Not all love songs are romantic. Not all love songs are even happy.
It all depends on your definition of the term. For every “My Girl” or “Your Song,” there’s at least one track with a nuanced take on the darker, more complicated sides of love — the drama of a long-term relationship, the fear of losing a partner, the void left in love’s wake.
Many of those songs fall under the admittedly broad umbrella of “alt-rock.” So to mark Valentine’s Day, we decided to gather 50 of our favorite “love songs” in the genre — both conventional and otherwise. Throughout this list, you’ll find lines about blooming romance and marital bliss. You’ll also find nods to drug addiction and car crashes.
There’s something for everyone. – Ryan Reed
50. that dog. – “I’m Gonna See You”
You take the good, you take the bad. You settle in for the longest haul, one that’s meant to end whenever one partner or the other passes away. Sunny, glossy and droll, “I’m Gonna See You” fairly tingles the spine; there’s an underlying optimism about marriage and domestic life here that’s leavened by level-headedness and firm realism. that dog. set the controls firmly to mid-tempo, as placid frontwoman Anna Waronker serenades an unknown subject who might as well murmur every verse and chorus right back at her: “I’m gonna see you in the morning / I’m gonna see you when you’re uptight / I’m gonna see you when you’re boring / I’m gonna see you every night.” – Raymond Cummings
49. PJ Harvey (featuring Thom Yorke) – “This Mess We’re In”
PJ Harvey didn’t need Radiohead’s enigmatic frontman to sell this bleakly beautiful 2000 duet. But it’s chilling — and slightly dislocating — to hear these worlds collide, resulting in a hall-of-fame-caliber swirl of romantic misery. “I’d long been interested in the idea of somebody else singing a whole song on a record of mine, to have a very different dimension brought in by somebody else’s voice,” Harvey told the Los Angeles Times. “It adds so much dynamic within the record to have this other character coming in.” And while it’s still hilarious to hear Yorke, master of the abstract, sing lines this nakedly sensual (“I dream of making love to you now, baby”), he inhabits that character with ease, his falsetto offering a ghostly counterpoint to Harvey’s measured spoken word. – Ryan Reed
48. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”
There’s love, sure, but “Ocean Avenue” is also an anthem of youth, recklessness and pop-punk. Something about the chugging riffs, infectious chorus and cliche lyrics made it an instant classic destined to soundtrack every Emo Nite. The highlight is, of course, the sentiment that’s as predictable as everything else: “If I could find you now things would get better / We could leave this town and run forever.” Just like Boys Like Girls’ later pop-punk gem “The Great Escape,” “Ocean Avenue” is built on one of rock’s most reliably romantic images: running away with a vague lover from a dreary hometown into life’s endless possibilities. – Danielle Chelosky
47. Future Islands – “Walking Through That Door”
This is Future Islands in the key of “I Want to Break Free.” Of all the underdog anthems the synth-pop trio churn out, this gem — from 2010’s overlooked In Evening Air — is their most pure. The beauty lies in Gerrit Welmers’ quivering keys, which sound like they landed on Earth from a ’50s sci-fi flick. They spiral higher and faster, as singer Samuel T. Herring absolves us of the shadows we cling to; all the lonely nights that “fall oh-so-slow.” “I want to be the one to help you find those dreams,” Herring sings, eerily calm, like a mountaintop shaman who’s become enlightened in the rugged terrain. “Walking Through That Door” has a mystical vibe that takes whatever’s in your heart and makes you believe in it harder. – Sarah Grant
46. Liz Phair – “Supernova”
Liz Phair is in devotion mode, packing more similes into one rock love song than an entire book of Shakespeare sonnets. “Your eyelashes sparkle like gilded grass,” she sings, “and your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub’s bare, wet ass.” That’s just the first verse. “Supernova” was Phair’s rollicking first single from Whip-Smart, the follow-up to her murky masterpiece Exile in Guyville. With its trampolining guitars and Phair’s heart wide open, it signaled a whole new Liz dimension — her romantic period — where we could pour out our hearts with fists held high, shouting “and you fuck like a volcano, and you’re everything to me.” A declaration that would only occur to an ineffably cool 27-year-old in 1994. – S.G.
45. The Stranglers – “Golden Brown”
The stately, baroque-pop jangle of “Golden Brown” diverged from the English band’s core sound: prototypical pub-punkers stumbling into the electronics section of the local music store. The Stranglers slowly matured into the New Wave outfit of their pinnacle — but, in this case, take a deviant direction. A harpsichord plays the central melody as a luminous phased synth corresponds: dropping and rising in octaves, overall creating an enthralling quasi-waltz (with periodic bars in 7/8 time). It’s a ballad to his beatific (and lyrically ambiguous) “golden brown,” a finer temptress arranged in a seamless weaving of verse into bridge into the chorus — all executed in a timbre echoing John Lennon. Such a gorgeous song from a band with such a contrary name. – Logan Blake
44. Nine Inch Nails – “The Perfect Drug”
The doomed romance of Trent Reznor’s lyrics can often make love sound like a desperate chemical dependency — or make actual drug addiction sound like an irresistible seduction. “The Perfect Drug,” written for David Lynch’s 1997 film, Lost Highway, muddies the waters even more than usual, particularly with Mark Romanek’s absinthe-themed video. Reznor only performed the song live once and reportedly admitted in 2005 that it “probably wouldn’t be in the top hundred” of the tracks he’s written. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the adrenaline rush of one of the fastest, most drum’n’bass-influenced songs in the Nine Inch Nails catalog. – Al Shipley
43. Pulp – “Something Changed”
“Something Changed” is a prayer for those of us whose love language is canceling plans. Over rolling guitars and heavenly synths, Jarvis Cocker sings about the precious, random decisions that we make every day, having no idea of what’s at stake. “I could have stayed at home and gone to bed … you might have changed your mind and seen your friend.” In a Melody Maker interview, Cocker said that the song’s retrospective lyrics came from trying to remember why he wrote this song in the first place back in 1984 — years before releasing it as a single in 1996. Twenty-five years later, amid the doldrums of quarantine, “Something Changed” is like a redemption song for those of us who took the outside world for granted. As Jarve wisely said: “The worst thing about having a schedule and a timetable is that there’s less chance for unexpected things to happen.” – S.G.
42. Buzzcocks – “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”
If the answer to the question posed in the song title is “no,” check your pulse. You’re not alive. Or perhaps you’re extremely lucky. Just wait — as Robert Plant once sang, “Your Time Is Gonna Come.” The gist of the lyrics: “You spurn my natural emotions / You make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt” is as plainspoken as the song itself, written in 1978 by Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley. Flaunting a perfect, dysfunctional lyrical kicker (“And if I start a commotion / I run the risk of losing you, and that’s worse”), “Ever Fallen in Love” becomes a hooky package of pop-punk energy and precise, pithy lyrics. This “pansexual punk anthem” (as one critic coined it) was the Buzzcocks’ biggest hit, and very rightly so. – Katherine Turman
41. Morphine – “In Spite of Me”
Boston trio Morphine was known for the low, sonorous sounds of Mark Sandman’s two-string slide bass and Dana Colley’s baritone sax. But Sandman would occasionally throw in a spare acoustic track like “In Spite of Me,” the side one closer to their 1993 magnum opus, Cure For Pain, featuring beautifully fluttering mandolin by Jimmy Ryan. “In Spite of Me” is a bittersweet paean to someone who left the narrator behind long ago, but Sandman’s half-whispered vocal radiates with the fond memories of a shared history: “Last night I told a stranger all about you / They smiled patiently with disbelief.” – A.S.
40. The Breeders – “Do You Love Me Now”
“Does love ever end?” That’s the central question of “Do You Love Me Now,” Kim and Kelly Deal’s meditation on the often open-ended nature of past romance. Just when you think you’re finally over a relationship and have completely moved on, those familiar feelings slowly sidle back up to you like Josephine Wiggs’ slinking bass line. Pretty soon you might find yourself reaching for your phone, scrolling through photos and wondering what your old flame is doing right about now. If that happens, don’t worry — it’s perfectly natural. Here’s a helpful piece of advice from your friends at SPIN: Don’t text your ex. – John Paul Bullock
39. Pearl Jam – “Last Kiss”
By 1998, Pearl Jam had left radio behind. Sure, “Given to Fly” was a hit and Yield ended up one of their best albums, but the mainstream was mostly in the rearview mirror until this throwaway cover. During a Seattle show that May, Eddie Vedder told the crowd that he found an old single for $.99 the previous day and stayed up listening to it all night. Then the band debuted their take on “Last Kiss,” the Wayne Cochran ballad popularized by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers in 1964. The song is so breezy and catchy, many fans are still oblivious to the sad lyrics, which chronicle a car accident that kills the narrator’s girlfriend (“Oh where, oh where can my baby be? / The Lord took her away from me”). Pearl Jam recorded a version during soundcheck before a Maryland gig, releasing it for Ten Club members. But that recording spread like wildfire and eventually peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. Strangely, this left-field cover wound up the biggest hit of Pearl Jam’s career. – Daniel Kohn
38. Bloc Party – “Blue Light”
“I still feel you in the taste of cigarettes,” sings Kele Okereke over divine splatters of guitar reverb and the heartbeat click-clack of a snare rim and kick drum. Bits of this person — seemingly a former lover — linger in the minute sensory details of everyday life. Reminders are everywhere: “You’ll find it hiding in shadows / You’ll find it hiding in cupboards.” The emotional centerpiece of Bloc Party’s debut LP, 2005’s Silent Alarm, “Blue Light” conjures the feeling of being fully adrift in sadness — you’ve become so accustomed to melancholy, it’s now your home. Just as Okereke croons about a mysterious “gentlest feeling,” the song ironically becomes un-gentle, guitars and drums spiraling upward into a sonic and emotional crescendo. – R.R.
37. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment”
Lots of love songs have a spiritual component: Peter Gabriel was inspired to write “In Your Eyes” — perhaps the greatest slice of pop romance ever written, but not really “alt-rock” enough for this list — to reflect that common ambiguity in African music. With Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment,” frontman Jason Wade landed at a similar duality. “I knew at the end of it that it was a love song, and I kind of come from that world, so it can be interpreted as a spiritual song or a love song,” he told Billboard in 2017. “I feel like people have just been taking it for whatever they want it to be through the years.” Both interpretations hold water: The narrator is “starving for truth,” perhaps in a religious sense. But on the chorus, they’re “standing here until you make me move” — an image that, coincidentally, calls to mind the “In Your Eyes” boombox scene from Say Anything. Either way, it’s a tearjerker. – R.R.
36. Alabama Shakes – “Gimme All Your Love”
Lyrically, this one’s as cut and dried as it comes: Brittany Howard, the powerhouse singer of Alabama Shakes, wants the full relationship experience — no emotional shortcuts. “So much is going on / But you can always come around,” she sings gently, her voice somewhat muffled amid the glitchy drums and gleaming keys. “Why don’t you sit with me for just a little while? / Tell me, what’s wrong.” Then on the chorus, she sounds enraptured in contrast, screaming the titular phrase between some “woo”s that sound like a soulful Ric Flair. Is complete commitment so much to ask? – R.R.
35. A Flock of Seagulls – “Space Age Love Song”
New Wave music, particularly synthpop, tended to be lyrically cold, detached and unsentimental — more concerned with pessimism than romance. But “Space Age Love Song,” A Flock of Seagulls’ 1982 hit, is one of those unique exceptions. Amid Mike Score’s wistful singing and atmospheric synths and Paul Reynolds’ soaring guitar, the lyrics are direct and tender rather than aloof, accompanied by its recognizable melodic refrain: “I was falling in love.” In a 2018 PopMatters interview, Score said the song was about intimacy: “When you meet somebody there is an instant eye contact if the chemistry is right. If everything is right, you catch their eye…that whole ‘across the crowded room/caught your eye’ thing. The lyrics explain that: ‘I saw your eyes and you made me smile.’” Sci-fi and love never sounded so good together. – David Chiu
34. The Pretenders – “Talk of the Town”
“I had in mind this kid who used to stand outside the soundchecks on our first tour, and I never spoke to him,” Chrissie Hynde once recalled, detailing this Beatles-y New Wave anthem from 1980. “And I remember the last time I saw him, I just left him standing in the snow. I never had anything to say to him. And I kinda wrote this for him.” That backstory adds more intrigue to her already-fascinating lyrics, which seem to channel youthful longing for a person outside one’s grasp. “I watch you still from a distance then go / Back to my room,” she quivers over the bright guitar changes. “You never know I want you.” – R.R.
33. Incubus – “Dig”
Few alt-rock frontmen have embraced heartthrob status more naturally than Incubus singer Brandon Boyd, who helped transform the California nü-metal band into multi-platinum crossover stars with his washboard abs and a propensity to flirtatiously ad-lib the word “girl” like an R&B singer. But there’s always been a philosophical bent to Boyd’s most romantic songs, and “Dig,” as he explained in the band bio for 2006’s Light Grenades, “speaks to the importance of forgiveness and compassion.” But the song’s headier lyrics don’t get in the way of the lighter-waving catharsis of Boyd belting out, “We’ll always have each other when everything else is gone.” – A.S.
32. Beach House – “Lazuli”
If “Harvest Moon” had an alien twin from Baltimore, it might sound something like “Lazuli” — Beach House’s most romantic song, which highlights their 2012 album, Bloom. Alex Scally begins with a loping arpeggio and spray of synth as the story unfurls. “In the blue of this life, where it ends in the night / When you couldn’t see, you would come for me,” Victoria Legrand bellows, sounding warm, wise and oddly reminiscent of Nat King Cole. The lyrics float in and out of abstraction, like twisting a kaleidoscope. The synths form little ripples around her voice. In this vein, “Lazuli,” feels like an ode to communing with nature; a testament to every tiny particle that we can’t see. Who knows? Being in a perpetual state of wonder is the Beach House way, and it’s the true magic of this song. As Legrand reminds us in her dreamy warble, “you can’t be replaced.” – S.G.
31. Weezer – “Perfect Situation”
From the dramatic intro — which this Fearless-era Taylor Swift song oddly resembles — it’s clear what this one is about. Then again, it’s usually what Weezer songs are about: desperation, longing, love gone wrong. “Perfect Situation,” though, is less lyrically specific than many of the band’s tracks — they keep the words simple and carefully chosen here, with Rivers Cuomo just enunciating “Singing oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh” on the chorus. The instruments do most of the talking, and the most Cuomo reveals is on the kind-of-hot lines: “Get your hands off the girl / Can’t you see that she belongs to me?” – Danielle Chelosky
30. The Temper Trap – “Sweet Disposition”
First off, who gives a fuck that the echoing guitar sounds like the Edge’s best unused riff? And so what if the song itself is still a go-to for dumb TV ads and rom-coms? It’s easy to poke fun at this Australian quartet because they unashamedly swing for a grand slam with almost every at-bat, but “Sweet Disposition” is the kind of heart-tugging big-chorus rock song only the most jaded among us can brush aside. Part of it’s the expressive delivery of frontman Dougy Mandagi, who wrangles maximum earnestness from each falsetto swoop and hint of vibrato. And the words are perfectly bare and unpretentious. “Just stay there / ‘Cause I’ll be coming over,” he sings. “While our blood’s still young / It’s so young, it runs / Won’t stop ’til it’s over.” – R.R.
29. Band of Horses – “No One’s Gonna Love You”
Few “love songs” open with the image of a mutilated body part: “It’s looking like a limb torn off / Or altogether just taken apart,” Ben Bridwell yelps over rippling electric guitars. “No One’s Gonna Love You” feels romantic — the atmospheric arrangement, the pained way Bridwell sings throughout. And certain lyrics, like the titular phrase, sound deceptively sweet. But this one’s complicated: The narrator seems to be still helplessly in love (“And anything to make you smile”), even with the relationship “tumbling” through an “endless fall.” Play this one for your “first dance” wedding song and scan the crowd for puzzled faces. – R.R.
28. The White Stripes – “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”
Can we trust a love-lost song from a man who pretended his one-time wife was his sister? Why is said sister-wife, Meg White, crying on the cover of 2003’s Elephant? And why is Kate Moss pole-dancing in the video? No matter the answer to these rhetorical questions, ”I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” is a great song, and as sung by Jack White, the definitive version. (It was written by Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David — and previously, most notably covered by Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick and Issac Hayes, who drew it out to seven minutes.) White’s spare, angsty voice and guitar reflects the song’s desperate, edgy feeling of painful limbo as two are wrenched into one lonely leftover. The tune was written in 1962, but it’s still timeless — and especially gut-wrenching when White delivers it with all the (hurt) feels. – K.T.
27. My Morning Jacket – “Steam Engine”
Jim James digs deeper than superficial attraction on this dreamy, seven-minute ballad from It Still Moves. “So I do believe / None of this is physical / At least not to me,” he sings, his voice bathed in barn reverb. He is human, admitting later on, “Your skin looks good in moonlight.” But like the band’s slow-building sway, his definition of love is still admirably cosmic. “It’s about falling in love with someone because of the way they make you feel, as opposed to them wearing tight jeans and being hot,” he told Nude as the News in 2003. “I’m just trying to escape from the fuckin’ constant, physically driven fashion show that the world has become.” – R.R.
26. R.E.M. – “At My Most Beautiful”
Gently affectionate, direct and indelible, the standout third single from R.E.M.’s first post-Bill Berry LP revels in romantic mundanity. A sigh calibrated to elicit endless sighs, “At My Most Beautiful” adopts orchestral-era Beach Boys as its guiding muse, with guitar, piano, organ and cello forming a warm, pastel whorl. The sincere tenderness in Michael Stipe’s vocal scribbles extra feelings between the lines of his actual lyrics, which adore but stop short of the saccharine. “You always say your name,” he purrs, “Like I wouldn’t know it’s you, at your most beautiful.” – R.C.
25. Siouxsie & the Banshees – “The Last Beat of My Heart”
Siouxsie Sioux sings nature metaphors (“In the sharp gust of love, my memory stirred / When time wreathed a rose, a garland of shame”) over a slow-climbing swell of accordion and muted tom-tom thump. A perfect marriage of words and atmosphere, each drawing out romance from the other. “It’s one of my favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees songs, and [DeVotchKa] covered it very well,” the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy told Pitchfork in 2006.”It kind of bums me out that they got to that cover before I did. Very smart choice.” – R.R.
24. Blink-182 – “All the Small Things”
For Valentine’s Day 2000, there had to be at least one guy in a Hurley T-shirt and Dickies who wrote this in a card to his high school girlfriend, thinking it was so sick: “Keep your lips still, I’ll be your thrill, the night will go on, my little windmill.” Blink’s biggest hit has its goofy, sappy moments: “She left me roses by the stairs, surprises let me know she cares.” But there’s some uncertainty there too: Tom DeLonge knows this girl will be at his show, watching and waiting, but also…commiserating. Did she feel pity for him? Maybe we shouldn’t think too much about “All The Small Things,” considering DeLonge wrote it specifically to be played on the radio, with all those Ramones-y “na-na-na’s” filled in so he wouldn’t need to write more lyrics. – Bobby Olivier
23. Arcade Fire – “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
Here’s something I’ve never understood: So…Win Butler is singing about digging a tunnel between his and his lover’s homes — underground romance, adorable — but then he wails, “You climb out of the chimney and meet me in the middle, the middle of the town.” Why dig the fucking tunnel when she’s just gonna use the chimney to meet up? And another thing! When he sings, “Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow” — couldn’t they have sought shelter in the tunnel during inclement weather? Listen, I know it’s the band’s debut single and revered as one of the greatest indie-rock songs of the last 20 years, blah blah. It’s a sweeping, bouncy tune, sure, but I need answers, damn it! – B.O.
22. Smashing Pumpkins – “Luna”
In the liner notes of the 2011 Siamese Dream reissue, Billy Corgan writes that this blissful dream-pop ballad chronicles his love for “someone [who] doesn’t love me.” He doesn’t directly specify this person, but he did famously date Courtney Love, who once claimed that almost all of the album was written about her. We’re not going to draw any conclusions. “I sing a love song in an empty room,” Corgan continued, detailing how he wrote the tune. “It is for the moon. It can never be for the one you love.” Regardless, “love song for the moon” just sounds cooler. – R.R.
21. Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You”
During the mid-’90s alt boom, a bunch of bands on the peripheral had their moments of mainstream success. Mazzy Star’s biggest song, the moody and melodic “Fade Into You,” blends dream-pop and alt-country twang, led by Hope Sandoval’s luscious vocals. The singer’s lyrics, a touchstone of peak Gen X, seem to document a relationship with a narcissistic person who can’t be reached. And that dichotomy between romantic longing and melancholy is what makes “Fade Into You” so relatable. – D.K.
20. The Cardigans – “Lovefool”
You likely know the hook by heart from incessant radio airplay. Released in the mid-’90s, it’s one of those songs that summons its zeitgeist, and it’s since remained one of the most timeless (and bittersweet) pop-rock palliatives. Lead singer Nina Persson both coquettishly and wistfully begs for her love to be requited. It’s all voluptuous rouge lips and batting cat eyes, soft around the edges with sharp guitar chops and velvety synth concords. It’s the marriage of a cold, haphazard lament in a catchy pop structure with a New Wave undercurrent all held together in kitschy saturation. Nothing comes closer to the platonic ideal of pop. – L.B.
19. Jeff Buckley – “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”
“Maybe I’m too young to keep good love from going wrong,” Jeff Buckley sings with understated drama on the first verse of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” before patiently building to a climactic falsetto showcase. Buckley wrote the smoldering, seven-minute ballad after the end of his relationship with musician Rebecca Moore, and he opens the epic version on his only proper studio album, 1994’s Grace, with a gorgeous harmonium instrumental that sounds like an otherworldly funeral organ. It became the most widely covered song Buckley wrote in his brief career, but nobody can possibly sing it like him. – A.S.
18. Elliott Smith – “Say Yes”
Smith clears his throat and begins the acoustic-strummed ballad to a girl who made his world a vicarious idyll, the one “who’s still around the morning after.” An electric guitar glitters the track with sprightly, jazzy chords, letting out a melodic melancholy solo and syncing with Smith’s sotto voce singing as he sulks over their month-ago breakup. Now he longs for her to come back, optimistically musing that maybe he’d be “an exception to the rule.” Smith once told SPIN he penned the offhandedly beautiful song in five minutes while watching a muted episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Whether a moving palliative for others mourning a love lost too soon or a heartrending tale of post-breakup realism, it utterly impales you. – L.B.
17. Roxy Music – “Avalon”
Across eight albums in 10 years, Roxy Music evolved from an avant-garde glam-rock band to a sophisticated pop group. Avalon, the group’s swan song, was their most commercially successful record and indelibly romantic. Along with “More Than This,” the album’s title song — with its tropical and reggae-like rhythms — has become one of Roxy’s most popular songs. Its lyrics evoke the magic of love at first sight: “When you bossa nova, there’s no holding / But you have me dancing, out of nowhere.” Ferry’s debonair crooning is seductive and sincere, complemented by backing vocalist Yanick Étienne. The “Avalon” video is equally elegant, with a white tuxedo-clad Ferry dancing with his paramour. Almost 40 years later, this song — like the whole Avalon album — remains one of the definitive Valentine’s Day soundtracks. – David Chiu
16. Tegan and Sara – “Nineteen”
Some of the best rock tunes swim simultaneously in streams of “love song” and “breakup song,” welling up your eyes until everything blurs. “Nineteen,” a devastating anthem from Tegan and Sara’s fifth LP, The Con, is one such moment — entangling sex, heartbreak, romance and butterflies-in-your-gut angst into a compact, three-minute blast. It opens with a jarring admission: “I felt you in my legs before I even met you / And when I laid beside you for the first time, I told you / I feel you in my heart.” We don’t get all the details, but the relationship quickly sours, resulting in a bummed-out plane trip home — but also glimmers of hope. “I was 19,” the duo sing over the distorted downstroke riffs. “Call me.” – R.R.
15. Paramore – “Still Into You”
A power-pop ode to everlasting love, “Still Into You” should surge in popularity around 2063 by soundtracking all those scene kids’ 50th wedding anniversary parties. In terms of Paramore lore (Para-lore?), “Still Into You” introduced the band’s departure from pure pop-punk — more charm, less angst. Written about Hayley Williams’ then-solid relationship with New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, it offers some great lines about making love work: “It’s not a walk in the park to love each other / But when our fingers interlock, can’t deny, can’t deny, you’re worth it.” And it’s such a sweet sentiment, reminding your S.O. that after all their bullshit and the stupid Netflix shows they make you watch, you’re still into them. Unfortunately for Williams, “still” didn’t mean forever — she and Gilbert split in 2017. – B.O.
14. Stone Temple Pilots – “Interstate Love Song”
Only Stone Temple Pilots could write a “love song” that explores lying about heroin use. In his 2011 memoir, Not Dead & Not For Sale, Scott Weiland said he wrote “Interstate Love Song” partly from the perspective of his girlfriend: “She’d ask how I was doing, and I’d lie, say I was doing fine. Chances are I had just fixed before calling her. I imagined what was going through her mind…” But there’s poetry in these dark images, as Weiland taps into relationship matters of trust and deception. The music only amplifies the song’s windows-down grandeur, from Weiland’s booming vocals to Dean DeLeo’s signature, twangy guitar riff. It remains STP’s finest hour. – D.K. and R.R.
13. Patti Smith Group – “Because the Night”
A highlight from her 1978 LP, Easter, “Because the Night” has become the punk poet laureate’s most well-known track — and also one of the most recognizable love songs of all time. After modest piano notes form a calm before the storm, Patti Smith bursts into her signature mode of elated, operatic singing — roleplaying the besotted lover in this impassioned hit co-written by Bruce Springsteen. Although the vocal delivery propels the song beyond itself, the lyrics detail the wanton desire just before the flight of the erotic at sundown “…because the night belongs to lovers.” Unlike most other subtler love songs, this is an unabashed entreaty. No more foreplay. On second thought, it’d be more apt to call it a “lust song.” – L.B.
12. Coldplay – “Yellow”
Who would have thought that a poor Neil Young imitation would spark Coldplay’s breakthrough hit? That’s what happened with their signature tune, “Yellow,” which focuses on an emotional devotion to…someone or something. Singer Chris Martin found the initial chords and lyrics during a live soundcheck, and he immediately started channeling the Godfather of Grunge with the lyric “look at the stars.” Then came the title word, which gives the song a slight element of mystery: “The word ‘yellow’ came out, and I was like, ‘No one’s gonna know what that means,’” he told Howard Stern in 2011. “It was a feeling more than a meaning.” But that feeling led to an entire career. – D.K. and R.R.
11. Say Anything – “Alive With the Glory of Love”
You can’t leave out “Alive” from any conversation about essential emo love songs. What opening lines are more gripping than “When I watch you, want to do you, right where you’re standing, yeah”? Then the chorus is irresistibly endearing and seemingly sincere: “No, I won’t let them take you / Won’t let them take you / Hell no, no!” Even if you start out listening as a joke, you gradually fall into its surprisingly romantic arms. But the song reveals a deeper meaning as it plays: The line “Should they catch us and dispatch us those separate work camps, yeah,” reminds us that “Love” is based on the story of Max Bemis’ grandparents, who are Holocaust survivors. So yeah…there’s a lot to unpack. – Danielle Chelosky
10. Radiohead – “All I Need”
“I’m an animal trapped in your hot car,” Thom Yorke croons during this divine meditation on romantic fixation. Aw, how sweet! Radiohead never write conventional love songs — but when they do explore the subject, few do so with such intensity. “All I Need” spends most of its run time at a low simmer, Yorke spitting out similar images (“I am a moth who just wants to share your light”) over Phil Selway’s trip-hop-y drum groove and a booming synth-bass. But the song’s climax, lyrically and musically, crashes in at full volume: “It’s all wrong!” Yorke yelps. “It’s all right!” – R.R.
9. Talking Heads – “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”
David Byrne famously wrote a lot of songs about “buildings and food,” so his first real “love song” doesn’t, um, sound a lot like the others. “I try to write about small things: paper, animals, a house,” he noted in the Stop Making Sense bonus interview. “Love is kinda big. I have written a love song, though. In this film, I sing it to a lamp.” That song is “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” on which Byrne embraces romantic matters with surreal wordplay and, seemingly, confusion. “I guess I must be having fun,” he sings over the clanging percussion and woozy synths. But few songwriters tackle love with such zen, understanding that relationships are living organisms. “The less we say about it the better,” he yelps. “Make it up as we go along.” – R.R.
8. The Cure – “Friday I’m in Love”
Robert Smith doesn’t exactly do warm and fuzzy in his lyrics, and that’s exactly why “Friday I’m in Love” is one of the Cure’s signature hits. The song’s peppy, melodic jangle perfectly matches Smith’s innocent words about falling in love — he told this very publication that it’s a “dumb pop song” and “very optimistic and really out there in happy land.” Discounting Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the song also captures the wide-eyed joy of that Friday feeling, with the possibilities of the weekend ahead. “Friday I’m in Love” ended up being the Cure’s last Top 40 hit — what a way to go off the charts swinging. – D.K.
7. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
The intro is a tease, seemingly previewing a forgettable song. Then it debouches into one of the most iconic, nostalgic riffs ever architected, launching an ‘80s anthem from year zero of that halcyon decade. Weirdly, it’s the most identifiable (yet least representative) of an eerie discography mostly inaccessible to casual listeners — and not only instrumentally. The post-punk dignitaries conjured a dark sound around themes of mental illness and hopelessness. And they didn’t totally sacrifice that dark aura in “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — it just underwent aesthetic osmosis. They saw the thorns of the rose, where the rest saw only the bud. – L.B.
6. Tears for Fears – “Head Over Heels”
Before their breakthrough LP, Songs From the Big Chair, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith weren’t known for love — let alone happy — songs. Their debut, 1983’s The Hurting, was an emotionally turbulent record inspired by the work of American psychologist Arthur Janov. The mood lightened up somewhat on Songs From the Big Chair, especially with the majestic “Head Over Heels,” distinguished for its relatively upbeat lyrics and ecstatic Beatles-like “la-la-la-la-la” chorus towards the end. Adding to the romantic atmosphere is a humorous music video that depicts Orzabal trying to catch the eye of a bookish librarian. “Head Over Heels” is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a love song,” Orzabal remarked for the 2014 Big Chair reissue. “It’s a love song that kind of goes a bit perverse at the end.” – David Chiu
5. Oasis – “Wonderwall”
The Gallagher brothers tug at our heartstrings with their signature hit “Wonderwall” — even as we question what they’re actually singing about. Most fans can belt all the words, starting with the opening lines: “Today is gonna be the day that they’re gonna throw it back to you / By now you should’ve somehow realized what you gotta do / I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.” But we don’t hear that mysterious titular word until the fourth stanza. So what exactly is a wonderwall? In 1996, Noel Gallagher reportedly told NME he wrote the song for his then-girlfriend, Meg Matthews. Six years later he switched gears, telling the BBC, “The meaning of that song was taken away from me by the media who jumped on it, and how do you tell your Mrs. it’s not about her once she’s read it is?” Sooooo… “It’s a song about an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself,” he explained. Your wonderwall can be whatever you want it to mean, for whomever you love. Just hope the recipient understands your word choice. – Jason Stahl
4. Foo Fighters – “Everlong”
That initial rush of romantic ecstasy never lasts as long as we want it to. The strongest relationships persist in spite of this. On 1997’s “Everlong,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl can’t live in the magic moment. The future hasn’t even happened yet, and already, it’s haunting him: “And I wonder / When I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this real again?” By the time of The Colour and the Shape, he was rocking with a band instead of accompanying himself in studio pastiche — and “Everlong” reflects that energy, a ballad-qua-anthem where the sting of recent divorce is flipped into innocent, emotional longing. – R.C.
3. The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??”
“Whenever I analyze the scientific realities of what it means to be living here on Earth — in this galaxy … spinning around the sun … flying through space — a terror shock seizes me!!!” Wayne Coyne once wrote of the Flaming Lips’ symphonic-sized staple. “I’m reminded once again of how precarious our whole existence is…” Existential dread is an…unusual…starting point for a “love song.” And you might argue that “Do You Realize??”, the centerpiece from 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, falls outside even the vast umbrella of our list. The harsh realization here, after all, is that “everyone you know some day will die.” But there’s hope in that epiphany! As Coyne tells us, every glimpse of death is a reminder to live: “Instead of saying all of your goodbyes,” he sings over Steven Drozd’s cartoonishly massive arrangement, “Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last.” Really, “Do You Realize??” is a love song to the entire universe. – R.R.
2. The Smiths – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
The Smiths’ “angry young man” anthem perfectly captures the confusion and drama of teenage lust: Johnny Marr’s timeless, jangling guitar has given rise to countless solemn YouTube covers. Morrissey’s hyper-literate lyrics were influenced by Karel Reisz’s 1960 film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, written by Alan Sillitoe, whose short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” inspired everyone from Iron Maiden to Belle & Sebastian. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” makes an excellent choice for any road trip playlist — just watch out for those double-decker buses. – J.P.B.
1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
“Wait, they don’t love you like I love you” is such a perfect line, especially from one fawned-over musician to another — in this case, Karen O to Liars frontman and then-boyfriend Angus Andrew. Bittersweet desperation runs throughout the beloved track, as Karen O tries to play it cool, keeping her voice to a measured warble, even though she’s essentially begging her partner to return her affection. “My kind’s your kind,” she sings, another heartrending dagger-like “Dude, I see you! See me, too!” Almost 20 years later, this song resonates even more thanks to numerous covers and interpolations, most notably Beyonce using the hook for her Lemonade cut “Hold Up” in 2016. If Beyonce samples you, you’re doing something right. – B.O.