Valentine’s Day comes once a year, but love is perennial. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to articulate how you feel; after all, love can be difficult to describe.
French dramatist Victor Hugo once said: “Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent.” If you feel as though you need to express your infatuation, but you’re having trouble finding the words, we understand. That’s why we threw together a collection of 25 of the best love songs ever, from a classic Cash cut to contemporary R&B, to help you get your message across. Light some candles, break out the fine china, and pour a glass of red wine, ’cause it’s on.
Love Shack by The B-52s, 1989
Of all the songs on our list, this is probably the least romantic, but it remains an iconic love song nearly 30 years after its release. Love Shack reignited the B-52s’ flame of fame years after the group lost steam following the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, and the music video is about as ’80s as it gets.
Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley, 1961
Can’t Help Falling In Love is the ultimate slow-dance ballad, written for The King’s 1961 film Blue Hawaii. The whole movie is basically just a bunch of women fighting over Elvis’ surf-happy character, which probably wouldn’t fly today (though he was admittedly quite dreamy). The song went on to become a staple of Presley sets, often as the finale (including in the film Elvis in Concert and his final stage performance in Indianapolis).
I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, 1992
With all due respect to Dolly Parton, who first recorded I Will Always Love You in 1973 as a farewell to her mentor Porter Wagoner, Whitney Houston’s version is flat-out spectacular. The song, recorded for the soundtrack to Houston’s 1992 film The Bodyguard, spent 14 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 (a record at the time) and even returned to the top 10 following her death in 2012. That key change, though!
Crazy In Love by Beyoncé (featuring Jay-Z), 2003
Following her departure from R&B supergroup Destiny’s Child, Queen Bey (as she’s now known) was primed to blow up, but she needed a big solo hit. Enter Crazy In Love, which paired Knowles with hip-hop hubby Jay-Z for a funky, indelible pop track that crushed the charts and launched her to superstardom. VH1 named this the best song of the aughts, which feels fitting.
Honeybee by Steam Powered Giraffe, 2011
Most of the songs here are ultra-famous chart toppers — for good reason — but if you haven’t heard this one, we aren’t surprised. Steam Powered Giraffe is a humorous outfit (whose members wear funny outfits) that combines sketch comedy and zany character work with cool, unique musical tracks. Honeybee is as good as it gets, featuring sweet harmonies and a buttery hook. Do yourself a favor and check out the music video.
I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab For Cutie, 2005
Curiously, Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard penned this track at age 29 after feeling like he was being complacent. He wanted to explore more mature themes in order to prepare himself for the inevitability of age and death. I Will Follow You Into The Dark is a touching song about loyalty and loss, one that didn’t set the charts aflame upon release but ended up gaining notoriety as a cult hit over the years.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1967
Ain’t No Mountain was the song that lifted songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson to fame, earning them a spot with Motown records and the gig writing for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell through the late 1960s. If you don’t like this song, maybe you should check your pulse.
Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers, 1965
If you’ve seen the 1990 romance thriller Ghost, you’re probably already rolling your eyes. Goofy pottery sex scenes aside, this is a signature mid-century love ballad; four (!) different versions of Unchained Melody charted in the U.K. Top 20 in 1955, but the Righteous Brothers’ version can’t be beat. Apologies to Simon Cowell for this one.
Let Me Love You by Mario, 2004
R&B star Mario was just a few months removed from his 18th birthday when Let Me Love You shot him to the top of the American pop zeitgeist. While he didn’t stay there for very long — only one of his later singles even cracked the top 20, in 2009 — this cut is still one of the catchiest, smoothest love songs you’ll ever lay ears upon.
This I Promise You by NSYNC, 2000
This playlist wouldn’t be complete without a boy band appearance, and despite consideration for O-Town, Backstreet Boys, and One Direction, NSYNC is the clear choice here. This I Promise You didn’t receive as much attention as other No Strings Attached singles like It’s Gonna Be Me and Bye Bye Bye, but its soft guitar sequences and falsetto harmonies make it a winner.
Something About Us by Daft Punk, 2001
Sometimes, it’s better to lay off the sappy lyricism and let the music (and, occasionally, the robots) do the talking for you. Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery is a masterpiece, and both Digital Love and Something About Us deserve mention as emotionally charged arrangements — especially if you’ve seen Interstella 5555: The Story of the Secret Star System. Something About Us is a little more subdued and delicate, offering a tentative, funky vision of love.
Your Song by Elton John, 1970
In comparison to the dramatic, overproduced, declarative ballads that dominate lists like this, Elton John’s ordinary-yet-extraordinary Your Song is a breath of fresh air. “It may be quite simple” indeed, but the basic piano arrangement and unassuming vocal performance give this song a unique sense of authenticity and intimacy.
Love Story by Taylor Swift, 2008
It may be difficult given her superstar status today, but try and remember T-Swift back when she was just an aspiring pop-country singer. Love Story might be incredibly cheesy — okay, it’s definitely incredibly cheesy — but it’s a sweet, romantic tune that’s impossible to get out of your head. Plus, it’s about Romeo and Juliet. Come on.
Alive With The Glory of Love by Say Anything, 2006
If you’ve never heard this song, listen closely, because its placement on this list might not be apparent at first glance. Hidden under layers of polished pop-punk veneer, Say Anything paints a vivid, heartbreaking picture of two lovers torn apart by the Holocaust. The band’s lyrics contrast sharply against joyous, uptempo instrumentation, culminating in a song that feels uplifting despite its subject matter.
I’ve Just Seen A Face by The Beatles, 1965
Probably more than half the Beatles’ songs qualify as love songs, which somehow made it even more difficult to select one for this playlist. While we could have added literally dozens, I’ve Just Seen A Face is bubbling with boyish infatuation (and a killer groove), portraying the kind of “love at first sight” to which many of us fall victim.
Thinkin Bout You by Frank Ocean, 2012
Frank Ocean has exploded into one of the world’s most celebrated R&B artists thanks to his gorgeous, unassuming tenor voice and his relatable songwriting. Both are on display on Thinkin Bout You, the lead single from Channel Orange and the song that propelled him to stardom. Frank’s woozy, falsetto hook here is entrancing, to say the least.
I Just Called to Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder, 1984
I Just Called to Say I Love You topped an absurd 19 charts upon release, and remains Stevie Wonder’s best-selling single to this day. Written and performed for the soundtrack to The Woman In Red, it’s easily the best choice if you want to call your significant other on V-day and just play music through the receiver.
The Longest Time by Billy Joel, 1984
Doo-wop-style music doesn’t get enough love these days. Accompanied by just a bass guitar and snare brushes, Billy Joel sung all four parts for The Longest Time, telling the story of a man who had given up on love only to find it unexpectedly entering his life again. It’s a bit of an eye-roller to be sure, but something about Joel’s harmonies is just magical.
Friday I’m In Love by The Cure, 1992
The 1990s were an emotionally bleak time for music — as you can tell by the lack of tracks from that time period on this playlist — but Friday I’m In Love is most certainly an exception to that rule. Over a quintessential guitar riff, Cure frontman Robert Smith waxes poetic about how a little bit of love can make up for a whole lot of melancholy.
The Light by Common, 2000
Despite his stage name, Lonnie Lynn Jr. is anything but “common” as a songwriter. The Light is a shining (get it?) example thereof, with the Chicago rapper showing appreciation for the complex relationship he shared with hip-hop icon Erykah Badu (his girlfriend at the time). Clever wordplay and sincere, respectful love are doled out in equal measure here.
I Walk The Line by Johnny Cash, 1956
The genius of Johnny Cash’s music is in its deceptive simplicity, and I Walk The Line is perhaps the prime example from his catalog. Cash wrote the song backstage in a small Texas town shortly after his marriage to his first wife, Vivian Liberto. Though the verity of Johnny’s claim to “walk the line” (read: remain faithful) is in doubt, the song remains a legendary tune and part of Cash’s legacy to both country and rock ‘n’ roll. And beyond the message, the impressive run Johnny’s voice takes around the circle of fifths as the song modulates keys is just money.
Lady by Styx, 1973
Lady is pure hair-rock balladry at its best. The delicate piano balanced against Dennis DeYoung’s vocals is about as romantic as it gets, and the hard-rock crescendo offered inspiration for bands to come in the late 1970s and 1980s. Besides, Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me was entirely too inappropriate.
Flagship by Jason Isbell, 2015
It takes tact to craft a tasteful country ballad these days. Jason Isbell’s got the goods, though — detailed, vivid lyricism accompanying an unusual-yet-soothing voice — and in Flagship, it all comes together. This isn’t a song that’ll blow you away with impeccable vibrato or slick slide guitar interludes, but it’s simple and it’s sweet and it just feels right.
My Girl by The Temptations, 1964
The Temptations’ discography is like one long list of legendary love songs, but this is the pinnacle. Perfect harmonies. An unforgettable bassline. The lyrics. The key change. Swoon.
21 Questions by 50 Cent (featuring Nate Dogg), 2003
Rapper 50 Cent is not known for his soft side — this is a guy whose motto is “get rich or die trying,” after all — but 21 Questions is a funny, sincere cut where Fiddy wonders whether his girl would still love him if he wasn’t rich and famous. Plus, of course, there’s this line: “I love you like a fat kid loves cake.”