Playlist: Be my valentine

Okay. So here’s something that’s never been done before, at least not on this blog, or really, during any of my years of blogging. It’s true. I have never done a post observing this somewhat suspect ‘holiday’, a day that has been over-commercialized and become more about selling chocolates and flowers and overpriced dinners than spending time with the one you love. Still, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I do have a sappy side, a side that gets totally wrapped up in rom-coms and even the odd Hallmark Christmas film. And yeah, my wife and I typically do observe February 14th, usually in our own quiet way, but the odd time we have gone out for a nice dinner and paid exorbitant prices for roses.

It just so happened a few weeks ago that I realized I was due for a new playlist and the idea occurred to me to create one of ‘love songs’. Then, I quelled the idea, remembering the struggle Victoria and I had looking for appropriate songs in my collection that we could dance to on our wedding day. “Do none of your bands write songs about love?” she asked, frustrated and tired at one point during our search. Apparently not, was the answer, at least not in the conventional sense, the sense in which hair bands managed it in the 80s and out of which some R&B singers have made a career. Often the alternative and indie bands to whom I listen wrote beautiful lyrics that touched on love but did so looking at it not as a pure thing but one to be feared and revered, a bringer of both pain and joy. In short, not your typical love songs.

In the end, we found a handful to use, of which a few of them can be found in the playlist below. Of course, I had Victoria in mind while putting this one together, though I know she wouldn’t appreciate many of the tracks, still, there’s a little something for everyone. I’ve got some iconic tunes by influential alt-rock bands like The Cure and The Smiths, lesser known acts from the 90s like The Lowest of the Low and My Drug Hell, and of course, highlights from the indie kids of this new century, like Bloc Party and The Decemberists. I’ve got the whole list below, in case the Spotify doesn’t work for you, and included a lyrical gem from each song, just to give a glimpse of what you can be listening for as you peruse the list.

1. The Cure “Lovesong”
“Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am home again. Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am whole again.”

2. Elbow “An audience with the pope”
“I have an audience with the Pope, and I’m saving the world at eight, but if she says she needs me, she says she needs me, everybody’s gonna have to wait.”

3. Blur “To the end”
“You and I collapsed in love. And it looks like we might have made it.”

4. The Rural Alberta Advantage “In the summertime”
“Once in a while, I know our hearts beat out of time. And once in a while, I know they’ll fall back in line.”

5. Teenage Fanclub “What you do to me”
“There’s something about you, got me down on my knees.”

6. The Cranberries “Dreams”
“Now I tell you openly, you have my heart so don’t hurt me. You’re what I couldn’t find, totally amazing mind, so understanding and so kind, you’re everything to me.”

7. The Postal Service “Such great heights”
“I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images, and when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned.”

8. Coldplay “Yellow”
“Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.”

9. Depeche Mode “One caress”
“Just one caress from you and I’m blessed.”

10. James “Just like Fred Astaire”
“Meteors may strike the earth. Nations live and die. I’m the boy who got the girl who showed me how to fly.”

11. The Beautiful South “Song for whoever”
“I love you from the bottom of my pencil case. I love you in the songs I write and sing.”

12. Death Cab For Cutie “I will follow you into the dark”
“Love of mine, someday you will die, but I’ll be close behind, and I’ll follow you into the dark. No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white, just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark.”

13. Oasis “Wonderwall”
“I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.”

14. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Do you love me?”
“I knew from that moment on that I’d love her till the day that I died.”

15. The Lowest of the Low “Subversives”
“There’s something subversive about you and me, ’cause there’s a market-value on love and we’re getting something for free.”

16. The Smiths “There is a light that never goes out”
“And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.”

17. The Lemonheads “Alison’s starting to happen”
“I never looked at her this way before, but now she’s all I see.”

18. Bloc Party “This modern love”
“Do you want to come over and kill some time? Throw your arms around me.”

19. The Verve “Sonnet”
“Yes, there’s love if you want it, don’t sound like no sonnet, my lord.”

20. Chairlift “Bruises”
“I tried to do handstands for you, but every time I fell for you. I’m permanently black and blue, permanently blue for you.”

21. The Decemberists “We both go down together”
“And my parents will never consent to this love. But I hold your hand.”

22. Black Box Recorder “Andrew Ridgley”
“I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes. I love you now and I will ’til the day that I die.”

23. The Stone Roses “Ten storey love song”
“When your heart is black and broken and you need a helping hand. When you’re so much in love, you don’t know just how much you can stand.”

24. First Aid Kit “Emmylou”
“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too. No, I’m not asking much of you, just sing little darling, sing with me.”

25. Björk “Violently happy”
“Since I met you, this small town hasn’t got room for my big feelings. Violently happy, ’cause I love you.”

26. Longpigs “On and on”
“All the songs that I’ve sung you, more often than you know. You’re the love that I’ve clung to more often than I’ve let it show.”

27. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros “Home”
“Ah, home, let me come home, home is wherever I’m with you.”

28. My Drug Hell “Girl at the bus stop”
“Girl at the bus stop, I wished for once that the bus would never come. She sat downstairs, I sat behind I couldn’t get her off my mind.”

29. Pulp “Babies”
“Oh I want to take you home. I want to give you children. You might be my girlfriend, yeah.”

30. Nine Inch Nails “Closer”
“I want to f*ck you. I want to taste you. I want to feel you.”

Enjoy. Happy (Saint) Valentine’s Day.

And of course, I’d be up for hearing what your own favourite ‘love’ songs are from the alternative and indie rock realms.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the other playlists I’ve created and shared on these pages, you can peruse them here.

Best albums of 1997: #2 The Verve “Urban hymns”

The Verve is one of the few bands that I truly regret not seeing live and I’m pretty sure my wife Victoria would join me in those sentiments. And this is how it played out.

If you’ve been following my list of my favourite tunes of 1991, you would know that one of my pastimes in the early nineties was recording alternative music videos to videocassette tapes off of MuchMusic’s “CityLimits”. I discovered a lot of music in this way, including The Verve’s early single, “Slide away”, except in the case of this song, I didn’t get around to exploring the rest of their material. I duly forgot about the band until the fall of 1997 when I first heard the single, “Bittersweet symphony” while dancing at York University’s largest pub and its infamous alternative pub night, “Timebomb Thursdays”. Suddenly, the song was being playing on Edge 102 and every week at the aforementioned pub night. I distinctly remember standing in line for a Charlatans UK concert near the end of September with Victoria and being handed a leaflet for the new album by The Verve and Victoria asking me about it. By the time we were hooked on the album, their Remembrance Day show at the Phoenix in Toronto was long sold out and then, when they returned the following year, it was in Hamilton! We were pretty jazzed when we heard they were reforming in 2007 but the tour swing through Toronto came mid-week, which made the trip from Ottawa a bit difficult to maneuver. So unless we see a fourth reformation of the band, Victoria and I will have to be happy with the Richard Ashcroft solo slot we caught, opening for Coldplay, a great set that was nothing at all to complain about.

But enough whining, I’m supposed to be praising “Urban hymns”, right? Ok, let me try.

The songs written for “Urban hymns” were meant to be for frontman, Richard Ashcroft’s debut solo album, after the band had dissolved following their second album. During the sessions, he began working with the various members of his old band and realized that he would need Nick McCabe’s guitars to truly realize his vision for the sound of the album. So The Verve was reformed and we are all truly thankful.

According to my wife Victoria, there are very few albums that she can listen to from beginning to end and not only not want to skip a track, but actually love pretty much the whole thing. “Urban hymns” is, for her, one of those albums and on that, we are agreed. I think we may even have the same favourite songs (but perhaps she might have subbed in “Sonnet” for “Lucky man” in the three songs below). It is a long album that doesn’t feel very long. One song leads quite logically and emotionally into the next. It is a big album with enormous sound, each song epic in scope and passion. It is real and honest but because McCabe was involved, holding Ashcroft back a bit, it doesn’t teeter into sappy and navel-gazing territory. It is a guitar rock album that lives in its own universe, nothing else can touch it, the sound is atmospheric and full and layered like a Russian doll.

Is it better than Radiohead’s “OK computer”? I am sure that is debatable either way. I personally think so but admittedly, it may be be nudged slightly ahead due to all the memories I have invested in it. But hey, have a listen to my three picks for you below and let me know your thoughts.


“The drugs don’t work”: “All this talk of getting old. It’s getting me down my love. Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, this time I’m comin’ down.” Such a beautiful song. Acoustic guitars and gentle string arrangements that build to a bombastic, full band accompaniment to Ashcroft’s ruminations on his life and his drug addiction. This track always reminds me of the earliest days of my relationship with my wife. But before you get any ideas, it’s not because either of us were heroin addicts. “Urban hymns” was released at the tail end of our first year ‘together’. Victoria and I both fell in love with the album and listened to it incessantly when we convened to my bedroom to get away from my roommates. The lyrics of the song spoke to us, especially those about being “better off dead” if “you leave my life” and singing “in your ear again”. So yeah, this song reminds me of being young and in love and singing softly to the lyrics in that tiny bedroom, lit only by a candle.

“Lucky man”: “Happiness, more or less. It’s just a change in me, something in my liberty.” This track is probably one of the most uplifting on the album but as evinced in the preceding quote, even that is tempered. The lyrics suggest contentment of a sort and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there is a hint at Ashcroft’s battles with depression and also, that he was newly in the throes of early love. When Victoria and I saw him perform solo a number of years ago, Ashcroft performed this track and his preamble was a dedication to his wife Kate Radley, who he said, made him feel like the luckiest man every day. But even before I knew any of this or did any of my own deconstruction, this was one of my favourite tracks from the start. There’s plenty of whirling guitars and effects, layered over the simple guitar strum and drum beat, then the strings come in and the heavens open up for us to witness all the glory possible. It is utter brilliance and beauty.

“Bittersweet symphony”: “Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life. Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die.” Yeah, this song. If you don’t know any other track on “Urban hymns”, you definitely know this one. Much has been made about how popular his track is and how it didn’t make the band any money due to the legal question of its use of the string sample. There have also been words written to the effect that this is the song that broke up the band but the band had always been in trouble. No, this song just adds a bit of tragedy to the story because of how brilliant it is. And yes, I can use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe this song too (for those counting, I’ve mentioned the word for each of these songs). It stomps and dances and flits and flirts. As Victoria is always telling me, you want to close your eyes and go to that place: the music is the place. You want to march straight down the road without stopping or changing course, like Ashcroft does in the video, ignoring all around you but the song. I don’t care how many times I’ve heard it, “Bittersweet symphony” is new every time, like true love, and it just has to be one of the best songs ever written and recorded.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”
3. Radiohead “OK computer”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2000: #5 Richard Ashcroft “A song for the lovers”

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For the first two thirds of 2000, I shared a two-bedroom apartment in the St. Clair and Bathurst area of Toronto with my good friend Ryan and my cat Lucy. Ryan and I met while at York University and whiled away many an evening over beers, discussing music. After I graduated, I moved to the apartment and he moved in after my previous roommate moved out with her boyfriend after one year. Ryan and I got along pretty well as roommates. When we weren’t working or spending time with our respective significant others, we’d hang out, going out to catch films, catching a concert or a quick streetcar down to the Dance Cave on a Saturday night, or just staying in and spinning tunes.

I remember when Richard Ashcroft’s first solo record, “Alone with everybody”, was released because Ryan and I both came home with a CD copy of it the day it came out. We had both been fans of The Verve’s final record, “Urban hymns”, and though were sad at the band’s passing, had reason to be optimistic for his solo work, given the debut’s advance single, “A song for the lovers”. I may be completely reinventing the evening in my mind now but I feel like we ordered takeout (probably Pizza Gigi), grabbed some beers, and gave the album a listen or two. There was likely a sense of disappointment after the first spin that it wasn’t a masterpiece. On the second, we began to identify the obvious high points and after the third, realized that though Ashcroft is a mad genius, he needs a sounding board. There are some incredible tunes on Ashcroft’s debut, lush and beautiful, yes, but he also had a tendency to get bloated and over-extravagant without Nick McCabe reining him in.

“A song for the lovers” is one the great tracks on “Alone with everybody” and telling that it was one of a handful of tracks on the album that he originally wrote for “Urban hymns”. It is not a pure love song like “Lucky man” but a love song nonetheless, very likely inspired by his muse wife Kate Radley. It starts with the riff of a string orchestra and a plaintive horn response and then instantly deepens with layers and layers of sound. The song is pure Ashcroft in its construction. There’s almost too much going on with the different guitar effects, the aforementioned horns and strings, and bongos but everything is okay once he starts singing. That voice of his is inimitable.

“I spend the night
Yeah looking for my inside in a hotel room
Waiting for you”

It sounds he must’ve found his insides somewhere and poured them all into this tune, not just the lyrics but every facet of the song. And that’s what is great about Richard Ashcroft. You may not like every tune but you really have to be impressed by his passion.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.