Feb 14, 2019

There are many variations to the legend of St. Valentine, but all of them have one thing in common: Valentine used love as revolt. In honor of that, Nolisoli.ph presents a series on untraditional narratives on love, from the romantic to the heartsick.

I’m generally not a very sentimental person (my personal rule when it comes to breakups is that you’re only allowed to be hung up on it for a month, nothing more), but here’s my dirty little secret: I love torch songs, those morose tunes about a love lost or gone unrequited. It doesn’t matter if I’m lovelorn or in a relationship. I can be at the peak of coupled-happiness and still cry myself to sleep with a song about a woman’s unreciprocated yearning. I don’t know why but I just can’t get enough of them.

However, as much as I love slow and sad ballads like “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim’s Follies or “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Wright, my favorite kind of torch songs are the really sad and vulnerable ones disguised as fun and upbeat little ditties. Think “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn, the kind of song you can dance and cry to at the same time. (In my head, I call these the “Hold my beer songs” since that’s the kind of imagery I associate them with)

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I figured that other people might want to take a gander at songs like this. It’s a weird day if you’re the happily single-type. On the one hand, I’m happy about the day and for the people who celebrate it, but on the other, I also kind of just want to cry a little bit. (I’m not bitter, but it’s just a kind of lonesome time) It’s weird and awful and mood whiplash-y, which is the exact kind of feeling these songs evoke.  

You’re Not the One – Sky Ferreira

It’s the middle of the night and I’m so gone
And I’m thinking about
How much I need you but you really want somebody else

Before Lorde, Billie Eilish, and the other current golden girls of alt-pop was Sky Ferreira. Her music was catchy and synthy, and she made ’80s-inspired pop songs with an edge. It might not sound like much now in the age of trap and sad pop, but Ferreira debuted her first (and so far only) album in 2011. That was during the height of LMFAO (“Party Rock Anthem” was top 2 on Billboard’s 2011 year-end list, can you believe it?), before Bruno Mars realized his true calling was making throwback pop hits, before we realized that something was up with Kesha, before Lady Gaga decided to take a more soulful route. The Black Eyed Peas were still a thing! Carly Rae Jepsen hadn’t even released “Call Me Maybe” yet!

In any case, I’ve always felt that “You’re Not the One” was the spiritual successor of “Dancing On My Own.” It’s also a club heartbreak anthem, and its hook (shown above) is just as strong and sad as “Dancing On My Own”’s “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her.” If you’re ever at a karaoke with a surprisingly good indie pop library, try belting out, “You’re not the one, guess you’re not the one.” It’s cathartic, trust me.

Hi – Hannah Diamond

I don’t want to be alone in my bedroom
Writing messages, you won’t read
I don’t want to be alone in my bedroom
On the internet, waiting to say…

Here’s a crash course on pop’s weird, sarcastic, semi-pretentious and semi-self-aware, pink-obsessed daughter. UK-based PC Music was started by AG Cook and Danny Harle (you’ve heard them behind some of Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen’s stuff) in 2014. It’s a label, but it’s also kind of an art collective. Under its banner is plastic pop at its most plasticky, resulting in music that’s so insipid it becomes surreal. It’s like the fever dream version of pop music.

The poster child for PC Music is definitely Hannah Diamond, the sparkle emoji made flesh. She’s lost her relevancy in later years (ever since Cook and Harle started doing more mainstream work), but she’s still going strong. My favorite song of hers is “Hi,” a bright and synthetic song about loving people through the internet and the isolation our online spaces enhance (“Feels like I know you, though all I have is your picture”). It’s devastating when you really stop to think about it, but the song’s pop notes distract you from that. It also helps that Diamond’s voice is also deceptively girlish; she sounds like your vapid, 14-year-old next door neighbor suddenly became a popstar.

Burnout – Sugarfree

Oh wag kang tumingin
ng ganyan sa ‘kin

Friendly warning, this won’t be the only early 2000s OPM rock song on this list. This song is off Sugarfree’s first album and was also their first real hit. It’s also one of the many songs from that album which touches on a kind of heartbreak and loss. Ebe Dancel, the songwriter, and vocalist, was in his early 20s when he wrote this, and it shows in the quiet youthful disaffection that’s embedded into the album (“Kay bilis kasi ng buhay, pati tayo natangay”).

Allow me to confess this: this song was pretty much the backdrop of my last relationship, the acoustic version (as played in I’m Drunk, I Love You) figuring pretty heavily as I was falling in love, and the original rock song playing on repeat as post-college life broke us up. In lieu of grand, sweeping statements on love, which I hate, the song is peppered with these small little snippets of conversation (“teka muna, teka lang”) that make it even more bittersweet. Every single time Ebe Dancel sings, “O, kay tagal din kitang minahal,” you feel the exhaustion in his voice.

Love burns you out, man.

Are You There (with Another Girl) – Dionne Warwick

I hear the music coming out of your radio
Are you there with another girl instead of me
I hear your laughter and there’s something I’ve got to know
Are you there with another girl instead of me

Dionne Warwick is one of the illustrious female vocalists who proved that the human voice is a musical instrument in its own right. She’s the original Princess of Pop (her official honorific), and her collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David are legendary (“I Say A Little Prayer,” anyone?)

My favorite from those collaborations is one of the more forgotten songs. “Are You There (with Another Girl),” as the title heartbreakingly suggests, is a song about dropping by your SO’s place and hearing them with someone else, leading you to suspect that s/he’s cheating on you. It’s a pretty short song, clocking in at under three minutes, but it packs in so much emotion—and an orchestral crescendo—in that short span of time. BTW, this song also influenced the Beach Boys’ “Let’s Go Away for a While” from Pet Sounds.

Washing Machine Heart – Mitski

Baby will you kiss me already and
Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart
Baby, bang it up inside

Baby, though I’ve closed my eyes
I know who you pretend I am

When all the dust settles and we can fondly look back on the 2010s, I’m convinced that Mitski’s one of the artists that’ll be burned into our memory. It’s hard to categorize her music. She’s a genre-bending, elusive, and authentic musician, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her next project has her wielding a theremin and doing spoken word and it somehow still working without sounding in any way pretentious. She’s known as a sorrow song person, but I think that what truly sets her apart isn’t the sadness of her lyrics but the sincerity that she pours into them.

Her latest album is Be the Cowboy, a powerful statement coming from a Japanese-American woman. I don’t think I’m in any way qualified to say this, but I think the album is her best one, and I could easily have picked any other song for this list from it. I ended up choosing this one because it perfectly encapsulates that weird feeling you get when you just want to kiss someone and you know that they would rather be kissing someone else and you’re kind of bothered about that but you also don’t care enough to be that upset because you’ve gone through that rodeo before. The song’s backing drums have a really strong and unsteady beat, the kind of sound you hear when something’s rolling in a washing machine or when you’re listening to the beat of your unraveling heart. See what I mean when I said she was sincere?

Love Team – Itchyworms

Sana wag mo kong sisihin
Kung ‘di ko kayang pigilin
Sabi mo na mahal mo ko
Ngunit ‘di naman seryoso

I promised that there was going to be more early 2000s OPM! The people behind Itchyworms started the band while they were in school, and it shows. I don’t mean it in a bad way, just that there’s a youthful, teenage naivety (coupled with ’90s irony) to their songs.

A good example of this is “Love Team,” which is a song about wanting to be with someone who you’re always shipped with, and knowing that they really don’t like you back even though they’ll play along with it for laughs sometimes. And that incredibly teenage problem is couched within the classic (and increasingly problematic) Philippine entertainment practice of love teams, which forces stars into very public pairings. It’s a really cute and inventive way of expressing that.

Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) – Prefab Sprout

Lions in my own garden, exit someone
That’s what I’ll shout when you just stay out of reach
And it doesn’t sum it up to say I’m singing the blues
And whoever learnt to walk in somebody else’s shoes?
I’m screaming because I’ve found something to lose

I’m a huge ’80s new wave apologist, especially for its even-nicher subgenre, sophistipop (think less Duran Duran and more Spandau Ballet). It embarasses me a little tiny bit, but my favorite band of all time is this sophistipop act from New Castle Upon Tyne called Prefab Sprout. Hear me out: music critic Stuart Maconie described their music as “enigmatic, melancholy, tuneful and therefore perfect for a jobless literature graduate with girlfriend problems.” If that isn’t a glowing recommendation, then I don’t know what is. I could go on and on about the band’s history (Paddy McAloon is the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of, ever, and his decision to keep up the band by himself after he developed severe tinnitus and a detached retina is heartbreaking), but I’ll let the music do the talking.

“Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” was Prefab Sprout’s first ever single. The first letters of the title spell out “Limoges,” the place where songwriter and vocalist Paddy McAloon’s ex was living at the time. That personal drama definitely plays out within the song, which sees the persona wanting to live out a fantasy (“Tonight, let’s pretend that this will last”) with someone just “out of reach.” It doesn’t have the hallmarks of their later music (Wendy Smith’s wispy backing vocals, the wavy synths), but it does perfectly encapsulate the way McAloon tempers heartache with breathless wit.

Empty – Kevin Abstract

And I’ll be
Right outside your front door
On my twelve speed
I got your emotions tattooed on my sleeve
I think about you all the time
I’ve waited for you all my life
I need you right here by my side


I know I’m stretching the definition of a torch song here, but I honestly think that the entirety of Kevin Abstract’s sophomore album American Boyfriend counts as one long torch song, aside from being a deeply personal album about growing up as a black gay man in a country that hates both “blacks and gays.” And Abstract does this so well, coming up with a genre-defying alternative hip hop album with piercing raps and sweeping guitar samples. (Kevin Abstract is the founder and leader of Brockhampton, while the album’s executive producer, Michael Uzowuru, also had a hand in Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Endless)

This is really just such a good and important album and every single song both makes you want to nod your head to the beat and stabs you with a dagger through the heart. Listen to it.

Cross My Heart – Everything But the Girl

I know it’s not polite
To ask you where you slept last night
And if I did you might reply
That I have no right
Anyway I’m fine
Glad that you’re no longer mine
If I should tell a lie
I’ll cross my heart and hope to die

Yeah, this is another sophistipop pick. Sue me. “Cross My Heart” is from Everything But The Girl’s Baby the Stars Shine Bright album (god, this band knew how to pick a name), which was released on the tail end of their new wave phase, right before they jumped ship to techno. I guess this is the perfect time to explain why I love sophistipop so much. It’s the smaller branch of new wave that was more interested in mixing synths with jazzier tunes (it’s called “jazz lite” for this reason), and many of the acts were influenced by classic jazz and show tunes. It’s still really goofy and fun, like the rest of new wave, but it’s also smoother and slicker, with frontmen who were usually more self-aware than their contemporaries.

In any case, I’ve always thought “Cross My Heart” was a perfect breakup song. It’s a really haunting song about being drunk and messy and not totally over your ex. Relatable content?

Bakit Papa – Sexbomb Girls

Dati-rati ang sweet-sweet natin
Oras-oras ika’y na sa ‘kin
Bakit nga ba pinaasa-asa
Kaya ngayo’y naloloka

I was trying to think of a straight-up local pop song that fit the theme for this list and I was coming up short. When I asked my coworkers for their suggestions, one song they insisted I add was “Bakit Papa” by the Sexbomb Girls. They said this jokingly, sure, but the more I looked at the lyrics and listened to the song, the more I was convinced it was a good fit. It’s my list and “Bakit Papa” is an upbeat torch song, sue me.


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TAGS: indie pop itchyworms love songs opm sexbomb girls sophistipop sugarfree torch songs Valentines Day