There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are 10 million ways to tell them you’ll be sticking around. That’s why paring down a Grand Canyon-size list of great love songs seemed impossible until we established some rules, which disqualify the wish-you-were-min songs, the wow-you-look-hot-in-those-pants songs, and so many others that are not truly about L-O-V-E. (A few classics transcend our parameters — Whitney, you can thank us later.) We also limited standards to a sidebar, since otherwise they’d dominate. As for the rest…what can we say? Every time we hear them, our hearts go pitter-pat. Happy Valentine’s Day, ya big sap.
God Only Knows
The Beach Boys (1966)
Paul McCartney called it the greatest song ever written. And, yow, lyrically it opens with a blow: ”I may not always love you.” Aren’t love songs supposed to be full of vague, empty promises? In the tenderest of angel voices, Carl Wilson, after acknowledging the heart’s fickle nature, admits his utter dependence, summing up the fearsome power of love: ”God only knows what I’d be without you.” Big brother Brian, who wrote the tune, knits together French horns and sleigh bells, clip-clop percussion and strings. So fully did he give his obsessive heart over to the recording of the magnificent Pet Sounds, it’s not hard to imagine that the world’s greatest love song is less about a woman than about music itself.
Can’t Help Falling In Love
Elvis Presley (1961)
Guaranteed to get anyone with half a heart all shook up. Beneath the lyrics is the unsettling suggestion that matters of the heart are largely dictated by fate; Presley’s placid vocal signals that’s fine by him.
The Beatles (1969)
The first part of George Harrison’s meditation on an alluring woman is as seductive as its subject, enticing the listener to sink into its languid melody. Then, as doubt sets in (”You’re asking me will my love grow? I don’t know, I don’t know”), the song speeds up — just as one’s thoughts will do when contemplating a romance that seems too good to be true.
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Aretha Franklin (1967)
The greatest love of all? When being with someone makes you feel more like yourself than being alone. This Carole King-and Gerry Goffin-penned sing-along spins that warm, safe, happy feeling into one of pop’s most beloved anthems.
Let’s Stay Together
Al Green (1971)
When Green’s grainy tenor first lifts into an ecstatic falsetto, your heart will levitate right along with it. Even better, Green rejects fairy-tale romance in favor of the kind that lasts, ”whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.” Amen to that.
I Will Always Love You
Whitney Houston (1992)
Boom! goes the drum, followed by a split second of silence. Then, out of thin air: ”And I-I-I-I-I…” Some prefer Dolly Parton’s subtler original, but Houston imbued the song with so much drama and chilling technique — and scored such a massive hit — that hers has become definitive.