June is bustin’ out all over, which means that wedding season is in full swing, a time for inappropriate best-man toasts, cake-cramming, and toddlers in tuxedoes. It’s also time for “At Last,” Etta James’s eternal contribution to nuptials everywhere. If you had to pick one song to be forever associated with the first dance between the freshly minted married, James’s rapturous and lush exultation is hard to beat.
It’s also nearly 60 years old (or nearly 80, if you’re counting its pre-James incarnation), and many other first-dance favorites like Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” Luther Vandross’s “Here And Now,” and Lonestar’s “Amazed” similarly come from the ancient 1900s. And while a few more modern songs have slipped into the rotation — as Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” and Ray LaMontagne’s “You Are The Best Thing” have done and Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” has sweatily, transparently ached to do from day one — there’s always room for a few more to freshen up the playlist. Here are 10 mildly-off-the-beaten-path 21st-century songs that deserve to be danced to while your family and friends look on.
Sade, “The Sweetest Gift.” The poet laureate of intoxicating romance looks up at the night sky and finds a protectress. The song is told almost entirely in imagery — wind, clouds, and especially the moon — and as a languid reminiscence, right up until the very end, when it turns into a snapshot of right now and a hope that it lasts forever. Ironically, at 2:18 (the shortest song on this list), that moment is brief indeed — and besides, it’s time to move on to the party proper — but that only makes it all the more precious.
Eels, “I Like The Way This Is Going.” With nothing but soft guitar strums, a bumping bass, and Mark Oliver Everett’s strained murmur, some might argue that this song is disqualifyingly twee; it starts, after all, with the line “I like your toothy smile/It never fails to beguile.” But the message it sends a newly licensed couple into officialdom is right there in a title that says more than it seems to on first blush: This is not an end. This is a journey. And I’m enjoying it with you.
Brandi Carlile, “The Story.” For anyone who wants an anthem of devotion to soundtrack their entrance into marriage, Carlile’s your woman. “The Story” has adversity. It’s got defiance. It’s got determination. It’s got both the promise and expectation of unconditional support. It’s you and me against the world, it seems to say. It’s a perfect song to pump your fists while clasping hands.
Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynne, “Rather Be.” Some folks need to enter into connubial bliss with a banger. You no-no-no-no-know who you are.
Kacey Musgraves, “Oh, What A World.” It’s not clear whether the object of Musgraves’s affection is merely the cherry on top of the beauty that she sees when she looks around her or if her beloved is the reason she sees it in the first place, radiating serene joy in every direction until it ripples through and reshapes the universe. Either way, her cosmic country stretches the love in her heart until it glows like sunlight, allowing everything in existence to be visible.
Eisley, “I Wasn’t Prepared.” With a magical-realist lyrical bent that’s matched by the swoony slow-motion flicker of the music, Eisley’s song — first released when four-fifths of the band had yet to graduate from their teens — is helplessly agog with wonder at what’s to come next. A swirl of pollen traces their beloved’s face in the air as a swirl of guitar strums does the same, and Sherri and Stacy DuPree’s vocals gently soar and swoop, overwhelmed in the best possible way.
Amy Rigby, “Cynically Yours.” Heart-pounding romanticism is for wide-eyed youth with foolish dreams in their heads. Rigby offers none of that, instead providing stand-in vows for everyone who’s just trying their best. As her band plays a riff on “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” Rigby tosses out one pragmatic variation on the standard nuptial promises after another; “The thought of us together doesn’t fill me with dread,” she shrugs at one point, “I can picture being with you ‘til one or both of us is dead.” An ideal song for a second marriage. Maybe a third.
Passenger featuring Kate Miller-Heidke, “The One You Love”; John Doe featuring Kathleen Edwards, “The Golden State.” Something often overlooked when choosing a first-dance song is how that song addresses its subject. “My Girl” is lovely, for instance, but it’s a man singing about the woman he loves (who is, in fact, not even in the room); kick off the reception with it and you’ve basically got a gushing groom and a silent bride. (The equation changes, however, when it’s two women getting married.) Most of the songs on this list solve that problem by degendering the subject, so that both sides of the sentiment can be projected onto both parties. These two solve it by each presenting a conversation. “The One You Love” is more traditional, identifying how to know you’ve found your match and bringing both voices together as one after starting separately. “The Golden State” applies the same trick to two experience-battered messes who see that their own flaws fit the other’s strengths and cling to the triumph of finding each other at all. No surprise that it was later used on “True Blood.”
Sam Phillips, “So Glad You’re Here.” Even outside the context of a wedding, the opening is an eyebrow-raiser: “Nothing about us looks good on paper.” But the line that follows — “Paper’s no good in the middle of the night” — puts it in perspective, finding joy and grace from an unexpected source. From there, the song is flooded with gratitude. And relief. At last, Phillips is saying. My love has come along.