Matt De Mello’s Top 10 love songs since 1980

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Original illustration, Vivian Shih

Illustration: Vivian Shih

It’s “love and hate” week at RIFF. We’ve taken on the theme of Valentine’s Day to talk about both sides of love. We’re starting off with my favorite love songs, but there are some caveats:

  • These are only since 1980. There’s a whole bunch of really good older soul, blues and classic rock songs that are left by the side of the road watching as time marches forward.
  • There is no jazz or country on this list. We’re jazz overs, but we’re looking for something a little more mainstream. And country is a little too saccharine for this list.
  • There are some songs on this list that you may not know and others that you didn’t realize were love songs. There are some that you can hum on cue. We mixed it up to not be formulaic, even if it is more or less a traditional countdown.
  • Finally, these songs don’t have to necessarily be about someone. It could be about love of something, like a dog or a parrot or a bar stool. Love is love, baby!

Additionally, we’ve partnered with talented artist Vivian Shih, who has illustrated some of the concepts with her original illustrations. Shih is a Los Angeles artist, illustrator and surface designer who pulls inspiration from surreal self-reflection, nature and current events. Shih is also a traveler and enjoys discovering new breakfast spots, immersing herself in nature and finding peace in yoga. Her first piece is called “La Femme.”

10 — The Avett Brothers – “Murder in the City” – This is a secret love song that unknown to many, but its message is a simple one: love of family. It’s a simple melody with such profoundly beautiful lyrics that it brings a tear to the eye even after dozens of listens. Really, it’s the last line that defines the song, “Always remember there was nothing worth sharing/ Like the love that let us share our name.” Not much better than that type of love.

9 – Madonna – “Papa Don’t Preach” – Wait, is this a love song? It is, in three parts: The protagonist’s love for her father and his knowledge, the man she’s dating and got her pregnant, whom her father has warned her about, and the life growing inside of her that has her wrestling with whether to keep. The protagonist (this song is not autobiographical) begs her father to give her his blessing so she can marry the man she loves and “raise a little family.” This is someone who obviously loves her family and in the end (spoiler alert) decides she is going to have the child.

8 – Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam” – Love of a deity is still love. This may be Kanye West’s finest recording to date, and he really isn’t in it that much. Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, Chance the Rapper, and the Dream all play heavy roles in this song about their love of God.

7 – Foo Fighters — “Everlong” — After Dave Grohl’s first marriage deteriorated, he wrote this song about falling in love. Unfortunately, that relationship didn’t work out either, but what he lost we got out of this energetic love song.

6 – Beyoncé – “Crazy in Love” – Who hasn’t felt that type of love that makes you do things that you almost have no control over? Pride be damned, you’re checking your phone (or pager in Beyoncé’s case) every five minutes to see if maybe you missed that call. That all-consuming, desperate, unhealthy type of love. It makes you just crazy. And now that Bey is pregnant with twins there’s gonna be even more love to go around.

5 – John Legend – “Ordinary People” – Sometimes love is messy and isn’t as easy as movies make it out to be. As Legend says, “Sometimes it’s Heaven-sent/ Then we head back to hell again.” That’s real love. How we manage to get through the trials and tribulations determines whether we succeed or fail. It’s hard to find a purer expression of love than this gem.

4 – Cure — “Love Song” — Is it too on the nose? Too bad. It’s literally called “Love Song,” and it’s a song of deeply meaningful emotion. “However far away/ I will always love you.” There’s this notion that a love song has to be some sappy corny ballad filled with over-the-top emotion. Robert Smith shows that love can be heartfelt without being cheesy.

3 – The Smiths – “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” – Morbid? Yes, but this is quintessential Morrissey. “And if a double-decker bus/ Crashes into us/ To die by your side/ Is such a heavenly way to die.” Here’s Morrissey saying, “Well if I’m going to die, at least it’s with someone I care about.” That is a profound sign of love, even if it’s morose.

2 – Extreme — “More Than Words” — Remember when you were a teenager and this song was new? Listening to the radio (remember when that was a thing?) and Extreme came on and you knew every word. You tried to hit that high note and your voice cracked like the pubescent you were. It was also the beginning of the end for hair metal.

1 – Sade — “Ordinary Love” — More babies have been created because of Sade than any other artist (note: We are running this by the Prince estate to verify). Sensuality oozes out of every word she sings. All these years and hundreds of listens later, this song still sounds as good as when it was first released.

Disagree with any of our selections or think we missed out on something? Leave a comment and keep the conversation going.

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