Love makes the world go round, but it also goes round itself, in the grooves of the majority of the greatest pop songs ever made. For as long as humans have been singing, they’ve been pouring the hearts out in songs – of devotion, regret, heartache and passion. We’ve explored these, and every other kind of love song, to bring you the defining examples for each mood. So, whether your heart is soaring or suffering, there’s something here for you…
The Power Of Love: ‘God Only Knows’ (The Beach Boys, 1966)
Of all the thousands of great love songs written over the last 100 years or so, for Paul McCartney, one stood out above all the others. The writer of so many of the greatest songs of the 20th century has, on more than one occasion, proclaimed The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ to be his own favourite song. And such is the power of the song that when the former Beatle performed it on stage with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, he confessed that the emotion overcame him: “During the soundcheck I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian.”
Somehow, pop music seems the perfect vehicle for communicating the glory of love. Love can be playful, such as in The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’; it can be heroic, as David Bowie demonstrated with his 1977 hit ‘“Heroes”’; and it can be glorious, as Stevie Wonder proclaims in ‘You And I’, from his groundbreaking Talking Book LP.
But sometimes a song can most simply capture the rapture of being in love. On Otis Redding’s euphoric rendition of The Temptations’ hit ‘My Girl’, the passion in the singer’s voice is tangible: he can’t wait to tell the world how great she makes him feel. His emotions are all consuming.
As singular as any is The Smiths’ devastating ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, which slays the listener with the refrain, “If a double-decker bus crashes into us/To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die”. Love songs take all number of twists and turns, but, as the best of them show, love is a many-splendoured thing.
Falling In Love: ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ (Ewan MacColl, 1957)
For anyone lucky enough to have experienced it, that first flush of love is enough to make a person giddy, so floored are they by the object of their heart’s desire. And few songs have captured this euphoria so poetically as Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. The English folk musician had written the song for American singer Peggy Seeger when the pair were not in the best of places, romantically speaking. “We weren’t really getting along at the time,” she later told Mojo magazine. “After all, he was married to someone else then.”
But true love must win, and the couple did eventually marry and, after MacColl’s death in 1989, Seeger remarked that she couldn’t bring herself to sing it for 15 years. However, the song remained alive thanks to countless over versions, from Johnny Cash to Roberta Flack, who made the song her own and had a smash hit with it in 1972.
For every song of heartache and pain, there is one of the joys – and perils – of collapsing in love anew. Songs the likes of Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’, Nat King Cole’s ‘When I Fall In Love’, or Elvis Presley’s original recording of ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ capture that initial bliss, while The Drifters’ ‘Fools Fall In Love’ warns of the dangers of falling too hard too soon. Good advice it may be, but who can help themselves when Cupid shoots that golden arrow through your heart? After all, you cann’t deny how MacColl felt when he wrote, “I knew our joy would fill the earth/And last ’til the end of time.”
Physical Love: ‘Let’s Get It On’ (Marvin Gaye, 1973)
Of course, love doesn’t remain in the heart, but calls into play the whole human body, which can lead to trouble. When, in early 1967, The Rolling Stones were booked to perform their latest single on The Ed Sullivan Show in the US, their host insisted they couldn’t to perform the A-side, ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’. Famously, Sullivan had previously insisted that Elvis Presley’s suggestive dancing be filmed from the waist up, so it was no surprise when he told Mick Jagger: “Either the song goes or you go.” A compromise was reached, and Jagger sang “Let’s spend some time together”. But this was just the latest incident in the establishment’s attempt to keep sex out of music.
Sex has, of course, been part of life since the beginning – and, not surprisingly, it has been a big part of music in every culture in history. Its place in pop music was already long cemented before the release of suggestive blues numbers such as ‘I’m A King Bee’ by Slim Harpo, or the more direct ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ by Muddy Waters (both in turn covered by the Stones).
By perhaps the sexiest song of them all came from a singer whose previous album had been one of social conscience. What’s Going On had transformed Marvin Gaye from smooth pop singer to the voice of young America, questioning his country’s roles in war and oppression, both at home and abroad. And it was as a spiritual exploration that ‘Let’s Get It On’ first began life, before converting from a religious song to a sexual one. In the accompanying album’s sleevenotes, Gaye commented on the suppression of the sexual both in pop music and in society: “I can’t see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies. I think we make far too much of it.”
Love Turned Cold: ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ (The Righteous Brothers, 1964)
“Your baby doesn’t love you any more.” So Roy Orbison opens his soaring ballad ‘It’s Over’, a tour de force that announces the crushing defeat of learning that, well, it’s over.
All good things must come to an end, and if there are thousands of great songs about falling in love, and the power of love, then there must be at least as many about the utter heartbreak of the end of the affair. And few records express the vast, towering pain that comes with the realisation that the love’s gone than The Righteous Brothers managed with their Phil Spector-produced monster hit ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’. Taking as its starting point The Paris Sisters’ hypnotic ‘I Love How You Love Me’, which opens, “I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me,” ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ sets out its stall with the tragic declaration, “You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips.” The song has since featured in a number of movies – notably Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise – and has broken all kinds of industry records. Phil Spector wanted it to be the greatest production to date when he made it, and today, some 50-plus years later, it hasn’t lost any of its power.
Songs Of Regret: ‘Yesterday’ (The Beatles, 1965)
In 1983, Paul McCartney took his guitar to the underground station at London’s Leicester Square and began to busk a rather jaunty version of his 1965 composition ‘Yesterday’. “I was standing there plunking chords, doing this silly version of the song, and no one noticed it was me,” he told the New York Daily News. “No one wants to look a busker in the eye of course, ’cause then they’d get his life story. So they’d toss coins and I’d be going, ‘Yesterday, all my troubles – thank you, sir – seemed so far away.’” Hundreds of people simply walked on by as the most famous singer in the world played the most recorded pop song in history.
McCartney’s signature ballad was written at the tender age of 22; the melody came to him fully formed in a dream. Convinced that it wasn’t his song, he played it to everyone he met – the other Beatles, Mick Jagger, George Martin – using the temporary lyrics “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs”. Eventually, the pop star was forced to accept that it was indeed an original song. He added lyrics of such familiar, simple melancholy that his song soon achieved a popularity like no other.
Regret, after all, is a feeling not uncommon to anyone who’s ever been in love – and it’s a theme that has been visited endlessly in pop music. Elvis Presley’s hit ‘Always On My Mind’ (which saw a new lease of life when covered by Pet Shop Boys) talks of “Little things I should have said and done/I just never took the time”. Which of us hasn’t thought, as Cher did, ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’? After all, as William Bell sang in 1961, you don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.
Broken Hearts: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (Sinead O’Connor, 1990)
In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel about music obsessives, the protagonist wonders, “Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?” Pop music, he suggests, is essentially thousands and thousands of songs about having your heart broken. And he’s not far wrong.
Neil Young told us that ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, while Aretha Franklin sang of how she was about to ‘Drown In My Own Tears’. Michael Jackson went further and actually broke down in tears at the end of every take of ‘She’s Out Of My Life’ on his 1979 album Off The Wall. From Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears Of A Clown’ to Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, pop music has been the consoling hug that tells us we’re not alone in our misery when it all falls apart.
But one tear stands out above all others, and it came in the video to Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Nellee Hooper’s spacey production gave the recording a feeling of emptiness, but it was O’Connor’s stunning vocal performance that infused the song with such a pleading, desperate yearning, every catch of her voice dripping with heartache. Scarce is the recording that has been more heartfelt, and rarely has a performance had such a universal impact. After all, which of us hasn’t had their heart wrenched by love? Who hasn’t shed a tear counting the days and minutes since it collapsed?
Infidelity: ‘The Dark End Of The Street’ (James Carr, 1967)
Cheating hearts have been a mainstay in pop since the days of Hank Williams. After all, ultimately, infidelity is the most likely cause of a broken heart – and we already know pop loves one of those. With infidelity comes jealousy, as Elvis Presley recounts in ‘Suspicious Minds’, when he pleads to be believed, that he’s never lied. But there are many ways that the theme has been addressed by singers down the years.
On ‘Breakfast In Bed’, from her classic 1969 LP, Dusty In Memphis, Dusty Springfield sings to her lover “Come in, baby/You can dry the tears on my dress/She’s hurt you again/I can tell,” before assuring him (in reference to her earlier hit of the same name), “You don’t have to say you love me.” Springfield is cast as “the other woman”, the one he turns to when he’s not happy at home. He can take refuge in her arms, with no pressure to commit.
And while it’s not your standard love song, it’s not the only time when infidelity has been the subject of a pop song. The other woman rears her head over and over. Nina Simone sang about the ultimately lonely existence of ‘The Other Woman’, a theme echoed by Southern soul diva Doris Duke, on her single ‘To the Other Woman’. The flip side is addressed by Paloma Faith in ‘Other Woman’.
So what’s the greatest song about an affair? Well, that’s always going to change depending on who you ask, but songwriter Dan Penn boasted that he and his partner, Chips Moman, had always dreamed of writing the best cheating song in history, and they may have come pretty close on the magnificent ‘Dark End Of The Street’, first recorded by James Carr in 1967. Carr sings of illicit moments, stolen away “Hiding in shadows where we don’t belong/Living in darkness to hide our wrong”. And yet he can’t help himself, and returns again and again to the scene of his crime. Such is love.
Unrequited Love: ‘I’m Not In Love’ (10cc, 1975)
Shakespeare’s great tale of woe, Romeo & Juliet, talks of how a pair of “star-cross'd lovers” end up with nothing in the pursuit of their doomed love. This is a theme that has filled the grooves of countless records down the years. After all, if love can bring joy, redemption, an affirmation that it’s OK to be who you are, then so can unrequited love bring torment, anguish and the kind of turmoil that can leave a person broken inside.
In the Derek & The Dominos epic ‘Layla’, Eric Clapton sings of his love for George Harrison’s wife Pattie, who later explained, “Layla was based on a book by a 12th-century Persian poet called Nizami about a man who is in love with an unobtainable woman. The song was fantastically painful and beautiful.” Eventually, the pair would be married, but in the song, he aches for a love that’s just out of reach.
Unrequited love takes many forms, and while one may be torturous, another is denial – the central theme to the 10cc single ‘I’m Not In Love’, a mammoth production that took more than three weeks just to create the choral-vocal backgrounds. By listing the many reasons why he couldn’t be in love, Eric Stewart would eventually find himself head-over-heels. He claims that “It’s just a silly phase I’m going through”, and that that picture on his wall is only there to hide a nasty stain, but beneath the bravado, it’s clear that the one thing he most certainly isn’t is not in love.
Love Songs About Love Songs: ‘Your Song’ (Elton John, 1970)
Many songwriters talk about their songwriting as a kind of confessional, that the act of writing a song allows them to express their innermost feelings. And a few of them have taken this one step further, writing songs about how writing love songs is their way of expressing their love.
On ‘Your Song’, one of the stand-out tracks from his second album, Elton John sings of how he might woo his heart’s desire if he were a sculptor, or “a man who makes potions in a traveling show”, but that the best he can do is give them a song. “Oh, I know it’s not much but it’s the best I can do,” Elton sang, yet this was the song that finally broke him into the charts around the world, launching one of the greatest careers in recorded-music history. “Not much” now feels like the biggest understatement in pop.
With lyrics penned by Bernie Taupin, John’s act of singing about the act of writing a love song has since been emulated by many, including a fledgling Gary Barlow, who wrote ‘A Million Love Songs’ at the age of just 15. After his tape of the song found its way to Nigel Martin-Smith, the Manchester impresario knew that this was a talent worth building a boy band around, which is exactly how Take That came about. Barlow had shown a maturity as a songwriter that would place him in the same bracket as legends such as Elton John. A million love songs later, the love songs about love songs still keep coming.
Endless Love: ‘Let’s Stay Together’ (Al Green, 1972)
Wisdom has it that “happily ever after” doesn’t make for the greatest art. That for a song to really move the listener, it needs to be about falling in or out of love, or some variation thereof. Who cares if the protagonist settles down and has a lovely life for all eternity? And yet there are innumerable numbers founded on the principle of endless love.
In ‘Countdown’, Beyoncé sings of how she’s still falling in love with the same man, how he’s “still the one I need, I will always be with you”, riding the ups and downs of a relationship – “through the good and the bad”. Similarly, in Queen’s 1975 single ‘You’re My Best Friend’, bass player John Deacon wrote of how in love he remained, having been together such a long time. It’s the ultimate in feel-good songs for long-term lovers.
But surely that’s the whole point of falling in love in the first place, isn’t it? Who doesn’t want that special someone to share their life with? That’s what Al Green sang about on ‘Let’s Stay Together’: “Loving you whether times are good or bad, happy or sad”. That’s also what Lionel Richie and Diana Ross sang about in 1981 on ‘Endless Love’, and what Love Affair dreamed of in ‘Everlasting Love’. And it’s what Cole Porter promised in ‘True Love’ – surely one of the greatest love songs ever written: “While I give to you and you give to me/True love, true love/So on and on it will always be/True love, true love.”
If all you need is love, follow the Best Love Songs Ever playlist, here.