First Dance Songs
by Jeff Terich
One of the most common bits of advice that married people give to those planning a wedding (and by those, I mean my fiancée and me) is to make sure that the music is good. That goes for music at the ceremony, cocktail hour, dancing, procession and first dance. Attend enough weddings with mobile DJs for hire, however, and you begin to encounter numerous repeat choices for a couple’s first dance. Ultimately, you begin to grow weary of Etta James, K-Ci and Jojo, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton or whatever contemporary country abomination seems to be making the rounds these days. And those are the songs that aren’t completely inappropriate. Keep in mind that some people still use The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds.” Creep-tastic. For those looking for some innovative, fun and unconventional ideas for their own first dance, however, here are ten songs that should get the festivities rolling the right way. Now, if we could only get people to stop using “Butterfly Kisses”…
As a general rule, you can never go wrong with Johnny Cash. Hell, you could throw “Folsom Prison Blues” in this spot and might be able to pull it off. But for all intents and purposes, we’ll go with his most famous love song, written by his wife, June Carter. Never mind the context in which the song was written, the upbeat, swinging tempo, the big mariachi horns, and Johnny’s ultra cool baritone—how could you go wrong?
Jazz is standard fare for cocktail hour at weddings, or even during dinner, but with the right song, it can also make for a good first dance. Case in point: “In a Sentimental Mood.” Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s collaboration on this classic track is one of the most beautiful, and certainly most romantic songs around. And the fact that it’s instrumental negates worrying about any lyrical distraction.
The Beatles are often a popular choice for first dances (same goes for solo McCartney), but how about a less conventional British invasion choice? The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle is, essentially, from beginning to end a great collection of songs for a wedding, though this track in particular would be a good way to kick off the festivities. It’s, in itself, a musical toast, an optimistic look toward the couple’s future, and it’s only two minutes long, so you can make it short and sweet if you like.
Maybe it’s the sentimental sap in me, or maybe it’s because I just heard this in an episode of `The Simpsons,’ but this song gets me. Everyone knows it, so that’s a plus for winning over the less indie rock minded guests. But it’s also an incredibly sweet song, and any Elton John prior to the ’80s is welcome.
Stevie Wonder has written more love songs than most, and for that matter, he’s written more good love songs than most. Sure, he also wrote “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” but you could still do far worse. Of all his many romantic odes, however, “As” is easily the funkiest, most upbeat and just plain great. It’s also seven minutes long, so it may require some extra endurance on the part of the bride and groom, or perhaps a fade out. If all else fails, everyone else can be invited to the dancefloor during the extended “alwayyyyys” jam in the song’s second half.
Stephin Merritt wrote 69 love songs, so certainly he and The Magnetic Fields should have a good wedding song or two in their arsenal. Plenty of songs from the 69 Love Songs set would be good nuptial fare, but this one is a personal favorite. It’s a quiet song, with no beats and no bass, so the drawback is everyone would have to tone down the chatter, but the bride and groom would be awfully adorable dancing to this romantic, quirky tune. Also, we realize this has been included in both sections, but it’s versatile. Such is the talent of Stephin Merritt.
Considering how much drinking is done at weddings, you’d think Tom Waits would make more appearances in wedding playlists. You’d think wrong. I have yet to go to one wedding at which the DJ spins “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “Step Right Up” or “Temptation.” There’s probably a good reason for that. But that doesn’t mean the man hasn’t written some lovely, sentimental songs of his own. “All the World Is Green,” from his album Blood Money, is a wonderfully tender and old-timey ballad, (almost) free from the debaucherous characters that often show up in Waits’ songs. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t sneak in a couple of those later, but as far as first dances go, this one’s hard to top.
Punch Drunk Love is a quirky, unlikely romantic comedy, and one that actually finds Adam Sandler pulling off a role that’s affecting without being obnoxious. Its soundtrack was composed by Jon Brion, and though most of it is instrumental, it does include this song, a gorgeous, lushly arranged waltz, with oddly sweet lyrics. It’s a wonder that Brion doesn’t release more of his own material—songs like this don’t come along very often.
How many couple’s first dances are choreographed to a song that opens with a reference to Warren G’s “Regulate”? Very few, I would imagine. That’s just one of the few highly entertaining characteristics of Lekman’s superb song. Your families may have no idea what the song is, but given that its melody is similar to “Heatwave,” and that it has high potential for laughs (“can you feel the beat of my heart?/ bum ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum ba BUM!“), I can safely say it would go over well. Besides, if you prep a few of your friends, you could even get them to join in the call and response “Oh No!” section of the bridge. Now that’s a wedding I’d want to see.
I actually ran this song past my fiancée to find out her thoughts on whether it was first-dance worthy. Her first instinct was that it was a cool and unconventional choice. Her second was that it might be challenging to choreograph. With a little practice, however, this song could be an absolutely dazzling choice (and it’s a waltz, btw). It’s a graceful song full of simple, intimate reflections (“Stay out super late tonight/ picking apples, making pies/ put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us“) and it builds to a big, powerful climax with strings and horns. Much like the Jens Lekman track, this is an idea I would love to see come to life.
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