Fourteen Great Love Songs for Valentine's Day and Beyond

Any dweeb can write the “Baby, baby I love you” slop that you hear on pop radio. But if you’ve ever fallen head over heels you know that true love often hurts, and that it seldom conforms to the tidy hearts-and-trumpets scenarios played out on the Lifetime channel. Here are fourteen great love songs that express something real. I’ve listed my top three in order and the rest alphabetically.

1. “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell, from Blue (1971), Reprise 2038-2. Ask fifty songwriters and forty-eight of them will tell you they’d have sold their soul to have written this song. “Oh, you are in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so fine….” The entire album came at the time Mitchell’s love affair with Graham Nash was falling apart and I’m not sure either of them ever got over it. This is the gold standard.

2. “The Dutchman” by Steve Goodman, from Somebody Else’s Troubles (1972), Buddah 5121. Though written by Chicagoan Michael Smith, it was the late, great Steve Goodman who made us see the mad Dutchman through Margaret’s loving eyes. This may be the saddest song ever written.

3. "The Lock-Keeper” by Stan Rogers, from Fresh Water (1984), Fogerty’s Cove Music, 007D. This dialogue between a wanderlust-driven traveler and a stay-at-home lock-keeper is a musical values-clarification workshop in which simple love and humility triumph. I cry every time I hear it.

4. “Arrow” by Cheryl Wheeler from Circles and Arrows (1995), Philo 1162. Not many people can write love songs as good as Wheeler, but she surpassed her own standards on this song of deep yearning for a love lost.

5. “Dark Eyed Molly” by Archie Fisher from The Man With a Rhyme (1997), Folk Legacy 61. With his buttery deep voice Fisher drowns us in the dark pools of his beloved’s eyes and only a fool would call for a lifeline.

6. “Desert Rain” by Justina and Joyce from So Strong (1991), HSP Records 101. The purity and earnest fragility of Joyce Zemak’s voice contrasting with Justina Golden’s muscular mezzo soprano will stun you, the harmonies will carry you away, and you too will find love among the cacti.

7. “Donegal Rain” by Andy M. Stewart, from Donegal Rain (1997), Green Linnet 1183. Stewart makes no apologies for his sentiment-laden repertoire, nor should he. This heartbreaker of separated lovers is as delicate as thin ice. Listen hard in the final stanza and you’ll hear a single tone shift that’s more dramatic than a truckload of Celine Dions.

8. “Falling” by Kate Rusby from Underneath the Stars, (2003) Pure Records 7-4370-2. To hear Kate Rusby is to love her. And when she sings “I’m standing here falling, before you I’m falling” you’ll want to be the one to catch her.

9. “Garden Valley” by Dougie MacLean from Real Estate (1988), Dunkeld 008. Dougie’s tender song about being on the road and missing his wife and friends.

10. “Kathy’s Song” by Simon and Garfunkel from Sounds of Silence (1965), Columbia 2469. If you want poetry, Paul Simon’s the go-to guy. He’s here; she’s in London, and “there but by the grace of you go I.”

10. “The Lass o’ Glenshee” by Billy Jackson and Billy Ross from The Misty Mountain, (1984), Iona 005. This little-known treasure is worth seeking out and shining brightest among its gems is this tale of love among the heather.

11. “Love is Our Cross to Bear” by John Gorka from Land of the Bottom Line, (1990), Windham Hill 1089. Baritone and bared soul—is there anyone who doesn’t love this song?

12. "Old Laughing Lady," by Neil Young from Unplugged, (1993), Reprise 9-45310-2. Neil Young fans argue about this song, but I like to think that "Peggy" is the woman he married who makes everything "all right," even the inevitability of death.

13. “Speaking of Dreams” by Joan Baez from Speaking of Dreams (1989), Gold Castle 2-71324. Baez doesn’t write many songs, but when she does…. This one has it all: a May-December romance, love across racial barriers, Paul Gaughin, and Paris.

14. “The Wildflower Song” by Lui Collins from Baptism of Fire (1985), Green Linnet 1060. Remember those early days of love when you’re struck stupid and can’t function? Nobody has ever captured that giddiness better than Collins.

PS—Before you send me nasty emails asking how on earth I could dare leave out (your favorite song here), I’m the first to admit there are many wonderful contenders. My first list had fifty titles on it and it killed me to leave some of them off.
Confession: My first romance unfurled to the strains of the sunshine pop ballad “Cherish,” as did everyone else’s from 1966 on. I didn’t stop loving that song until Barry Manilow recorded it in 2006. Even sentimentality has limits.


Ginna said...

The best love song EVER? "Let It Be Me" by the Everly Brothers. Second? Can't think of one.

Ginna said...

Maybe I have a second: Baez's "Love Song To a Stranger." Perfect lyrically and melodically.