Into My Arms by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
I wrote with Don Black once, a legendary songwriter, and he said to me: “The first line needs to hook people in, that’s what makes a classic.” And the first line of this song is so powerful: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God/ But I know, darling, that you do”. And then he goes on to say he still loves this person. It’s a really brave thing to start a song with, and it feels relevant now, considering there is so much going on with religious difference. We live in a time where everyone likes to define themselves, and use those definitions to divide us rather than unite us.
The song is also dependent on Cave himself: you expect a certain amount of punk attitude from him, and it’s very much not that, which makes it more remarkable, because he shows his vulnerability. I don’t think you hear that from him as often as from people who churn out one piano ballad after another. It’s very simple: piano, vocal, strings. There is something very religious about it. He’s got this kind of prophet-like delivery, and it’s perfect; he’s then almost denouncing that by saying he doesn’t believe in God.
I had covered it before, for Radio 2, and I used to sing it on tour, but it really took another layer when I had a child. It is now to do with unconditional love for me, and the selflessness and sacrifice you feel when you become a parent. My baby was a few weeks old, and I sang it quietly under my breath like a lullaby, and I started pouring with tears; it was so cathartic. “I don’t believe in the existence of angels/ But looking at you I wonder if that’s true”; it’s so moving when you’re looking at this vulnerable being. It is life-changing: everything that I once believed in, I’m questioning whether it’s true, because you’re so perfect and beautiful.
Day Dreaming by Aretha Franklin
I love how this song feels like the beginning of love: the anticipation, the excitement. Aretha sings: “He’s the kind of guy that would say, ‘Hey baby, let’s get away, let’s go some place” – almost as if he’s just a smooth talker. Then, she immediately sighs: “I wanna be what he wants/ When he wants it and whenever he needs it”, like she’s already committed to falling head over heels, that feeling of treading into love without caution. The chorus is so uplifting. She reinforces the verse but with a new confidence, like she’s dancing on tiptoes and relishing this new relationship, submitting to adoration: “Day dreaming and I’m thinking of you”, repeated again and again, cascading away into dreamland. It brings up all of those emotions that you feel when you’re so deep in love that you can’t control it. It makes me feel so nostalgic and gives me those naive flutters of that new kind of love.
Dan Wilson, Semisonic, co-writer of Adele’s Someone Like You
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
Most love songs are not about being joyfully in love; they’re about losing love, not being able to get it back, all the reasons it can’t happen. But my favourite love songs are the ones that just come out and say it. The love song that rules all is The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, written by Ewan MacColl and made immortal by Roberta Flack. Flack’s voice expresses invincible power and yet almost unbearable tenderness and vulnerability. Love has transformed her into a godlike figure who walks among the stars, yet we feel her re-experiencing the smallest details of life afresh. It is the sound of someone discovering love. When I heard it as a kid, its intimacy always made me uncomfortable. Flack’s voice was all alone: no pop arrangement distracted from her voice. I felt like I was eavesdropping on private, grownup things that I wasn’t supposed to hear. Don’t talk to me about the importance of choruses; this is the best love song and it doesn’t have one. Or maybe it is all one big, beautiful chorus. Either way, I love it.
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross by Fanny Crosby
I do not have a romantic life with someone; I can’t pretend that I’ve had some knight in shining armour ride up on a white horse. My love affair has been with Jesus, and Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross is a love song for Jesus. Love is a healing fountain. It is free to all, you don’t have to qualify. Anybody can have that love, and feel that security and that devotion. It is a song that I sing to myself; I don’t think I’ve ever sung it on stage. I sing it anywhere that I don’t feel loved. It solidifies the love I know I have in my heart. Mom and Dad have gone to heaven, and so that song connects me spiritually with them because my mom taught it to me. We didn’t have television and we didn’t have any money, so my dad played the guitar and we would sing in the evening; we entertained each other with songs. My roots are gospel; people can tell when they hear me sing that I come from the church.
Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran
When Thinking Out Loud came out I was working in Sydney, and we had this beautiful apartment overlooking Bondi. That song was being played on the radio and I remember dancing to it with my wife on the balcony; it just became our song. It was also our wedding song; Ed actually came to the wedding and performed it live for us, which was very, very special. I think any great song is about simplicity, a melody that sticks in your head and you can’t forget it. I think the words are beautiful; it’s about growing old together. When you have found somebody where there are not enough hours in the day, because you want to be with them all the time, you dread the time that you’re apart. It is a song about being together for ever, which is a beautiful thing.
Mike Hadreas AKA Perfume Genius
Consummation by Nina Simone
“For thousands of years/ My soul has roamed the Earth/ In search of you”: to hear someone sing this and mean it is the most romantic thing I can imagine. Her voice is wise and worn – you can hear a whole life inside of it – but there is zero bitterness. It is hopeful and strong; that’s what love can do. Something so divine that it can bring peace after lifetimes of searching. Love is the only thing that has calmed my scrambling and constant seeking of escape. Connection is the only thing that has slowed me down long enough to enjoy this timeline. I love to believe in magic and I live for drama. I hope to be listening to and singing songs this epic for ever.
Pink + White by Frank Ocean
My husband put Blonde on this morning and my heart started overflowing with emotion, a kind of nostalgic longing yearning bringing feelings of where I’ve been, where I’m going, the weirdness of living life. I get these same deep feelings listening to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions or my beloved Johnny Guitar Watson’s We’re No Exception: cut me wide open! With tears and laughter, this is romance: I wanna share a slow dance, lay down, caress, be caressed; but I could also quite happily imagine myself putting on a pair of headphones, putting the track on repeat, walking to the nearest florist to buy myself a red rose, then going home to light a candle and just feel the love.
Steven Tyler, Aerosmith
Let It Be Me by the Everly Brothers
It is the first song I associated with loving a girl. I was 11 when I first heard it. I would take a radio antenna and climb up an old apple tree where I could tune into one station: WOWO from Fort Wayne, Indiana. That’s where I was introduced to the Everly Brothers. In that song the middle eight lyrics go: “Each time we meet, love/ I find complete love.” And that’s beautiful prose. I had a lot of fun trying to figure that out. The meaning of the lyrics is only amplified by the harmony, and I’ve always believed love should be harmonious.
Wanya Morris, Boyz II Men
Can You Stand the Rain by New Edition
The message of love is timeless and stands the test of time. The lyrics resonate with everyone, whether you’re in love, have loved or are looking for love. Can You Stand The Rain describes the perfect love story where you’re in it no matter what with the one you love — through the “sunny days” and when you “weather the storm” together.
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues Feat Kirsty MacColl
It is a Christmas standard but it could be sung in any season: it’s about love’s raging romance and difficulties. He is in the drunk tank; she’s on a drip in a hospital bed somewhere across town after a possible bust-up with our leading man. This couple sound like they’ve been together for years, been through it all several times over, but, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, they are bound by some hidden and lasting bond. He suffers a wounded pride: “I could have been someone”, which she offhandedly dismisses: “Well, so could anyone.” There is a sense that she regrets ever meeting him and that he took her dreams, to which he responds with one of the song’s greatest lines: “I kept them with me babe/ I put them with my own/ Can’t make it all alone/ I built my dreams around you.” Shane MacGowan really knows how to pay tribute to a feeling. This song is like a great play. It dissolves time, kicks the heart wide open and pulls you into their drama and their love just for that glorious four minutes.
Jim James, My Morning Jacket
I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) by Nina Simone
This Hoagy Carmichael and Jane Brown Thompson song has been sung many times by many different people but, of course, no one really brings it home quite like Nina Simone. Everybody knows Valentine’s Day is a mixed bouquet: if you are in love and life is sweet, it can be so great. But if you are on the other end of the spectrum, feeling pain and loss, it can be so very tough. Perhaps this will be of some comfort to the lonely hearts, and bring them some peace, as it has done for me, on repeat for so many listens.
Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers
It is the most beautiful love song ever: that slow, droning, beautiful way that it builds, there’s so much passion. I was really young the first time I heard it: obviously as you get older – I’ve been married 38 years – it takes on a totally different meaning. But the general feeling of the song is the same. It makes your heart swell, it just gets under your skin and does all the things that a good love song needs to do. This beautiful thing happens if you get those lyrics right and it touches people in a common way. It is a simple lyric, there’s nothing remarkable about what they’re saying; it just happens to be relevant to everyone.
Jimmy Tamborello, the Postal Service
My Suitor by Bernthøler
Romance is chaotic and uncertain, but also dreamy and dizzying. I have never been good at understanding lyrics, and I’m still not sure where the singer, Drita Kotaji, stands on her suitor; she calls him a bloodsucker, a loser, but also her lover and a glimmer she dreamed up. There is a push and pull between them and a lot of confusion but also a powerful connection and longing. Even if you ignore the words, there is a lot of woozy romance coming through in Kotaji’s melancholic vocal performance. The music is sparse and pretty – mostly just an achey, repetitive string line with some synth and piano flourishes – and it feels fragile and drifting, like it could fall apart and float away at any moment. Its simplicity makes it feel like you’re hearing a direct transmission from someone’s heart. It is probably unhealthy that I find the most romance in the possibilities of new and volatile love, where heartache and destruction are just as present. In real life, I can barely handle this stage, I try to push through it as fast as I can to get to the part where you spend every night lying on the couch together watching TV. But when it comes to the safety of my stereo this is what I want to hear.
Mike Milosh, Rhye
Blackbird by the Beatles
I first heard Blackbird at my uncle’s house – I was 10 and it was the first time I’d ever heard the Beatles. I immediately connected with how beautiful the melody is. It’s not long but it’s incredibly engaging; there’s a whole world there and it feels like it changes the atmosphere in the room. I don’t like straightforward love songs because they feel too on the nose; I prefer those that are not lyrically romantic, but that unite people: Blackbird feels like that to me. It is such a sensitive, gentle song that sounds sweet regardless of the words. It is so warm; the kind of song you want to listen to with someone, at home, away from the world.