Cozy up to the fire with RIFF’s favorite love songs

Original illustration, Vivian Shih

“lus,” Illustration: Vivian Shih

It’s “love and hate” week at RIFF. We’ve taken on the theme of Valentine’s Day to talk about both sides of love. Today, we asked our writers, photographers and editors about their favorite love songs.

Additionally, we’ve partnered with talented artist Vivian Shih, who has illustrated some of the concepts with her original illustrations. Shih is a Los Angeles artist, illustrator and surface designer who pulls inspiration from surreal self-reflection, nature and current events. Shih is also a traveler and enjoys discovering new breakfast spots, immersing herself in nature and finding peace in yoga. Today’s piece is called “lus.”

Matt De Mello, editor — “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen

Not a typical love song, it’s about empathetic love. Bruce shows that he understands what the “Mary” feels, but more than that, he sets the scene perfectly: “The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves/ Like a vision she dances across the porch/ As the radio plays.” The fact that he notices these intricate little details shows the affection he feels for her. Maybe it’s a love that’s unrequited, as he describes how she is desperate for a hero to rise from the streets and save her. Bruce recognizes he’s no hero, but instead a man who desperately loves her and knows they can have a life together.

Julie Parker, reporter — “Sweet Avenue,” Jets to Brazil 

Jets to Brazil’s Blake Schwarzenbach, formerly of Jawbreaker, is known for cornering the market on music to which you want to slit your wrists. But if you’re making a mixtape for your Valentine this year, you’d be remiss if you didn’t include JTB’s, “Sweet Avenue.” The opening chords imbue the listener with that weightless feeling of being head-over-heels, and the song is heavy with sensual lyrics that draw the connection between love and the rebirth of spring. Schwarzenbach illustrates how love can create a new filter with which to experience the world.

Mike Massaro, columnist — “Breadcrumb Trail,” Slint

Slint’s “Breadcrumb Trail” is more of a narrative about falling in love than an actual love song. However, through its spoken word vocal delivery, the lyrics paint a beautiful and vivid scenario. The story consists of a man going to a fortune teller in a brightly colored tent within a carnival. The fortune teller offers to read his fortune, but he invites her to ride a roller-coaster with him instead. The roller-coaster ride is both literal and figurative, as they hold hands in anticipation and then reach up to the skies as they descend. The very last line is one of my favorite lines from any song: “At the gate I said goodnight to the fortune teller/ The carnival sign threw colored shadows on her face, but I could tell she was blushing.”

Joey Reams, reporter — “First Day of My Life,” Bright Eyes  

At its core, a love song is pure. It should feel too good to be true, like falling in love for the first time. That’s why “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes is one of the best love songs. It is innocent, yet intimate. The moments Conor Oberst reminisces about are so relatable that it almost feels like he’s been through the ordeal several times over. Although the stories may feel a little corny, they’re well-scripted. Lines like “I think I was blind before I met you,” sound like they are pulled directly from a Nicholas Sparks novel. The guitar creates a euphoric experience of waking up for the first time. Any hopeless romantic will find an instant connection here.

Amanda Limond, reporter — “Hannah Hunt,” Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend has got to be one of the best groups for music that is simultaneously happy and sad. “Hannah Hunt” is the band’s best single on Modern Vampires of the City, but also the perfect modern picture of love. Ezra Koenig sings about a girl named Hannah with whom he travels from Manhattan to Santa Barbara. She gets cold feet once they reach the West Coast. The lyric that really sticks with me is, “If I can’t trust you then damnit Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.” He then remarks that even though things are different, they have their “own sense of time.” This song isn’t sugarcoating the situation. It doesn’t have a silver lining. They took a chance on their relationship and now they don’t know each other anymore. The only thing they do know is that they love each other.

Ruby Virchow, columinist — “West Savannah,” Isaiah Rashad featuring SZA

When choosing the greatest love song, I wouldn’t expect this to be anyone’s first choice. It took me a few listens to realize how meaningful the song truly is. Rashad raps about young love and the impact those feelings have on the innocent mind. The soft hip-hop beats combine effortlessly with the heartfelt lyrics to avoid sappiness.  He raps, “At least we fell in love, with something greater than debating suicide.” This lyric alone embodies how the warmth of a first love can overcome harsh feelings of loneliness. SZA’s vocals in the background mold into Rashad’s effortlessly to make a perfect duo.

Celine Teo-Blockey, reporter — “A 1000 Times,” Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam

At the moment my favorite love song is “A 1000 Times” by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam, off the album I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. I have it on repeat at my desk, in the car, on walks, even in the shower! I’m listening to it RIGHT NOW. As my husband jokes, I have easily listened to this track a 1,000 times since I saw them live last month. If I had thought the song was likable when I first heard it on the radio, I was completely floored seeing them live.

Hector Aguilar, reporter — “My Girl,” The Temptations

Growing up in East L.A., my dad loved taking my brother and I to low-rider car shows. Unfortunately for him, I was never all that interested in the cars, but I did fall in love with the continuous rotation of some of doo-wop’s greatest hits played at these shows. Childhood memories of Brenton Wood and Smokey Robinson playing through the speakers of chromed Impalas are still some of my most vivid. I could have picked a number of these songs but “My Girl” by The Temptations has always stuck out to me. It perfectly captures the honeymoon phase of a relationship with catchy lyrics that are guaranteed to warm the coldest of hearts.

Lea Blevins, columnist — “Silly Love Songs,” Wings

Let’s be honest. Love songs are kind of annoying. Even when I’m in a relationship, they don’t always hit me quite right. It’s like romantic comedies—they’re fun to watch but paint an unrealistic picture when compared to real life. But that doesn’t mean I’m a total Valentine’s Day grinch. One love song that makes me smile no matter what is “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney’s Wings. But my dirty secret is that as much as I adore McCartney, I love the version sung by Darren Criss when The Warblers performed it on a Valentine’s Day episode of “Glee.” While the song croons about romance, the lyrics acknowledge that sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t. All I know is, Darren Criss can be my Valentine either way.

Ian Firstenberg, columnist — “One Million Lovers,” The Growlers

While most might not consider this the standard love song, it seems all too fitting. As lead singer Brooks Nielsen starts the track with, “Found a cure for loneliness, I’m forever immune/ Stuck in my walk and in my head and I hum her tune,” listeners are reminded of the intoxicating moment during which you recognize how deeply you care for someone. “Can’t explain but it’s almost hard to recognize myself/ Slowly I’ve changed, turned into someone else,” we naturally adapt within relationships and Nielsen describes this unique transformation perfectly. As listeners, we are quickly struck by the vulnerability of his lyrics while drawn to our own examples of such love.

Brandi Smith, reporter — “Something,” The Beatles

Real talk: When George Harrison penned “Something,” he single-handedly set unrealistic expectations of love for generations. What woman (or man, for that matter) doesn’t want to be viewed as Harrison so lovingly saw “her,” who we now know is Pattie Boyd? There is beautiful tenderness in lyrics like “Somewhere in her smile she knows/ That I don’t need no other lover,” suggesting he’s studied her expressions and can discern even the most subtle cues. Her confidence around him is also telling. Real love infuses us with a sense of invulnerability that can’t be faked or forced.

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