ove—they say it makes the world go 'round. The wise-beyond-our-years souls here at Stylus don't pretend to know whether that's true or not. But it is hard to ignore the fact that the record companies have made quite the pretty penny over the years with songs written in the International Language. There's no way of knowing for sure, but love must be the subject of roughly 98 percent of the many millions of songs written since the beginning of time, when Adam Duritz first busted out his acoustic for Eve 6 in the Garden of Rock.
Why the ongoing obsession with the musically amorous? Maybe it has something to do with the sensual nature of sound, the libidinous boom-boom of rhythm and...well, you get the point. For centuries, few things are surer to help you score with chicks than, to quote the inessential Three Dog Night, "an old-fashioned love song" (yes, yes—the same applies to dudes, too, but let's be honest: in an industry largely dominated by skeezy men, that's a development that only dates back as far as Love Deluxe). Then there's the less physical side of the equation—the emotional, the complex, the vulnerable. And if people seem to be getting dumber in this day and age, hey, they can still be emotional and vulnerable.
For the purposes of this fourth installment of the Stylus Non-Definitive Guide, we've chosen to include both, as we hope to capture the scope of the love song in modern pop music. No matter what, as we celebrate Valentines Day 2004, we think you'll agree that this is our least definitive yet.
Your friends at Stylus.
Love, Actually: Songs of True Love
The Paris Sisters – I Love How You Love Me
While it was sung by Chet Atkins, Bobby Vee, Glen Campbell, and more notably, Bobby Vinton, “I Love How You Love Me” nonetheless attained it’s place on every girl-group compilation and brill-building box set through Phil Spector’s creepy Lynchian production and the female trio of The Paris Sisters. The entire song is essentially built around Priscilla Paris' beckoning mid-song finger-curl where she speaks the songs opening couplet “I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me / And when I'm away from you I love how you miss me” in the sexiest-voice-ever. The song would subsequently be given a cockney-slur by Beth Orton and a throaty-indie yelp by Jeff Magnum. Stick to the OG while you claw with your significant-other under the fireplace rug.
Beat Happening – Our Secret
The first song on Beat Happening’s first LP is appropriately ragged and has a sparkling innocence that the Beats (and their primary singer, K Records founder Calvin Johnson) would always retain. This tale of small-town adolescent love is bristling with oblique lyrical details, while the music thuds and thumps along with a Shaggs-esque sloppy drive. As with most Calvin Johnson love songs, sex is the furthest things from these kids’ minds; this is a love whose supreme realization is swimming in the town lake and dinner at each other’s houses.
Six By Seven – Oh! Dear
All love songs should be seven and a half minutes long. Six By Seven are more known for their anger, but their first album (The Things We Make) is spotted with killer love songs. After just under three minutes of rapturous swooning, Chris Olley and the organ and drums drop out and we’re left with just the echoing guitar part. Slowly, so slowly everything comes back until, at four minutes, we get a crescendo, that stretches out until Olley explodes with “Oh! dear/my dear/I’m in love/I’m in love/yeah!” as the guitars howl and curl behind him. Captures, better than any other song I know, the feeling of seeing someone and feeling your heart lurch.
Blur – You’re So Great
Your big debut, all alone with some dubbed acoustic guitars on a Number One album in England, and you break down crying on the floor. "You’re so great / and I love you," Coxon sings, and after couplets rhyming “light” and “okay”, such blunt honesty almost makes up for it. The solo performance was recorded under a table in the dark, and I dunno what I think about that, but the vocals beam with iridescent hope for the state of bare-bones love songs, gladly copping to twangy 8-bar solos without a wink. Coxon shoots for America and wins.
Stevie Wonder - I Just Called To Say I Love You
Irony lays convulsing and bleeding when a romantic comedy accuses a song of being “tacky, sentimental crap”. Not just any romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy that’s so assured that it’s more sophisticated because its lead star has listened to a few Clash songs. Fuck you buddy, I’ve got my girl with me, I’m not Foreigner, I don’t need you telling me what love is. The best type of love is like the best type of pain- dull. The type where nobody gets hurt, nobody throws themselves off a train, no Romeo and Juliet double-suicides. Stevie’s just phoning her girl up here to let her know what’s going on. He’s in love with her. Instrumental middle-eight supplied by Wesley Willis.
Fountains Of Wayne - Denise
“If you want to sound sincere/ Make up your own rhymes”. So sang 10CC in “Silly Love”. Besuited power-pop geeks FoW took the Mancunian art-poppers advice to heart, and so rhymed “Liberty Travel” with “gravel”, and “married” with “Puff Daddy”. The song works on two levels, the first as a Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing style lament on an inability to create an artwork of any depth to a figure so deserving of one, and the second as a primal howl of romantic desperation. “She controls me/ She can’t help herself/ Oh, won’t you tell me/ Do you love me Denise?” Repeat ad infinitum, because he just can’t think of anything else to say.
Ramones – I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend
To be the most straightforward song in punk’s unabashed love goop canon isn’t saying much, but when Joey croons "hey little girl / I wanna be your boyfriend / Sweet little girl / I wanna be your boyfriend," chords are split into a million little arpeggios and everything’s nearly perfect for two and a half minutes. And without a note of cred regret, he simply drops the bomb—do you love me?—and you hope that it all works out. Because if having a sweet girl to call your own is cooler than smoking rock with Tom Verlaine backstage, well shit, sign me up.
Heart – Crazy On You
It’s got all the prototypical 70s rock mainstays—staccato triplets, operatic vocals, bent guitar string screeching—Heart would never again write a song that encapsulated these now-evident “clichés” of the era in such an energetic way. “The female Zep” hit their stride with this mystical romp pushing for females to be the pursers of love to combat “the bombs and the devil” and the “wild man's world.” Ann Wilson’s strident cry of “You keep me alive with your sweet flowing love!” ends the final verse and is simultaneously lustful and palms-clenched desperate. It is the perfect accompaniment to a loud-and-proud night of female domination.
The Hidden Cameras – The Man That I Am With My Man
The Hidden Cameras’ The Smell Of Our Own album is one of the prettiest things I've ever heard, Joel Gibb and his merry folks traipsing through the joys and pains of being gay without ever going all snigger-snigger-join-me-Graham Norton-I-have-a-dildo on you. This is the end track, and a perfect summation. Gibb's voice and a violin lovingly describe getting fisted and golden showered like it's the nicest thing anyone could ever have done to them. The way he sings "He towels my head until dry", the pharaseology of it, as though it's a wholly important detail of the man's affection, is heartbreaking. It's a song not about the joy or thrill of sex, but the beauty of it. In fact, it's not having sex, it's making love...
[William B. Swygart]
The Cure – Just Like Heaven/Lovesong
The two moments of pure, unadulterated selflessness by one of the most self-obsessed men in all of music not coincidentally turned out to be not only The Cure’s two finest moments, but two of the most heart rendering songs ever. “Just Like Heaven” and “Lovesong” are each representative of the two most common and most effective approaches to the love song. The first is poetic, lush and amorphous, conjuring up a hazy atmosphere that as Bob himself says, is “just like a dream”. Not once does it mention the word “love,” but not once do you question the depths of his affection. The second is straight and obvious as hell, often using simple rhymes and even titling the thing “Lovesong.” The directness of the song, however, turns out to be just as charming as the more imagery-focused “Just Like Heaven,” and once again, you believe every last promise Bob makes—however far away, however long he stays, whatever words they say.
The Rubinoos – Gorilla
A lost gem from the Beserkley Records vaults, “Gorilla” uses a bucketload of bad analogies and zoo-based metaphors to conjure up one hell of a sweet pop confection. What makes “Gorilla” work, though, is the genuine nature of the vocals and the happily goofy way the band tumble along beneath them. It’s the ‘aw shucks’ delivery of lines like “I’m so big/You’ve got to love all of me” and “I wanna be tamed by you/I wanna be claimed by you” that make them seem as natural, convincing and heartfelt as any “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.
The Beatles – I Want To Hold Your Hand
Possibly the quintessential pop song in the post-WWII era, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" also has the veneer of one of the most genuinely innocent (or, depending on your perspective, shamelessly geeky) love songs ever written. Given that we're talking about the Beatles here, there's always the possibility of irony or subversive meanings lurking beneath the surface. And sure enough, the line about how touching her hand leads to his inability to "hide" his love might very well be a reference to an erection. But it's probably just as well your mother hasn't a clue.
De La Soul - Eye Know
The opening guitar chords, whoever they’re nicked off, are perfect, of course. But then, later, the trumpets (whoever they’re nicked off) are more perfect. Oh to hell with it. Trugoy says it much better in the second verse than I could ever hope to, so here he is;
May I cut this dance to introduce myself as
The chosen one to speak
Let me lay my hand across yours
And aim a kiss upon your cheek
They name's Plug Two
And from the soul I bring you
The Daisy of your choice
May it be filled with the pleasure principle
In circumference to my voice
About those other Jennys I reckoned we’ve
Lost them all like a homework excuse
This time the Magic Number is two
'Cause it takes two, not three, to seduce
My destiny of love is brought to an apex
Sex is a mere molecule
In this world of love that I have for you
Scarlet – Independent Love Song
Scarlet - two women, from Hull. Independent Love Song - passion, three and a bit minutes solid. Opening piano clomps, "You could say this was an independent loov song..." This song is about how "I'm doing it a different way, I'm doing it a different way..." verse sung slightly tersely, straining at the leash. Chorus slips leash and is YELLED - "HAAAAAAAAAAAAA, am gunna SHOW you how to TAKE me, goo-AH goo-AH hooo-wurr-hurrrh! Gunna SHOW you how to TURN me, righton, righton, righton, righton, righton, righton..." It's astounding, watching them shove as much energy as possible into what is basically a standard-ish piano power ballad, but one that no-one in their right mind could ever dream of touching. Got to #12. Best song ever? Yes.
[William B. Swygart]
Louis Armstrong – We Have All The Time In The World
On the surface, this late-model Satchmo hit has all the hallmarks of easy listening: syrupy strings, horizontal brushed drums, dinky fingerpicked nylon acoustic guitar, that AM-radio trumpet sound. Armstrong himself sounds like he’s singing through molasses; his wheezy voice struggles with each verse, each interval, as though this is his last gasp. When he intones, “With the cares of the world far behind usss…” he could be about to collapse. So, what makes this otherwise forgettable song so affecting is just that—Armstrong’s plea for young lovers not to rush things, for “life to unfold all the precious things love has in store”, as he slips into the murky abyss of MOR comes as a dying wish, a final thought. In a world where relationships fast track to stagnation and shared bank accounts, the idea of making time “just for love/Nothing more, nothing less/Only love” seems all the more vital.
Superchunk – 100.000 Fireflies
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Magnetic Fields’ original performance of this song; it’s bright, tinkly and strangely affecting (especially “You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance/You won’t be happy anyway”), like a fair amount of Stephin Merritt’s work. But Superchunk’s version, played straight in Superchunk’s normal raucous garage-rock style, transforms it into something else entirely. “Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things/We should be whispering all the time” works much better when it’s yelled, and the roughness of the version adds a level of poignancy to the premise of the song: “I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me”.
Tom Waits – Johnsburg, Illinois
Tom slouched on his stool, gut creased against (and slightly over) the bar of the smoky cocktail lounge, wallet in one hand and beer in the other. Flipping it open Captain James T. Kirk communicator style he attempted to hold the cracked and creased photo of his true love in the constantly lolling whiskey glazed gaze of his buddy. The sturdily warm upright bass propped up the tinkling piano as Tom’s breathily Marlboro falsetto reaches in vain for notes he can’t hope to ever hit. The piano slumps to its end too, cracking like a warped music box. The purest and simplest love song ever.
Spiritualized – Cool Waves
Near-unique in the annals of the love song, and in Jason Pierce’s repertoire, ‘Cool Waves’ is about letting someone you love go, not because you’ve stopped loving them, but because they need to leave. And it’s done utterly without malice, without regret, without any negativity: “Baby if you lose your love/Don’t take me by surprise/Don’t think you’re crying/But there’s teardrops in your eyes/Baby, if you gotta leave/You gotta leave”. Despite the impending separation, ‘Cool Waves’ still radiates love. Deep in the psychodrama of the Ladies And Gentlemen… album, it’s an oasis of benevolence and understanding. If you love someone, ‘Cool Waves’ says, set them free.
Paul McCartney – Maybe I'm Amazed
Damn. 34 years after this song was first released, "Maybe I'm Amazed" still packs a wallop that leaves the listener every bit as amazed as its writer. In retrospect, of course, the song sounds a hell of a lot less like McCartney's solo debut than his last Beatles song—even the guitar solo sounds like George. But as a love song, it's hard to get much better than this. Belted out with a fervor that's equal parts gospel and choir boy, about the only thing overtly religious about "Maybe I'm Amazed" is the singer's passion for the muse at the center of the song: wife, Linda, who would go on to inspire just about every song he would write until her death in 1998. Nowhere is that passion on more naked display than the classic Macca shriek on the line "Baby I'm a man and maybe you're the only woman/Who could EVAH HELP MEHHHH!!!!!" Damn, I say.
Wings – Silly Love Songs
No matter how much revisionism is ever showered upon the Beatles—who knows, maybe in twenty years, Beatles for Sale will have emerged as their “enduring masterpiece”—one thing remains for certain: Paul McCartney will always be dorky, lame and hopelessly old. But maybe that’s why I love this song—a long overdue ode to the love song itself. It’s not trying to be uncool or even a champion for the uncool (“uncool is cool!”). “Silly Love Songs” is the sound of an old fool being sappy. But that’s the charm of it—it reminds me of my dad, in the way that he’ll always be much better than cool because he never seemed to care how dorky he looked or acted. I am about a thousand times cooler than Paul McCartney. But he wrote “Silly Love Songs,” and I didn’t. And goddamn it, he’ll always have that over me.
Tavares – Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel
How can a song composed almost entirely of dodgy pick-up lines come to be one of the loveliest and happiest love songs ever committed to tape? It’s no secret that the disco BPM is equal to that of the human heart in a state of excitement, and the giddiness of “Heaven”s xylophone pings and orchestral swells perfectly capture those early moments in love, when a teddy bear in a plastic tube that says ‘I Wuv U!’ is the most touching gift you’ve ever received and just holding hands is enough to make you dizzy. When Butch hits the heights of that last, almost hysterical “heeeaaaaaven!” it’s like he’s just gotta let it all out before his heart bursts. “Heaven…” is the reason Valentine’s Day continues to be such an earner for the Hallmark Company, in that behind every cliché is a basic truth—all pick-up lines had their genesis in sincerity, once upon a time...
Lynda Lyndell – What A Man
If there’s one meme that makes me despair more than any other, it’s the idea that the love song must necessarily deal with the downside of our meaningful emotional connections with other human beings. There are throughout this article dozens of descriptions of songs detailing heartbreak and heartache of every conceivable kind. “What A Man” is their opposite. “What A Man” slays them. “What A Man” is the sound of someone completely and utterly and wonderfully and powerfully in love, someone wanting to shout it from the rooftops, someone wanting to tell everyone so that they might understand and one day feel it too. “What A Man” is a real love song, the only song any man ever wants to have sung about him.
It Could Happen To You: Songs of Unexpected Love
Guns N Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
Axl has problems, this much is obvious. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” isn’t about romantic love, it isn’t the Greek Éros. It isn’t even calling for the love of a friend (Philía) or unconditional, cherishing love (Agápe). This is a blatant cry for Storgé, familial love, safety and protection, parental affection and nurture, the one love that nobody should be denied. “Her hair reminds me of the one safe place where as a child I’d hide / and pray for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by…” To hear rock’s most infamous lunatic, a bigot, an abuser, a self-confessed “mother fucking asshole”, brought low by need for the one thing he could never compensate for, is a strange and beautiful thing.
Syd Barrett – Here I Go
You wouldn’t expect a traditional love song from the acid-damaged ex-Pink Floyd leader Barrett, and you don’t get one, but nevertheless this bouncy story-song is the kind of sweet, child-like pop number that Barrett could casually toss off whenever he wasn’t being elliptical and dark. Dumped by a rock n’ roll-hating girlfriend, Barrett goes to win her back with a song but instead scores the girl’s much less square sister. Charming, rough-edged, and very British, with some whimsical pseudo-jazz backing by the Soft Machine, this is a purely funny valentine.
Eminem – Kim
Sure, it's vile, hateful, and repugnant, a bullying, self-pitying display of shameful proportions, but "Kim" is more about love and how real people experience it than 95% of the songs on this list. Eminem's vocal performance alone is worth the price of admission, with his claustrophobic, histrionic reenactment of both his wife's fear and his own jealous retribution, but what elevates "Kim" to the level of actual art is Em's absolute refusal to sugarcoat these emotions that have grabbed hold of most of us in one form or another at some point in our lives and relationships, even if we're not planning to invest in lime and a shovel the next time we catch our Valentine checking out Orlando Bloom.
PJ Harvey – This Is Love
Boy, was it a long, rough ride finding love for Polly Jean Harvey, but once she finally found it, she knew it—she felt it, and captured it beautifully on record. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is an album that glows with hard-won happiness; it’s the record where our 50 ft. Queenie rid herself, at least temporarily, of all the scary shit that had driven her near-nuts. "This Is Love" is the song off it that best exemplifies the album’s joyous sense of discovery. On it, she breaks things down to the basics: "I can’t believe life’s so complex, when I just want to sit here and watch you undress." So true.
Violent Femmes - I Held Her In My Arms
“I will not kill the one thing that I love”. The way Gordon sings it, though… you get the feeling that he’s come close on a number of occasions. He doesn’t sing the song with a tear in his eye as with a knife in his hand. Is he going to use it on himself or her? “I held her in my arms, I held her in my arms, I held her in my arms, but it wasn’t you” he howls, the closest anyone’s come to recreating a nervous breakdown on record. “And I can’t even remember if we were lovers/ Or if I just wanted to”. Neither can I, Gordon. Neither can I.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps
"Our Time" hinted that Karen O perhaps had something of a "sensitive side," but who’d have ever guessed that the same woman who tauntingly sang "as a fuck, son, you suck" could melt so movingly? For all the YYYs songs predicated on salacious shock-value, this is the one that’ll really drop your jaw—because of how just shockingly heartfelt it comes across. If you’re reluctant to buy the song’s sentiment as truly irony-free, look no further than the video, where she fakes it so real it’s undoubtedly beyond fake. When she pleads, "Wait...they don’t love you like I love you," time stops (even if her man doesn’t).
Liz Phair - Shatter
The guitar intro is a perfect model of heartfelt inelegance, graceless but beautiful, a wonderful simulacrum of the shakiness and apprehension Phair tries to express in the sparse, elliptical lyrics. In fact, those three-odd minutes of loose elastic fretwork and lonesome indie hiss are the real declaration of love here, the real proof of depth and desperation in the emotion. It takes what seems like an eternity just to get to the lyrics, and when you do they come off almost like an apology for the grudging guitar hero act that preceded them, like Phair knows she could never hide the awkwardness of her love, so she decides to call herself out on it before anyone else could have the chance.
Badly Drawn Boy - The Shining
‘Cello and brass guide us gently into Damon Gough’s tentatively strummed guitar, and I can’t decide if this is spring or summer. It doesn’t matter though, because all is beautiful, as a man who sounds more than a little weathered by previous heartbreaks embarks on a relationship that just might work out. Gough could melt the coldest of hearts as his slightly off-kilter voice assures “I’m dying/To put a little bit of sunshine in your life”. Somehow Badly Drawn Boy achieves the feat of sounding nervously unsure AND optimistically certain about his new love. The effortlessness reminds you that creating such an aura wasn’t actually difficult at all, because “The Shining” is exactly how it feels.
Eels - PS. You Rock My World
A masterpiece with bloodstains on the canvas. “I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you”. Not exactly Hallmark material, but they have the same mindset: the endgame of love should be stability. The first few weeks of fucklust are like that first hit of heroin: heaven, leaving you fucked-up later. E was already fucked up, though, he’s spent this album voicing his dead sister, and watching his mother fade into nothing. He needs a new girl, one that’s going to make him walk with a spring in his step. He finds one. “And maybe it’s time to live”.
Hole - Northern Star
It’s very easy to feel that maybe this whole romance thing isn’t for you. When your husband blows his skull out all over the conservatory, leaving you a rep as Blanche Dubois in Mary Janes, you have more of a right than most. “I cry, but no one can hear. Inhale”. Or perhaps it’s “in hell”. It’s “I Will Survive”, except she’s not Gloria, and she’s not roller-skating around a moodily-lit dance floor. Instead, she’s throwing herself off the stage into the, and allowing the crowd to rip at her. Redemption through pain, romance through torture. She’s doing it all to herself, but if she didn’t someone else would. The drums sound like they’re summoning dogs to a hunt. Perfect.
So Lonesome I Could Cry: Songs of Heartache and Heartbreak
The J. Geils Band – Love Stinks
Never the most definitive of bands to begin with, it came down to this or the Pride of Boston's other smash, "Centerfold," the first ever number one single about getting it on with a porn mag pinup who just so happens to be in your high school homeroom (ahh, those "fuzzy, fuzzy sweaters"). But really, it's Peter Wolf's cynical ode to his failed marriage with Faye Dunaway that carries the day. Chock full of references to cheating ("You love her/But she loves him/And he loves somebody else"), drugs ("I've had the blues…the reds and the pinks"), and being taken to the cleaners ("I've been through diamonds/I've been through minks"), it's the basso profundo intoning the title who pretty much says it all. And if you disagree with the sentiment, well, you've probably never seen Mommie Dearest.
The The featuring Sinead O’Connor – Kingdom of Rain
A fatally ill suburban marriage dragged from its empty cold sheeted bed. The opening storm clouds protest noisily as the downpour bounces off the roof of the family Volkswagen below the bedroom window. There are no windswept and tear drenched scenes of drama here; both parties realise that the excitement of the expectations and the inscrutable allure of the future is dry and yellowed icing on a cake they never actually put the effort into making. The physicality and the sweat of the sexual relationship has gone to rot (‘still making love, dutifully sincere’) as the distance between them grew undetected inch by inch. O’Connor switches easily between the little girl lost and the woman scorned, as they realise that they’ve moved from being each other’s everything to doubts to broken promises to boredom to disinterest to disgust.
Prefab Sprout – Goodbye Lucille #1
Prefab Sprout looked like they were culled from a Shelagh Delaney play. One of the few tracks on their sophomore record that doesn’t sound horribly dated thanks to Sir Thomas Dolby’s 80s sounding synths, “Goodbye Lucille #1” starts out as a gentle sounding list of heartbreak advice but builds into an acerbic get-over-it-you-sap tirade aimed towards poor “Johnny Johnny.” At his most brutal, singer Paddy McAloon belittles the heartbroken lass by pointing out his immaturity: “What are you, twenty-one? / Why don’t you give it a rest?” McAloon then reveals the leitmotif moral: “Life's not complete till your heart's missed a beat.” Take McAloon’s admonishments to heart: open yourself to that cherubic rug rat’s pointy prick or end up like young Johnny—rigid, watching The Parent Trap perpetually.
Gillian Welch – I Dream A Highway
And as for all those songs that do describe heartbreak and heartache: they are all but shadows, echoes of the form, Platonic ripples, of this song. Impossibly slow, sad and long, and almost too personal to listen to, this song is both a resolution and a closure, Gillian becoming “an indisguisable shade of twilight”, taking a hammer to the Opry and constantly searching, longing for a way back to someone lost. Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” gets close to echoing the pain of waking to find that the lover from your dreams is still gone, but Gillian’s slow repetition scars like tears on a morning sheet.
The Modern Lovers – Hospital
Perhaps the most ambiguous love ballad ever. Jonathan Richman is desperately in love, but he also loathes the subject of his tortured affection for putting him through such pain. You can hear the sadness in his voice, the resignation even as he hopes that he’ll see his love again once she gets out of the “hospital.” Love and loss are inextricably intertwined here, a sense of bereavement that is only made more poignant by the fact that, seemingly, the relationship at stake hasn’t even been completely lost yet.
Foreigner – I Want To Know What Love Is
By 1984, the brand of hard rock Foreigner hit pay dirt with was pretty much dead and buried. But that didn't mean they couldn't do cheeseball power ballads. To the contrary—as power ballads go, this one may be King. True, Mike and the Mechanics would ride the song's terrifically insincere pseudo-gospel feel to perfection three years later on their sucks-that-dad's-gone single, "The Living Years". But with a pre-chorus so undeniably powerful that—like it or not—sends guilty shivers up your spine, and a full-blown choral ending provided, tellingly, by the New Jersey Mass Choir, one is shamed into admitting that this is the real deal. As a result, "I Want To Know What Love Is" gave Foreigner their only number one hit. In the process, the song immortalized singer Lou Gramm's deeply-felt yearn like even "Hot Blooded" couldn't have done a decade earlier. Shame about the hair, though.
The Beach Boys – I’m So Young
Introducing a theme he’d later revisit on the better-known “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Brian Wilson laments that he’s too young to marry his teenage sweetheart. The slow, 1950s-school-dance vibe of the tune perfectly matches Wilson’s plaintive musings on why teen love can’t be taken more seriously. The touching lyrics are matched perfectly by the sensation that this would be a beautiful last dance for the Wilson brothers’ prom.
Nick Cave – Are You The One (That I've Been Waiting For)
It’s ironic that Cave, a man who seemingly spent his early life torturing himself (and his audiences) over his inability to what? love? be happy?; a man who studied artifice and drama, who made play of murder ballads and thrones of blood, should have made, in The Boatman’s Call, one of the most heartfelt and personal love-letter albums of all time. This is the highlight, and specifically the moment when the middle-eight falls into place— “We’ll know /Won’t we?/Stars will explode in the sky!/But they don’t/Do they?/Stars have their moment/Then they die…” which is the sound of every realised dream you’ve ever known fading into wakeful loneliness.
The Jackson 5 - I Want You Back
Some people have countenanced a problem with 16-year old Joss Stone’s prodigious voice, capable of investing songs some thirty years distant from her birth with an almost unbearable presence of immediate and real emotion and feeling. Imagine then how people must have felt in 1969 when confronted with the spectacle of the 11-year old Michael Jackson hollering “oh baby I was blind to let you gooooooooooooooo / but now since I’ve seen you / IN HIS ARMS!!!!!” before giving up words completely and simply hollering sweet longing in the fadeout, not pining like some crush-struck kid but tearing his heart out like a spurned adult. And all in the context of the greatest pop single ever released, too.
Aaliyah feat. Timbaland - We Need A Resolution
The kick drum is deep for a reason – because it hurts. Rhythmic breaths and vocal ticks like guilty onlookers watching two people break into little bits. The accordion, always the most unsettling and strangely alluring of instruments, spirals upwards into histrionic territory, and later some sound is spun backwards, looking for a state, sometime previous to the song, when things were alright, when we could talk, when we could touch. Aaliyah’s vocals run into each other in a state of near-panicked bewilderment, as she pushes herself too high, unable to apologise because it’s not just her fault, while Tim’s drawl tells us how much he’s had of this – “I’m tired of arguing, girl” – which is precisely enough to make him start to walk away. And always questions. “Where were you last night?” “Where’d you go instead?” “What was in your head?” “Am I supposed to change? Are you supposed to change?” “We have so much confusion…”
Sleater-Kinney – One More Hour / Turn It On
After kicking things off with the electrifying title track on 1997's great Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney dropped two of the decade’s most unabashedly head-over-heels love songs. On the ballad "One More Hour", Corin Tucker wrestles with jealousy, wanting nothing so much as to look into her lover’s dark eyes, while on the next track, "Turn It On," (surely one of the most rapturously sexy songs ever recorded) she asks, "Why do your eyes have to change so much?" Slyly genderfucking as a means to universalize aching passion, she roars, "It’s too warm inside your hands / It’s too hard / It’s too good / It’s just that when you touched me / I could not stand up / I fell into / I fell down."
Pulp – Disco 2000
Over cock-rock guitar lifted from "Gloria," Jarvis waxes poetic about the girl that he was destined to be with his whole life—until she got boobs! Smarming and writhing all around shiny keyboards on a rainy Sheffield afternoon, Jarvis begs to see her again—"let’s all meet up in the year 2000," the two of them decided one day, "won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown?" Deborah jumps up and down with Jarvis on his boyhood bed, singing along to Bowie records in their underwear and blithely stomping towards the end of the road. And when he finally concedes, "you can even bring your baby," all those years later, England utters a collective lovestruck sigh.
Nick Drake – Northern Sky
1) To navigate through unsuccessful relationships with the hapless impression that each one will be the last until
2) I become so depressed that I never leave my room, waiting for
3) A girl to come by and save me from the apprehension and misery my rotten experiences have left me with,
4) At which point, I will be ready to fulfill my life-long dream of singing Nick Drake’s most beautiful song, “Northern Sky,” in the appropriate context, asking the girl to “brighten my northern sky” after the “long time I’ve been waiting.”
Therefore, I’m dedicating my next few years to making myself unspeakably lonely and hoping I don’t die in the process. If it seems stupid to you, you haven’t heard this song.
The Smiths – William, It Was Really Nothing
Not all love songs are happy. Here Morrissey’s narrator strikes out at a rival, dismissing her out of hand (“she doesn’t care about anything”). Tellingly, we never hear from William, leaving us unsure if he is truly repressing his gay side in order to stay in the closet or if the narrator is completely misrepresenting him. The song is so bitter and petulant precisely because of the love the narrator feels for William. He keeps up a brave front (“I don’t dream about anyone/except myself”, “it was really nothing”), but behind that front there is a pent-up anguish at a love lost.
Radiohead – True Love Waits
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a Radiohead song on this list would be darker and more anguished than most. A simple acoustic song famously a favorite of rabid fans before being finally released on the I Might Be Wrong live album, this starts with Thom Yorke singing “I’ll drown my beliefs/To have you be at peace”, swearing utter devotion to someone else’s happiness. But the refrain lets the dark bleed through: “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave”. This is a love song for watching the car drive away, possessions stacked in the back seat, an empty house behind you; they utter barrenness of losing the one you love.
Ani Difranco – Sorry I Am
Even though this is sang from the perspective of the damager/dumper it has defeat ploughed right through its centre. There is no relief or jubilant glee at being back on the singles scene, no attacking the other party to assuage the guilt; Difranco tries to be as honest and gentle as she can with her ex, to explain. This is apologetic without being condescending, self critical without appeasing the wounded, in recognition of her own dysfunction and self questioning without seeking pity. Atypically this one woman and acoustic guitar is not just another average lazy strum-along-aheartbreak, the precisely picked acoustic melody floods suddenly and briefly into down stroke bursts of emotion across the strings. This is what you’d hope the one that fucked you over was thinking.
Brenda Holloway - Every Little Bit Hurts
With first loves, no amount of heartbreak can dissuade the submissive from his or her dominant partner. This heartbreak comes in many forms: cheating, lack of attention to matters more fundamental to human needs (it’s your wording; you always make it sound so clinical), or the incessant need to spend all waking hours with said partner. None of these however, are as painful as the just-not-knowing of a dying relationship. Holloway cries, sighs, longs and even swears to do wrong for her man here – with rare dignity. You can’t beat a lady who smoulders as she begs, all the while pianos weeping and strings sailing - our jilted lover soliloquises as janitors sweep the Motown studio floor around her. Delicious.
10cc – I’m Not In Love
Sycamore seeds turn their earthwards waltz: flowers, having bloomed, now collapse inwardly: fruits produce, leaving previously fulsome boughs barren: leaves, shunned, shed like birds (but with no warmer climes in sight): whether 10cc are walking or merely turning away, ending or trying to delay, is unclear. What is clear is the 250 vocal overdubs, the weightless layers of synth, the plaintive sigh of the title (denial? pledge? promise?). Ubiquity often weights against a tune, but “I’m Not In Love” has found itself burdened only with the poignancy of familiarity and obviousness; its use in The Office may be one of the most heartbreaking musical/televisual juxtapositions of all time.
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
Jimmy Webb saw a lonesome workman atop a telephone poll on the Kansas/Oklahoma border. Stop. The memory became one of the most lovelorn moments in pop. Stop. Glen hauled Jimmy’s Hammond organ into the studio to recreate the demo because it was perfect. Stop. Those notes trilling like a telegram down the telephone lines. Stop. A long distance love letter. Stop. “And if it snows that stretch down south wont ever stand the strain”. Stop. Those strings! Stop. That voice! Stop. The dislocated rubber band guitar. Stop. The drums to fade. Stop. Perfect. Stop.
I Want You: Songs of Unrequited Love
The Stone Roses – Standing Here
Unrequited love is, of course, the most romantic of them all. And also, potentially, the most psychotic, as the sufferer (and make no mistake, to be in unrequited love is to suffer) adopts the behaviour of a stalker, walking past their beloved’s house in the middle of the night and ‘accidentally’ turning up at places the beloved might just ‘happen’ to frequent. “Standing Here” captures the lovelorn essence of the ignored romantic perfectly, ambling to it’s own insular rhythm but maintaining just the right amount of good intentions. From the opening squall to the hushed denouement “Standing Here” is pure, perfect fantasy, brushed with just the faintest essence of bitterness and spite.
Magnetic Fields - All My Little Words
Equal parts deflected wit and affected heartbreak, Stephen Merritt's urbane adult pop turns love into the miniature production we all imagine it to be. Here, Merritt uses his poison pen to carve up an unrequited lover who's just now figured out that the slick sophistry of his wordplay can't save him in the end. It's not too much of a stretch to read self-deprecation in this portrait of a spurned pop poet, but rather it's the sense of impotent rage in the realization, "I could make you pay and pay/but I could never make you stay" that remains the cruelest and truest twist of the knife.
Sophie B. Hawkins - Damn! I Wish I Was Your Lover
File alongside White Town’s “Your Woman” in that minutely small canon of homosexual on heterosexual unrequited love pop classics. But it’s a great pantheon. Perhaps gay-on-straight unrequited love is unrequited love in its perfect form- there is no way you’re getting this person. Sophie’s yearning for a friend, an acquaintance- someone who she keeps watching, and watching them get bruised by straightness. She descends into crypticness at some points: “give you something sweet each time you come inside my jungle book”, except she doesn’t want to be like you, she wants you to be like her. “Tonight I’ll even be your mother”. Oedipus rocks.
Wheatus – “Teenage Dirtbag”
This gloriously dorky tale of (at first) unrequited love in the school cafeteria was not surprisingly a mega hit upon its release because it struck a chord with just about everyone: metal fans, ex-nerds, popular girls, jocks who didn’t understand the concept and just shouted along with the chorus, even staid and unmovable old rock critics. For a song of heartbreak and spurned affections, everything about its arrangement was shimmeringly, inescapably joyous, from the DJ squiggles to the plucky steel-string refrain and the fully blown “Jessie’s Girl” chorus. When Brendan Benson’s vocals—and everyone else, for that matter—explode in that soaring middle-eight (“ooh yeah! Dirtbaaag!”), it’s such a cataclysmic supernova of not-gonna-take-it-anymore that you just know it’s all going to come to a head soon after. And when Noelle finally admits that she has “two tickets to Iron Maiden, baby” and that she, too, is a teenage dirtbag, you’ll be leaping on the couch, pumping the air in triumph. It’s proof that love doesn’t just make you wear bad cardigans and moan, sometimes it can conquer all.
The Beach Boys - Let Him Run Wild
Yeah, yeah—the Beach Boys are overplayed these days (though, curiously, no one ever really says that about The Beatles—but that's a different story). But this song deserves a second listen. With a cushy vibraphone arrangement, brilliant lead vocal and rousing chorus, "Let Him Run Wild," wouldn't have sounded out of place on their next true release, the ultimate in teenage vulnerability, Pet Sounds. More importantly for this list, it's the only song that could ever claim ownership of a rather violent falsetto, as the narrator implores his ex- to ditch her new beau. Turns out that vulnerability might be a little dangerous.
Doris Day – Secret Love
An attractive blonde in chaps and a blue cowboy shirt hides between trees and bushes, in the rocky wilderness that seems to be Colorado or Montana—singing about a love that is hidden deep in the heart of her. In that moment hundred thousand gay men knew what she was singing, and a million lesbians fell in love with Ms. Day. It helped that there was no gender spoken. But the last lines, "my secret love is no secret anymore"—there is tragedy there, she can have some thing that the queers in the audience cannot. That snow white bitch is shoving her love in our faces—we want that door opened.
Unforgettable: Songs of The Masters
New Order - Temptation
Oh, you’ve got green eyes
Oh, you’ve got blue eyes
Oh, you’ve got gray eyes
And I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before
No, I’ve never met anyone quite like you before
I couldn’t tell you what the rest of this song is about. Though I know all the lyrics by heart and have, by my estimation, likely heard the song close to 100 times in the last year or so, the lyrics, though often beautiful, are mostly vague and incomprehensive. To me, however, this verse (best appreciated in the 1987 Substance version, where it is wisely placed as the climax of the song) is a better description of love than I’ve ever heard elsewhere. The mystery, the allure, the confusion, the thrill—it’s there, believe me. And imbued with the note-perfect voice of Bernard Sumner, it is made clear what I’ve always suspected—Ian Curtis may have been the better poet, but Barney was unquestionably the better lyricist. Ian was always too distant for me to really feel—how can you feel for someone who’s not even really there? Barney, however, was alive—more than any other lead singer. Maybe that’s what the whole of “Temptation” is about, really—just being alive.
Curtis Mayfield - So In Love
Sometimes it just takes hearing something in the right context. As an album track on Mayfield's masterpiece, There's No Place Like America Today, this song is utterly lost among tales of gun violence, racial inequality and Jesus. But when "So In Love" came on the PA while I was ice-skating one night on the Washington DC National Mall, it was a revelation. Delivered in St. Curtis's gorgeous falsetto, this slow soul shuffle perfectly captures the serenity of True Love - something I would only realize for myself a few years later. But in the crisp winter air that night, with Mayfield as my guide, I learned it was out there.
R. Kelly – Ignition (Remix)
We’re not going to sit here and debate whether or not R. Kelly is a master of the love song. We’re going to sit here and bask in the brilliance of a one-track mind and multi-track remix of a song that unceremoniously compared the object of affection to a top-flight motor vehicle. Think, though: what greater compliment from a man, than to be compared to his ride? His very expensive/begs to be taken care of properly/has all the machinery of every great car ever (Sam Cooke is the wheel. Otis Redding is the axle. Prince is the wheel. Curtis Mayfield is the brake. D’Angelo is the emergency brake. R. Kelly is the horn. Toot toot.)—all at his disposal in one unstoppable song/motor vehicle.
The Mountain Goats – Jenny
Out of John Darnielle’s approximately 354,782 love songs, “Jenny” is easily one of the best. As always, his narrative is a far cry from the standard love song, this time glorifying the motorcycle his love rides more thoroughly than the girl herself. He characteristically juxtaposes common love-related images of “hair, sweet and delicious as the warm desert air” with the absurd exultation of a life without “outstanding warrants for [his] arrest,” creating a typically Darniellian love song, immensely touching, yet humorous enough to be understated. This one will bring tears to your eyes if you aren’t laughing too hard, and a smile across your face if you aren’t crying too hard.
Morrissey – My Love Life
If you looked at a verbatim translation of the lyrics to “My Love Life,” you would see more ellipses than words. Less of a song than a giant, carnal sigh, this last Langer/Winstanley production (good riddance) was a pleasant coda to the somewhat undeservedly-maligned Kill Uncleperiod. The Moz and Mark Nevin songwriting collaboration congealed, if for just a moment, in this plea for generous, polygamous love. If you’re looking for that perfect moment to suggest Bohemian coitus, look no further than during the Mozzer’s own goad: “Come on to my house / Come on and do something new.”
Herb Alpert - This Guy's In Love With You
To most, Herb Alpert is a pleasant but wholly inessential trumpet player who brought us "The Lonely Bull". To others, he's half-owner of the moderately important A&M; records. But to pop aficionados, Alpert's the guy who sang what is arguably Bacharach-David's finest song. With a brilliantly lithe melodic arc and an arrangement so dynamic it pushed the limits of AM radio compression, this miniature artistic triumph admittedly has little to do with Alpert's reedy, limited voice. Rather, from the first crunchy Rhodes chords onward, "This Guy's In Love With You" has all the elements of what made Burt and Hal's partnership so remarkable: a gripping tune, a sweeping orchestra, a tremendously romantic and vulnerable lyric...and, of course, the omnipresent Bacharach flugelhorn. The result was nothing less than the absolute apex of MOR experimentalism.
Elvis Presley - Teddy Bear
“I like “Teddy bear” ...because he says 'don't wanna be a tiger, cos tigers play too rough' and he sounds a bit like a tiger”. She said that to me at 1am on 2/01/04. I know this because I retain all our MSN conversations on my hard drive. I don’t think he sounds like a tiger, though. I think he sounds like the sort of guy she dates, the sort of guy who does play too rough. And you wouldn’t trust Elvis with anyone. Too arrogant. You can’t be arrogant in a love song. He wouldn’t play too rough; he just wouldn’t play at all. We never dated, though. I don’t want to be a tiger.
The Association - Never My Love
Proving that lyrics are sometimes almost completely inessential to the success of a good song is this Association classic. It's not that "Never My Love" has bad lyrics, per se, or words you can't understand. Rather, you just don't care. The melody's lilt is so compelling, its gentle production so pillowy soft, the listener is utterly carried away by it. Were only the lyrics to a million other songs so anonymous.
Miles Davis - Flamenco Sketches
Of course it’s a jazz number and has no words, so it could be about anything, but it’s not. It can’t be. Not with that opening note of double bass, not with that piano guiding the melody so slowly down the river, not with Cannonball and Coltrane so elegant and expressive, not with Miles’ trumpet sounding so… not sad, because it’s too beautiful to be sad… no, it’s… in love. It’s not an elegy, it’s not a lament, there’s no sense of loss or pain or anguish or even desire. It’s just… in love… beautiful and in love, forever.
Aretha Franklin – I Say A Little Prayer
No one writes love songs like Bacharach, and this is possibly his purest. It’s the details that swing it; the way Aretha reveals the smallest things, and the way the melody grows from these small things to these big things, an undeniable surge of feeling into the chorus, the drums giving up the tick-tick of the hi-hat to rattle underneath Aretha’s declaration. Vibrant, violent almost, with devotion, but shot through with the kind of observations that add the weight of truth, clearly demonstrating Bacharach’s absolute consummate skill with a melody.
Marvin Gaye - Let's Get It On
We won't bore you with any explanations here. Suffice it to say, it's essential but tiresome.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2004-02-09