In recent history, this list would have been five different takes on Palace Music’s “Valentine’s Day” (“It’s Valentine’s Day / And I’m catatonic”) and a make-your-own-Faith-Hill-voodoo-doll. Circumstances change, however, and this list features three unabashedly sappy songs, and I feel no shame in this, nor do I feel any shame in admitting that I was forced to cut Toni Braxton’s “Another Sad Love Song” due only to space considerations. But there’s a dark-horse nominee and a compromise candidate because forsaking one’s own bleak romantic past saps half the fun out of the day.
“From a Buick 6,” Bob Dylan
Maybe not the best love song of all time, but qualifies for the #1 best line about a girl ever: “She don’t make me nervous, she don’t talk too much / She walks like Bo Diddley and she don’t need no crutch.” The day I see this online is the day I drop any resistance to personals ads. Defiantly not sweet: it’s a song about a mistress, instead of the “graveyard woman that keeps my kid.” But I still want to meet her anyway. Definitely.
“Sweet Jane,” Cowboy Junkies
Yes, specifically the Cowboy Junkies version. Let’s just come to the understanding now that Margo Timmins is the sexiest singer ever, and about two-thirds of The Trinity Session could qualify for this list, including “Working on a Building,” which is a traditional gospel song yet still comes across as being just absurdly erotic. What works about “Sweet Jane” and the rest of the album, unlike some of the later CJ LPs, is their realization that if you have the best singer ever, it’s a good idea to keep the drums soft, the bass slow, and the guitar as texture, not unlike the arrangements on the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong albums. Everyone ultimately covers this song; only the Cowboy Junkies brilliantly reimagined Lou Reed’s lo-fi anthem as a torch song. Few songs are appropriate over both good wine with your V-Day date and space wine alone; treasure them.
“In the Aeroplane over the Sea”
Neutral Milk Hotel
All about how great it is to be in love and how we’re all going to die eventually and have our ashes dropped from an airplane (I don’t truck with the continental spelling), and how great it is to be in love. If any song is going to get you to act today on any long-held crushes, this might be the one. Jeff Mangum’s voice is a little overblown, but it’s really just to show he cares, and his tuneless moments are all the sweeter for his gutsiness in pulling them off. The last line is killer: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all,” which sort of puts the love thing into perspective.
“Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”
The Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merritt’s ode to winning a girl away from more qualified suitors with a dumpy convertible. Merritt turns his weird tenor into an indie guy’s take on Sinatra, and–holy shit! Is that a ukulele? A shambling song about the more innocent aspects of car romance, and even if you’re a skilled womanizer you have to root for Merritt’s underdog flirtation–”I’m the ugliest guy / On the Lower East Side / But I’ve got wheels, if you want to go for a ride.”
“You Are the Everything,” R.E.M.
Big-time cheese. Even too cheeseball for me at times: “I look at her and I see the beauty and the light of music / The voices talking somewhere in the house”? But the best love songs are the most cheeseball because you know you’ve fallen hard when you’re willing to admit that falling asleep in the back seat of a car is the apex of romantic experience (“The windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine / All you hear is time stand still in travel”), and if you admit it over the drone of an accordion, then you’re really, really in love.
I don’t have a girlfriend right now, so I can’t claim, like a late-night DJ, that these songs will definitely improve your love life. In fact, they might not improve your romantic lot at all, and I can offer neither guarantees nor a particularly inspiring example, but if you get me started complaining about my current girlfriendless state it would replicate a little too precisely the experience of knowing me. So on to the list….
“Kiss Me on the Bus”
Not a glamorous love song, but there’s something to be said for grit and realism, especially in this genre. Paul Westerberg’s narrator really, really wants his girlfriend to kiss him before she gets off at her bus stop. She’s a little shy, and a little wary of the shady people on the bus. If you’ve noticed thus far that the song takes place on a city bus its probably beginning to dawn on you that this may be the most realistic high school love song ever written.
“Sweet Thing,” Van Morrison
Van Morrison never got further from his Them-era pop sensibilities than he did on Astral Weeks. If you don’t think it’s his best album, you’re just wrong. The language of “Sweet Thing” is a little oblique: “I will drive my chariot down your streets”? “I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain”? Well, regardless, it opens with some of the best folk guitar work ever, and it’s the mellowest song on the mellowest album you’ll ever hear. Come to think of it, the song works so well because it’s completely effortless.
“Shoe-in,” The Secret Stars
Bands that are actual couples–like Geoff Farina and Jodi Buanano, who put out a couple of albums in the late ’90s–can either produce really good music or really bad music, often within the same song. (“Bonnie and Clyde,” anyone?) The Secret Stars were no exception–Buanano’s voice was a give-or-take proposition, and some of her songs were a little too arty for, frankly, anybody’s taste. “Shoe-in,” however, might be as close to a perfect love song as you’ll ever hear. With its low-fi production, its stripped-down, acoustic guitar accompaniment, and Farina’s hushed, scratchy vocals, the song is like a bucket of cold water on every gigantic, blow-the-works, adult contemporary song you’ve ever heard.
“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space,” Spiritualized
A particularly good song when the three overdubbed vocal tracks kick in, and one of the most genuinely emotional songs Spiritualized has ever done. One potential caveat: Jason Pierce very well might be singing about his love for heroin. Even if he is, it’s a deep and abiding love nonetheless.
“Our Way to Fall,” Yo La Tengo
OK, so I said earlier that couples often produce good and bad music. Ira Kaplan and wife Georgia Hubley are the obvious exception to this rule, although they do have a third band member to keep things in line. From their 2000 album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which jettisoned their shoegazing influences more completely than ever before, “Our Way to Fall” works because of its spare, keyboard-heavy sound and its dead-on observational lyrics. Its chorus is also one of the best hooks Kaplan ever dreamed up, and when he gets to the final line–”because we’re on our way, we’re on our way to fall in love”–love is definitely in the air.
“Hearts and Bones”
Not recognized enough by the people whose job it is to recognize really good love songs written by Paul Simon. The whole Garfunkel thing was obviously a sham. Art Garfunkel may have had a good voice, but if a (mostly) grown adult male is actually soothed by your voice, you don’t need anyone to harmonize with anyone, Garfunkel or otherwise. Here’s my kicker: “She burned like a bride.” I don’t even know what that means, but I think that just speaks to its voluminous awesomeness.
“Beast of Burden”
The Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger obviously has certain misogynistic tendencies (see: “Under My Thumb”). That doesn’t mean “Beast of Burden” isn’t terrific, and also about love, in a certain sort of a way.
“Harvest Moon,” Neil Young
These are trite lyrics from a person capable of lyrical inventiveness, but that’s just one more piece of evidence that Neil Young was pouring his heart onto the proverbial page when he penned “Harvest Moon.” It’s not hurting anything that Neil Young is one of those weary salt-of-the-earth types, who sounds like he is squeezing out one more anthem before he expires. Every time he sings the song. That has to be exhausting.
“Dirty Water,” The Standells
Obviously, it needs to be said that “Dirty Water” is not about a girl. The Standells are not one of those bands that have any business dabbling in the romantic arts when the likes of Bill Withers and Paul Simon are about. They do, however, know a thing or two about the city of Boston. Let me put this another way: it takes a special kind of song to pull the heartstrings of Boston Red Sox fans after every game. You have never been in love with a city, particularly Boston, if the lines “Frustrated women/Have to be in by 12 o’clock” don’t make you want to cry. Don’t bog the Standells down with any of the usual problems of traditional love songs. They wrote about Boston because they love Boston, in some way that is at least as pure as the way your mom loves you.
“Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone),” Bill Withers
The part where he goes “and I know, I know, I know, I know, I know…” (etc.) is one of those parts of a song that resists explanation for why it is good. Other singers should not assume, based on the success of this song, that they will be successful artists if they say “I know,” “I remember,” or “I’m pretty sure,” over and over again. In fact, you really can’t fake this song. Bill Withers was, like, a real guy. I think that might have something to do with this song’s goodness. Irony and self-awareness don’t play when it comes to writing the number one best love song ever. Again I will note that Bill Withers was the real deal.
Some procedural notes before we open the floor: The abstract requirements for love song status are as follows: The song must be addressed to an unnamed subject, addressed only by the second-person singular pronoun or by honorifics like “baby,” “sweet cheeks,” “sugar,” or “lady.” The subject must not have agency. Further, the thematic content song must fall into one of the following broad categories, allowing for poetic inversions and whatnot:
1. I Done You Wrong, Please Forgive Me
2. You Done Me Wrong, Watch Me Forgive You
3. I Enjoy Freaking With You, Let Us Begin/Continue Freaking Together
4. Everything (Including Freaking) Is Going Great
Criteria specific to this list: No live versions, no ironic covers, no songs containing the word “fuck” and no Brill Building shit, by which I mean the song must in some way express sentiments native to the singer, or the singer must have socioeconomic fraternité with the songwriter, if they are not the same person. Anyway, the list, in 5-4-3-2-1 order.
“On Bended Knee,” Boyz II Men
By the time this song has run its course, you’re not only O.K. with them fucking your daughter, you kind of wish you were your daughter, in some poorly-lit part of your mind you should never share with other people, even medical professionals. That says “love” to me.
“Thirteen,” Big Star
I was never in love in high school, nor was I into Big Star at the time. Looking back, after the advent of the Internet, it was probably for the best, on both counts. That doesn’t mean I can’t know what a lack of emotional maturity sounds like, because I like Big Star plenty right now. Whether or not Alex Chilton meant it remains a matter of debate in seedy men’s rooms across the country, but sincerity aside, this is the joint. It captures something about how dumb young people in love are, and shows, not tells, the listener what makes their brand of dumb so special. I’ll meet you at the pool, Alex. My dad would love to hear what you said about “Paint It Black.”
“Undying Love,” Nas
File this under You Done Me Wrong, Let Me Kill You & Your Lover in A Brutal Double Murder-Suicide. This song does not conform to the Rule about second person pronouns. Look past that, please. “Undying Love” begins as a typical gangsta-gangsta rant about the perils of treacherous hoedom, then downshifts into psychosis, turning into Act V of a Queensbridge “Down By the River.” Nas-as-Neil’s finest hour. Key line: “I thought I found true love/But she shitted (sic) on me.”
“Hot Burrito no. 1″
The Flying Burrito Brothers
I’m killing two personal biases with one stone here. Gram Parsons and his post-adenoidal balladry had to be on this list somewhere. Take this as proxy for the Burritos’ version of any Dan Penn/Chips Moman song, for G.P.’s “She,” for the thematically similar “Hot Burrito no. 2,” the anal sex bildungsroman of “Lazy Day,” gee, even the Parsons-sung outtake version of “One Hundred Years From Now” from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo sessions. Second personal bias: “HB no. 1″ fills the crucial Asshole spot on the list. Check it out: “You may be sweet and nice/But that won’t keep you warm at night.” That’s not a nice thing to say. Later on: “Once upon a time/You let me feel you deep inside/And nobody knew, nobody saw/Do you remember the way you cried?” Translated from the Parsonese: “I took your virginity. You have since left me. This is unacceptable.” That’s romantic. No, it really is. Parsons created little retarded love stories like this one with the frequency that most people go to the bathroom.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog”
Quantifying the degree to which this pick does not need justification requires the use of theoretical numbers, so I’ll keep it sweet: We’ve been dogs since they built the pyramids, but it took glue-sniffing retards from Detroit to get it on wax. Listen and marvel.
“I Love You More”
When Rose Melberg sings, “There’s nothing keeping you with me/you can go away with him/There’s no sense in rubbing it in/it makes me love you more,” what can you do? You’re struck dumb, made as helpless and vulnerable as she is. “I Love You More” captures the illogic of love at the perfect pitch, simple and plaintive. A throb of pain called a song.
“Busby Berkeley Dreams”
The Magnetic Fields
One of Stephin Merritt’s 69 Love Songs, this track is about a man rejecting a divorce proposition. Again, this is a testament to love, a beast that is excessively tenacious of life. Quoth Mr. Merritt, “I haven’t seen you in ages/but it’s not as bleak as it seems/We still dance on whirling stages/in my Busby Berkeley dreams.” A ballad to the pathetic lovers in all of us.
I’m going to keep myself to one Björk song, although my impulse is to include three or four. It took some guts to place this heart-rending track between two singles, but Björk has guts to spare. A luminous, pulsing ache of a song, “Unravel” uses an innocent yarn metaphor to uncoil you from your spool, leaving you motionless on the floor, frayed and probably in tears.
“Rice Dream Girl”
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
This lo-fi pop song utilizes deadpan vocals and the cheapest synth you’ve ever heard to great effect. Though the lyrics describe a simple, even banal story of singer Owen Ashworth spotting a cute girl (buying rice milk), poignancy runs like an underground stream through the song’s less than two-minute duration. When he all but groans, “the radio is playing Seal/I try to tell you how I feel,” part of you laughs and part of you commiserates. Owen Ashworth has lots of love to give.
“Laser Beam,” Low
Mimi Parker’s voice rings across an echoing chamber in this ode to love, singing “I don’t need a laser beam/I need your grace alone.” A minimal song propelled only by her expressive croon and softly plucked acoustic guitar.
– Yoshi Salaverry