Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
Let’s just get past the fact that Simon’s only solo U.S. No. 1 hit actually only lists five ways to leave your lover, and concentrate instead on the rest of the lyrics. His densely-rhyming conversation between a coupled-up man and the woman persuading him to consciously uncouple (to borrow a phrase) is deceptively complex. Is she helping him out of a toxic relationship? Is she manipulating him into wrecking his marriage for the sake of a one-night stand? Does he go through with it? And does “don’t need to be coy, Roy” really count as a way at all?
Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”
Marc Almond’s electro take on the Northern Soul classic took what had been a fairly joyous four-to-the-floor banger and stripped it down to its cold, bare bones. The result is not only heart-wrenching, but also defiant – and reveals the true depth of the lyrics: has there ever been a more brutally honest opening to a pop song than, “Sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away, I’ve got to get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me”? (That the 12” version segues into an even more sparse version of “Where Did Our Love Go?” only adds further heartbreak.)
Kelis, “Caught Out There”
Once described by the late great Tony Wilson as the most punk song he’d heard in decades, Kelis’ debut single is uncompromising from the start. “This song is for all the women out there that have been lied to by their men – and I know y’all been lied to over and over again,” she begins, before sliding into a deceptively restrained verse (“Last year, Valentine’s Day…). Give it a minute or so, however, and the gloves come right off – with the screamed chorus “I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW” smashing out of the speakers like an almost physical assault. Love hurts – but Kelis will hurt you worse.
Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, “(If You Don’t Wanna F**k Me, Baby) F**k Off”
A little-known classic of its kind, there may not be much in the way of lyrical subtlety or complexity here, but there’s no doubting the sincerity of the sentiment. Wayne is clearly not interested in entering the so-called “friendly zone” (“If you don’t wanna piece of the action, baby take a walk”) and while it would almost certainly see him cancelled today, it was acceptable in the ‘70s – and is, at the end of the day, a bit of a banger. Also notable for featuring a teenage Jools Holland on piano, pop pickers.
Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
And by way of contrast… Joy Division’s majestic cry of anguish remains arguably more powerful today than it did when the band first wrote it – its searingly self-referential lyrics given greater poignancy by the suicide of singer Ian Curtis just one month before its original release. It was also recorded in the same studio where seven years earlier Neil Sedaka had recorded “Love Will Keep Us Together”: only one of the two still has the ability to simultaneously lift you up and break your heart.
The Wonder Stuff, “Unbearable”
The Wonder Stuff were a fairly peculiar product of the late 80s indie-into-baggy scene – loved by some for the unashamed rollocking good-time catchiness of their songs, dismissed by others for, well, the unashamed rollocking good-time, etc. Plus, bad hair. But whatever else you think of them, if you’re after an anti-Valentine's hit of pure joyous “who needs love anyway?” defiance, you could do a lot worse than this. “I didn’t like you very much when I met you,” they insist, “And now I like you even less.”
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Robyn, “Dancing On My Own”
The sad banger to end all sad bangers, Robyn’s 2010 magnum opus is surely one of the most gut-wrenching songs ever to also serve as a guaranteed dancefloor filler. Her perfectly-pitched tale of a jilted lover watching her ex kiss a new partner somehow manages to be as uplifting as it is tragic. “I’m right over here, why can’t you see me? I’m giving it all but I’m not the girl you’re taking home… I keep dancing on my own.” Damn, girl.
The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”
Crikey, where to start? The anthem for every doomed, sensitive, lovelorn youth, “How Soon Is Now” is six minutes and 44 seconds of pure lyrical adolescent despair set against some of the finest guitar playing of the last 40 years. The tragedy here is not finding love and losing it, but something even worse: desperately looking for love and not finding it at all, leaving the club on your own, going to an empty home where “you cry and you want to die”. It would be unbearable if it weren’t for the contrasting beauty of Johnny Marr’s soaring melody.
Ugly Kid Joe, “Everything About You”
Yes it’s silly and juvenile and not exactly as lyrically perceptive as “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or musically sophisticated as “How Soon Is Now?” but sometimes you want to just kick loose and shout rude things at people you don’t like. Plus it was in Wayne’s World.
Public Image Ltd, “This Is Not a Love Song”
John Lydon’s post-Pistols outfit scored their biggest commercial hit in 1983 with a tune that was, ironically, written as a two-fingered response to the record company asking for a hit. Go figure. It’s also typically upfront, in your face and utterly contemptuous of, well, just about everything, including love songs, presumably. And just in case you didn’t get the point the first time Lydon sneers “This is not a love song”, he goes on to repeat the sentiment a further 37 times.