “Star Me Kitten” REM, Automatic for the People, 1991
As much as I love REM, and as many times as Automatic for the People allowed my tortured adolescent heart a fifty minute escape from reality, they are not the first band I think of when it comes to sensuality. I mean, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck were more like two guys I wished were my dad – my goofy, fun dad who is probably not comfortable talking to me about safe sex.
It took twenty years for me to realize how wrong I had been. I was in the process of falling hard for a woman I worked with, and we were keeping things quiet around the office. One day she approached me in the hallway and silently handed me a disc that prominently featured “Star Me Kitten.” I had heard the track hundreds of times, but never appreciated it for what it is – an ode to the kind of passion that exists between two people who have reached a level of maturity and experience that is beyond clichés and starry-eyed platitudes. It’s about the kind of lazily desperate sex you have with someone to whom you have nothing to prove, someone who you need and they need you, even if it doesn’t make sense.
- “Let’s Move to the Country” Smog, Knock Knock, 1999
When a woman puts a song by Smog on the mix she gives you, she’s basically telling you that she’s at least as cool as you are, and she’s probably cooler. She’s letting you know that she’s hardly going to be impressed by your knowledge of obscure and avant-garde musicians, she’s either well-versed herself, or has dated some other dudes who listen to shit like Bill Callahan. She knows your type and all your tricks.
And when a woman like that picks out a pastoral fantasy like “Let’s Move to the Country” for you, she’s choosing you for good: “Let’s move to the country/My travels are through/Let’s move to the country/Just me and you.” What could be better than getting that kind of a complement from someone who really shouldn’t be all that impressed with you?
- “You You You You You” The 6ths, Hyacinths and Thistles, 2000
From a more venerable vantage, it’s possible to look back and wonder how you ever wound up attracted to certain people, and how they ever wound up attracted to you. If I dig a little deeper in memory, trying to recall the moment when an obviously poor match somehow seemed like kismet, there’s a pretty good chance there was a song distorting my judgment.
Has any artist ever captured the fleeting, comic levity of human coupling as naturally and accurately as Stephen Merritt? The Magnetic Fields gave us 69 Love Songs, a three-volume, all-purpose manual for dealing with the whole process, from harmless crush to bitter divorce settlement, and then Merritt moved on to an even more hysterically endearing project: writing and producing a tribute album to himself. Under the moniker The 6ths, Merritt enlisted former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontwoman Katherine Whalen to sing the sickeningly sweet “You You You You You,” which should come with a warning label that it can cause me to fall for someone I am totally incompatible with.
- “Kiss Me On My Neck” Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun, 2000
Oh Erykah Badu, thank you for occupying the role of matriarch for all the earthy, eccentric girls of my generation. And thank you for recording a song that gives me permission to walk up behind them and put my lips on their bodies.
With a backing band/production team out of a hip hop fan’s wet dreams – legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette kicking a beat, with James Poyser on the keys, and J Dilla tying the whole thing together, Erykah simply goes out and lays down one of the sexiest songs that I’ve ever heard.
Having a woman you want let you know she wants you back, and having her tell you a secret about what turns her on? I can’t stop myself from smiling just sitting here thinking about it.
- “River” Joni Mitchell, Blue, 1971
Literature and music, film and talk shows are all filled with narratives of men who have botched relationships, thrown something good away, and regret it. We hear so much of men apologizing, trying to beg their way back in, that it’s easy to grow up assuming that women don’t make the same kinds of mistakes.
That’s not reality though, is it? Ladies are just as likely to take a good thing for granted. If you find yourself in that position, I can tell you, in one man’s opinion, that Joni Mitchell knows exactly what a fella who has been wronged wants to hear:
He tried hard to help me
He put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees…
I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone lost the best baby
That I ever had
- “Tell Him” Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998
I actually received this song, a profession of deep and everlasting love, from a girl I had been with for years, at a time when we both knew it was over. As confusing as that was at the time, somehow the song is so beautiful, it helped me through the process of that heartbreak. I once heard Talib Kweli talking about Lauryn Hill on the radio, and he basically made the point that no matter how many shows she cancels, she’s already done enough for us to be eternally grateful by putting out Miseducation, that one brilliant summer in 1999. I guess I think of all my doomed affairs the same way. I remember the moments I was given, the ones I want to remember, the ones that sound the best. Quite honestly, it’s hoping that there will be more of those that keeps me going through everything else.
*Thank you to Jenny Yu for the illustration at the top of the page. Check out more of her work here.