First of all, the song must not only avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of sentimentality and cliché – not an easy task – but must go beneath the surface (the surface being where most popular music resides). Next, there must be conviction in the singer’s performance, an expressive potency that moves us, maybe even sends chills down your spine. Finally, the arrangement must reinforce the spirit of the song.
With that being said, I offer this list of ten great love songs — some well known and some not so well known — in a spectrum of styles representing the many shades of love.
Court and Spark (Joni Mitchell) — “Love came to my door with a sleeping roll and a madman’s soul.” With that opening line, Mitchell about sums it up. The song is a simple strophic structure characteristic of folk music: four verses (no chorus), in the midst of which Mitchell sets a contrasting bridge. But listen to what she does melodically at the end of each verse. The first two conclude with an ascending glide that expresses the word “spark,” but the melody descends at the end of the last verse, mirroring the words “fallen angels.” A subtle but brilliant touch.
The Look of Love (music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David; as recorded by Dionne Warwick) — There is a wonderful contrast in this song between the laid back, intimate verses in minor and the exuberant shift into major at the start of the chorus with the words “I can hardly wait to hold you.” The tasteful orchestration creates the ideal romantic mood, and the final, softly dissonant jazz chord with the unresolved fourth in the brass is especially evocative.
Unchained Melody (music by Alex North, lyrics by Hy Zaret; as recorded by The Righteous Brothers) — One of the most recorded songs of the 20th century. The rocking lull of the 6/8 rhythm could almost be a lullaby were it not for the way the melody winds to its powerful climax. The words and structure are simple and straightforward, but the melody – especially as performed by The Righteous Brothers, with melismatic flourishes and delayed notes – authentically captures the longing behind the lyrics.
Eternity (Lizz Wright) — Here again, we have a lullaby-like 6/8 rhythm. But this time the voice is richer, with the sultriness of a summer night. The way Wright hangs onto the last syllable of “eternity” is especially evocative. The chorus seems to grow organically out of the verse as one continuous gesture, which also helps evoke the idea of “eternity.”
Drowndeep: Hula (written by Stuart Matthewman and Maxwell; recorded by Maxwell) — What’s intriguing about this song is how the layering of voices, the instrumentation and the choice of the words create a sensuous, seductive sound. Fleeting phrases like “liquid kiss” suggest romance while the overall meaning of the words remain vague and mysterious, not quite making sense. For instance, listen to the sensuous repetition of the phrases “ooh ah” and “in us,” or the modulated pitch of the tabla drumming way back in the mix. The genius of this song is how it uses sound itself to capture the feeling that lovers experience.
Trust (MeShell Ndegeocello) — Of all the songs that have attempted to represent erotic passion, this is the most musically satisfying example. The drum beat is quite minimal: a slow alternation of bass and snare on the beats. A piano, backed by strings, plays arpeggiated chords just after the beat, creating a sensuous pull in the rhythm. Ndegeocello talks/sings the explicit lyrics in the verses, and Caron Wheeler adds ecstatic, improvisatory flights of wordless melody in the choruses. After the second chorus, a rhythmically free guitar solo interweaves with Wheeler’s wordless singing. As both rise to a climax, the music morphs into an ecstatic melody over indigenous African drumming.
Crazy (by Willie Nelson; as recorded by Patsy Cline) — The memorable descending melodic sixth that opens this song, an isolated snippet of two notes that Cline connects with a glide, poignantly expresses the feeling of being crazy with love, the emotional highs and lows. Like the opening line of “Court and Spark,” it sums up everything that needs to be said.
Bitter (MeShell Ndegeocello) — Just guitar and voice: the essence of simplicity, the music stripped down to emotional nakedness. A cello takes up where the voice leaves off after one solitary verse. This is one of the most plaintive songs ever written. The opening line, “You push me away,” starts at the low end of her register and descends even lower, perfectly capturing the feeling of dejectedness.
Goodbye (by Gordon Jenkins; as recorded by Lizz Wright) — This jazz-tinged number is built around a descending chord progression in a minor key that follows a verse / bridge / verse structure. The song fleetingly moves into major during the bridge as the melody rises in pitch to the words “But that was long ago,” as if the singer briefly remembers a happier time. That moment alone qualifies this as a great song.
I Can’t Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt) — The opening line, “Turn down the lights,” make us think this is going to be a song about seduction, but Raitt fools our expectations, as this is a song about unrequited love. As with “Bitter,” the descending melody underscores the feeling of dejectedness.
For additional posts that provide interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.