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The 50 best love songs ever made

Are you ready to fall head over heels with the best love songs of all time? Cupid has you in his sights, people.

Birds do, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.… So wrote Cole Porter in 1928, and we’re the first to admit that falling in love can be as easy as falling off a log. But as to the business of writing a love song—one that’s not cheesy or obvious—that’s a challenge that the greatest songwriters have wrestled with since the first caveman grunted a serenade to his Valentine. After painstaking research and several rock fights, Time Out has arrived at what we believe to be the 50 best love songs ever recorded. Expect to sniff along to the all-time classics (yes, you can tell Mom that Aretha Franklin is in there), get down like you’re at a wedding disco to dance-party titans like Madonna, and feel a smile spread across your face when you hit the number one spot and think of your own number one sweetie—whether they know it yet or not. Bring on the love songs!

Written by Michael Chen, Brent DiCrescenzo, Adam Feldman, Sophie Harris, Oliver Keens, Tim Lowery, Marley Lynch, James Manning, Amy Plitt, Jenna Scherer, Hank Shteamer, Kate Wertheimer and Kristen Zwicker.

Love songs too chirpy for you? Check out our list of the best breakup songs ever made

50–41

“Countdown” by Beyoncé

There was some debate over the merits of this 2011 track versus those of Queen B’s first chart topper, “Crazy in Love.” But it’s a no-brainer. “Crazy” is not love, it’s the first blush. It’s a crush, and the music, accordingly, is giddy and one-dimensional. But “Countdown”? That’s some real shit. It’s crazy in love years later, after the domesticity, after you stop bothering to close the bathroom door. And the tune, the arrangement, is complex, mercurial, fluttering and diving, able to create a rush from routine. This is the one that will make Senator Blue Ivy weep ages from now.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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“Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake

Ex–boy-bander Justin Timberlake found his greatest post–'N Sync success playing up his lustier tendencies. The ever-dapper Memphis showman who brought sexy back also knows a thing or two about romance as well, as evidenced by this 20/20 Experience smash. On the surface, “Mirrors” seems like an impossibly bland American Idol–caliber sing-along—just another hyberbolic “I’m nothing without you” jam. But the combination of a clever chorus hook, JT’s yearning voice and Timbaland’s sleek production elevate what would otherwise be a slushy slow jam—“’Cause I don’t wanna lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me”; seriously?—to arena-caliber arm-waver.—Hank Shteamer

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“Temptation” by New Order

Kelly Macdonald sits on Ewan McGregor’s bed, cooing, “Oh, you’ve got green eyes, oh, you’ve got blue eyes, oh, you’ve got gray eyes,” as he writhes and sweats through cold-turkey hallucinations. Can’t hear that refrain without thinking of that scene in Trainspotting. Bernard Sumner’s daffy lyrical abstraction often stumbled upon genius, as he does here. “Temptation” encapsulates being too pissed to notice or remember anything but some lovely person’s irises. It is the inarticulate poetry of clubbing adolescents. Or, it could be an ode to David Bowie. Either way, nailed it.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads

The second single from the band’s fifth album, Speaking in Tongues, this 1983 hit was David Byrne’s attempt to write a love song “that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do.” Though he’s often avoided the topic (due to it being “kinda big,” as he eloquently puts it), Byrne hit the target here with a sweet, sincere tune about home being wherever your lover is.—Kate Wertheimer

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“Hit” by the Sugarcubes

Wow. If ever the ecstasy and anguish of falling in love was captured in music, it’s on this 1992 track—which catapulted Sugarcubes singer Björk to wider fame. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she wails at the song’s opening, bemoaning the fact that she’s in love again: “How could you do this to me?” she chides her lover. But then the sweet, dreamy middle eight sneaks in: Now she’s lying in bed, “totally still, my eyes wide open, I’m enraptured…” And so Björk vacillates between the bliss and the pain; as Paul Dooley says to his lovesick daughter in the John Hughes movie Sixteen Candles: “That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call them something else.”—Sophie Harris

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“Heroes” by David Bowie

Reagan gets all the credit. In 1987, he stood at the Brandenburg Gate and chided Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall!” Thing is, the first metaphorical sledgehammer was swung into the Wall ten years prior, with this title track off Bowie’s only true Berlin album. Two lovers kiss by the graffiti and razor wire. Bowie, dreaming of escape so hard he wishes to be a porpoise, wails against a wall of sound, made romantic. Some songs are about being in love. This 1977 krautrock cannonball is testimony to the awesome, world-shaking power of love itself.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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“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 it was 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.—Kate Wertheimer

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“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by the Ramones

Simply stated, plainly sung—no one can accuse Joey Ramone & Co. of overdoing it. It was drummer Tommy who wrote this ditty, which appeared on the group’s 1976 debut, and, as far as proposals go, it’d serve as a fine love letter to anyone you’d like to attach yourself too, as long as they aren’t too keen on extended verbiage. This song gets the job done in something like 8 lines, a quarter of which are also the title. Short and sweet.—Andrew Frisicano

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“River Deep —Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner

Dragging Phil Spector and Ike Turner into a discussion of romance feels gross, but the power of Tina Turner cannot be denied. Her voice soars above this hair-raising avalanche of sound made by 21 musicians and 21 backup singers—in what sounds like two gospel songs playing over a timpani practice. It’s Spector’s masterpiece, but enough with heaping praise on that convinced felon. Without Tina, this could just as easily have been another cute Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans tune. As Pet Sounds also proved in 1966, it can take a hell of a lot of pain to fuel an eternal love song.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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“Jeepster” by T. Rex

Written by Marc Bolan in 1971 for the group’s second (and spectacular) album, Electric Warrior, this song has some of the most romantic, nonsensical lyrics we’ve ever swooned to. (Please tell us again how we have the universe reclining in our hair.) The song is sleeper sexy: starting off slow, building into a hip-shaker and ending with, um, some sucking. Bravo, Bolan.—Kate Wertheimer

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40–31

“Friday I'm In Love” by the Cure

While I actually enjoy getting super sentimental to Robert Smith's voice—and typically can't stand to listen to "happy music"—this tune’s catchy-as-hell hook and upbeat tempo serve as a good counterpoint to all those other straight-up tear-inducing Cure tunes. Plus, who doesn't love Friday?—Vivienne van Vliet

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“Archie, Marry Me” by Alvvays

“You’ve expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony…” sighs Alvvays singer Molly Rankin, cooing this tale of modern courtship with irresistibly sweet sincerity. The jist? He’s too cool to wed; she’s too smitten to hide her feelings. There’s so much to love on this 2014 summer indie hit from the Toronto band, from its jangly, Super-8–style sound to Rankin’s lovely voice. Fans of Camera Obscura, ’60s girl groups, French New Wave films and kissing will swoon.—Sophie Harris

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“Heartbeat” by Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly is the king of li’l love ditties, and 1958’s two-minute “Heartbeat” (the last single to be released during his lifetime) is one of his sweetest, illustrating that well-known, might-vomit feeling that comes along with new love. We’ll cut him a break for “piddle dee pat” because heartbeat sounds are hard, and it was the ’50s.—Kate Wertheimer

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“There She Goes” by the La's

"There she goes again / She calls my name, pulls my train / No one else could heal my pain"—now if that's not a love song... Well, actually, it's not. The song's most likely a heartfelt ode to that most trifling of partners, illegal substances (the line about "racing through my brain" becomes ever clearer). Even still, the Liverpool rockers sure do make their love letter to heroin, a gal, whatever it is,  a wonderfully tender-hearted affair.—Rohan Samarth

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“February Love” by the Dream

The-Dream, “love king” that he is, can turn even the cheesiest lyrics into a passionate love anthem. "If I'm attention / Be my center / If you're Spring, I'm Summer / If you're Fall, I'm Winter / Speaking of Winter"—sold. He begins the song with almost four minutes of serenading and finishes with another couple minutes of ad libs, proving how much more of a badass he is than all the other guys chasin' his girl.—Vivienne van Vliet

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“Every Breath You Take” by The Police

"Every breath you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you"—you know, when you sever the lyrics from the delicate melody and celestial guitar chords, Sting sounds utterly terrifying. In fact, the single starts to sound more like a drawn-out musical threat than a love song. For good reason too: Sting's paean to a lost beau, often mistaken for a gentle tune about commitment and care, was actually intended to evoke the ugliness and violence of possessive love (hence the mean mug he sports in the music video). On second thought, maybe leave this stalkers' ode off the wedding playlist.—Rohan Samarth

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“The Book of Love” by the Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt once said of his group’s 1999 lo-fi concept masterpiece: “69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” We’d argue otherwise about “The Book of Love,” a monkishly unadorned ode to amour in all its mystery and banality. The track’s status as a hipster-wedding staple hasn’t dulled its poetic beauty, or the simple truth it conveys about matters of the heart: “Some of it is just transcendental / Some of it is just really dumb.”—Jenna Scherer

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“That’s How Strong My Love Is” by Otis Redding

Otis, you slay us. We’re hard-pressed to think of an artist who croons the good, bad and ugly of love as heartbreakingly well, and this 1965 cover (of O.V. Wright’s ’64 original) is no exception. The lyrics are so comforting, so reassuring—especially when sung with Redding’s signature soul—that it makes us feel adored just to hear them on the stereo.—Kate Wertheimer

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“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie

Ben Gibbard goes for the heavy subject matter in his lyrics, with death and love being the primary targets. The melodrama he spins out of those topics here feels like it sprouted straight from the very soap-operatic scenes this song has come to soundtrack in every indie teen-angst flick since 2005. How did it get so big? A simple premise: Ben has a tender committed heart. He wants to follow you into the dark. Before entering the dark for someone else, some people would ask: How dark is it in there? Can I bring a flashlight? Not Ben Gibbard. Ben Gibbard will just do it, no questions asked.—Rohan Samarth

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“500 Miles (I'm Gonna Be)” by the Proclaimers

Some people would walk one whole mile for love. Some people would walk even further than that—say, 7 miles, maybe even 10. The Proclaimers really shifted paradigms, however, when they declared their intention to walk five-hundred miles. That's a large number of miles! But get this: There's more. Five-hundred more, to be exact. That's 1000 miles in all, folks. Have you ever walked 1000 miles just to demonstrate and verify the love you feel for your lover? No? That's what I thought. I bet you couldn't even make it into the double digits. You're a buffoon! You are no lover of mine. I'm taking the kids and leaving you for a man who would walk a longer stretch of miles for me.—Rohan Samarth

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30-21

“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 fucks everything up—your judgment, your pride, your friendships, your bank account, the roof over your head. It can be a powerful, fickle bitch, in other words. Oh, also: When you’re under its spell, it’s the absolute greatest thing in the world.—Tim Lowery

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“Missing” by Everything But the Girl

Before Tracey Thorne and Ben Watt dove headfirst into their house-inflected pop explorations, there was "Missing," the duo's aery downtempo track that made waves on the international charts after vet remixer Todd Terry gave it a deep house treatment. The song's dancefloor vibes make its yearning sadness for a gone-away soulmate utterly body-moving, and signal the stylistic directions the two would take later on.—Rohan Samarth

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“All My Life” by K-Ci & Jojo

The high-note-hitting brothers, who pull double duty in Jodeci, bring it back to the summer of ’98, harmonizing their way through this heartwarming, slow-burn ballad. As the groove settles in, let the voices wash over you and wait for that sweet a cappella finish. —Andrew Frisicano

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“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, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, 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 realize 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.”—Kristen Zwicker

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“Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS

We all have those moments when our lives play out like the last five minutes of a CW season finale (before the shocking cliff-hanger, natch). You’re in a plaza or maybe a café, and the object of your affections enters the frame. Time slows down, all other noises fade. You exchange glances. Your heart flutters. The synthesized strings kick in (it was 1988, after all). And Michael Hutchence, Australia’s answer to Jim Morrison, starts to sing: “I was standing.… You were there.… Two worlds collided.… And they could never, ever, tear us apart.” And then—that pause.—Michael Chen

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“Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac

From 1987’s Tango in the Night, this tune—penned and sung by Christie McVie—might just be about life on the road with Fleetwood Mac. “I want to be with you everywhere,” you say? How about a crammed  tour bus? Wish granted. Even though it didn’t work out for any of the couples in Fleetwood Mac, don’t let it diminish this tunes unassailable sentiment.—Andrew Frisicano

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“Cherish” by Madonna

Pop’s ultimate chameleon, Madonna offered this unabashedly cheery romp in 1989, between releases of the controversial “Like a Prayer” (our No. 1 dance-party song), the brazen “Express Yourself,” the classically cool “Vogue” and the smokin’ sex odyssey “Justify My Love.” Here, Madge testifies to a sweet romance that would put those novices Romeo and Juliet to shame. We like a lot of the Madonnas we’ve seen over the years, but the rarely seen giddy, love-struck Madonna—she’s one of our faves.—Michael Chen

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“The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson

MJ’s chart-topping Bad single finds the King of Pop in full-on cupid’s-arrow love-struck mode (contrast with the seedy depictions of romance in the equally compelling “Billie Jean” or “Dirty Diana”). It’s a plea, in a sense, for love unattained—but the body-moving, carefree approach leaves little doubt to the singer’s sincerity.—Andrew Frisicano

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“Can't Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley

The constant compulsion to cover this song demonstrated by musicians from era to era proves its infinite staying power and the magic of its songcraft—there's a reason everyone wants to make their mark (Bob Dylan, U2, Ingrid Michaelson, Fleet Foxes, Twenty One Pilots...). However, the original, with Elvis's hopelessly-enamoured croon, still wins our hearts.—Rohan Samarth

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“Love Hangover” by Diana Ross

Before she was coming out and wanting the world to know, Diana first staked a claim on disco 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.—Oliver Keens

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20-11

“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney

If Heather Mills or Nancy Shevell is reading this, turn away. Though he’s tied the knot twice since, McCartney never seemed to get over the loss of first wife Linda. The adorable sap certainly never penned love songs as convincing as those in the 1970s. Written as the Beatles were decaying and tucked on the back end of his modest, home-spun solo debut, “Maybe I’m Amazed” was not originally released as a single and ended with a fade-out. Years later, it would become a concert staple and be released as a meatier live version, with Paul hollering in full “Hey Jude” mode. The original is best, obviously, as it’s comparing a handwritten love letter to an off-the-rack Hallmark card. —Brent DiCrescenzo

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“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” by Father John Misty

“I can’t hardly believe I’ve found you / and I’m terrified by that” sings Father John Misty a.k.a. Josh Tillman on one of the typically scathing singer’s rawest tunes from his sophomore record, I Love You Honeybear. The depiction of modern love goes on from there to encompass his fevered dreams, paranoia and cringe-inducing self-doubt as a signposts on the path to true connection. Sounds about right.—Andrew Frisicano

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“Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode

Singer Dave Gahan's sinister baritone doesn't quite evoke fuzzy feelings and affection so much as it does dread, disquiet and angst. Paired with his crew's pounding industrial drums and icy synth stabs, "the silence" he's enjoying could easily refer to Gahan, say, bathing in the quiet serenity of strangled murder victims. But on closer inspection, you'll find he's talking about those unutterable aspects of the romantic bond that transcend the inadequacy of language. How poetic and surprisingly un-creepy!—Rohan Samarth

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“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 U.S. R&B chart and garnered Wonder his first Grammy nomination, proving that everyone loves a second chance.—Kristen Zwicker

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“My Baby Just Cares for Me” by Nina Simone

Written for Eddie Cantor to sing—in blithe blackface—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 U.K. 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.—Adam Feldman

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“Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison

The Irish belter famously commemorated first love in “Brown Eyed Girl” and summed up hippie-style soul communion on “Into the Mystic,” but he never captured the ecstasy of romance better than on 1968’s Astral Weeks. On “Sweet Thing,” with help from jazz pros Richard Davis, Jay Berliner and Connie Kay, he starts in the troubadour zone and quickly propels himself to full-on speaking-in-tongues word spew. Riding the song’s tumbling waltz rhythm, he pours out half-coherent proclamations (“I’m dynamite, and I don’t know why”) and blissful babble, climaxing with a triumphant “Sugar baby!” at the 4:03 mark. If love is a drug, then Van was on a heavy dose here.—Hank Shteamer

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“Oh Yoko” by John Lennon

Lennon’s flair for the prosaic and his unabashed adoration for his lady make this simple folk-rock ditty (taken from 1971’s Imagine LP) simply glisten in beautiful gooey drippiness. There’s probably only one person whose heart doesn’t melt hearing it, in fact: the poor engineer bawled out by John and Yoko during its recording.—Oliver Keens

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“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-palmed excitement.—Oliver Keens

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“The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra

Considered by many to be the gold standard against which all romantic standards are judged, this perennial wedding favorite marries an elegant, soaring melody by Jerome Kern with a personal, wistful lyric by Dorothy Fields. It’s about wanting to preserve a perfect moment that must pass—but that might at least be extended and treasured in memory. Introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1936 MGM musical Swing Time, the song has been recorded countless times since, but Frank Sinatra’s sensitive early-1940s recording (not to be confused with his later, more cavalier version) gives it a sure, gentle touch that feels perfect.—Adam Feldman

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“The Very Thought of You” by Billie Holiday

Originally recorded by Al Bowlly and then Bing Crosby in 1934, Ray Noble’s jazz standard has been covered time and again this past 80 years—but its defining version comes from Lady Day. This 1938 reverie swings like a lazy daydream, Holiday’s voice sweet and languid. “I see your face in every flower,” she coos, reminding you of each time you got lost in fantasy when you were washing the dishes, or watching a movie, or listening to someone explain something to you.… Sorry, what was that?—Sophie Harris

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10-2

“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 cliché. But from the first note, we all know what’s coming (love! finally!), and James’s soulful crooning induces a shiver every time, whether we expect it to or not. Case in point, pretty much everyone lost it during Beyoncé’s rendition at the 2009 presidential inauguration ball, including the First Lady and President Obama himself. Cuuute.—Kate Wertheimer

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“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 recognizable guitar riff (right up there with the one from “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.—Tim Lowery

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“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 color 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 gives this 1970 track the hand-sewn charm of a homemade gift.—Adam Feldman

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“Love” by Mica Levi

If there's an epic love song out there without lyrics, this is it. The track appears in Mica Levi's soundtrack for Under the Skin, an eerie sci-fi film about an alien (Scarlett Johannson) who lands on Earth, disguises herself as a human female and seduces men. "Love" plays during a pivotal, climactic scene—a beautiful moment in which our seductive alien has sex with a human being for the first time and is overcome with strange feelings she's never felt before. It's only fitting that an alien love song chooses dramatic strings over eloquent vocals to portray such a magical experience.—Vivienne van Vliet

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“Something” by The Beatles

“Something” was the first George Harrison-written song to occupy the A-side of a Beatles single (though it did share the accolade, appearing as a double A-side with unifying call “Come Together” in 1969). Capturing the swirling triumph of infatuation, the tune would become the second-most-covered song of the Beatles’ canon (“Yesterday” is the first)—more than 150 artists have tried the dreamy, swooning ode on for size, including James Brown, Elvis Presley, Phish, Isaac Hayes and Frank Sinatra, who famously christened it the “greatest love song ever written.”—Kristen Zwicker

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“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 favorite boost for the song has to be the snippet—“Oh no you didn’t!”—sung by President Obama at a fund-raising event in 2012, naughty smile and all.—Sophie Harris

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“I Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin

Set in F minor, the song hits like a breakup. Burt Bacharach, you clever devil. Aretha belts it like tragedy, too. That’s what puts it in the upper league, what separates it from the puppy-dog bullshit. 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.”—Brent DiCrescenzo

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“I Only Have Eyes for You” by The Flamingos

The Flamingos’ 1959 doo-wop classic is a perfect slow-dance standard, with super-literal lyrics about that moment when everything and everyone else fades away. The group—one in a slew of the “bird groups” of the ’40s and ’50s, including the Orioles, the Penguins and the Larks—set a high bar for elegant ballads such as this one, and played their own instruments to boot. Swoon.—Kate Wertheimer

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“Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke

If there’s anyone out there whose heart doesn’t melt just a little bit when they hear the drum flutter that opens this 1960 swoon of a song, we’ll eat our hat. “Wonderful World” is lullaby-simple in its structure—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.—Sophie Harris

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No. 1

“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys

As we mentioned earlier in our list, in 1963, Brian Wilson was so obsessed with Phil Spector’s orchestral vision for the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” that he took to listening to it 100 times a day. Spector revels in telling this story (watch and see for yourself), picturing Wilson as a dope-smoking dilettante, smitten by the wonder of the Wall of Sound. “I’d like to have a nickel for every joint he smoked figuring out how I got that ‘Be My Baby’ sound” is just one of his many barbs.

Yet three years later, Wilson and the Boys would surpass the master with a song that lifted the notion of the sophisticated love song clean into the heavens. The uncertainty of the first line (“I may not always love you”) is a classic pop curveball, which works with the swooping transition from intro to verse. Once that miasmic mix of harpsichords and celestial brass clears, and that opening caveat is laid bare, we’re left with a heartbreakingly tender song of yearning, of devotion and of fidelity.

Combining the fatalism of lines like “what good would living do me” with the use of God in the title was risky business back in the mid-’60s. There was no need to worry. In fact, the song’s universality has turned it into an almost nondenominational and humanist hymn, blessed with an equivocal outlook that can magically give succor to all forms of love.

Filmmakers certainly know it: Just compare the Kleenex-soaking finale of Love Actually to the complicated pseudo-family resolution at the end of Boogie Nights. Two vastly different stories of love, but both tied together at the end by “God Only Knows”—in a pretty, complicated, perfect bow. How like love.—Oliver Keens

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