It’s almost Valentine’s Day! You know, that holiday manufactured to remind those of us who are in relationships we shouldn’t take the love we have for granted and to rub it in for the single folks that they’re going to be spending another February 14th alone.
Whether you’re on your own out there or spending the 30th Valentine’s Day with your sweetheart, we here at Spectrum Culture have decided to pick our 10 favorite indie love songs from the past decade. The requirements? The song had to come out between 2000-09 and could not be on a label owned by a major. I hope you enjoy our selections. And remember: love does not exclusively exist between a man and a woman. Sorry, Sarah Palin. – David Harris
10. “No One’s Gonna Love You,” Band of Horses, from Cease to Begin [Sub Pop; 2007]
Band of Horses sticks with a tried and true, borderline emotionally abuse angle on “No One’s Gonna Love You,” playing up the title line just a little more than the “more than I do” that follows. It’s a classic love-song approach, cornering the object of affection with a “this is the best you’re ever going to get” approach, one that’s furthered here by the soothing repetition of the line. The band further pads this attack with a steady stream of vague, pretty poetry, invocations of external danger that range from “we’re reeling through an endless fall” to “the whole thing’s tumbling down.” This corners the beloved even more. Yet all this structural mumbo jumbo is kind of forgettable in what amounts to a consistently entrancing song. A shimmering, half-buried guitar line and some whispery drums float along on a silky wave. The soft musical touch gives the song a new identity away from its lyrical bent, portraying a forceful imprecation that’s also a cooing, feathery paean to devotion. Otherwise clunky lines like “we are the ever-living ghost of what once was” seem elegiac and workable under its sheen. Even lead singer Ben Bridwell’s too-reedy whine melts away under its hypnotic rhythm. – Jesse Cataldo
9. “A Stone,” Okkervil River, from Black Sheep Boy [Jagjaguwar; 2005]
The protagonist in Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” one of the most well-known uses of personification in pop music, built “a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate.” He disdained laughter, love, friendship and pain; it is implied that it was an old flame that left him so very isolated and emotionless. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff threw a twist into this bleak parable on “A Stone,” from 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. The down-on-his-luck central character is, instead, a man who is obsessively infatuated with the woman who happens to love that dull, inanimate object, making the story all the more heartbreaking. It is clearly not a love song in the “God Only Knows” sense, but it works as one on several complex layers, some genuinely romantic and others, well, depressing. While the object of affection here still loves that damn stone, smooth and cold, we find the narrator going “fucking insane” over the fact that she seems to want something so much more alive and real.
The final three verses feature the stone dreaming of medieval times, with the love interest becoming a princess being courted by numerous suitors, only to choose a “knave” from long ago. Sheff’s ability to layer metaphor upon dream upon fairy tale upon metaphor is equally romantic, heart-wrenching and brilliant, accompanied by an especially teary tone of voice and some tasteful horns to wrap it all up. It is left ambiguous what the stone actually represents – an uninteresting or closed-off lover, a gravestone or any other obsession keeping these two apart – but anyone who has never experienced rejection because of someone or something so dull and minute may need to be taken to a petrologist. – Kyle Wall
8. “Falling Slowly,” the Swell Season, from the Swell Season [Overcoat Recordings; 2006]
What is it about the Irish? It’s more than the accent — there’s an underlying sense of romanticism that colors melodies as well as vocal delivery itself. If Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s “Falling Slowly” had been recorded entirely in Celtic (or Welsh or Finnish or Basque) it would still induce swoons, even in the most hard-hearted. It would be easy to dismiss the song for its popularity (it’s pretty much the theme song to the movie Once, in case you forgot) if it didn’t hit such an emotional bullseye. It’s understated and vulnerable and hopeful — exactly the same notes you find your heart singing as you slowly wake up to the fact that you’re falling in love.
To be honest, I’m just now listening to the lyrics with a serious ear. And yes, they’re swoon-worthy. But it’s the overall effect — a sense of destiny, mutual salvation and awakening — that floats this boat. And the fact that it’s a duet, sung by two souls who sound destined to gravitate toward each other in a beautiful, initially tentative but ultimately sure-footed way? All the Hallmark cards in the world couldn’t even begin to capture that. – Barbara Mitchell
7. “Slow Show,” The National, from Boxer [Beggars Banquet; 2007]
Readers might find “Slow Show” an unusual choice for this feature, and for good reason. Equal parts self-loathing, manic and beautiful, it’s far from a traditional love song, even by modern indie standards. Still, it’s one of the most tender and moving songs of the past decade: an understanding nod to all those confidence-devoid, regret-filled romantics whose idea of love exists only in shades of complex gray.
Matt Berninger’s distinct baritone invokes the woes and longings of a truly pathetic character, filled with self-doubt and awkwardness (“A little more stupid/ A little more scared/ Every minute more unprepared“) and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Presumably alone at a party, the narrator nervously swallows punch, his mind racing and foggy, unable to concentrate or assimilate. Berninger delivers his lines (“Looking for somewhere to stand and stare/ I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away“) in a reserved yet desperate way that suggests nothing short of running home to his lover will help alleviate the fear and sense of not belonging that’s wrecking him.
Though “Slow Show” is predominantly bleak, its closing lyrics (“You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you/ You know I dreamed about you/ I missed you for 29 years“) suggest that the narrator’s love is so pure and runs so deep that it’s simply beyond time or logic. It’s an atypical, emotional finish to an already emotional song that explores the comforts of love in a time of internal despair, and one of the most memorable love songs of the past decade. – Marcus David
6. “I Found a Reason,” Cat Power, from the Covers Record [Matador; 2000]
As if to push her sparse musical approach to an extreme, Chan Marshall took the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” and excised most of the lyrics, as if only part of the song evoked a particular sentiment for her- the only one worth repeating. Originally released on 1970’s airplay-pining Loaded, Lou Reed’s “I Found a Reason” sounds melancholy, shuffling along like Tim Hardin’s similarly-named “Reason to Believe” while featuring a Dylanian harmonica, straight out of “I Want You.”
Marshall, on the other hand, repeats the lines “What comes is better than what came before,” sounding mournful and elegiac over warm, reverberating minor chords on her piano. “You better run, run, run to me,” she insists, though it’s unclear as to whether the object of her affection is already on his way or has left her far behind. Marshall, in her minimalism, leaves the song ambiguous, and as with all great love songs, the listener’s urge to fill in the blanks with the personal becomes the perfect accompaniment. The fact that a two-minute cover can be so different from its original incarnation and perhaps provide more unanswered questions than its forbearer is a testament to Marshall, whose unique feel for a love song casts a shadow over the ’00s so large, a million Zooey Deschanels could fit inside. – Chris Middleman
5. “First Day of My Life,” Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning [Saddle Creek; 2005]
I’ve read that Conor Oberst once introduced this song during a show with: “This is a love song. I myself have never been in love. But I imagine this is what it would be like.” It’s maybe hard to believe, but the track certainly stands out from the Bright Eyes catalog, anomalous in its uplifting optimism. Of course, there are still hints of melancholy buried in the subtle allusions to a rich back story of two lovers. “I’d rather be working for a pay check/ Than waiting to win the lottery,” Oberst asserts in the closing verse, grounding the lofty optimism and adolescent clichés of other passages with a lucid, give-and-take study on this most-covered human emotion.
Oberst sure pours it on early, though. “Yours was the first face that I saw/ I think I was blind before I met you,” he claims over acoustic swells that recall the great Elliott Smith. It’s almost as dramatic as the title-lyric, “This is the first day of my life/ Glad I didn’t die before I met you.” On paper it’s almost embarrassingly sappy, but somehow it works as an honest, stripped-down take on the transformative, restorative power of romantic love. Even without ever using the word “love,” “First Day of My Life” is, from start to finish, the archetypal love song of the past decade–a wedding song for a new generation. In the hands of a lesser talent, this refrain could easily melt into revoltingly sticky-sweet corn syrup, but Oberst’s undeniable talent as a wordsmith and his pitch-perfect trembling vocals leave it standing profoundly tall. – Brady Baker
4. “Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service, from Give Up [Sub Pop; 2003]
Ben Gibbard writes almost exclusively about love – usually the dejected, despondent, why-don’t-you-feel-the-same-way infatuated misery of love – but love nonetheless. However, on “Such Great Heights,” all of that gloom is evacuated for an absolutely smitten rollicking of pure ecstasy. Musically, it’s a fizzy cocktail of effusive synth, grumbling synth, shimmering synth and… actually, save for a late-game guitar beam, the entire song is made up of synth, which in 2003, before indie’s wide-armed embrace of dance and all its little children, was quite a recitation.
But none of that matters when the chorus kicks in. “They won’t see us waving from such great heights / Come down now they’ll say / But everything looks perfect from far away / Come down now, but we’ll stay.” Sincere, adulating and utterly adorable, rare does a song sound as genuine as “Such Great Heights” does. People who pretend to hate this song because of yuppie stigma or UPS commercials will always, always be full of shit. Divorce thyself from the typecasting pessimists and take the track as it was meant – not just a perfect ‘indie’ love song, a perfect love song regardless of what context you assign it – and something Gibbard will probably never replicate. – Luke Winkie
3. “Fistful of Love,” Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now [Secretly Canadian; 2005]
Love isn’t healthy. It’s obsessive, too forgiving and ultimately frightening. As any indie with a pocketful of neuroses knows, that kind of love and music go together like nothing else. “Fistful of Love,” one of the many stellar tracks on Antony & the Johnsons’ sophomore album, I Am a Bird Now, is about exactly that kind of emotion. A piano and horn-driven song monologuing the weirdly touching devotion of a lover forgiving their abusive other, it’s so radiant and convinced of its own rightness that it becomes easy to gloss over lyrics like “And I feel your fists/ And I know it’s out of love/ And I feel the whip/ And I know it’s out of love.” Combined with mentor/idol/strange love icon Lou Reed’s wandering, soulful guitar work and curiously contemplative spoken word intro, “Fistful of Love” accomplishes in a listener exactly what the singer is feeling- the rightness of something that should feel absolutely abhorrent.
Antony’s voice is as powerful as its ever been on this track, trading in trills and warbles for nearly raspy, desperate shouts as he first learns to accept and then demands that kind of treatment, that kind of love from his lover. Love may be frightening, but it’s what it can make us want that’s the truly scary part. – Nathan Kamal
2. “Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine, from Around the Well [Sub Pop; 2009]
Often, it’s difficult to love someone completely. Finding and then maintaining those feelings can be a laborious task, and life has a way of testing the emotions and sentiments we hold most dear. This being the case, it’s no surprise most love songs deal with the present, the past or a hope for the future – but not all three. “The Trapeze Swinger” is not one of those songs. Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine explores love over a lifetime from fleeting glances to intimate moments, savage fights to dissolved relationships, fond memories to final evaluations of it all. It’s a love song for the young and the experienced that graces familiar feelings for both.
Few other artists have the wise and careful demeanor of Beam’s perpetual backwoods whisper; it’s that delivery that anchors such grand sentiments over 10 ambitious minutes. Lesser artists would have failed to accurately express the lifelong scope of “The Trapeze Swinger” or do it less justice. Any other vocalist would have seemed too ambitious, singing from perspectives they couldn’t possibly understand. But Iron & Wine ambitiously sings of love lost and gained, before and after the simple pleasures of life – and it’s his simple approach that makes it all hit home. The songwriter’s age isn’t important when his voice suggests so much experience. In each stanza’s plea for a lover to “Please, remember me” in any number of ways, Beam reinforces just how permanent and evolving love can be, whether or not those questions ever reach their destination. More importantly, he suggests those evolving emotional way-points and the moments that prompt them are what really matter. Because at the end, life is as much a collection of all those temporary love songs as the relationships that made them all so important. – Michael Merline
1. “Emily Kane,” Art Brut, from Bang Bang Rock & Roll [Fierce Panda; 2005]
If you just read selected lyrics, it comes across like your typical ode to lost love (“I don’t even know where she lives/ I’ve not seen her in 10 years…” or the impassioned chorus of “Other girls went and other girls came/ I can’t get over my old flame/ I’m still in love with Emily Kane.”) But what makes “Emily Kane” arguably the greatest indie rock love song of the last decade is Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos’ delivery and attitude. Sure there’s some humor there, but it’s only to mask the fact that he’s 100% sincere.
From the way the opening eight chords slide down the scale to the fevered repetition of the final choruses, “Emily Kane” sticks with you not just because it’s a great pop song, but because it so vividly pines for a certain feeling at a certain time of life. What really makes it great is the fact that it’s relatable; nearly everyone had some sort of infatuation at age 15 – unrequited or otherwise – and the thrill of that early romance is the newness of it. And that’s half of what Argos is longing for: “Even though we didn’t understand/ How to do much more than just hold hands/ There’s so much about you I miss/ The clumsy way we used to kiss,” he reminisces in his mostly-spoken style. Sure, it’s a tribute to a real person, but more than that, it’s a longing for something intangible – a little bit of nostalgia for a feeling that you basically only get once. – Aaron Passman
[Logos: Jason Stoff]