Regardless of your relationship status — single, boo’d up, “it’s complicated,” or any of the myriad situations in between — you probably have some sort of knee-jerk reaction to Valentine’s Day, ranging from groan to swoon, or a mix of the two. But whether you want to or not, this time of year forces us to meditate on the condition and role of love in our lives, and what better way to process the vast expanse of the wild human experience that is love than one of the many albums that attempts to speak to it?
We’re not just talking about romantic love, either. While we love a good ol’ smooching banger, we wanted shout out all types of albums that have played a fundamental role in our personal understanding of love in any of its forms — from familial love to self-love, from friend love to partner love, from hookup to crush to breakup, and everything in the middle. We asked all of our staff members what albums have been quintessential to their understanding of love, and what we found out was that, under the right circumstances, even Thriller can be a love album. Here are the albums that are love albums to us, and why.
Man, where to even start with this record... this was one of the first albums that ever completely took me to another place in my head for the entire duration of the record. I’ve used this record to help me through countless tough situations. It has very personal ties, but also ties into my relationship in a very important way. Though my girlfriend Jess had never heard of it when we started seeing each other, it is now one of the most important albums in both of our lives. We lived 4 hours apart for the first year of our relationship, which was never easy, but this was one thing that made us feel closer during that time. Sending screenshots of us listening to this album was just a subtle way to show each other we were thinking about each other. This is also the first album I ever bought on vinyl. Well, technically I bought this and a Lionel Richie record (the one everyone has) at the same time... but we’ll consider this the first for the sake of this story.
I can’t even count the number of times my lady and I have danced our asses off to the song “Rattlesnake.” Though he’s basically just repeating “RATTLESNAKE. RATTLESNAKE. RATTLESNAKE.” over and over and over, it still slaps. Basically any Gizz album lightens the mood and turns any situation into a dance party for us, but I will always think of this one, specifically because no matter how many times she’s heard it, nothing makes Jess’ face light up like when the opening riff to “Rattlesnake” comes on.
**Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago **
I spent my first winter of college tied to my laptop, listening to music, and writing papers — mostly because I was broke but also because I was hibernating from the glacial New York conditions outside of my dorm room. Earlier that semester, I met this boisterous southern guy through my roommate. He was too much energy for me, but he had excellent taste in music.
We began a friendship rooted in sharing music through the internet years before Spotify took hold, sending each other our current playlists and bitching about our exes and how bad they fucked us up. At some point during that winter, he sent me For Emma, Forever Ago, long before most people knew how to pronounce Bon Iver correctly.
We’re married now, 10 years later. This album will forever bring me back to him.
SZA’s Ctrl transports me right back to the misguided decisions of my early 20s. Her lyrics are at times heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny: touching on insecurities with your own choices (“My man is my man is your man, Her, this her man too”), with your own body (“You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty, havin’ nobody, only you buddy”) with your own neediness (“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth”). Hearing your personal experiences played out in a stranger’s art allows you to forgive yourself by realizing you are not alone, that you’ve grown, which is to say, it’s empowering as fuck. Ctrl is a personal anthem for me, a self-love masterpiece.
This album came out fall of 2006 just a few months after my wife and I got married, both at the age of 22. Looking back now, it’s shocking to us as well, we were so damn young, but at the time we felt serene and unaware that we should be panicked. Futuresex/Lovesounds was released soon after we had arrived in Alabama for some training I had to do for my job at the time. We already felt a few degrees removed from reality arriving in the rural south (we’d just gotten back from a honeymoon in Europe) and watching “Sexy Back” premiere on MTV TRL was weirdly comforting in a way that seems silly now, but at the time was very real relief. The noire future spy thriller of a music video felt so cool and futuristic, ha! My wife tested early relationship celebrity crush waters confessing her love for JT. Relieved that this was a safe topic of conversation I returned with Scarlett Johansson soon after as the music video came out for “What Goes Around...Comes Around” and wasn’t as impressed with the reception. Regardless, as two kids just starting adult life together, we felt like cultural insiders, confident that our shared appreciation for the work of art that was Justin’s second studio album was a solid platform for our newly minted marriage. And that we were in tune enough to see how something as mainstream as Timberlake was and could be viewed as critically good on par with a band like Arcade Fire who was big at the time in indie circles. It became our soundtrack as we sat in our hotel room plotting the future or driving around town to the very limited restaurant options. It was the backdrop to the origins of a marriage that has now lasted more than 12 years and remains a character in our story, the best pop album of the 2000s and something we could enjoy in the moment, together.
**Avi Buffalo: At Best Cuckold **
It’s such a shame that the alt-right have decided to take the word cuckold for their own, making it hard for me to even write out this album name. The album is a stunning achievement that got fairly overlooked when it came out. When it came out in 2014, my partner and I had just started dating, we graduated college, and all our friends had graduated the year before because we were in a 5-year program. I think we just realized at that moment that the party was over and we got lucky enough to find something really special in each other, and something that somehow became sustainable.
**Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook **
I grew up on this album. I listen to it at least once a month, and every time I do I pick up something new from it. Every year, I grow older, I understand all of Cole Porter’s timeless lyrics a little bit more, bringing new meaning to old classics.
**Jamila Woods: HEAVN **
On each track on HEAVN, Woods defines and redefines self-love — what it means to love her city, her skin, her neighborhood, her family, her community, herself. And although much of the album isn’t for me (a white woman), the song “Holy” taught me everything I need to know about self-love and brought me out of a pretty dark place. I was grappling with my first major rejection from something I’d invested a lot (read: too much) of myself into, and the final crack in what was already some pretty thin self-worth ice. I unraveled and took the next couple months to listen to “Holy,” sometimes HEAVN in its entirety, every day, multiple times a day. The only time I felt divine in those days was when Woods sang “the map of your palms / The temple you be / You’re all that you got.” I made “woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me” my mantra, my priority, and listened until I started to believe it again. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my first date with the person I love now was a Jamila Woods concert.
The night before my college graduation, I went to my weekly hangout bar with some friends and the stupidly beautiful guy I had a crush on forever and very recently started dating. So recently that I forgot how to act or what I was saying every time we made eye contact. Just past midnight, his roommate reminded us the new Beach House album had dropped, so we swapped the bar out for their room to go listen to it. Lemme tell you: that night put the goddamn dream in dream pop. With his roomie snoozing on their top bunk and us on the bottom, we quietly kissed some butterflies-in-your-toes-and-elsewhere kisses soundtracked to 7’s cloudy synths and airy, mumbly vocals that felt straight out an alt-’90s romance. I fell asleep on his chest and woke up a song or so later to him looking at me, chuckling, to which I demanded an accusatory “what?!?,” assuming I was snoring or making an ugly face. He just smiled and whispered “happy” in my ear, and I melted into a puddle. We took our first trip together to see Beach House in Chicago a few months later, and waking up next to him the following morning was the first time in my life I ever thought, “Am I in love?” Spoiler: I was and I am. Not unlike a werewolf to a full moon, I return to my puddle state for 47 full minutes the second I hear the opening drums of “Dark Spring” until the twinkly fade-out of “Last Ride.”
This one’s for my hopeless romantics who be perpetually alone and mostly unbothered by that. Sure, love would be nice, but alas... there’s hella peace in solitude and the pursuit of happiness doesn’t have to be constantly funneled through romantic fulfillment. Especially as we hit the backend of our 20s — wondering which wedding invites we finna get, counting how quickly our peers can turn Instagram to Sonogram, peeping how our parents quietly (then loudly) wanna be grandparents as if that shit ain’t expensive — the expectations get a lil too OD for my taste. I occupy my own brain 24/7 and that’s damn near enough most of the time. This Moses joint spoke to that dimension of myself in a way I hadn’t heard articulated prior to its release, no cap. Love is nice, I’m not closed off, but lemme get a muhfuckin’ uuuuhhhhhhhhhhhh break from y’all societal norms? And lemme wallow in myself when I deem it necessary or nah? Can I chill over here with my heart on idle or nah? Can you... c-can you text back? Spare affection? Spare empathy and emotional support, please? Elio heartbroken whiny white boy voice “Mom... c-could you pick me up?”
Man, listen... the shit I did to this album as I embarked on my callous sexual conquest in the name of my unproven masculinity? (Or “tried to overcome the virginity like a dickhead,” for short?) I was 17 when this dropped, which shouldn’t even be a thing. We didn’t know what this nigga Abel looked like yet. The recordings were lo-fi and dingy and the total opposite of the radio, so you know the dweeb in me had his interest piqued. My mouth was weak, I imitated everything Googlable, and I’d like to think I wasn’t the most selfish? (That last part was likely cap on my behalf.) Hopefully I’m drastically better at sex now, and I wish the same for you: throw this muhfuggah on and fuck somebody. This is not for lovemaking what-so-EVER! Well, scratch that, I take that shit back: if you in love, fuck(!) the person/people you in love with. If not, load that damn app up. Call the cuddy buddy over. Leave your inner scumbag in the condom/lube drawer since you got some damn sense... That’s what Abel sings for! Become the bustdown... be needed. Call back, or don’t!
**Lorde: Melodrama **
If I didn't know better I would’ve thought Lorde was my fairy godmother, snuck into my room, and stole 5 years worth of journals and made them into an album. JK (kinda). But what this album helped me realize (as most music does), is you’re never alone in this war. It’s a bildungsroman album yet a Renaissance all at once. This album told the stories of the fucked up relationship of my past, parties filled with red cups and empty souls, my contorted relationship with myself, and learning how to not let my failures define me and my worth. Every time I return to this album it reminds me that mistakes are merely experiences, and if you’re experiencing, you’re living. It’s about defeat, surrender, recklessness, but most of all how all the fights we continue to fight lead us to discovering and embracing self-love.
This one’s all about falling in love with life (cheesy, I know... BUT TRUE!). This album came out toward the end of my junior year of high school, when the whole “who am I?!” “where do I belong in this world?!” “do I go to college???” “wait, music is cool... art is also cool!!” phase started kicking in. Senior year of high school I remember burning Wolfgang Amadeus onto a CD for our drive to Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort. “Love Like A Sunset PT I & II” came on as we were winding up Loveland Pass, along the continental divide, and in that moment I had this “epiphany” of knowing Colorado was where I wanted to be but I had already committed to a college in San Diego. Scared to break the commitment, I pushed those feelings away. After one week in San Diego, I knew it wouldn't last and that I was going to transfer back to Colorado. This was my first true “hiccup” and triggered my first dance with depression. I would turn on this album, and specifically “Love Like a Sunset” whenever I need to be taken back to that moment and those mountains. In this time, I began to fall in love with music. It felt like my companion in loneliness and could take me back to any moment in time. This album continued to carry me through some additional nasty college years, and connected me to friends that pulled me through to the other side. The sound of this album is synonymous to the ups and downs, the complete frenzy and chaos that make up this insane yet lovely life. Nearly 10 years later, this album is still deeply connected to me and teleports me to some of the sweetest memories in my mind, and reminds me that the frenzy and chaos are all a part of the ride along the way.
**Maren Morris: Hero ** I’ve been with my now-wife for 4 1/2 years now, and something I think you learn quickly when you’re planning to spend your life with someone is to not force the music you like on them. It’s not important that your romantic partner has the same taste in music as you; that shit is boring. I don’t want to have a “Oh, Grizzly Bear are sublime” conversation until I die, you know? So my wife and I basically hardly ever listen to the same stuff, but when our tastes overlap, you can bet that that album will be in HEAVY rotation around our houses/car/shower bluetooth. Maren Morris’ Hero is the album I think of when I think of my wife; it came out a little bit before our 2nd anniversary, and we’ve seen Maren since, and it basically has never left our rotation. Our main goals for 2019 are to pay off a bunch of debt so we can move on to whatever phase of adulthood is “next” in our lives, and to enjoy the inevitable next Maren Morris album.
Basically anything by Led Zeppelin. At the behest of the wife I mentioned earlier, I recently listened to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast that was entirely about how American men have fewer platonic friendships than women do, partially due to how masculinity manifests, and partly due to changing social patterns among Americans. Basically, it was her way of saying that I need to spend less time cloistered in my house with my records and more time with my friends. My childhood best friend lives in the same city as me, but we don’t see each other much because I’m busy doing points at this website this, and he’s busy fixing the house he and his wife bought. But this Valentine’s Day, we’re shoving off the chains of toxic masculinity and I’m gonna tell my friend how much I love him by buying him a selection from the Led Zeppelin catalog, the music we used to listen to when we were 17 and nearly killing ourselves doing dumbass teen shit in my 1995 Dodge Spirit.
Love might be the peak human experience but those peaks create all that distance to fall into some of the deepest valleys. In early 2013 my then-wife and I separated, spending 5 weeks apart trying to gain perspective to figure out how we could save our marriage. We were scheduled to get together and discuss things. Instead of coming back to our home to continue the dialog, I came home to an empty house. I mean empty, the art was gone off the walls, the bed was gone along with much of the furniture and the tv. It was me, and a couch, and my cat. I was gutted. It was one of my first experiences with deep adult pain. Instead of replacing the TV I bought a good stereo and turntable and a copy of The National’s Trouble Will Find Me. In that spinning record and the bottom of several bottles of whiskey I found myself. I recentered and figured out how I would move my life forward.
I am listening to this record as I write this and I can’t keep the tears out of my eyes. Songs like “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Graceless,” will always have a special place for me even if that place is dark. In that dark time with the lyrics of Matt Berninger in my head, I created a new vision for what I wanted out of life, love, and partnership. The National makes sad songs but for me they are love songs all the same.
**Straylight Run: Straylight Run **
How do you know when you are in love? Early on it feels like love but it is probably more infatuation and lust, love needs more time and more depth. I was 6 months into a new relationship and that honeymoon shine was wearing out. We had our first few fights and were learning how to communicate about the hard stuff. Then on a Saturday drive we found ourselves with the windows open, girlfriend djing with the aux cord and she put on the song “Existentialism on Prom Night” by Straylight Run. For the next 4 minutes, we sang loud and out of key. Passers-by in other cars looked at us strangely but you could see the realization in their faces of what we were just discovering: we were in love.
** Garden State OST **
This film and soundtrack came out right when I went through the whirlwind experience of my first love and inevitable first heartbreak. As an early teenager, everything felt like such a big deal. I fell asleep to this album every night as my world was crumbling, and then as it started to feel bright again. Listening to this album now brings back the whole range of angsty teenage feelings — what it means to love desperately, cry from your whole body, and slowly remember that life will keep moving.
From the title alone, this might sound like an odd choice for an album that captures love, but Aromanticism holds so much vulnerability and feeling and all-around loveliness. This album was a huge part of my life as I was getting ready to move away from the community of friends I went to college with, and in some ways was the soundtrack of that bittersweet experience this past summer. This album sounds like that last tight hug you share with your best pals as you’re leaving the city you came of age in to move to a whole new state. Within the intimate world of this album, Sumney lets us know it’s OK to be alone, which can be its own form of love, too.
**Bon Iver: 22, A Million **
This is an easy, cheesy one: My partner of three years and I listened to this album on vinyl (thanks, VMP) in a blanket fort and said “I love you” to each other for the first time before the fourth track was over.
**The Damnwells: Bastards of the Beat **
This record has been on constant rotation for me since discovering it back in 2004 (I think..?). It’s one of the first albums I shared with Ester when we first met and has defined our relationship in a number of ways. It’s also the album I always come back to whenever I’m sad, down, or feeling down about myself. I’m not sure why — I wouldn’t consider it a ‘love’ record — but it’s one of those albums where the meaning in the larger context of my life is way bigger than what any of the songs may actually say.
It’s a VMP record, but also a record Ester and I fell in love with together. It came out around the time we moved from Chicago to Colorado and is the soundtrack of that season of our lives. Beyond that, my peak music experience is when I get to share and fall in love with an artist / album with someone else. This is rarely Ester -— she doesn’t always like the music I bring home :-/ -— so when it is, it will always hold a special place in my heart. We’ve been champions of the band since, and have seen them every chance we get!
**Dr. Dog: Abandoned Mansion **
It was my boyfriend's birthday and I wanted to do something cool and special. So I booked us a king suite at The Stanley Hotel. It was March and we had booked some snow sports nearby but, given CO weather, it was 69 degrees and sunny with no snow. So we poured ourselves some bourbon and put on Dr. Dog’s latest album. It was PERFECT. The window was open and the breeze was bringing in all the spookiness and weird hauntings that linger around The Stanley. The feeling of Abandoned Mansion was nothing short of perfect. We played silly games like 21 Questions, Rock/Paper/Scissors, gin rummy, and after three bourbons the occasional rough housing/tickle session, I FELL IN LOVE with this man that trip. I was nervous we needed activities to keep us busy, but all I needed was him. Anytime we put that album on I instantly feel that breeze, taste that bourbon, and remember how easy it is to fall in love with him all over again.
Not a very original answer, but what can you do? When Phil and I were first dating (falling in love) around age 20, we were watching our friend’s band play. All of the sudden, they played “Love & Happiness” and dedicated it to our budding romance. Fast forward 8 years later, we’ve just been announced as husband and wife — and walk down the aisle to this same song. Full circle!
“Sweet Thing” is one of my favorite love songs. The whole album just reminds of me of the feeling of loving someone truly and completely and makes me think about growing old with someone.
**FKA twigs: EP2 **
It’s sultry, moody, and gets you in the mood.
The title says it all.
If you haven’t made out to “Fade Into You” have you ever even made out?
I met my husband on NYE in 2010. Memories of that night are a little… blurry. Things I do remember: André champagne straight from the bottle, a DJ who had adult braces, and dancing/spinning in circles to “P.Y.T.” especially
**Sam Cooke: Songs by Sam Cooke **
Especially the song “You send me.” This song literally sends my mind, heart, and soul into a different time. Every day, we run into the hardships of this world and it can make your outlook on situations “tough” and “cold.” But the second I play this song it makes me vulnerable and “lovey” and puts me in that sensitive place. And to be honest, I feel that’s where my strength truly comes from.
If we are being honest, I don’t usually wait for Valentine’s day to play a little Bill. I usually run to Etta James to make me feel like a strong, sensual woman, but something about Bill’s voice and how he takes his time in this song really brings out the rhythm.