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by Miles Mathis

I decided to revisit my Best Song list, varying it a bit to achieve a Best Love Song list. Why? Oh, I don't know, decompression from all my serious papers on science and art and the Buddha and so on. And I read some other lists on the internet, which is always enough to get me going. Plus, I feel pretty well-qualified to put together a list like this, since I have always been a sucker for sappy love songs. As you could tell from reading my critique of Tom Waits, I have never been too concerned with appearing to be cool. In fact, I make a conscious effort to avoid being cool, as many around me are painfully aware. In the same way, I make a conscious effort to avoid toothpastes that might make my teeth too white, since I want to avoid looking like the soulless mannequins around me. In the same way, I cut my own hair, to make sure I look nothing like the coiffed phonies on TV and in suits. In short, I resist the future like a fatal disease, since that is, in fact, what it is.

This qualifies me to compile a love songs list, since cool people avoid love songs on principle. Basically, love songs aren't cool. They are for teenage girls and other culture morons, it is thought. That is why you never see them on lists from those supercool sims at Rolling Stone and places like that. But I was born with a big squishy hole in the middle of my chest, and it hasn't firmed up over the years. I liked John Denver when I was 12, and you know what, I still like John Denver. I used to sing along with Olivia Newton-John when I was ten, and you know what, if my voice was still that high, I still would. I don't think this makes me a culture moron. In my very educated opinion, it makes YOU a culture moron (supposing you disagree with me). It makes you a hard-shelled, dried-up, jaded old adult. If that is what you want to be, go for it, but I have no desire to join you. I have no desire to grow up and become a boring old modern adult, one who listens to bad music and looks at bad art on purpose just to show how tough they are. I have no desire to drink foul-tasting martinis or smoke nasty cigarettes or have ink injected into my skin or wear uncomfortable clothes, just so I can be an ugly adult. If that makes me Tom Hanks in Big (remember when he spit out the cavier?), fine. I can live with that. I do live like that very well.

That said, I tend to feel sorry for teenage girls and for Peter Pans much younger than me, since the quality of sappy love songs has gone straight to hell in the past 30 years. My sugary innards were formed in the 70's, the apex of love songs. I was spoiled by the songwriting skills of Don Henley and James Taylor and Carol King and Joni Mitchell and John Denver and Jim Croce and David Gates and many more. And I was only a few years past the peaks of the Beatles and Paul Simon and the Zombies and the Association and the Hollies and the Beach Boys and so on.

These days, if you want a love song you have to listen to a bad remake of one of these old songs by some plastic gay Baptist choirboy like Clay Aiken or by some fake whore like Vanessa Hudgens. Either that or you have to listen to a synthesized watered-down piece of garbage by ex-NSync mousketeers or by New Country Neuters like Rascal Flatts. And instead of having real people write songs, we now have committees of cyborgs programmed by Disney or the Nashville Chemical Corp. Robots with cowboy boots surgically attached to their limbs or with soul patches tied on with filaments. I don't think they work with guitars or even with mixing boards anymore. They now work with computers, just feeding in all the old melodies of the past 50 years and hoping the program can detect a new combination.

Young people now have to feed their spirits on horribly sung Madonna tunes, written by PDiddy or somebody in about five minutes in between blowjobs. It's pathetic the kind of things that you find on the these best-of lists now. Just look at the first 12 spots on the VH1 list:

(1) I will Always Love You—Whitney Houston
Love me Tender—Elvis Presley
My Heart will go on—Celine Dion
Open Arms—Journey
Maybe I'm Amazed—Paul McCartney
Unchained Melody—Righteous Brothers
Endless Love—Lionel Richie/Diana Ross
Your Song—Elton John
I'll be There—The Jackson 5
I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing—Aerosmith
At Last—Etta James
How Deep is Your Love?—Bee Gees

Let's see. Not all of these are bad. Unchained Melody is fine. Not the greatest love song, really—a bit over the top, even for me, but the Righteous Brothers sing the hell out of it, and I include it on my list. Same of the Bee Gees. Not the deepest lyrics, but the songwriting is superb and the instrumentals even better. It really creates a mood. One of the best slowdance lovesongs ever. Etta James I also don't have a problem with. This doesn't make my list because it fails one of my criteria (more on that later), but it is a great song.

But five of these choices are real stinkers, and I can't understand how they could make anyone's top ten. We will start with Whitney Houston. I have to turn the radio off when stuff like this comes on, to keep my epilepsy from onset. Whitney oversings this to incredible degrees, and I think she is one of the first ones to bring in that annoying habit of never actually hitting a note. She and Mariah Carey. They have to skat on every single note, so that you feel you are listening to about ten songs all performed at once. Performing ten songs at once is an amazing feat, somewhat like painting ten paintings all on the same canvas at the same time, or like playing the trumpet with your feet while typing out Shakespeare and gargling golfballs, but I don't want to have to listen to it. Besides, Whitney is just a front for corporate singing. She didn't write that song and doesn't do a good job of convincing anyone she did. She could be singing it in German or Japanese (or both at the same time) and it wouldn't make any difference. Dolly Parton wrote it, and sings it herself with a bit of spirit. But Whitney sings it like she is auditioning for some themepark. Whitney turns Dolly's ball of harmless fluff into a hunk of scary plastic.

The same can be said for Celine Dion. She doesn't write this stuff, some committee of computer programmers who never had a date wrote it. After they write it, they digitize, vaccinate it, implant a RFID chip in it, and insure it. They then bring it up to very high temperatures, as a form of pasteurization, to be sure any remaining germs of humanness are killed. It is then shipped directly to stores on refrigerated trucks, where it is sold at gunpoint.

Endless Love is also a pre-packaged piece of aural dystopia, too sugary by far for any normal sweet tooth. It is like putting sugar in rootbeer. It is made for people who add espresso to their Jolt Cola. Duets never work, and it because nobody believes these people actually care for eachother. The whole idea is too fake, on the face of it, to pass the fiction test. You can't suspend disbelief. And even if you can, because you are still 12 or something, even then you should be able to hear that this song just isn't as good as many, many others. If you really have to put it on your list for some reason, be a doll and put it down in the 90's or something. Placing it at number 7 is a tragedy. Yes, this “Love Songs” list is a list of sap, but you have to learn to differentiate one sap from another. There are levels of quality in everything, and you shouldn't rank saccharin next to honey or maple syrup. If you like really sweet and kitschy duets, try Suddenly by Cliff Richard and Olivia Newton-John. It is much better than its more famous cousins.

Then we have Journey and Aerosmith, included so that VH1 can think it is satisfying a somewhat wider demographic. I have news for VH1: it isn't satisfying any demographic, since everyone can see this is a committee list. It makes no sense. To satisfy anyone, you have to pick a point of view and stick with it. At least then you will only piss off a certain percentage of people. With committee lists, you piss off everybody.

I have a problem with other songs, and we will look at the top ten from another list (New York Daily News) to address that.

(10) I Can’t Stop Loving You – Ray Charles
Michelle – The Beatles
Are You Lonesome Tonight? – Elvis Presley
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – Roberta Flack
In My Life – The Beatles
You Are So Beautiful – Joe Cocker
I Just Called to Say I Love You – Stevie Wonder
Wonderful Tonight – Eric Clapton
I’ll Be There – The Jackson 5
(1) My Girl – The Temptations

My Girl is a great song, but I don't really consider it a love song. It's too abstract. Love is specific, and a love song needs to be specific. A love song isn't just about love, or about the opposite sex, it is about a certain person you are in love with. This is why Etta James' song failed to qualify. She is glad to be in love at last, but that doesn't exactly make her guy get goosebumps, does it? She seems more in love with love than with her particular man. In the same way, the Temptations' song is unlikely to put any girl in the mood. It's a happy song, which is nice, but it isn't what anyone would call lovey-dovey. Same for I'll Be There: a fun song, well performed, but who can call a song by a bunch of kids a love song? How is Michael going to “make a pact” with a girl? Even supposing he liked girls, he is what, eight years old? I am not terribly convinced by love songs by eight year olds.

In My Life is another big stretch. Again, a great song by great songwriters, but it isn't the strongest declaration of love or heat I have ever heard. I certainly wouldn't choose it to represent the Beatles as a love song, and I didn't.

As for Elvis, I think Love me Tender is a better choice than Are you Lonesome, but without Elvis' mystique, both songs suffer. They don't hold up next to better songs by better songwriters. That's why it's harder to cover Elvis than a lot of other singers: a great song will carry a lesser performer, but most of Elvis' songs are not that great. Without Elvis' face and charm, Love me Tender is just a good song.

This applies to a lot of the old songs. The voices and performances were better before the 1960's, but the songwriting was relatively poor. Even Sinatra said something along these lines, when he was talking about Paul Simon. That's why Sinatra and the other oldsters started covering Simon and the Beatles and others (without a lot of success): they could see the songwriting skills of the new generation. This explains, to some extent, why I don't rank the classics like Billie Holiday higher. Yes, Billie Holiday was a fantastic performer, but let's face it, those old songs sound pretty flat, in terms of melody and lyrics and instrumentation, compared to newer songs. If any normal person tried to sing them, he would just sound corny. Songs were just a vehicle for a singer back then. But in the '60's you had a lot of young people with only average voices who wanted to make it big. The only way they could do that is to write better songs than anyone else. Think of Dylan. That's when everything changed. It was no longer about the voice, it was about the song. This upped the ante, because after the general level of songwriting rose, you still had the possibility of great singers. This is how Simon and Garfunkel was born: the meeting of a great singer and a great songwriter. In my opinion, that early example has never been surpassed. Even the Beatles couldn't write as well as Paul Simon, and none of them could sing like Art Garfunkel. The Beatles were a more interesting act, by a lot of criteria, but as a matter of pure talent, no one could ever touch Simon & Garfunkel. No one has to this day.

A love song needs to have two main things: one, it needs a melody capable of really playing on the old heartstrings, something sweet and easy and poignant, but not too sweet and not too easy. Two, it needs lyrics that the singer can really sell. You have to believe this person is in love, even if he or she isn't. This requires a good performer (or someone really in love), but it also requires earnest lyrics. There are some lyrics no one could sell, even Elvis or Romeo himself. On my list, I include the far ends of this spectrum, since I have John Denver, who really is earnest and in love, and I have Johnny Mathis, who is a master of faking it. I almost didn't include Johnny, due to my criteria, but I decided that was taking it too far in the name of art. Art is a fiction, after all. It just needs to be a convincing fiction. You could take my criteria to ridiculous lengths, as I have witnessed some middle-aged women do with John Denver. Once he divorced Annie, they refused to believe he ever loved her. I have been in and out of love, and I know it isn't that simple. Actually, I haven't been out of love, but I have been out of relationships, for various reasons, good and mostly bad, and so I would never think to throw stones at anyone for losing a love, for whatever reason.

It wasn't until I sat down and started trying to rank these songs that I began to understand what separated the really great ones from the good ones. To use John Denver as the example again, John wasn't as good a songwriter as, say, Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon, but what bumped him way up the love song list was his directness. You never felt he was writing a love song just to achieve a hit, or to make you feel something. He was writing these songs because he actually felt something himself, and wanted to reveal it. That kind of earnestness is worth a lot. You get the same sort of solid feeling from Jim Croce and David Wilcox and David Gates. It is the feeling you definitely don't get from Madonna or Celine Dion or Keith Urban or Justin Timberlake or Christina Aguilera or any of the current crop of top performers. You also don't get it from Joni Mitchell in her love songs, since she never seems to be in love. She is always in love with the idea of love, like Etta James. She is in love with her own thrill, but doesn't seem to care a flip for the guy. She wrote some fantastic songs, but love songs were not her specialty.

Which brings me to my final opinion here. I find it sad that so few women made this list. Some of my readers will try to blame me for not being more “inclusive,” but that is just misdirection. It isn't a problem of my method, it is a problem that seems to be embedded in the whole idea of a love song, and in the way men and women express love. Women are supposed to be more in touch with their feelings and better able to express themselves verbally, but in the matter of lovesongs we don't find that to be the case. Women would seem to be quite adept at expressing discontent, anger, unfairness, and abstract feelings of happiness or sadness, but we don't find many examples of specific adoration. While the man to woman list is long and heavy with lovesongs written for specific women, often by name, and often utterly adoring and lovesick, we get very few of these songs from women to men. And most of those we do get turn out to be written by men or by corporate committees (as with Celine Dion and Whitney Houston). Even Olivia Newton-John's entry here, which she sings very earnestly and charmingly, was written by Jeff Barry. Roberta Flack's entry was written by Ewan MacColl. Don Gibson wrote Patsy Cline's entry here. So Christine McVie's Songbird turns out to be a real rarity.

I will be told that women have written a lot of lovesick songs, and that may be true, but scouring the hit lists, you don't find many of them. I know because I looked. I tried to find a great lovesong by Joni, with no luck. Carol King's greatest hits aren't really lovesongs. Stevie Nicks' hits are breakup songs or songs to Sara or Rhiannon. Barbara Streisand was just an earlier version of Celine Dion: Paul Williams wrote Evergreen and Marvin Hamlisch wrote The Way We Were. The closest thing I found was Dido, since she writes her own stuff and is fairly sugary, in the way I am talking about. I considered putting her on the list as ballast, but her songs just aren't good enough to stand beside Jim Croce or the Eagles. She sounds like a warmed-over Sarah Mclachlan, with another coat of saccharin.

Norah Jones writes her own songs and Come Away with Me is a good song. And it is a traditional lovesong. But I wouldn't say it is one of the greatest lovesongs of all time. Her best song is I Don't know Why, but it isn't a lovesong. In fact, it tends to prove my point, since I find the lyrics sort of maddening. It might be titled, “I don't know why I stood you up, but it is probably because I am a confused modern girl who is more concerned with protecting herself than doing what I say I will do. Oh, and I don't know how to use that cellphone that is glued to my hand, to call a guy and let him know I can't make it.” As a guy who has been stood up by confused modern girls literally hundreds of times, I have difficulty being charmed by songs like this.

Colbie Caillat would appear to be my best hope in this regard, and I include her song Realize for one reason: it gives me goosebumps. It passes the lovesong test. It the passes the earnestness test with flying colors. The video also makes me smile because it is so old-fashioned and low-budget. I find that charming somehow. I find it charming that she is standing in front of picture screen, and I find it charming that she obviously had to hire some model to be her boyfriend, like all the real guys have to do with their videos. I find it charming that she isn't dating the prince of Monaco or Harry Potter or Ellen Degeneres. Her duet with Jason Mraz (Lucky) is also pretty successful for a duet, but again it proves my point. Watch the video: they are in different cities during the entire thing. They must have mailed in their parts. Not only do they not love eachother, it looks like they didn't even like eachother.

So, although women no doubt do occasionally write sappy lovesongs to specific guys, these songs usually aren't their best songs. Colbie Caillat stands out like a sweet sappy thumb on a hand of Alanis Morrisettes and Christina Aguileras. But men's best songs tend to be their lovesongs. Men are famous for being unable to express themselves around the house, but I guess they are just saving it for a great lovesong.

(1) Bridge Over Troubled Water —Simon & Garfunkel
For Emily —Simon & Garfunkel
Greensleeves —Anon.
And I Love Her —The Beatles
Time in a Bottle —Jim Croce
The First Time Ever I saw your Face —Roberta Flack
Don't Throw it all Away —Andy Gibb
I Have to Say I Love You in a Song —Jim Croce
How Deep is Your Love? —BeeGees
(10) Smoke gets in your Eyes. Platters
Let's Get it On —Marvin Gaye
Leavin' on a Jet Plane —John Denver
Everything I Own —Bread
I Love You Just the Way You Are —Billy Joel
Please Come to Boston —Dave Loggins
Chasing Cars —Snow Patrol
The Air that I Breathe —The Hollies
You are So Beautiful —Joe Cocker
Songbird —Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie)
Still in Love with You —Al Green
How Much I Feel —Ambrosia
(20)Can't Help Falling —Elvis Presley
Make it with You —Bread
Sarah Smile —Hall & Oates
Best of My Love —Eagles
Never my Love —The Association
This is a Rebel Song —Sinead O'Connor
Annie's Song —John Denver
Sunshine of my Life —Stevie Wonder
Something in the Way She Moves —James Taylor
Sweet Dreams —Patsy Cline
(30)You Send Me —Sam Cooke
Chances Are —Johnny Mathis
Suddenly —Cliff Richard and Olivia Newton-John
Day by Day —Doris Day
I Need You —The Beatles
Don't Explain —Billie Holiday
The Last Farewell —Roger Whittaker
I Love You —Climax Blues Band
Unforgettable —Nat King Cole
Mandy —Barry Manilow
(40) Unchained Melody —Righteous Brothers
Fields of Gold —Sting
Over my Head —Fleetwood Mac
Baby I Love your Way —Peter Frampton
Can't Take my Eyes off of You —Frankie Valli
Happy Together —Turtles
All the Way —Frank Sinatra
When a Man Loves a Woman —Percy Sledge
Higher and Higher —Jackie Wilson
All out of Love —Air Supply
(50) Wonderful Tonight —Eric Clapton
I Can't Stop Lovin' You —Ray Charles
She Moved Through the Fair —Loreena McKennitt
Hooked on a Feeling —B. J. Thomas
Without your Love —Roger Daltry
Our House —Crosby Stills & Nash
Sweet Life —Paul Davis
Aubrey —Bread
Realize —Colbie Caillat
Close to You —Carpenters
Language of the Heart —David Wilcox
Lost without your Love —Bread
(60)Your Song —Elton John
Without You —Nilsson
I Just Wanna be your Everything —Andy Gibb
Just Remember I Love You —Firefall
My Eyes Adored You —Frankie Valli
My Sweet Lady —John Denver
Home —Michael Bublé
Cherish —The Association
Baby Blue —George Strait
Falling —LeBlanc & Carr
This Guy's in Love —Herb Alpert
I'd Love You to Want Me —Lobo

Afterword: in researching this list, I came across the latest evidence of the collapse of western civilization: Justin Bieber. In an effort to sell rap to white pre-teens, the evil corporations have paid Usher to adopt a honky child. [I assume they have paid him extra not to be caught with said child in his bed]. That leaves only the pre-K demographic uncaptured, and I guess we can look forward to seeing Snoop-Dogg texting Sesame Street from his limo, trolling chicks with Big Bird, and giving away a free baby Elmo with his next CD.

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