The business of writing a love song – one that’s not cheesy or clichéd – is a challenge that the greatest songwriters have wrestled with since the first caveman grunted a serenade to his beloved.
After painstaking research and several rock-paper-scissor fights, Time Out's music team has arrived at what we believe to be 25 of the best love songs ever recorded. From tear-jerkers to wail-along pop belters, sensual sounds to toe-tappin' classics, our mixed bag of romantic rhythms is bursting with enough love to turn even the stoniest of hearts into pink mush.
We’ve even collected them all together and made a handy YouTube playlist for you. Don’t thank us – just share the love.
'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 favourite boost for the song has to be the snippet – ‘Oh no you didn’t!’ – sung by Barack Obama at a fundraising event in 2012, naughty smile and all.
'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 excitement.
'Finally' by CeCe Peniston: Ironically, ‘Finally’ was CeCe Peniston’s very first single. She’s been dining out on it ever since, but who can blame her? It’s a perfect piano house/dance-pop hybrid about Mr Right showing up at last, with a pounding four-chord hook, an irresistible beat and Peniston’s guttural ‘yeah yeah, oow’ vocal line adding up to something that feels a bit like falling in love.
'My Baby Just Cares for Me' by Nina Simone: Written for Eddie Cantor to sing 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 UK 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.
'The Power of Love' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Love is a sweet and splendid thing, but boy oh boy can it get dramatic – the rush of endorphins washing through your body when you fall in love, the pangs of pain and fear and longing that can follow. In 1984, Holly Johnson’s British crew somehow managed to touch on the feather-fine subtlety of love, and its crashing, whooshing, earth-shattering might. Johnson himself has remarked of the song, ‘I always felt like “The Power of Love” was the record that would save me in this life.’
'Wonderful World' by Sam Cooke: If there’s anyone out there whose heart doesn’t melt just a little bit when the drum flutter opens this 1960 swoon of a song, we’ll eat our hat. ‘Wonderful World’ is lullaby – 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.
'The Way You Make Me Feel' by Michael Jackson: Remember when Michael Jackson released single after single from ‘Bad’, and each one was amazing and went to No. 1? And remember how you felt the first time you heard 1987’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ – among the most raw and most febrile tracks Jackson ever cut, and the exuberant counterpart to brooding ‘Billie Jean’? It’s the kind of song that just gets you, even if you are only nine years old and the video’s a little creepy. C’mon, girl!
'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 colour 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 give this 1970 track the hand-sewn charm of a homemade gift.
'I Say A Little Prayer' by Aretha Franklin: Set in F# minor, the song hits like a breakup. Burt Bacharach, you clever thing. Aretha belts it like tragedy, too. That’s what puts it in the upper league, what separates it from the puppydog tracks. 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’.
'Something' by The Beatles: ‘Something’ was the first song penned by lead guitarist George Harrison to occupy the A-side of a Beatles single (though it did share the accolade, appearing on a double A-side with unifying call ‘Come Together’ in 1969). Capturing the swirling triumph of infatuation, the tune went on to become the second most covered song of the Beatles’ canon (‘Yesterday’ is the first) – over 150 artists tried the dreamy, swooning ode on for size, including James Brown, Elvis Presley, Phish, Isaac Hayes and Frank Sinatra, who famously declared the song the ‘greatest love song ever written’.
'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 clichéd. But from the first note we all know what’s coming (love! finally!), and James’ soulful crooning gives a shiver every time, whether we expect it to or not. Case in point, pretty much everyone lost it during Queen Bey’s rendition at Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration Ball in 2009, including the First Lady and Obama himself. Cuuute.
'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 US R&B chart and garnered Wonder his first Grammy nomination, proving that everyone loves a second chance.
'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 recognisable guitar riff (right up there with ‘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.
'Ain’t Nobody' by Rufus & Chaka Khan: Quincy Jones almost nabbed this slice of loved-up electro-funk for Michael Jackson, but it ended up becoming a signature tune for R&B diva Khan when she sang it with her old band Rufus in 1983. When Frankie Knuckles gave it a piano house remix in 1989, a new generation went crazy for the song: now artists from Mary J Blige to KT Tunstall have recorded versions, but none of them reach the thrilling heights of Chaka as she hits the final chorus.
'Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)' by Frank Wilson: Back in the ’70s, practically the only place in the world you could have heard this pulsing Motown belter was the Casino nightclub in Wigan. The club’s DJ Russ Winstanley had borrowed one of a handful of copies produced by the label in 1965, and it became the all-time defining track of the Northern Soul movement. Another copy of the record sold for a whopping £25,000 in 2009. So thank goodness for the internet, which allows everyone to hear ‘Do I Love You’ in all its tender glory without shelling out. ‘As long as there is life in me, your happiness is guaranteed’ – if you listen and don’t crack a grin, chances are you’ve never been in love.
'Love is in the Air' by Jean Paul Young: Over-the-top, hokey, wedding disco fodder – yes, this 1977 hit has come to be seen as all of these things, but it’s also an unashamedly joyous salute to the highest of love’s many highs. The sense of optimism that slowly builds through the verse before exploding into a mirrorballed, disco frenzy in the chorus is surprisingly poignant when you really listen to it. Ok, it sure isn’t cool and collected, but then neither is being head-over-heels in love, eh?
'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, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, in 1986, 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 realise 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.’
'Stand By Me' by Ben E. King: Ben E. King wrote his 1961 hit ballad, ‘Stand By Me’, with legendary songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and with more than 400 recorded versions, the song has hit the Billboard Top 100 more than any other song in existence, becoming a testament in its own right – to the benefit of staring down life’s woes side by side.
'Eye Know' by De La Soul: Sweetly showing hip hop’s soft centre, this 1989 cut from (then-teenage) Long Island trio De La Soul perfectly demonstrated what the crew meant when it referred to the ‘Daisy Age’. Set to snips of Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’ plus a breakbeat from Sly and the Family Stone and a sample of Otis’s whistling from ‘Sitting on the Dock of a Bay’, ‘Eye Know’ is as charming as it is groovy – a gorgeously deft and understated invitation to love.
'Love Hangover' by Diana Ross: Before she was coming out and wanting the world to know, Diana first got her disco on by virtue of this supreme 1975 Motown cut. Thanks to a mellow-into-groovin’ tempo change, she lays down the love law in style by sending away any doctors boasting a cure for her sweet hangover.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' by Roberta Flack: There are some people whose sheer grace can bring quiet to a roomful of noisy people; ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ achieves the same effect. Based on the 1957 folk song Ewan MacColl wrote for his soon-to-be wife, singer Peggy Seeger, the tune gains exquisite serenity in this 1972 reworking, which became a hit after soundtracking the movie ‘Play Misty for Me’. The backing is barely there: a double bass, a piano, Spanish guitar. Roberta Flack’s voice starts hushed, almost like she’s singing you to sleep, then soars to its full, clear capacity, passionately paralleling the love she’s recollecting. In a word: astonishing.
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 messes everything up – your judgment, your pride, your friendships, your bank account, the roof over your head. It can be a powerful, fickle force, in other words. Oh, also: When you’re under its spell, it’s the absolute greatest thing in the world.
'Cheek to Cheek' by Ella Fitzgerald: Untroubled by the darker themes that complicate so many love songs, Irving Berlin’s 1935 classic – written for Fred Astaire to woo Ginger Rogers with, as they dance in the movie ‘Top Hat’ – is a pure expression of romantic bliss. ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven / And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak’: When Ella Fitzgerald sings these lines on her 1958 album of Berlin standards, with a confident and good-natured swing of total contentment, you can’t help joining her in the clouds.
'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 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.
'You and Me Song' by The Wannadies: Known for soundtracking the ultimate tragic love story (Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’), this doe-eyed indie-pop jaunt from ’90s indie-rockers The Wannadies sums up carefree, naïve, young romance scruffily and brilliantly. The fuzzy guitar blasts and unashamedly silly ‘Ba, ba baaa’ chorus stir up that familiar feeling – sure, it’s not actually love if you stop and think about it, but for now neither of you really care, and that’s what makes it so fun.