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69 (Years of) Love Songs

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o one ever claimed authorship of the book of love, but we do know who composed the soundtrack: Damn near everyone. To prove it, here’s an audio box of chocolates — inspired equally by Gary Giddins’s “Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Road Map” and the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs — of some of the many things love can be. The list is not a smoochfest. Betrayal and heartbreak loom large. (The latter applied to the making of this list as well: I’ve heard more about what I’ve omitted than what I’ve included.) Still, as the Magnetic Fields crooned, “The book of love is long and boring/But I love when you read it to me.” Singing, as it turns out, works even better.

(To buy an album containing a listed song, click on the icon following that song’s description.)

1934: Pinky Tomlin: “The Object of My Affection.” Appropriately, we begin with schmaltz. Vocally, Tomlin, who wrote this chestnut (“The object of my affection/Can change my complexion/From pink to rosy red”) was something like Louis Prima minus the buoyancy — lithe, a little winsome, and totally charming. Love in human scale.Buy this album

1935: Patsy Montana & Prairie Ramblers: “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Believe it or not, this song changed everything. It was the first record by a woman to sell a million copies, and it made Montana the first female country megastar. Though the subtext of her first hit was later made explicit by the more forward “I Wanna Be a Western Cowgirl,” she gives it everything she has, yodeling until—you bet I’m going to say it—the cows come home. Buy this album

1936: Red Norvo featuring Mildred Bailey: “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid.” Housework as foreplay: “I will be your dustpan,” Bailey winks over Norvo’s good-humored swing, “If you’ll be my broom/We could work together/All around the room.” Imagine what they might have accomplished with a Mini-Vac.Buy this album

1937: Fred Astaire: “(I’ve Got) Beginner’s Luck.” Astaire sang like he danced, so suave he convinced you he’d really fallen in love for the first time and was sort of mystified by it: “That’s what I’ve always heard/And always thought absurd/But now I believe every word.” Doubly impressive, given that this was taken from his seventh movie with Ginger Rogers. Buy this album

1938: Robert Johnson: “Love in Vain.” The cold, hard facts of life, recited like a fatalist weather report.Buy this album

1939: Coleman Hawkins: “Body and Soul.” Self-explanatory. The way Hawkins fusses over the melody is one of pop music’s great acts of love, even if the way he extended it—and extended it, and extended it some more—made him seem something of a libertine.Buy this album

1940: Duke Ellington: “Me and You.” It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, and this does, hard, with a bit more sauce than usual (and considering how hot Ellington was during this period, that’s saying something). The words are straight-up courtship, while the music invites more.Buy this album

1941: Ernest Tubb: “Walking the Floor Over You.” Stoicism is a country singer’s best friend—after heartache, that is.

1942: Billie Holiday: “Trav’lin’ Light.” Cutting through the perfect, gauzy orchestration like a fingernail through tissue paper, the queen of heartbreak whistles while she walks away from her latest heartache, swinging her arms by her sides.Buy this album

1943: Louis Jordan: “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” The famed saxophonist’s usual comic gait serves as the undertone here — only he’s not being funny, which deepens it. Not quite the tears of a clown, just the uncertainty of whether his baby’s found somebody new or not, which makes him even more vulnerable — and appealing.Buy this album

1944: The Ink Spots & Ella Fitzgerald: “I’m Making Believe.” World War II saw a surge of sentimental I’ll-be-home ballads — most famously “White Christmas” — capture the country’s mood. This is one of the loveliest, matching lead Ink Spot Bill Kenney’s Victorian prissiness with Ella’s palpable put-a-good-face-on-it ache.Buy this album

1945: Spike Jones & His City Slickers: “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” Love is farcical, so who better than the auteur of “Der Fuhrer’s Face” to soothe a nation’s wounds by simultaneously clowning on the biggest hit of vanilla-harmonizing Mills Brothers and romantic spoken-word interludes of the Ink Spots? When the basso profundo intones, “Honey lamb, honey face, uh-honey piiie,” he puts you on edge. That doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the screams and gunshots to come, but it helps.Buy this album

1946: Lennie Tristano: “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Love is modern, or in this case modernist. Tristano was one of the first jazz musicians to record fully improvised pieces, but he was just as free with standards. On this solo recording, he turns the melody sideways, lurching the rhythm but keeping a keen sense of play throughout.Buy this album

1947: Charles Brown & Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers: “Merry Christmas Baby.” The definition of insouciant, and—appropriately, given that it’s set on December 25th—the ultimate morning-after song.Buy this album

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