If you don’t buy into the Hallmark-approved mythos of Valentine’s Day, or if you’re just feeling lonesome or blue, then February 14 can be a pretty miserable day. But perhaps the fact that it gets everyone thinking about love isn’t an entirely bad thing — because, as Jarvis Cocker once said, love isn’t just chocolate boxes and roses. It’s dirtier than that. And it’s a subject that’s fascinated songwriters for as long as there’s been music… so here are 50 great songs on the topic. These aren’t just love songs — they’re songs about love, with its manifold glories and complications and confusions and heartbreaks.
Animal Collective — “My Girls”
The most famous Animal Collective song is also perhaps their simplest — certainly as far as the lyrics go, anyway. It’s a straightforward statement of intent: Panda Bear doesn’t want money or a fancy car or whatever else, he just wants “four walls and adobe slats” for his wife and kids. A roof would be probably be a good idea too, mind you.
Antony & the Johnsons – “Hope There’s Someone”
We tend to associate love with grand, sweeping emotions, but as much as anything, it’s about not being alone. Antony, bless him, clearly stares much farther into the future than we do, but the sentiment is entirely relatable.
The Beach Boys — “God Only Knows”
Brian Wilson recently identified this as his greatest achievement, and he’s not wrong. Its chorus is as simple and plaintive a declaration of love as any in pop music’s canon, while its verses are curiously coquettish, both starting with lines that seem designed to wrongfoot the listener (“I may not always love you” and “If you should ever leave me”) before returning to their theme.
Big Star — “Thirteen”
As the title suggests, this is an evocation of teen love (and, despite what some seem to think, I’d argue that there’s nothing creepy about it, because the way I read it both parties are 13). Anyway, Elliott Smith’s version is great, too.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — “Even If Love”
Will Oldham does disconcertingly beautiful and twisted love songs better than just about anyone, so much so that there are plenty of others you could choose here. But this one stands out for both its perceptiveness and its clarity, especially those two last lines: “And even if love were not what I wanted/ Love would make love the thing most desired.”
David Bowie — “‘Heroes'”
A curious case, because there are two versions, and each has a different slant on love. The single version of this song is almost terrifyingly romantic, but only because it expunges the verses from the extended album version that deal with the reality of the protagonists’ relationship. The full lyric is substantially more nuanced: “You can be mean/ And I’ll drink all the time/ ‘Cause we’re lovers/ And that is that.” The payoff is a lot darker, too: “We’re nothing/ And nothing will help us/ Maybe we’re lying/ Then you better not stay.” It was obviously a conscious decision to leave these lyrics out of the single, and that decision changes the song’s meaning entirely.
Johnny Cash — “I Walk the Line”
Hey, we’ve all wanted to be better for our significant other. And if that means staying on the straight and narrow for a bit, so be it.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “Are You the One I’ve Been Waiting For?”
The Boatman’s Call is an entire album about love, and any of its songs would fit here, from the impossibly romantic (“Into My Arms”) to the embittered and broken (“Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?”). But if any song manages to distill all the album’s ambivalence into one lyric, it’s this one — it evokes both the breathless excitement of thinking, shit, perhaps I’ve found the One, and also the fear of heartbreak that thought brings.
Leonard Cohen — “Ain’t No Cure For Love”
Many of Cohen’s lyrics (and his poems and novels, for that matter) address the complexities of human relationships, but straight-up love songs are surprisingly few and far between in his back catalog. This is probably his most conventional love song — apart from the fact that it characterizes love as, y’know, a disease.
The Cure — “Lovesong”
Robert Smith wrote this for his wife’s birthday, apparently. Bless.
The Devastations — “Previous Crimes”
The potential of love as redemption, as a way to make amends for past failings, to maybe not fuck it all up this time around. This is in your correspondent’s opinion the single most beautiful love song of the ’00s, and certainly the most underrated.
Al Green — “Let’s Stay Together”
No one did love songs quite like Al Green, and this was his finest moment. Its soulful beauty is undershot with a hint of darkness — after all, the title is “Let’s Stay Together,” which implies that Green and his paramour might be thinking otherwise, and the lyric for this extended version ends on an ominous note (“If you do me wrong/ I just might leave you alone”). But ultimately, it’s an appeal for love and fidelity — and who wouldn’t melt when they heard that voice?
The Guild League — “Scientists”
A little twee, perhaps, but this rather lovely song by Lucksmiths side project The Guild League does a fine job of identifying how a love affair tends to change its change its participants for the better: “We both have changed, it’s obvious/ A brighter me, a deeper you.” Well, that’s the idea, anyway.
PJ Harvey — “This Is Love”
Many of Harvey’s songs discuss the dark underside of human relationships, but this is as straightforward as straightforward gets: “I can’t believe life’s so complex/ When I just want to sit here and watch you undress.” Well, now.
Chris Isaak — “Wicked Game”
It’s been played to death, but this is still a great song: the lyric is a catalog of unfulfilled desire, and Isaak’s aching, yearning rendition is perfect. The video for the song saw him rolling around half-naked on a beach with Helena Christensen for his troubles. Nice work if you can get it, etc.
Joy Division — “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Also on the “played to death” front, this is generally associated with the tragic narrative of Ian Curtis’s suicide, but really, it’s a portrait of Curtis’ marriage, and how he’d grown apart from his wife. And, irony of ironies, it was love that would tear them apart in the end — Curtis’ love for another woman, journalist Annik Honoré, although Honoré herself claims the relationship was entirely platonic.
Ben E. King — “Stand By Me”
The classic, and pretty much the purest definition of love that pop music offers us: if you’re with me, then it doesn’t matter what happens (even if that extends to the sky falling and mountains crumbling into the sea).
The La’s — “There She Goes”
Well, yes, it’s probably about heroin. But it’s still a beautiful love song.
Jens Lekman — “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”
“There’s way too many songs for the broken-hearted,” said Jens Lekman of this song, “and not enough songs for those who have to bear the burden of breaking someone’s heart, so I wanted to write a song for those people too.” It’s true. And it’s an awful thing to have to do.
Magnetic Fields — “The Book of Love”
Stephin Merritt has a way of couching genuine sentiment in wry humor, and his talent for doing so is demonstrated beautifully by this, perhaps his most well-known song: “The book of love is long and boring/ No one can lift the damn thing/ It’s full of charts and facts and figures/ And instructions for dancing/ But I, I love it when you read to me/ And you, you can read me anything.” Aw.
Massive Attack — “Teardrop”
“Love, love is a verb/ Love is a doing word.” A simple observation, but a surprisingly profound one; we tend to think of love as a thing that people have, not a thing that they do. But it’s something you work at, and while it can be hard work, it’s also infinitely rewarding.
Mazzy Star — “Fade Into You”
One of the most intimidating things about love is that it involves surrendering some part of yourself, becoming part of something greater than your own individual identity. And when you do surrender to that idea, you want the other person to reciprocate — but sadly, in the case of this song, he or she proves unable to.
Modern English — “I Melt With You”
Another song that uses strikingly similar imagery, actually, although the vision of love here is more positive than in Mazzy Star’s song. The lyric is a curious one, deploying some post-apocalyptic-sounding imagery (“I made a pilgrimage to save this human’s race/ What I’m comprehending a race that long gone by”), but ultimately worldly concerns fade away in comparison to our narrator’s love.
Sinéad O’Connor — “Nothing Compares 2 U”
Argh. Just the greatest song about loss of love ever, then.
Frank Ocean — “Thinkin Bout You”
The attention given to the fact that this song was written about a man largely overshadowed the fact that, well, it’s a great fucking song. It’s a perfect portrait of being so deeply in love that you’re scared you’ll frighten the other person away, of wanting to be with them always but also being unsure if they feel the same way: “Do you not think so far ahead?/ ‘Cause I’ve been thinking ’bout forever…”
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris — “Love Hurts”
It does. And yet we keep coming back for more.
Édith Piaf — “La Vie En Rose”
Piaf’s songs were often given over to the tragic aftermath of love, but this song is unabashedly sentimental. It’s about how the way you see the world changes when you’re in love — the literal translation of the title is “Life in Pink,” but the best interpretation is of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.
Elvis Presley — “Can’t Help Falling In Love”
It’s true, y’know — it’s not the best idea to jump in headfirst, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
Lou Reed — “Pale Blue Eyes”
Reed being Reed, even his most unaffectedly romantic song came with complications. The story goes that it was written for his first love, Shelley Albin, but by the time the song was done, she was married to another man. “I thought of you as everything I had but just couldn’t keep” is heartbreaking, and all the more so because the song is so damn beautiful.
R.E.M. — “At My Most Beautiful”
Michael Stipe’s lyrics are generally inscrutable, but occasionally he’s unabashedly sentimental and romantic — and never more so than here, with a lyric about how the littlest things in a relationship can be the most meaningful. Even if it’s just reading bad poetry into your lover’s answering machine. (Not that anyone has answering machines anymore, but hey, they did in 1998.)
The Righteous Brothers — “Unchained Melody”
You may or may not associate this with golden oldies and classic rock radio, but if you actually listen, it’s as bleak as it is beautiful — the lyrics catalog being separated from your lover, and the gnawing doubt that maybe he or she will find someone else while you’re away.
The Ronettes — “Be My Baby”
Two-and-a-half minutes of pop perfection. “Be My Baby” is often cited as being the best realization of Phil Spector’s production techniques, and justifiably so — but in amongst all the laudatory comment on the song’s sound, it’s easy to forget that it’s also pretty great love song. Its sound and its lyrics both evoke the excitement and uncertainty of falling in love, and hoping the other person feels the same way.
Sleater-Kinney — “Oh!”
One of the more headache-inducing love songs you’ll ever hear, but it is a love song, and a rather beautiful one: “The way I feel when you call my name/ Makes me go crazy to sane/ The way I feel when you’re close to me/ Finally not drifting out to sea.”
Elliot Smith — “Say Yes”
A bleary-eyed song that evokes the feeling of waking up with a hangover, seeing the person next to you, and realizing, hey, maybe things might be OK after all. A rare moment of levity from Smith, and all the more beautiful for it.
The Smiths — “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
“If a double decker bus/ Crashes into us/ To die by your side/ Such a heavenly way to die”: only Morrissey, bless him, could have written something so insanely, gloriously, ridiculously romantic.
Spiritualized — “I Think I’m in Love”
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space traces the course of a doomed relationship, through yearning and the initial flush of infatuation, through love, heartbreak, and some semblance of closure. This song covers the “initial flush of infatuation” part, with Jason Pierce comparing the feeling, inevitably, to drugs: “Love in the middle of the afternoon/ Just me, my spike in my arm and my spoon.” It’s also pleasantly self-deprecatory, though: “I think I’m on fire/ Probably just smoking” and “I think my name is on your lips/ Probably complaining” feature amongst the surprisingly large number of Spiritualized lyrics that could be described as wryly funny.
Suede — “The Wild Ones”
And here’s Suede’s most starry-eyed moment, a suitably widescreen love song — or, at least, an ode to the possibilities of love. It’s insanely dramatic, like the rest of Dog Man Star, and it’s great.
The Supremes — “You Can’t Hurry Love”
You’ll just have to wait. So it goes. It’s worth waiting for, y’know…
Holly Throsby — “Now I Love Someone”
… and when it arrives, it’s like coming home. Throsby also wrote a rather wonderful piece about the song and her sexuality for the Sydney Morning Herald recently, apropos of Australia’s depressingly conservative government and its opposition to gay marriage.
Trespassers William — “Lie In the Sound”
We tend to surround love with all sorts of flowery rhetoric and poetic language, but when you strip everything away, what you’re left with is need. Need for companionship, need for understanding, need for someone. Or, as this gorgeous song from Seattle band Trespassers William puts it, “What is love but whatever my heart needs around?” And sometimes, that need is destructive, too.
U2 — “Love Is Blindness”
The final song from Achtung Baby is one of Bono’s best lyrics (stop sniggering at the back, there — the man has written some fine songs in his time). Some of the imagery is remarkable: “Love is clockworks and cold steel,” goes the start of the final verse, “Fingers too numb to feel.” Even better, though, is The Edge’s elegiac guitar solo — “A more eloquent prayer,” said Bono, “than anything I could write.”
The Undertones — “Teenage Kicks”
Perhaps the only contender against Big Star in the “perfect evocation of teen love” stakes.
Violent Femmes — “Please Do Not Go”
And as far as teen love’s accompanying angst goes, one need look no further than the Violent Femmes’ classic self-titled debut. Most of its songs are dedicated to Gordon Gano’s inability to get any lovin’, but this is an evocation of the poisonous, grasping need that consumes you when it looks like the person who does (or did) like you is losing interest. If you’re gonna get heartbroken, it’s best to just get it out of the way. Clinging on just makes it worse.
The Velvet Underground — “Venus In Furs”
Hey, it takes all sorts.
The Verve — “Sonnet”
A decidedly unromantic view of love, as befits a song about an ex: “Yes, there’s love if you want it/ Don’t sound like no sonnet.” But it is romantic in its own way, because Richard Ashcroft’s narrator still harbors intense feelings for the song’s subject: “Sinking faster than a boat without a hull/ Dreaming about the day when I can see you there/ By my side.”
Lucinda Williams — “Side of the Road”
“For just a minute or two/ I want to see what it feels like to be without you.” One of the things people never tell you about love is that, at times, however much you love your significant other, you just want to be your own person for a bit. And it’s healthy to do so — as Williams sings here, “If I stray away too far from you, don’t go and try to find me/ It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, it doesn’t mean I won’t come back and stay beside you.”
Bill Withers — “Use Me”
When you think about it, this is a remarkable lyric. It’s essentially an ode to being a doormat, to subjugating your desires to those of a lover who basically treats you like shit. And loving it. Because the sex is good.
Barry White — “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe”
Look, if Barry White doesn’t get things moving along, then something’s gone very wrong.
Amy Winehouse — “Love Is a Losing Game”
Oh, Amy. Back to Black in general is pretty brutal listening, especially in light of the subsequent trajectory of its creator’s life, but this takes bleakness to a whole new level: “Love is a losing game/ One I wish I never played/ Oh, what a mess we made.” Sigh.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Maps”
And finally, a declaration of love for a certain singer who might just be on tour and surrounded by groupies. “Wait,” sighs Karen O, “They don’t love you like I love you.” She’s right, y’know. If you have someone who loves you, don’t fuck it up. Not like that.