The 50 best love songs of all time
Writing a love song should be easy, right? As Cole Porter wrote in 1928, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.…" But while we’re the first to admit that falling in love can be as easy as falling off a log,
The business of writing a love song—one that’s not cheesy or obvious—is a challenge that the greatest songwriters have wrestled with since the first caveperson grunted a serenade to their beloved.
After painstaking research and several rock fights, Crafty has arrived at what we believe to be the 50 best love songs ever recorded. Expect to sniff along to the all-time classics (yes, you can tell Mom that Al Green is in there), get down like you’re at a wedding disco with some of the smoochiest party songs ever recorded (thank you, Madonna!), and feel a smile spread across your face when you croon one of the best karaoke songs while thinking of your own number one sweetie. No breakup songs in sight: Bring on the love songs!
50 best love songs of all time
“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys
In 1963, Brian Wilson was so obsessed with Phil Spector’s orchestral vision for the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” that he purportedly took to listening to it 100 times a day. Three years later, Wilson and the Boys would surpass the master with a song that lifted the notion of the sophisticated love song clean into the heavens. The uncertainty of the first line (“I may not always love you”) is a classic pop curveball, which works with the swooping transition from intro to verse. Once that miasmic mix of harpsichords and celestial brass clears, and that opening caveat is laid bare, we’re left with a heartbreakingly tender song of yearning, of devotion and of fidelity. Combining the fatalism of lines like “what good would living do me” with the use of God in the title was risky business back in the mid-’60s. There was no need to worry. In fact, the song’s universality has turned it into an almost nondenominational and humanist hymn, blessed with an equivocal outlook that can magically give succor to all forms of love
“Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke
If there’s anyone out there whose heart doesn’t melt just a little bit when they hear the drum flutter that opens this 1960 swoon of a song, we’ll eat our hat. “Wonderful World” is lullaby-simple in its structure—of course one and one is two! of course this one should be with you!—echoing the way that when love feels right, it’s somewhere between a no-brainer and a miracle. And no, we still don’t know what a slide rule is for.
“Unchained Melody” by The Righteous BrothersIt's the mushy definition of a love song that becomes all the more powerful for it. “Unchained Melody” has all the corny trappings of a by-the-numbers ballad: the swooning, arpeggiated opening, the crescendo to an epic orchestral finale, lyrics whose blatant emotional manipulation ought to fall right apart under scrutiny. But there's real, undeniable hunger in Bobby Hatfield's luminous and raw vocal, the push and pull of the instrumentation is subtler than expected, and the words reveal layers where true fidelity fights to overcome lingering doubt. The world seems to agree: The Righteous Brothers version of the song remains the most popular and well-loved out of hundreds of recordings from around the globe.
“I Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin
Set in F minor, the song hits like a breakup. Burt Bacharach, you clever devil. Aretha belts it like tragedy, too. That’s what puts it in the upper league, what separates it from the puppy-dog bullshit. Love is devastating. She turns her mundane morning ritual—hair, makeup, dressing—into opera. Years later, Björk would repeat this dark magic tragic in “Hyperballad.”
“Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green
Al Green’s greatest gift to the world is that he makes love funky. The lyrics to the Reverend’s landmark 1971 hit, “Let’s Stay Together,” articulate the solemn vows of marriage: “Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.” But sung by Green, these promises are given wings. Covered multiple times since its release, Green’s gorgeous original was given a new lease on life in ’94, when Quentin Tarantino featured it in Pulp Fiction. But our favorite boost for the song has to be the snippet—“Oh no you didn’t!”—sung by President Obama at a fund-raising event in 2012, naughty smile and all.
“Something” by The Beatles
“Something” was the first George Harrison-written song to occupy the A-side of a Beatles single (though it did share the accolade, appearing as a double A-side with unifying call “Come Together” in 1969). Capturing the swirling triumph of infatuation, the tune would become the second-most-covered song of the Beatles’ canon (“Yesterday” is the first)—more than 150 artists have tried the dreamy, swooning ode on for size, including James Brown, Elvis Presley, Phish, Isaac Hayes and Frank Sinatra, who famously christened it the “greatest love song ever written.”
“Earned It” by The WeekndEschewing the drug-addled hook-up fables that typically make up his musical playground, the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye turns genuinely romantic on his contribution to the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, a slinky R&B waltz that earned him an Oscar nomination and a Grammy victory. It manages to be sexy in ways the movie and its source material could only imagine—simultaneously classy, sultry, heartfelt and a just little perverse.
“Your Song” by Elton John
As serenades go, this one’s a bit of a mess: full of ideas that stop and start, sentences that don’t quite track and a final fluster of confusion—“Anyway…the thing is…what I really mean…”—when the singer forgets the color of the eyes he means to flatter. But therein lies the song’s enduring sweetness. The combination of Elton John’s simple, pretty tune and Bernie Taupin’s self-effacing, fumbling lyrics gives this 1970 track the hand-sewn charm of a homemade gift.
“My Girl” by the Temptations
This sugary ’64 chart-topper (the Temptations’ first) might be the best puppy-love song ever. Penned by fellow Motown signees the Miracles, its instantly recognizable guitar riff (right up there with the one from “Satisfaction”), peppy finger snaps, unabashed optimism and comforting-as-a-much-needed-hug harmonies can make even the most jaded downer feel all warm inside.
“At Last” by Etta James
The most unapologetically romantic slow-dance–wedding–love-scene song in history, Etta James’s 1960 cover of “At Last” may seem a bit cliché. But from the first note, we all know what’s coming (love! finally!), and James’s soulful crooning induces a shiver every time, whether we expect it to or not. Case in point, pretty much everyone lost it during Beyoncé’s rendition at the 2009 presidential inauguration ball, including the First Lady and President Obama himself.
“I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen
For the title track of his 1988 comeback record, Cohen abandoned some of his more heady notions of amor and embraced playfulness. Declaring his dedication in any situation, comical or serious, real or imagined (even if his lover would maybe rather be a prostitute for a bit) he pulled overwrought “love from above” ideas back down to earth’s relatable soil, while never quite abandoning his poet's eye for heavenly detail and wry commentary.
“The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra
Considered by many to be the gold standard against which all romantic standards are judged, this perennial wedding favorite marries an elegant, soaring melody by Jerome Kern with a personal, wistful lyric by Dorothy Fields. It’s about wanting to preserve a perfect moment that must pass—but that might at least be extended and treasured in memory. Introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1936 MGM musical Swing Time, the song has been recorded countless times since, but Frank Sinatra’s sensitive early-1940s recording (not to be confused with his later, more cavalier version) gives it a sure, gentle touch that feels perfect
“Be My Baby” by the Ronettes
Lennon covered it, Scorsese used it to announce his directorial arrival in Mean Streets, and Brian Wilson was so in awe of its orchestral drive, he famously listened to it 100 times a day. With 1963’s “Be My Baby,” Phil Spector put a bowtie on the bubblegum love song—conveying love’s urgency and sweaty-palmed excitement.
“Oh Yoko” by John Lennon
Lennon’s flair for the prosaic and his unabashed adoration for his lady make this simple folk-rock ditty (taken from 1971’s Imagine LP) simply glisten in beautiful gooey drippiness. There’s probably only one person whose heart doesn’t melt hearing it, in fact: the poor engineer bawled out by John and Yoko during its recording.
“Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison
The Irish belter famously commemorated first love in “Brown Eyed Girl” and summed up hippie-style soul communion on “Into the Mystic,” but he never captured the ecstasy of romance better than on 1968’s Astral Weeks. On “Sweet Thing,” with help from jazz pros Richard Davis, Jay Berliner and Connie Kay, he starts in the troubadour zone and quickly propels himself to full-on speaking-in-tongues word spew. Riding the song’s tumbling waltz rhythm, he pours out half-coherent proclamations (“I’m dynamite, and I don’t know why”) and blissful babble, climaxing with a triumphant “Sugar baby!” at the 4:03 mark. If love is a drug, then Van was on a heavy dose here.
“My Baby Just Cares for Me” by Nina Simone
Written for Eddie Cantor to sing—in blithe blackface—in the 1930 movie Whoopee!, “My Baby Just Cares for Me” has had an unusual afterlife. Though Nina Simone recorded her version in 1958, it became an unlikely chart hit in the U.K. nearly 30 years later, when it was used in a popular ad for perfume. The irony of this commercial connection is keen, since the song itself represents a rejection of material and cultural distractions. Simone’s account, though relatively lighthearted by her standards, nonetheless strips the ditty of much of its surface frivolity; in performance, her rendition could seem positively dour. With matter-of-fact majesty, she restores the song, in a sense, to its own values.
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder was a mere 20 years old when he released his apologetic anthem “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Even at that tender age, the Detroit prodigy had done a lot of foolish things that he really didn’t mean, but making that record wasn’t one of them. It spent six weeks atop the U.S. R&B chart and garnered Wonder his first Grammy nomination, proving that everyone loves a second chance.
“Wicked Game” by Chris IsaakThe line between obsession and devotion is thin, as Isaak demonstrates here with an Elvisy croon and whispy guitar runs that recall Dick Dale on loads of Dramamine. The tune's languid air and desperate lyrics could easily tip the whole thing into despondency, but its seductive charms prove irresistible. We are all our smitten narrator, protesting our situation and swearing we won't fall for it again, but it's much too obvious how we're going to end up.
“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” by Father John Misty
“I can’t hardly believe I’ve found you / and I’m terrified by that” sings Father John Misty a.k.a. Josh Tillman on one of the typically scathing singer’s rawest tunes from his sophomore record, I Love You Honeybear. The depiction of modern love goes on from there to encompass his fevered dreams, paranoia and cringe-inducing self-doubt as a signposts on the path to true connection. Sounds about right.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney
If Heather Mills or Nancy Shevell is reading this, turn away. Though he’s tied the knot twice since, McCartney never seemed to get over the loss of first wife Linda. The adorable sap certainly never penned love songs as convincing as those in the 1970s. Written as the Beatles were decaying and tucked on the back end of his modest, home-spun solo debut, “Maybe I’m Amazed” was not originally released as a single and ended with a fade-out. Years later, it would become a concert staple and be released as a meatier live version, with Paul hollering in full “Hey Jude” mode. The original is best, obviously, as it’s comparing a handwritten love letter to an off-the-rack Hallmark card.
“Hallelujah I Love Her So” by Ray CharlesEver had a neighbor you can’t stop flirting with? Ray Charles knows the feeling. Of course, the nextdoor neighbors in his debut single, “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” certainly go beyond being cordial and friendly. Between Don Wilkerson’s tenor sax solo and the sweet lyrics about the quiet kindnesses of romance (bringing coffee to each other, coming at a moment’s phone call) the song captures in its entirety a love that comes from a perfect understanding. When Charles sings that he knows she’ll be there for him, despite people’s doubts, because “she told me so,” it becomes crystal clear that this is the kind of connection that’s meant to be.
“You Make My Dreams” by Hall & OatesYou don’t even need to listen to the songs lyrics—just that upbeat melody—to understand that this one is all about that love that makes you want to twirl as soon as you step outside under the sun and skip down a city street. While most of the duo’s soft rock and smooth-jazz-esque ethos lended itself to diddies about a more stained and complicated romance, “You Make My Dreams” is pure optimism.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson
MJ’s chart-topping Bad single finds the King of Pop in full-on cupid’s-arrow love-struck mode (contrast with the seedy depictions of romance in the equally compelling “Billie Jean” or “Dirty Diana”). It’s a plea, in a sense, for love unattained—but the body-moving, carefree approach leaves little doubt to the singer’s sincerity.
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led ZeppelinThe orgasmic wailing of this strutting rocker's middle breakdown should clue you into exactly what kind of love Robert Plant wants to give you a bunch of. If there was any lingering doubt there's also “wanna give you every inch of my love.” The groove's sweaty with braggadocio, and the title's insistent come-on is framed as a question only because it already knows the answer is yes.
“Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac
From 1987’s Tango in the Night, this tune—penned and sung by Christie McVie—might just be about life on the road with Fleetwood Mac. “I want to be with you everywhere,” you say? How about a crammed tour bus? Wish granted. Even though it didn’t work out for any of the couples in Fleetwood Mac, don’t let it diminish this tunes unassailable sentiment.
“Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS
We all have those moments when our lives play out like the last five minutes of a CW season finale (before the shocking cliff-hanger, natch). You’re in a plaza or maybe a café, and the object of your affections enters the frame. Time slows down, all other noises fade. You exchange glances. Your heart flutters. The synthesized strings kick in (it was 1988, after all). And Michael Hutchence, Australia’s answer to Jim Morrison, starts to sing: “I was standing.… You were there.… Two worlds collided.… And they could never, ever, tear us apart.” And then—that pause.
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths
Written by lead singer Morrissey and guitarist John Marr, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” originally appeared on the Smiths’ transcendent third album, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, but wasn’t released as a single until 1992—five years after the Smiths had disbanded. Brimming with desperation and devotion, the tune gripped the hearts of critics and fans alike—Marr himself remarked in a 1993 interview for Select magazine, “I didn’t realize that ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ was going to be an anthem, but when we first played it, I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.”
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney HoustonWhitney Houston was already on a roll of No. 1 hits when she came out with 1987’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” but this one became a chart-topper in a whopping 13 countries. Though some music critics turned their nose up to a song that sounded so similar to Houston’s prior dance single “How Will I Know,” the irresistible baseline and Whitney’s remarkable voice make even the cheesiest of ’80s synthesizers forgivable. She’s singing about wanting to find love; meanwhile the world was going ga-ga for her.
“Wild Horses” by The Rolling StoneThe Stones were always sure of what they wanted, whether it was in the lewd sense of “Brown Sugar” or “Let it Bleed,” or the more emotionally tangled milieu of “Wild Horses,” where it doesn't seem like they'll be leaving with any satisfaction. Of course, this is what makes the song's affection resonate—our main character's relationship looks unsalvageable, but he remains steadfast. If you love something, set it free.
“When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge
Percy Sledge’s R&B (and wedding-soundtrack) staple might be one of the most romantic-sounding songs of all time, but the 1966 hit’s lyrics basically boil down to this: Love fucks everything up—your judgment, your pride, your friendships, your bank account, the roof over your head. It can be a powerful, fickle bitch, in other words. Oh, also: When you’re under its spell, it’s the absolute greatest thing in the world.
“500 Miles (I’m Gonna Be)” by the Proclaimers
Some people would walk one whole mile for love. Some people would walk even further than that—say, 7 miles, maybe even 10. The Proclaimers really shifted paradigms, however, when they declared their intention to walk five-hundred miles. That's a large number of miles! But get this: There's more. Five-hundred more, to be exact. That's 1000 miles in all, folks. Have you ever walked 1000 miles just to demonstrate and verify the love you feel for your lover? No? That's what I thought. I bet you couldn't even make it into the double digits. You're a buffoon! You are no lover of mine. I'm taking the kids and leaving you for a man who would walk a longer stretch of miles for me.
“Slow Show” by The NationalThe National is a band best known for its alternately stately and ravaged examinations of existential dread and anxiety—in short, they're far from lovey-dovey. But this track from their breakout album, 2007's Boxer proves that they're aware of love's curative powers. Frontman Matt Berninger finds himself stranded at a party without his companion and self-deprecatingly details his panic and isolation before identifying the exhilarating recognition of a soulmate with simple precision: “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you.”
“That’s How Strong My Love Is” by Otis Redding
Otis, you slay us. We’re hard-pressed to think of an artist who croons the good, bad and ugly of love as heartbreakingly well, and this 1965 cover (of O.V. Wright’s ’64 original) is no exception. The lyrics are so comforting, so reassuring—especially when sung with Redding’s signature soul—that it makes us feel adored just to hear them on the stereo.
“The Book of Love” by the Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merritt once said of his group’s 1999 lo-fi concept masterpiece: “69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” We’d argue otherwise about “The Book of Love,” a monkishly unadorned ode to amour in all its mystery and banality. The track’s status as a hipster-wedding staple hasn’t dulled its poetic beauty, or the simple truth it conveys about matters of the heart: “Some of it is just transcendental / Some of it is just really dumb.”
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police
"Every breath you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you"—you know, when you sever the lyrics from the delicate melody and celestial guitar chords, Sting sounds utterly terrifying. In fact, the single starts to sound more like a drawn-out musical threat than a love song. For good reason too: Sting's paean to a lost beau, often mistaken for a gentle tune about commitment and care, was actually intended to evoke the ugliness and violence of possessive love (hence the mean mug he sports in the music video). On second thought, maybe leave this stalkers' ode off the wedding playlist
“Day Dreaming” by Aretha FranklinFranklin’s near-flawless 1972 album, Young, Gifted And Black, shifts into this song with a dreamy jazz flourish before cutting to the legendary singer’s soulful this-is-how-it-is voice. The refrain of “Day Dreaming” might be all about fantasizing about getting away with your man, but the verses are about trying to change and do everything to be the right woman for him (“ I want-to be what he wants/When he wants it and whenever he needs it”). Though this might seem submissive for a powerful woman, she does say that he “Turns me right on when I hear him say/Hey, baby, let's get away,” so maybe that fantasy is worth it.
“There She Goes” by the La’s
"There she goes again / She calls my name, pulls my train / No one else could heal my pain"—now if that's not a love song... Well, actually, it's not. The song's most likely a heartfelt ode to that most trifling of partners, illegal substances (the line about "racing through my brain" becomes ever clearer). Even still, the Liverpool rockers sure do make their love letter to heroin, a gal, whatever it is, a wonderfully tender-hearted affair.
“Heartbeat” by Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly is the king of li’l love ditties, and 1958’s two-minute “Heartbeat” (the last single to be released during his lifetime) is one of his sweetest, illustrating that well-known, might-vomit feeling that comes along with new love. We’ll cut him a break for “piddle dee pat” because heartbeat sounds are hard, and it was the ’50s.
“Archie, Marry Me” by Alvvays
“You’ve expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony…” sighs Alvvays singer Molly Rankin, cooing this tale of modern courtship with irresistibly sweet sincerity. The jist? He’s too cool to wed; she’s too smitten to hide her feelings. There’s so much to love on this 2014 summer indie hit from the Toronto band, from its jangly, Super-8–style sound to Rankin’s lovely voice. Fans of Camera Obscura, ’60s girl groups, French New Wave films and kissing will swoon.
“Friday I’m In Love” by the Cure
While I actually enjoy getting super sentimental to Robert Smith's voice—and typically can't stand to listen to "happy music"—this tune’s catchy-as-hell hook and upbeat tempo serve as a good counterpoint to all those other straight-up tear-inducing Cure tunes. Plus, who doesn't love Friday?
“Jeepster” by T. Rex
Written by Marc Bolan in 1971 for the group’s second (and spectacular) album, Electric Warrior, this song has some of the most romantic, nonsensical lyrics we’ve ever swooned to. (Please tell us again how we have the universe reclining in our hair.) The song is sleeper sexy: starting off slow, building into a hip-shaker and ending with, um, some sucking. Bravo, Bolan
“River Deep —Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner
Dragging Phil Spector and Ike Turner into a discussion of romance feels gross, but the power of Tina Turner cannot be denied. Her voice soars above this hair-raising avalanche of sound made by 21 musicians and 21 backup singers—in what sounds like two gospel songs playing over a timpani practice. It’s Spector’s masterpiece, but enough with heaping praise on that convinced felon. Without Tina, this could just as easily have been another cute Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans tune. As Pet Sounds also proved in 1966, it can take a hell of a lot of pain to fuel an eternal love song.
“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by the Ramones
Simply stated, plainly sung—no one can accuse Joey Ramone & Co. of overdoing it. It was drummer Tommy who wrote this ditty, which appeared on the group’s 1976 debut, and, as far as proposals go, it’d serve as a fine love letter to anyone you’d like to attach yourself too, as long as they aren’t too keen on extended verbiage. This song gets the job done in something like 8 lines, a quarter of which are also the title. Short and sweet.
“Wild Thing” by the Troggs
Written by songwriter Chip Taylor and originally recorded by the Wild Ones in 1965, “Wild Thing” finally made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July of 1966, when it was covered by English band the Troggs. It’s a love song for anyone with a weakness for party girls, bad boys, rebels without a cause, and um, ocarinas. Because nothing says “I think I love you” like an ocarina solo.
“Heroes” by David Bowie
Reagan gets all the credit. In 1987, he stood at the Brandenburg Gate and chided Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall!” Thing is, the first metaphorical sledgehammer was swung into the Wall ten years prior, with this title track off Bowie’s only true Berlin album. Two lovers kiss by the graffiti and razor wire. Bowie, dreaming of escape so hard he wishes to be a porpoise, wails against a wall of sound, made romantic. Some songs are about being in love. This 1977 krautrock cannonball is testimony to the awesome, world-shaking power of love itself.
“Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae JepsenIn “Run Away With Me,” Jepsen had a perfect segue from the wildly juvenile success of “Call Me Maybe” into a more mature tone that still capitalized on her innate sense of youthful fun. The leadoff track to her 2016 album, Emotion, bristles with buoyant energy and Jepsen's pleading, optimistic vocals make it seem like anything is possible with her beau by her side—just the effect of any good love song.
“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads
The second single from the band’s fifth album, Speaking in Tongues, this 1983 hit was David Byrne’s attempt to write a love song “that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do.” Though he’s often avoided the topic (due to it being “kinda big,” as he eloquently puts it), Byrne hit the target here with a sweet, sincere tune about home being wherever your lover is.
“Stand by Me” by Ben E. KingThough King, along with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, originally wrote this song thinking the Drifters would record it, the number would become, by far, his most famous. Inspired by Sam Cooke’s spiritual “Stand By Me Father,” the R&B chart-topper soulfully captured the power of a relationship when everything else falls apart. We all like to think our partners would be there for us if we lost a job or got in an accident, but how about the mountains crumbling into the sea? Now that’s love.
“Nothing Even Matters” by Lauryn Hill“Nothing Even Matters” might not have received as much recognition on Hill’s critically acclaimed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as other singles, but, looking back, it was a near perfect showcase for two of the ’90s foremost neo-soul artists. For two singers who reached the peaks of musical achievement through astounding ambition and innovation, this restrained and simple love song shows just how talented each was beneath it all. Hill and D’Angelo trade sensual verses with a smooth, tenderness in a stripped down ballad that might just make you want to strip down as well.
“Countdown” by Beyoncé
There was some debate over the merits of this 2011 track versus those of Queen B’s first chart topper, “Crazy in Love.” But it’s a no-brainer. “Crazy” is not love, it’s the first blush. It’s a crush, and the music, accordingly, is giddy and one-dimensional. But “Countdown”? That’s some real shit. It’s crazy in love years later, after the domesticity, after you stop bothering to close the bathroom door. And the tune, the arrangement, is complex, mercurial, fluttering and diving, able to create a rush from routine. This is the one that will make Senator Blue Ivy weep ages from now.
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