Love, Johnny Cash sang, is a burning thing. Love is like oxygen. Love is the drug, the answer, the seventh wave and the tender trap. It is, we can all agree, a many-splendored thing.
At the risk of sounding like a Rod McKuen poem, we’re here to sing the praises of love. Or at least to let some of our favorite artists sing them for us.
Far and away, love has been historically the most popular subject for songwriters. (What would be second -- trains?)
What follows is one (happily married) man’s suggestions for some of the great love songs of all time. But before we begin, a few simple guidelines.
First, don’t poo-poo the shmaltz. If we can’t allow ourselves a little gooey sentimentality on Valentine’s Day, then we should just chuck the whole thing right now.
Second, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is a fabulous song, but it’s an appeal for s-e-x, not l-o-v-e. In the interest of accuracy, we’ll limit ourselves to songs that celebrate the soulful, ethereal kind of love, not the messy, mechanical one. (The latter, appealing as it is, does not yet have its own holiday.)
And last, we’ll try to stick to lyrics unsullied by the darker side of love. Admittedly, that knocks an awful lot of great music out of the running: Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time,” to pluck one example out of the air, is a surefire tearjerker, but we’re not in the business of breaking hearts. Not right now, anyway.
Herewith, then, 25 carefully (if unilaterally) selected songs, near-perfect for a CD burn. Your own list undoubtedly would look plenty different, but this one will save you some time for the florist and the chocolate shop. Let’s, ahem, get it on!
"My Funny Valentine,” Chet Baker: Obviously. So many great versions of this Rodgers & Hart standard, from Sinatra to Elvis Costello.
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Roberta Flack: Written by the late British folkie Ewan MacColl, but the serene Ms. Flack certainly made it her own. Doubly affecting for new mothers.
"The Very Thought of You,” Billie Holiday: Ray Noble’s lovely 1934 big-band tune has been covered by admirers ranging from Doris Day to Elvis Costello. We’ll go with this version; it’s such a sweet, unguarded moment for the great, tragic Lady Day.
"Something,” Beatles, and "Love,” John Lennon: Paul wrote some wonderful love songs, too, especially post-breakup (“My Love,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”). For my money, these are the two most moving Beatle-related love songs. George, always underappreciated as a songwriter, confirmed his own genius with “Something,” while John’s “Love” (from the “Plastic Ono Band” album) is a lullaby-like model of simplicity.
"Someone to Watch Over Me,” Willie Nelson: Much of the “Stardust” album, Willie’s masterly nod to the great American songbook, could qualify. This one’s a particular killer.
"It’s Not For Me to Say,” Johnny Mathis: Ridiculously tough to choose one song from this quintessential heartbreaker, the velvet voice who also gave us “Chances Are,” a great “Misty” and “A Time for Us,” the over-the-top theme from “Romeo and Juliet”.
"When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge: Heals all wounds in my house.
"Moon River,” Henry Mancini: Ditto. “My huckleberry friend”.
"I Hear a Symphony,” Supremes: A thousand violins fill the air. Diana’s crying “not for myself, but for those who never felt the joy we felt.”
"I Will Wait for You,” Michel Legrand: Agonizing theme from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” The French sure do know how to rip out hearts with a melody.
"Danny’s Song,” Loggins & Messina: C’mon -- you know you love it. “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey…”
"All I Know” Art Garfunkel: More ‘70s mawkishness, undeniably. Still, lovely.
"The Air That I Breathe,” Hollies: Ah, to be 16 again.
"I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You,” Tom Waits: From his first album, a gentle ode to the barroom pickup -- which is, let’s face it, the way an awful lot of couples meet.
"If You Go Away,” Dusty Springfield: Shout-out to the aforementioned Rod McKuen, who wrote the English lyrics to this sweeping epic of devotion.
"When Will I See You Again,” Three Degrees: Orchestral soul never tugged harder on the heartstrings.
"Annie’s Song,” John Denver: Ten thousand barefoot brides must have walked the aisle to these unabashed words: “You fill up my senses like a night in a forest…”
"Lovin’ You,” Minnie Riperton: Birds chirp and the sun rises without fail in this glass-shattering original. “La la la la la…”
"I Love Her, She Loves Me,” NRBQ: A wild-card pick, pure and innocent, right down to the toy piano. If love is letting down your guard, this defines it.
"Wishing on a Star,” Luka Bloom: Another wild card, in which an acoustic balladeer finds deep tenderness in an early-‘90s pop hit. On an excellent all-covers album (2001’s “Keeper of the Flame”), he also makes fine work of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”.
"Dream a Little Dream of Me,” Mama Cass Elliott: Sweet dreams; “night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’”.
"I Will Always Love You,” Dolly Parton: She can’t stay with him, but she won’t stop feeling for him. Whitney’s version was a monster, but Dolly wrote it. The one song on the list with one of those wonderfully maudlin spoken interludes, and it slays.
"Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” Gladys Knight & The Pips: Enough said.
"The Best Is Yet to Come,” Tony Bennett: “Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum.” And may you find yours.