Just in time for Valentines Day this year, Billboard released its list of the "Top 50 'Love' Songs of All Time." It's a good list, with no shortage of classic tunes (Endless Love, I Will Always Love You, I Can't Stop Loving You) and legendary artists (Paul McCartney, Mariah Carey, Ray Charles).
And while the catch appears to be that the song needed to have the word 'love' in the title to qualify, it got us here in the WGBH Newsroom talking about great love songs that would never make Billboard's list. So I thought it would be fun to stray a little from the beaten path and celebrate some of our favorite obscure and unconventional love songs.
"She's an Angel" by They Might Be Giants
Why did they send her over anyone else? / How should I react? / These things happen to other people / They don't happen at all, in fact
This is a They Might Be Giants song, so off course it's a little off-kilter. But it's a beautiful melody and while the lyrics are somewhat cryptic (Shriners loaning cars, the space program, being on hold on the telephone) two emotions that I think often come with love and are rarely expressed in song come through for me: incredulity and fear.
"'Til Death Do Us Part" by the Kinks
I'm only me / Not someone better / Not someone good / I'd be a soldier / That's if I only could
One of my wisest friends once told me, "If you are going to get married, marry a girl who's just a little too good for you." This tune, from "The Great Lost Kinks Album" nails that sentiment.What makes this song truly standout for me is the end. There is resignation ("This is our lot / Let's stay together"), but also a startling, resolved — even romantic — conclusion, which is as perfect as any wedding vow I've ever heard: "Not just a day /But 'til forever /Just as the stars, just as the ending / until death us do part."
"Shiny Things" by Tom Waits
The only thing / I want that shines / is to be king / there in your eyes / to be your only shiny thing
There isn't anything to say about this song except that it is perfect.
"Chicken Blows" by Guided By Voices
Our courage is only a taste / And I'll get paid / If you'll get laid / It's our parade
This song is an ode to/examination of domestic life. At best you would describe it as realistic, at worst you could call it bleak. I've always imagined Robert Pollard in his basement, likely drinking beer, writing this song after a fight with his then wife Kim. Allusions to alcoholism and the monotony of the passage of time dominate the song for the better part of the its 2:22. And then there's a hard fought declaration of hope in the end: "our courage is only a taste." Also, the melody is a pure heartbreaker. One of GBV's best.
"Golden" by My Morning Jacket
And you, you always told me / No matter how long it holds me / If it falls apart or makes us millionaires
You'll be right here forever / We'll go through this thing together /And on heaven's golden shore we'll lay our heads
I recently did an interview with Rose Styron, wife of author William Styron ("Confessions of Nat Turner" and "Sophie's Choice") about a new book of his letters that she edited. As I was reading the book in preparation for the interview, I was struck by a letter Styron wrote when he had decided to marry Rose. In it he talked about how important it was for a spouse to give their partner enough space to be who they are and to continue to grow into who they will become. When Jim James wrote this song, his (and his band's) star was on the rise. The first half of the song marks the elation — and potential perils — of that journey. The second half, I like to think, explains why he has the strength to be on the road he's traveling: the support of a partner, who encourages him to be who he is.
A few others I have to mention (both have great back stories if you want to take the time to dig into them):
And here are a few suggestions from producer Will Roseliep:
"Maybe" by The Three Degrees
The song starts with straight obsession, a woman smitten with a man she previously blew off. To say she has second thoughts is to put it lightly. (Listen to her backtrack, as we've all done from time to time, at the 3:20 mark.) Detroit beatsmith J Dilla famously sampled a snippet of "Maybe," which is where I heard it first. Needless to say, the whole song was worth finding.
"Natural High" by Bloodstone
An absolute gem. I caught this one night while listening to WERS-FM and drifting off to sleep. I woke up, wrote down the lyrics in the dark and Googled it the next day. Yahtzee. The breakdown at the end is the finishing touch, a celebratory jig after a slow lovers' waltz.
What are some of you favorites? Weigh in below.