That’s right, we’re doing it like this
Here it goes, something like what Riff Raff’s mom did, except not funny (unless you think it’s funny). And yeah, this is a top-ten list more than a playlist, though it sounds pretty great continuously. And yes, I picked these songs pretty much just by going through my iTunes and figuring out which of the five-star tracks were love songs. The rules: no breakup songs, no songs in foreign languages that are probably love songs but I can’t be sure, no Magnetic Fields (fuck it). And here they are, my ten favorite love songs ever as of right this second.
1. Sam Cooke: “(What a) Wonderful World” Preview/Buy at iTunes
The whole “don’t know much about history / don’t know much about biology” idea would be insufferable in less capable hands, but here they’re easy, relaxed, natural. The words just trip off Cooke’s tongue, all simple eloquence and unforced warmth. The little flickering guitar line and doo-wop backing vocals are gorgeous, but this is all Cooke, letting his voice go just an almost imperceptibly tiny bit higher on the hook, subtlety implying longing rather than bashing you over the head with it and drifting off into an amazing swooned-out third verse where he abandons words altogether. The whole thing is over in just over two minutes, and it’s utterly perfect.
2. Joan Jett: “Crimson and Clover” Not on iTunes, WTF
The Tommy James and the Shondells original is a stunning piece of flanged-out proto-emo, but I’ll take Jett’s cover, if only because it kills all that fey mooning without sacrificing any of the vulnerability. This sort of thing usually means more coming from someone more known for sneering that sighing, and Jett keeps her tough-chick rasp intact, stretching it out and showing this strangled longing that she might’ve never used again. The production takes everything great about the original and magnifies it, pushing the amazing backing vocals to the front of the mix and turning the tempo change into a full-on punk-roar gallop. Jett resists any temptation to turn the song’s “her” into a “him,” which was probably transgressive at the time, but I heard her version about a million times before anyone pointed out to me that there was anything weird about that.
3. Eric B. & Rakim: “Mahogany” Preview/Buy at iTunes
The best-ever rap love song by a ridiculously huge margin; this isn’t even up for debate. Most love-raps from “I Need Love” on sacrifice the “rap” part for cliched ideas about the “love” part, building on cascading harps and neutered drums, rappers turning their voices into aww-girl half-whispers. This is another thing, redirecting Rakim’s toward something different without requiring him to turn into something he never was. He tells the song like a story, articulate and unrushed: meeting the girl, going for a walk with the girl, letting the girl watch him do a show, going home with the girl. He sometimes flies off into sun-and-moon talk but keeps all the details concrete: “She kissed me slow, but you know how far a kiss can go / Fuck around and miss the show.” On the hook, he doesn’t talk about how much he likes the girl; he talks about how much the girl likes him: “Over me she was going crazy / She rubbed me on my chest and called me Mr. Sexy.” There’s something seriously badass about that. And then there’s the beat: the same intricate rimshot drum-break that Massive Attack used on “Five Man Army” (not sure where it’s from), little curls of romance-movie strings, nothing else. Down in the runner-up list, Rakim shows up again in Truth Hurts’ “Addicted,” and he’s the only person on this list twice, odd for someone who almost never did love songs. Maybe that’s the secret: the sentiment means more from someone who didn’t make a career from repeating it over and over.
4. Trisha Yearwood: “She’s in Love With the Boy” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Another story-song, this one in third-person. It’s not about Trisha Yearwood; it’s about some small-town girl named Katie who loves some dude named Tom even though her dad doesn’t think he’s worth anything. It’s an old story, but Yearwood sings it like it’s the first time this stuff ever happened in the history of the world: “Later on outside the Tasti-Freeze, Tommy slips something on her hand / He says my high school ring will have to do till I can buy a wedding band.” The song hits a predictable climax when Katie’s mother reminds her father that her father said the same stuff about him when he was young, but it doesn’t make it any less gushily triumphant. Production-wise, it’s all assembly-line early-90s Nashville, which is to say great: crystal-clear bits of pedal steel and piano, everything suddenly filling out on the chorus. But it wouldn’t work nearly this well if Yearwood’s vocal wasn’t absolutely perfect, calm and affectionate on the verses, letting this great dizzy catch into her voice on the hook. It’s a flawlessly crafted song, but it has more heart than maybe anything else on this list.
5. Chiffons: “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” Also not on iTunes, weird
Classic girl-group emotional string-pulling, the group singing the song’s title in a lonely and confused staccato through a fog of bass and piano before the beat locks in, suddenly and gloriously, and they start yelping the important part: “And I love him.” Then: “And he loves me.” Desperately frustrated to dizzily happy in two seconds. I love stuff like that. No real verses or choruses on this song, just that one simple theme repeated over and over with a bridge or two thrown in. That’s all they need. I love stuff like this.
6. Morrissey: “Tomorrow” Preview/Buy at iTunes
My girlfriend Bridget suggested “There is a Light and It Never Goes Out,” but Morrissey pretty much starts and ends with this song for me. It’s a fussily, dramatically tossed-off sigh, all wounded pride and huffy protestation, just like every Smiths and Morrissey song ever. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel here: “All I ask of you is the one thing that you never do / Tell me tell me that you love me.” And then: “Aw, I know you don’t mean it.” Musically, it’s one of the most robust songs he ever recorded, fuzzed-out guitars building and falling and crashing rather than just flitting around. There’s some R.E.M. jangle in there, some New Order in the bass. Morrissey’s brand of stunted foppy theatrics needs a serious engine underneath it if it isn’t going to come off unbearably precious, and that’s exactly what it has here.
7. Mr. T Experience: “Sackcloth and Ashes (Demo)” Preview/Buy at iTunes
A second-person song, Dr. Frank singing to some dude (you) that you will never, ever get with this girl, so maybe it’s not technically a love song, but the heart of the song is where he’s singing about the girl in question: “She’s got pretty party dresses / Manic Panic tresses / She believes that less is / More where you’re concerned.” The final version is a likable bit of Berkeley pop-punk bash-and-whine, but this version, from the And the Women Who Love Them reissue, is just incalculably better: one single flanged-to-hell guitar, Frank cooing sympathetically in his beached-Ramone popcore bleat, nothing else.
8. Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl: “Fairytale of New York” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Finally a song with both genders representing, here playing a couple comfortable enough to snipe at each other and even throw around really devastating accusations (“You took my dreams from me when I first found you”), knowing that they mean it but that it doesn’t change the way they feel about each other. Shane MacGowan’s broken slur contrasts beautifully with MacColl’s hard, angelic voice just like the song’s soaring strings contrast with the Pogues’ usual staggered tourist reel. And you’ll never hear a better song about New York in winter (“They got cars big as bars, they got rivers of gold / But the wind goes right through you, it’s no place for the old”) or drunk codependency (“Can’t make it out alone, I built up my dreams around you”).
9. Kenny Chesney: “Anything But Mine” Preview/Buy at iTunes
The first and maybe only lighters-up howler on this list, all beefed-up roaring harmonies and weepy grown-man utilitarian poetry and crashing drums, two guitar solos and room for a couple more, the sort of song that’ll stick around Southern karaoke bars for decades. It’s country in name and accent only; the perfectly recorded guitar surges more Bon Jovi than Garth Brooks or Skynyrd. Chesney isn’t singing about himself, unless his country-star schedule has enough holes that he has time to spend his summers as an itinerant worker in Southern beach towns, but that doesn’t take anything away from lonely roar of the hook: “In the morning I’m leaving, making my way back to Cleveland.” The song’s details only make it more vivid: “There’s a warm wind coming in from off of the ocean making its way past the hotel walls to feel the street.” Huge and classic.
10. The Jesus & Mary Chain feat. Hope Sandoval: “Sometimes Always” Preview/Buy at iTunes
More country than “Anything But Mine,” Jim Reid working a fake American accent like he never had before, fuzzed-out guitars moaning on some fake-blues shit. Sandoval owns this song, perfectly deploying that smoky sigh to smack the shit out of her prodigal dude before finally welcoming him back (“Oh, you’re a lucky one”). It’s a neat little curio in the J&MC’s catalogue, their last gasp of pop success before finally and completely becoming a rarified cult thing, no trace of their old feedback squall in sight. It’s also one of the two or three best songs they ever did, and that’s saying something.
Raincoats: “Lola” Not on iTunes
INXS: “Never Tear Us Apart” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Crystals: “Then He Kissed Me” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Donna Summer: “I Feel Love” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Lorraine Ellison: “Stay With Me” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Richard X feat. Jarvis Cocker: “Into U” Not on iTunes
Truth Hurts feat. Rakim “Addictive” Not on iTunes
Chris Isaak: “Wicked Game” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Liz Phair: “Supernova” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Cam’ron feat. Juelz Santana: “Hey Ma” (I say it counts) Preview/Buy at iTunes
Happy Valentine’s Day, Bridget!