Victor Hugo once said that, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent” and who am I to argue with a literary legend—especially a French one? Besides, he was right: music is the great communicator. Where words fail us—especially in love—music can take over and become our proxy. You may not be able to articulate how you feel about that special someone, but you can play [insert favorite love song] for them and let it do the talking for you. Your love will swoon if you play your musical cards right.
Now, there are a many-splendored romantic songs out there. But for each great one, there are at least ten all-flash-no-substance overrated clunkers **cough cough James Blunt‘s “You’re Beautiful“**. If you are in need of some suggestions to play for your guy or gal—or if you just want to take a peak at what inspires others—below is a list of the 20 best romantic songs out there.
Of course, for the sake of time and sanity, many great songs had to be cut. I’m sorry if your personal fave got left out in the cold. Believe me, it hurts me just as much as it hurts you. That’s why I included a few honorable mentions* after the countdown. Enjoy!
I kind of didn’t want to include this song. Yes, it’s romantic and lovely and one of the most popular songs of all time for weddings, but…it’s sappy. There, I said it. Maybe I’m just overexposed to it and am not thinking clearly. After all, it is beloved by millions, which is why I caved and put it at #20.
Fun fact! Did you know that the Etta James version which (most) everyone knows and loves is actually a cover? Yep, this little ditty was actually written for the 1941 movie musical, Orchestra Wives.
I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to rest my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
Sufjan Stevens has said that this song comes from an experience he had as a 14-year old high school freshman. He was out at the time with his older girlfriend, Robin (18 at the time), who was very stylish and cool. They were at the mall and she was trying on clothes when she came out of the dressing room wearing a dress that involved paisley and shoulder pads, among other things. When she asked how she looked, Stevens replied with, “Well, it looks kinda complicated.”
Afterwards, she told him that when a woman asks that question, the proper response is, “That dress looks nice on you.” Nicely done, Robin. Stevens said he wrote this song years later as he was looking back on how much she had taught him about women and how little he knew at the time.
I can see a lot of life in you.
I can see a lot of bright in you.
And I think the dress looks nice on you.
I can see a lot of life in you.
18. “I’d Rather Be With You” by Joshua Radin
Don’t let the semi-douchey album cover art fool you: this is a great song. It is filled with beautiful imagery that exposes the narrator’s vulnerability without making him a pushover. Plus, it’s charming as all get out. Radin explained this song to indieLONDON as being about, “…trying to get my best girlfriend back. You can obsess about a lot of things in your mind, especially love… sometimes it makes it easier to just write it out.”
I need to be bold
Need to jump in the cold water
Need to grow older with a girl like you
Finally see you are naturally
The one to make it so easy
When you show me the truth
Yeah, I’d rather be with you
Say you want the same thing too
17. “Here, There and Everywhere” by The Beatles
This song was written by Paul McCartney and released on the 1966 Beatles album, Revolver.
Fun fact! This song was played on steel drums as Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) walked down the aisle during her wedding to Mike (Paul Rudd) on Friends.
I want her everywhere and if she’s beside me
I know I need never care
But to love her is to need her everywhere
Knowing that love is to share
Each one believing that love never dies
Watching her eyes and hoping I’m always there
An intriguing look at what “love unto death” really means. Written and performed acoustically by Ben Gibbard, this song examines what it means for relationships and love after life ends. Call me a bit dark but I find this song—which asks one Life’s Big Questions—romantic.
In Catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
And I held my tongue as she told me “Son, fear is the heart of love”
So I never went back
If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark
15. “Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch performed by John Cameron Mitchell
Okay, okay, this isn’t exactly a romantic song, per se. But it is about love and its unconventionality is appealing. Featured in the punk rock musical and cult film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, this song is based upon Artisphones’s speech in Plato’s Symposium.
In the philosophical text, the subject of love is tackled—its nature, purpose, and origin—through a series of speeches given by each of the Symposium’s attendees. But it is Aristohpanes who delves into the genesis of love. His speech is his explanation as to why people feel complete once they have found their soul mate. Hedwig‘s song, with a score by Stephen Trask and lyrics by John Cameron Mitchell, re-tell that story.
Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That’s the pain,
That cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love.
14. “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton
This song reminds me of high school. It was the song for my sophomore dance. Wait. It may have been junior prom. Scratch that. Maybe it was one of the winter formals. The point is, we had a lot of dances and a dance wasn’t a dance until this song was played.
“Wonderful Tonight” is a playlist favorite at any and all romantic events, making it one of the most frequently-used songs at wedding receptions. Eric Clapton wrote this song one evening in 1976 while waiting for then girlfriend Pattie Boyd (and later, wife) to get ready for a party.
Beatles connection alert! Before her marriage to Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd was married to George Harrison and was the inspiration for a number of Beatles songs, including “Something” and “I Need You“.
I feel wonderful because I see
The love light in your eyes.
And the wonder of it all
Is that you just don’t realize how much I love you.
Play it again, Sam. The original incarnation of this song came in 1931, when it was written by Herman Hupfeld for the Broadway musical, Everybody’s Welcome. But it was Casablanca that made this tune famous in 1942. God, I love that movie. It has everything: love, intrigue, nazis! And while this song has been covered by such musical heavyweights as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, and even Willie Nelson, it’s Dooley Wilson’s version from the film that still remains the best.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
12. “Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke demonstrates that a love song doesn’t have to be a ballad in order to be effective. This number is upbeat, simple, and thoroughly charming.
You may remember its use in such movies as the Witness (Indiana Jones goes undercover Amish!) and, yes, even the frat house comedy Animal House. It’s a classic. And it’s awesome.
Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be
Truth is, I could have probably picked any song by Otis Redding for this list and still maintained my (faux) credibility. With such amazing songs as “These Arms of Mine“, “Try a Little Tenderness“, and “I Love You More Than Words Can Say“, there were a lot of options available in the Redding oeuvre.
Though many of his numbers are about heartbreak and despair, and though I was trying my best to stay away from songs of the unrequited love variety—this heart-wrenching number was just too good to pass up. It goes without saying that the King of Soul had a voice with unmatched emotional depth and resonance. In short, Otis Redding had some serious game.
Oh I’ve been loving you a little too long
I dont wanna stop now, oh
With you my life,
Has been so wonderful
I can’t stop now
10. “Falling Slowly” by The Swell Season
This number is simply haunting. The combination of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s voices together raise this song high above the roof-beams. This piece also won the Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song in the film, Once.
If for some reason you’ve missed this little cinematic gem, do yourself a favor and watch it immediately.
Falling slowly, eyes that know me
And I can’t go back
Moods that take me and erase me
And I’m painted black
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It’s time that you won
9. “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers
I would have gotten a lot of angry letters if I failed to include this gorgeous song on the list. While the Righteous Brothers’ cover of the original (written by Alex North and Hy Zaret; performed by Todd Duncan) has become virtually synonymous with the 1990 film Ghost and that sexy scene with the clay, this song was actually written for a different film: the little-known 1950 prison flick, Unchained (hence the name of the song).
Oh my love, my darling
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long lonely time,
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much,
Are you still mine?
I need your love,
I need your love
God speed your love to me.
8. “Your Song” by Elton John
Told from the point of view of a young man who is innocent in the ways of the world and love, this ballad was written by Elton John (music) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics). It was released in 1970 on John’s second album and became his first hit single.
Fun fact! Taupin was only 17 at the time and penned the lyrics one morning over breakfast in approximately 10 minutes. Talented jerk.
And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple but now that it’s done
I hope you don’t mind
I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world
7. “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” by Stevie Wonder
The joy of this love song is simply infectious. Between the velvety voice of Wonder and the optimistic lyrics, this song will do nothing but make you smile from ear to ear.
Also, its use at the end of High Fidelity is inspired.
I believe when I fall in love with you it will be forever,
I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever
6. “Crazy Love” by Van Morrison
It is my opinion that when people (or songs, for that matter) have to make too big a show out of love, they are usually full of crap. Van Morrison’s song, released in 1970 on the album Moondance, is thankfully, not that kind of song.
“Crazy Love” is unfussy, sweet, and incredibly tender. In it, Van Morrison is able to do what few love songs can: he conveys contentment and happiness without schmaltz.
She’s got a fine sense of humor when I’m feeling low down
And when I come to her when the sun goes down
Take away my trouble, take away my grief
Take away my heartache, in the night like a thief
She give me love, love, love, love, crazy love
She give me love, love, love, love, crazy love
5. “Postcards from Italy” by Beirut
“Postcards” comes from Beirut’s 2006 debut album, Gulag Orkestar. Of then-newcomer Zach Condon (aka Beirut), Pitchfork media said, “for a 19-year old from Albuquerque (now living in Brooklyn), he sounds like an old man sipping vodka and humming along to Tchaikovsky while the neighborhood kids play stick ball or drink egg creams.” That description is both accurate and awesome. In “Postcards” we get a song that is enchantingly playful, yet emotionally poignant.
And I will love to see that day
That day is mine
When she will marry me outside
With the willow trees
And play the songs we made
They made me so
And I would love to see that day
Her day was mine
Holy crap, this is a good song. Though it was originally penned by soul singer O.V. Wright, Otis Redding’s version is the one that really brings it home.
Yes, I am including two songs from Otis Redding here, but I am right on this. Redding’s bluesy voice is raw, full of longing, and is unbelievably powerful. Try listening to this song and NOT be moved to your core.
I’ll be the ocean so deep and wide
I’ll get out the tears whenever you cry,
I’ll be the breeze after the storm is gone
To dry your eyes and love you warm
That’s how strong my love is, baby,
That’s how strong my love is,
That’s how strong my love is, darling,
That’s how strong my love is
3. “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields
Equal parts romantic, frank, and sober—this is a love song without delusions or flights of fancy. This number is part the concept album, 69 Love Songs, released by the wonderfully eccentric band, The Magnetic Fields. Each song on the three-disc compilation was written by the talented singer/songwriter, Stephin Merritt.
This particular number has been covered by Peter Gabriel, but do yourself a favor and stick to the Magnetic Fields’ version. Gabriel’s cover is indulgent and sappy, making his version counter the meaning of the original song itself, and not in a good way.
The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb but
I love it when you sing to me and
You can sing me anything
2. “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge
Now prepare to have your mind blown: when Sledge recorded this song in the studio, neither the song title nor lyrics were written. He improvised them. That’s right. Sledge improvised all of the lyrics. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel both amazed and creatively inadequate.
Well, this man loves a woman
I gave you everything I had
Tryin’ to hold on to your precious love
Baby, please don’t treat me bad
With a voice like butter, Presley was quite simply destined to sing love songs as great as this one. The song was written for the 1961 film, Blue Hawaii (also starring Presley).
The melody was based on the classical French tune “Plaisir d’Amour” (translation: “The Pleasure of Love”), which was penned in 1780. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” has been covered by a slew of artists over the years, including, Bob Dylan, Bono, Ingrid Michaelson (check out my mention of her cover here), Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Andrea Bocelli, Dave Matthews, UB40 (meh), and even Perry Como—though Elvis’s version is arguably the best. It remains one of the most moving and poignant love songs today.
Like a river flows surely to the sea
Darling so it goes
Some things are meant to be
Take my hand, take my whole life too
For I can’t help falling in love with you
For I can’t help falling in love with you
*Honorable Mentions: “Say Yes” by Elliott Smith, “It Had to Be You” by Billie Holiday, “The Way You Look Tonight” by Tony Bennett, “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton, “Cannonball” by Damien Rice, “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones, “Heaven” cover version by Brandi Carlile, and “When You Say Nothing At All” performed by Ronan Keating.