MUSIC IS LOVE, THEY SAY, which means that, theoretically, Valentine’s Day is for everyone who loves music — even lonely-hearts and celibates. To celebrate the music-love fulcrum, we asked some writers to tell us about their all-time favorite love songs. Read ’em and weep.
Queen: “You’re My Best Friend”
I’ve broken up with my now-husband maybe six to eight times over the course of our 16-year relationship. The on-again/off-again thing was exasperating and exhausting, but somehow we always maintained a solid, if ever-evolving, friendship when we weren’t a couple. Being platonic comrades, buds with “benefits” and even long-distance pen pals over the years wasn’t easy, but for us, it was worth it.
Oooh, you make me live/You’re the best friend that I ever had
I’ve been with you such a long time/You’re my sunshine
And I want you to know/That my feelings are true
I really love you/You’re my best friend
Our last breakup five years ago concerned marriage. I was ready; he wasn’t. I moved out of the apartment we had been living in and decided this would either be the end for good or the separation that proved we belonged together once and for all. We dated others but still kept in touch, until we realized that it really was just too painful to maintain the friendship this time around.
I lost my lover and my closest friend. The one I complained to, laughed and shared day-to-day drudgery with was out of my life, maybe forever. I was sad and pathetic and partying way too much. During this dismal period nearly every tune I heard on the radio, in clubs or bars and at supermarkets made me cry. We’ve all gone through this, I know, but I’m talkin’ every song: boy-band pop hits, gangsta rap, techno . . . didn’t matter, my heart would find a connection and the floodgates would burst open.
Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” was the one song that still made me smile through my tears. I mean, it’s pretty hard to feel somber bathing in Freddie Mercury’s creamy croon — not to mention John Deacon’s pizzazzy noodlin’ on the electric piano. Despite the tune’s presence on the concept album Night at the Opera, it’s not deep or metaphoric or even operatic. It’s a simple melody with simple lyrics that conjures a mood that, like much of Queen’s early material, is potent yet playful. And no, it wasn’t written about one of Mercury’s gay lovers; Deacon wrote it for his wife.
I’ve been wandering ’round/But I still come back to you
In rain or shine/You’ve stood by me girl
I’m happy at home
However bittersweet a reminder it was (and despite the fact that it was used inappropriately in a TV ad right around the same time), I chose the Queen classic for the first dance at my wedding reception. Yes, my saga finally ended with a real commitment, and after so many years of drama and uncertainty, I wanted to begin the next phase of our relationship with a blissful and joyous musical declaration. No other tune would do, really. Plus, no dance lessons were necessary. This bubbly lil’ ditty is super easy and fun to boogie to — dips, spins and all. Just ask my BFF. (Lina Lecaro)
Simon and Garfunkel:“Bridge Over Troubled Water”
My parents were engaged within weeks of their first conversation, and they’ve been in love for 40 years. I know, it’s gross.
My sisters and I endured their undying crushes on each other: stolen kisses in the laundry room, flirtatious looks over Hamburger Helper. I remember their jukebox whirring and clicking, switching out 45s, and upon the first crackly notes of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” one of them would always turn it up. I knew it was their song but secretly disparaged the choice. It’s not really a love song.
It wasn’t until my 20s that I learned the truth behind their swift nuptials. Yes, some chaste Catholic lust was involved, but I never knew that my grandfather had thrown my mother against a wall that summer, tearing her dress. When my father saw the bruises, they climbed in his VW Bug and headed to Nevada to marry. She didn’t even have her toothbrush.
I’d heard “Bridge Over Troubled Water” thousands of times, sheltered from its context and unaffected by its lyrics. Knowing now that my parents were allies as much as lovers renders the choice achingly romantic. It’s track No. 9 on the Greatest Hits album, and I have to skip it every time. It’s still too beautiful to bear. (Alie Ward)
K-Ci & Jojo:“All My Life”
After my fiancé broke off our engagement — several times, the last by e-mail — I was a big mess, and some girlfriends took me on a “restorative” trip to Las Vegas. It should have been my bachelorette party, really.
Being the least drunk at the end, I volunteered to drive us home. “Listen to this song,” said my friend Clarissa, who was riding shotgun. “It will make you feel better.” Cue swoony slow-dance hit by R&B crooners K-Ci & JoJo: “I could never find another lover sweeter than you, sweeter thanyou.”
Over and over, she played it. Around the 40th play, somewhere near Barstow, I realized she’d fallen asleep . . . with the song stuck on infinite repeat. For hours I drove. Past Victorville. Past Apple Valley. Past Hesperia. “I could never find another lover more precious than you,” sang K-Ci (or maybe JoJo), “more precious thanyouuuuuuuu.”
If you have ever wondered: Hell is a van going 100 miles an hour through the desert, with a broken radio playing “All My Life” for three and a half hours.
That was years ago, but I still know every nuance, every trill and lilt of K-Ci’s (or maybe JoJo’s) voice. For this reason alone, I dedicate my new favorite love song to my ex. In the words of Bon Jovi: “You give love a bad name.” (Gendy Alimurung)
Patti Smith:“Dancing Barefoot”
I first heard “Dancing Barefoot” as a teenager at a Patti Smith concert. I was peaking on a couple hits of Ecstasy when the song began, and I almost peed my pants from joy. It was the most euphoric thing I’d ever heard, and though I was too strung out to make much sense of the lyrics, I understood perfectly well that this was a song about falling in love. Not the kind of hearts-and-flowers schmaltz my adolescent self took pleasure in sneering at, but something pure, raw and beautiful. Smith had given true love a soundtrack, and if I hadn’t been so dehydrated I might have wept.
Here I go and I don’t know why/I fell so ceaselessly
Could it be he’s taking over me . . .
When I could finally crawl out of bed the next day I stumbled to a record store and bought the CD. I was worried the whole experience had just been a cocktail of MDMA and teenage hormones, but even through my blinding headache the song held up. It was nothing as magical as the performance of the night before, but it held up.
I’m dancing barefoot/heading for a spin
Some strange music draws me in/makes me come on like some heroine
And of course it did. This, it turned out, was a song Smith had written about the man who would become her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. Theirs had been a great love affair that culminated in the rarest of phenomena in rock & roll — a happy marriage.
She is sublimation/She is the essence of thee
She is concentrating on he, who is chosen by she
Although she was at her peak of fame, Smith retired from performing after getting married. The couple retreated to the Detroit suburbs to raise a family. And while many accused the rock icon of selling out by settling down, she was just doing as she had always done: following her heart.
Here I go and I don’t know why/I spin so ceaselessly
till I lose my sense of gravity . . .
The night I saw Smith in concert, she was just a year past burying the man for whom she had written “Dancing Barefoot.” It was his unexpected death that had brought her back to performing; she would later explain it was a way for her to deal with her grief. How strange it must have been for her to stand onstage in front of a room full of strangers and sing a song she’d written nearly two decades before, when their love was just beginning. Or maybe it wasn’t strange at all. Maybe it was a way of remembering, of celebrating a life. Maybe it was even a way of saying goodbye.(Pandora Young)
Aaliyah:“I Care 4 U”
Nothing says “love” better than “death,” so for Valentine’s Day, I’ve been drawn back to the love songs of the glorious, late Aaliyah, who died in an airplane accident in 2001. About a year after she died, as might be expected, Aaliyah released new music.
I remember riding away from my dad’s place in the east San Diego barrio of City Heights one afternoon with a few of my siblings and first hearing one of those songs, “I Care 4 U.” I remember everyone in the car was stunned into silence. It was as if the song, a haunting love letter to an old crush, channeled nothing less than the spirit of Aaliyah herself, raining upon us from the cosmos, as if she were mourning her own absence on Earth and reminding us that we had to move forward without her.
Hold on (hold on)
Stay strong (stay strong)
Press on (for me baby)
I care for you (I care for you)
Aaliyah’s voice in the track is a melancholic, angelic echo. Every time I hear it now, the song fills me with an unbearably heavy sense of loss and longing. We all loved Aaliyah immensely. She was so classy, so sultry, so glamorous, so sweet. And just as with the horrible death of Tex-Mex goddess Selena in 1995, Aaliyah’s passing permanently affected us.
That first day my siblings and I heard “I Care 4 U,” it must have had a particular effect on one of my brothers. He and his wife named their first child, a daughter, Analiyah, honoring both the singer and a beloved aunt of ours who died in 2000. Analiyah and I, to my great honor, share the same birthday. Life is death is love is life, I guess. (Daniel Hernandez)
The Beach Boys: “God Only Knows”
Publicly declaring one’s favorite love song is an intensely revealing endeavor. In an effort not to expose too much, there is an initial tendency to fall back on the accepted classics of the genre, time-honored odes to yearning and vulnerability, songs such as Whitesnake’s “Slide It In.” But instead I’m going to place my heart squarely on my sleeve and, ever so briefly, bare my romantic soul.
I am aware that there are some women out there who might read that and laugh. These are the same women who, throughout the years, have compared my heart to a lump of coal or various desert plants. But to those judgmental souls, I say: If you had looked past my perpetually frozen expression and inability to bestow the slightest compliment and actually listened to the songs that moved me, you would have discovered — as my wife has — a deeply closeted sentimentalist.
And so after several hours of teary-eyed and occasionally nude fetal-positioned research, my top honors go to what I believe is the greatest love song of the last 30 years: “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. It is an obvious choice, but there is good reason for the song’s acclaim. In the end it’s not the revolutionary and influential arrangement — a stunning psychedelic Wall of Sound with melodic harpsichord and mournful French horn — that elevate it, but the vocals, and one chorus in particular.
From the opening refrain, Carl Wilson’s singing sounds the quintessential Southern California kid — like some surfer from Tom Wolf’s Pump House Gang, laying it all on the line for his girl. The music is masterful, but the song could be played on a single piano and retain most of its power. And when the final chorus eventually hits, it is something truly stunning, Carl’s plaintive voice now joined by his brother Brian’s and band mate Bruce Johnston’s, all three perfectly overlapping one another with the same yearning declaration. It is operatic pop music at its very best, building effortlessly to a bittersweet crescendo — at which point, anyone with a heart, even a miniscule scrap like mine, might well be moved to tears. (John Albert)
Queen: “I’m in Love With My Car”
This is love of a vehicular kind. Not the sappy love of whizzing down an open highway on a sunny day, or singing car-aoke with friends, or driving while holding hands with your main squeeze. This is love for a “machine of a dream” that, unlike your old man or old woman, doesn’t talk back.
Queen drummer Roger Taylor wrote “I’m in Love With My Car” as a B-side to “Bohemian Rhapsody” (off 1975’s A Night at the Opera ), dedicating it to John Harris, the “boy racer to the end” who was the band’s roadie and drove a Triumph TR4 sports car. (Taylor owned an Alfa Romeo.) “Told my girl I’ll have to forget her/Rather buy me a new carburetor.” Taylor relishes his own and the band’s pomposity while his Alfa’s engine is heard roaring at the end.
Yeah, there’s no sentimentality here: We’re thinking Taylor and Harris couldn’t have had very many sunny days driving around in dreary old England. But in an auto-obsessed town like L.A., where your wheels are as much about freedom, sex and rock & roll (and the ever-present smell of cigarettes and French fries) as they are about getting around, this is a tune for every Angeleno’s driving soundtrack. (Siran Babayan)
Aretha Franklin: “Prove It”
People think Aretha’s genius, the spine of her musical legacy, is the vocal wail that’s released when the head is thrown back, the eyes squeezed shut, and the lungs turned up to 10. But listen to this track from 1967, when the Queen of Soul was just coming into her power, and be reminded of what her true, true talent was. “Prove that it won’t bother me to become your used-to-be/Prove that I can just ignore all the love we shared before . . . ” The opening lines to “Prove It” are perched upon the barely drawn breath, the one it hurts you to take, and that leaves you exhausted. Post-tears distress. The vocals are strong and unwavering but paradoxically delicate. The beauty and the power of the performance is in the shading, the raw letting of pain. It’s in the lived knowledge of how a broken heart depletes all of you and leaves you wasted. Yes, Miss Franklin does deliver cathartic, pure belting later in the song, and the glorious interplay of lead and backing vocals is the stuff that created soul-boy fanatics around the globe. But what first pulls you into this song is the nakedness and fragility with which she begins. And when the emotional fallout hits, with no-holds-barred blues shouting at the song’s climax, you know this isn’t volume masquerading as passion. It isn’t undisciplined shouting to hide weak lyrics. It’s the distilled sound of loss and grief and a bewildered, tossed-aside lover’s pleas and recriminations. Dear Mary J., please don’t ever cover this . . . please, please . . . for real, please. (Ernest Hardy)
Southern Culture on?the Skids:“Walk Like a Camel”
“If the sun refused to shine . . . ”
At 13, I was sure my wedding song would be Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You.” Me in my peasant Gunne Sax dress, him in an embroidered Mexican shirt and sandals. On the beach, of course. For me, nothing said l-u-v more than Robert Plant in that famous ’70s poster where he’s holding a cigarette in one hand and a white dove in the other. “When mountains crumble to the sea . . . There will still be you and me.”
The wedding did take place next to the beach, actually, but without Zep or the hippie duds. For better or worse, our song choice was “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” The band was explicitly told — could I have been clearer? — to play the Marvin Gaye and not the blander James Taylor version. But I digress.
The point is: One grows up and one realizes love songs don’t always have to be so dang serious. That’s why now, as I approach 20 years of marriage, the song that gets me all lovey-dovey is Southern Culture on the Skids’ “Walk Like a Camel.” It’s got a goofy riff and a sneaky beat, but the best part is the line that goes, “Baby, you make me wanna walk like a camel!” That might just be the nicest thing a guy could ever say to a gal. (Libby Molyneaux)
Harry Nilsson: “Without You”
Love songs? Almost any song worth singing is a love song. Even songs you think aren’t love songs really are — like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” for instance, which is a righteous love song for all humanity, a stark plea for heavenly justice against those who would use the weak and the poor for cannon fodder.
Then there’s Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” a haunting, darkly seductive lover’s call to face eternity while still young and madly in love. Lou Reed breaks down every color in love’s spectrum from yearning to surrender in two impossibly simple yet incredibly fraught songs, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “I Love You.” Not surprising, since few songsmiths have been more in touch with the heartbreaking ambivalence of adulthood than Uncle Lou. Of course, there are less equivocal treatments to the subject that can be just as compelling: Dylan’s “Lay, Lady Lay,” McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and, of course, the ultimate wedding song, Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” But really, if you think about it, all the many thousands of great love songs are fighting for second place in the pantheon to the undisputed champ of all love songs, Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” It’s the most naked, gut-wrenching, howling, sorrowful, gorgeous testament to love (and love being lost) that’s ever been recorded. Ever. It’s also one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard put on tape. It’s as much a dare as it is a song, a dare to open up and admit that your heart is beating and breaking and dying for love. (Joe Donnelly)
Shakira & Alejandro Sanz:“La Tortura”
It is fashionable these days to be cool about love: to tell your bad lover to pack his stuff in a box to the left; to let your boyfriend know you can replace him in a minute. But “La Tortura” has no time for that. The first time I heard it, driving west on the 10 freeway, I pulled over and parked.
This is the song of a man — a repentant man — who believes he deserves to be forgiven for his inconstancy, and a woman fighting hard with herself not to give in. “Man doesn’t live on bread alone,” she insists, “and I don’t live on excuses.”
He answers that now his heart is hers. And then they agree on one thing: “¡Ay amor,” they sing, “¡me duele tanto!”
Oh, love, it hurts me so bad.
It might have been the drums, that insistent oscillating beat; or Alejandro Sanz’s keening tenor, almost chanting in prayer on the chorus: “Yo se que no sido santo/Pero se puedo arreglar amor” (“I’m no saint, but I can fix love”). It might have been Shakira’s poetry, when I finally figured it out:“I cannot ask that the elms bring forth pears,” she groans, “just tell me where you’re going when you leave.” However it happened, “La Tortura,” written by the Colombian diva and her producer, Luis Fernando Ochoa, with Mexican crooner Sanz, became my love song of the decade. For six months, I could not go a day without hearing it. Even now, the album it’s on, Fijación Oral, Vol. I , stays in my car’s CD changer for emergencies. People tell me to shut up when I sing it, which is a lot.
This defies most logic: I believe in true and uncomplicated love, and yet “La Tortura” offers little hope for lasting devotion and almost no relief from agony. Even as Sanz pledges love he insists on his liberty (“From Monday through Friday you have my love/But it’s better if I have Saturdays to myself”). Even as Shakira shudders with longing she suggests he throw his bone to another dog.
But no straight-on ode to happy love ever makes you want to get jiggy: Sex is sharper and desire more vivid when you can’t be sure your lover won’t cheat. The air feels cleaner, the jasmine smells stronger, even stars sparkle brighter when your heart hurts. And I, personally, may not want to feel that particular sting ever again in my life, but there’s something that thrills me about the way this song reminds me how it felt when I did. (Judith Lewis)
Bob Dylan: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”
Except for one tingly moment in Don’t Look Back, Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” never registered with the popular imagination, much less the national playlist. This was a ballad that told no story, it had rhymes that weren’t really rhymes, and its lyrics were not reliable truths but a jumble of paradoxes and non sequiturs. In the song Dylan describes all the things his girlfriend is and isn’t. “My love she speaks like silence . . . /She knows there’s no success like failure . . . /She’s like some raven at my window with a broken wing.” On the other hand, Valentines can’t buy her, and she doesn’t judge. The list exudes eccentric charm, but Dylan goes beyond this rather traditional romantic litany to create a snapshot of America at a time of tectonic change. The most basic ways in which people looked at one another — or didn’t — were shifting, and this frightened many. Dylan pays homage to his inspiration, prairie poet Carl Sandberg, introducing a montage of people in dime stores and bus stations who talk of situations and draw conclusions on the wall. At the very moment he confesses his adoration for a woman, the singer offers a furtive Valentine of his own to an uneasy nation. I have listened to this song, quite infrequently, for 35 years but it has never grown old for me. We know early Dylan better as the troubadour of peace and civil rights, but here, with this almost forgotten ballad, he composed an anthem to love. (Steven Mikulan)
Rex Griffin: “The Last Letter”
The vast majority of pop love songs radiate such an annoyingly fatuous quality that they’re similar to horror movies — requiring willing suspension of disbelief. While this song was introduced in 1937, the shuddering, love-gone-bad agony it oozes couldn’t possibly be updated. Written and recorded by Rex Griffin, the Alabama singer-songwriter who virtually codified modern honky-tonk pathology, “The Last Letter” is a stark, suicidal kiss-off of Olympian proportions. It’s just Griffin and an acoustic guitar, delivering the lyric at funereal midtempo, and creating a bleak atmosphere of gloom with an extraordinary use of language. He laments the “promises that you are breaking so free”; admits he can’t offer “the clothes that your young body craves”; and sings of “the heartaches the tears and the sorrow.” There is no damn doubt that Griffin personally “suffered anguish untold.” The record has a low-key, smoldering immediacy that is uncomfortably persuasive, revealing the true depth of romantic ardor in all its distinctive presence. It’s hard as hell to find — and almost as difficult to listen to — but the song’s been frequently covered (by Jack Greene, Connie Smith, George Jones, Tommy Collins — the recently reissued Waylon Live has a fine version), and it lives on as the standard by which torment is measured. (Jonny Whiteside)