Contrary to popular belief, the best love songs aren’t limited to the croonings of Sinatra, Martin, or Adele. Houston, Dion, and T-Swift do not have a monopoly on the music of love. Many of the most emotional, heartfelt musicianship in indie music can be heard in their own attempts at the love song. They are all tender songs, and they can be found on this Spotify playlist.
UPDATE: We’ve got a sequel to the list, Indie Love Songs for Your Hipster Sweetheart Pt. II. As with this list, not every song is playable in Spotify, so head on over and listen to the Youtube links. Embedded below is the Spotify playlist with both parts.
1. Street Fighter—Frank Ocean
2. Strawberry Swing—Frank Ocean
Strictly speaking, the first is not a love song. It just happens to be the best introduction to a mixtape imaginable, and it flows perfectly into the beauty that is “Strawberry Swing.” Frank Ocean’s swooning vocals reach out not just for love, but for innocence, making the song all the more powerful.
3. Say Yes—Elliott Smith
Here, Elliott Smith captures part of the essence of love which injects you with vitality for the world. It is an infectious emotion, encompassing other aspects of our worldly experience; yet, it is also wildly fleeting.
4. Naomi—Neutral Milk Hotel
This song is one of my favorites. Written for Jeff Mangum’s girlfriend at the time, Galaxie 500’s Naomi Yang, it is a song of a man exiting depression all because of a girl. And it is about his desperation to keep her in his life. The unofficial music video below is performed by Naomi Yang herself.
5. To Be Alone with You—Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan’s beautiful melodies and voice can pull at my heartstrings on nearly any subject, but in “To Be Alone with You” he is at his near-best. On Seven Swans, this is likely a religious song, expressing a love that exceeds the physical being and is somehow more pure because of that.
6. Our Way to Fall—Yo La Tengo
“Our Way to Fall,” on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is a powerful song among other powerful songs, but its power is soft. The loveliness of the song derives not only from the lyrics but also from the beautiful combination of guitar and percussion.
7. My Heart is an Apple—Arcade Fire
Usually more heartfelt through nostalgia than love, Arcade Fire has a certain exquisiteness to their stripped orchestral sound. This song starts out with “I’ll admit I’m full of shit/That’s how I know I love you,” which I think captures the line of thought of many of the songs—that lyrics, even words, fail to capture the authenticity and truth of such a powerful state.
8. Girl—The Beatles
Rubber Soul counts as indie. Anyway, Lennon-McCartney had to be on here.
9. I Felt Your Shape—The Microphones
This short song about trying to grasp the essence of someone you are in love with but falling short because the reality of love creates a ‘new depth’ that exceeds the physical.
10. Blood Bank—Bon Iver
Emma of For Emma is, in the words of a friend just the other day, “a total bitch.” I would have felt wrong putting a song from such a mournful break-up album on a list of love songs—it is a different sort of love, to be sure. Nevertheless, Bon Iver’s music is full of the grace of a love song, and “Blood Bank” captures that. Blood, something that runs through your heart, is at once a part of you and easily separate, like love. Love is, then, a life-force.
11. Such Great Heights—Iron & Wine
I have heard Iron & Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” been cited as the superior to its original, the Postal Service version. I think this may be because people reject the somewhat inauthentic electronic sound with a raw and mysterious emotion like love. Iron & Wine, a master of the soft ballad on love, is near his best here.
12. Autumn Sweater—Yo La Tengo
Few songs capture the nuances of young love—infatuation—like “Autumn Sweater.” The anxiety, the hesitation, and the innocence encapsulates the high school (and as I’m learning also college) experience of love.
13. All My Little Words—The Magnetic Fields
What would an indie love song playlist be like without something from The Magnetic Field’s opus, 69 Love Songs? Certainly it would be incomplete, and though there were many to choose from, “All My Little Words” may be the best of the 69. Short and self-referential, Stephen Merritt created a simple and sweet song.
14. Let’s Get Lost—Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith understands pain, but it’s also clear that he understands love. The album From a Basement on a Hill was released posthumously, but “Let’s Get Lost” feels like a complete song. And though it’s a song about struggles, it is also a song about recapturing a love you once had. For that reason, and the splendid acoustic melody, it is on this list.
15. Brighter than Sunshine—Aqualung
Aqualung is not what I would consider a traditional indie act. Nevertheless, this song does not get nearly the attention it ought to for its beauty.
16. Futile Devices—Sufjan Stevens
Thematically, this may be my idea of the quintessential love song. I talk about why just below.
17. Do You Realize??—The Flaming Lips
The Official Rock Song of Oklahoma, “Do You Realize??” has been attacked for its nihilism and foul language, but its emotional strength is hardly in question. Before anything, it calls on us to realize that we are beautiful and that we ought to celebrate life. It is a love song, thereby, for both love and vitality, mingling the two in an urgent yet soft plea to take part in life.
What we see with the love song is that the theme itself is so passionate that it evokes an absolutely graceful aesthetic in music. As Sufjan Stevens sings on “Futile Devices,” there is a certain ethereal quality to the emotion of love that. When expressed it words, it may ‘sound dumb,’ but it inherently exceeds words and description—music, as an emotional experience, comes up where words, ‘futile devices,’ fall short.
As you like it, I’ll have a playlist of heartbreaking love songs up soon.
There will be a Spotifriday post every week on the Airspace, your cultural curators.