Since the introduction of the Walkman in 1979, one of the great joys of being in love has been to curate the perfect mixtape for your sweetheart. Remember waiting with your finger on the record button for Janet Jackson’s “Runaway” to come on the radio? (Anyone?) Of course, today we use playlists and mp3s, but the art of selecting the perfect sequence of songs to tell your love story is still alive and well. I started this tradition for my boyfriend Michael on our first Valentine’s together two years ago. This morning, I sent him our third annual playlist, which I titled “Love In Every Genre.” Here’s my idea of the expertly-crafted Valentine’s mixtape.
1. “Soulmates” – Maren Parusel
You gotta start with a hook. I caught Maren’s act at a chili festival in my neighborhood back in December while I was waiting in line at a food truck. By the time I got my corn pancake-batter-dipped sausage on a stick (yum), I was a fan of her synthed-out rhythms and spunky voice. I bought her CD and this song, the anthem of eternal, reincarnated lovers, fit the bill to open this year’s playlist. “We’ve been togeddah, forevah… togeddah, forevah… we are soulmates…”
2. “It’s Time” – Glee Cast
I usually recommend going with the original artist who recorded the song (sorry, Imagine Dragons!), but exceptions must be made, especially when both you and your partner are huge Gleeks. For us, it was a bonus that this song is sung by a male character to his boyfriend. I told Michael that if I had cup-clapping skills like this, I’d organize my own flash mob to make him smile!
3. “Not the Only One” – Bonnie Raitt
Don’t forget the classics! This song is one of my all-time favorites. My love affair with the female singer-songwriter began in the 90s Lilith Fair heyday – Sarah Mclachlan, Natalie Merchant, Tracy Chapman. But she of the white streak in a mane of orange hair preceded all of these and was still making killer blues-roots records. Just like Ms. Raitt, I remember “feeling that I’d always be the lonely one… but then I saw your face, on the edge of my horizon, whispering that I was not the only one.” Bonus: this song is perfect for dancing.
4. “Brighter Than the Sun” – SMASH Cast
All good mixtapes deserve a piece of empty-headed pop fluff, and this little ditty was perfect for ours. Michael and I watched the whole first season of SMASH together with some close friends last year before he moved to St. Louis to begin grad school, so this makes for some nice memories. Plus, my dance moves look just like spoiled white girl Karen’s in an NYC karaoke bar.
5. “Into the Mystic” – Swell Season
Mixtapes are a perfect for sharing “new” finds with your partner. I’m sure I’d heard this Van Morrison song before, but it really caught my attention when it played in the soundtrack to the film “The Five-Year Engagement,” which happens to be about a couple working through the challenges of moving from California to the midwest because one of them is pursuing a Ph.D. – something Michael and I know a little bit about. So this pick is as much related to that movie as it is the song itself – though I absolutely love when Glen Hansard is wailing, “When that foghorn whistle blows, I want to hear it, I don’t have to fear it and I want to rock your gypsy soul…”
6. “Be My Honeypie” – The Weepies
Sometimes a sweet, simple song says it best. My brother introduced me to The Weepies several years ago, and they’ve become one of my favorite folk groups. With this song, they manage to translate a melodramatic hyperbole into the sweet nothings of lovers who can’t bear to be apart. “If you don’t love me, I will die – be my honeypie.” (Bonus: can’t help but smile at the LGBT-friendly video!)
7. “A Bushel and a Peck” – Doris Day
Songs that are shared experiences always make for great mixtape selections. My Mamaw used to sing this to me as a boy. To this day, I hum it absentmindedly on a regular basis. I used to sing it to my border collie, Winslow, who I had to say goodbye to when he became sick back in October. So it’s always been a very personal song for me. But Michael thought it was something silly I had made up. “A bushel and a peck, a barrel and a heap…” I was delighted to watch him eat crow when we saw “Julie & Julia” together and heard the track playing in the soundtrack. Since then, it’s become a song that we sing to each other at random intervals. I love that a song my Mamaw sang to me still means so much, and I hope to sing it to my children and grandchildren one day.
8. “A Place Only You Can Go” – Needtobreathe
Here’s where I let the mood of the mixtape transition to something a little more serious. Like all lovers do, Michael and I have faced (and continue to face) our share of challenges: family and friends who don’t approve of our relationship, trying to integrate our lives while being in different emotional and spiritual places, navigating the long-distance thing. At the end of the day, there’s no one else I would want to go through these things with, and this song (and the next) both speak to the very real challenges of life. It also acknowledges the very real power of choosing to go through them together. “This is the cry of a man: I can’t give you fortune or noble life, but I’ll love you all I can.”
9. “We’re Gonna Pull Through” – Over the Rhine
My favorite band, OTR always makes it onto the mixtape. This song is actually from one of their Christmas albums. It’s a reflection of the hard times of the previous year, with an eye to the hope, however bleak it might be, of the future. When Karin Berquist sings, “Maybe, kinda, sorta – if I really had to say – something good is on it’s way,” I can definitely understand the very tentative belief she musters in the face of what can seem like overwhelming obstacles. But it’s my conviction that belief that “we’re gonna pull through” – however slight – is sometimes the only thing that enables us to do just that.
10. “Emotionally Yours” – Jimmy Lafave
This ballad from Texas rock-n-roller Jimmy Lafave was actually a tricky pick for me. I co-owned this CD, called “Texoma,” with a girlfriend back in college. We bought it on one of many road trips – to Boone, North Carolina, I believe – and it’s been an essential part of my music collection every since. I don’t go on a road trip without listening to it at least once. It certainly reminds me of my strange, complicated history – not all of which is negative. I have a lot of very good feelings and memories about that time in my life and the people I shared it with. But I wanted to give this song new meaning and new life with where I am today. In it, there’s a line that says, “It’s like my whole life never happened every time I see you.” I get that. Not that the past is wiped away, but that if all the twists and turns I took to get here brought me the wonderful man I have in my life today, then it was a journey I’d take a million times over. Though I’m glad I don’t have to.
11. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – Greg Laswell
Sometimes, you just have a song that is beautiful, and suits the mood you want to cultivate. I have no other reason for including this moody interpretation of the Cyndi Lauper classic other than I think its very, very pretty.
12. “Oh How the Years Go By” – Amy Grant
I don’t know about you, but I get a kick out of making my partner cringe by amplifying my innate nerdery, love of schmaltz, and long history with good old Contemporary Christian Music. Enter Amy Grant. Despite the fact that, musically, this song is everything that made 90s pop ballads so
transcendent cheesy, I actually really love the lyrics: “In our times of trouble, we only had ourselves – nobody else… No one there to save us, we had to save ourselves…” When you choose a partner, you’re choosing the one whose back you will always have, and who you trust to always have yours. I like that I can communicate that to my boyfriend through my CCM pop goddess.
13. “Hummingbird Heartbeat” – Katy Perry
I’m sorry, but it’s not a Valentine’s mixtape without a pop song that’s full of thinly-veiled sexual innuendo. In this case, very thinly-veiled.
14. “Right Back Where We Started” – Maxine Nightingale
Another movie soundtrack-inspired choice. Every November after Thanksgiving, I
force invite Michael (and anyone else in the general vicinity) to watch my favorite Christmas movie, “The Family Stone.” There’s a scene in a bar on Christmas Eve where Sarah Jessica Parker’s uptight intruder finally let’s her freak flag fly by playing this disco ditty on the jukebox. It’s an awful song – so awful that it makes for a beautiful moment as you realize just how desperately her character needs someone like Luke Wilson’s laid-back, pot-smoking slacker to help her “just, you know… relax.” Now we can enjoy this song all year long.
15. “Hang With Me” – Robyn
Nothing wrong with introducing your partner to your favorite new music through your mixtape. I rediscovered the Swedish dance/pop star Robyn when her single “Dancing On My Own” was featured on the show “Girls.” I loved it so much that I got the whole album. “Hang With Me” is one of my favorite tracks – a warning to her suitor not to “fall recklessly, headlessly in love with me, ’cause it’s gonna be all heartbreak, blissfully painful insanity.” I told Michael, you’ve been warned.
16. “Wanted Man” – Needtobreathe
Needtobreathe is the only band to make it on this year’s playlist twice. I just really dug their “Reckoning” album this past year, and this Bonnie and Clyde-inspired road song is great to sing along to and says, essentially: I’m a fugitive on the run, but get in the car and trust my love for you.
17. “When the Right One Comes Along” – Nashville Cast
As seen in some of the previous picks, I like to include music that represents a shared experience. Michael and I are both addicted to the new country music-centered drama Nashville, and this song is among the best they’ve recorded for the show. “You think you know what you’re looking for, ’til what you’re looking for finds you.” Ain’t it the truth.
18. “It’s Time” – Gavin Mikhail
Yes, it’s the same song as #2, but a significantly stripped-down version. Michael is an excellent pianist, and I wanted him to learn to play this one so we could sing it together. It makes for a great little anthem: “I’m never changing who I am.” And when you find a Valentine who loves you for who you are, you’ll never have to.
I hope this how-to has inspired you to keep the mixtape tradition alive. Don’t wait for the next Valentine’s Day – you can make a mixtape for any occassion! St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and there’s a world of Irish pub songs waiting to be put together in just the right order. Cheers!