Best love songs: 10 of the most famous love songs of all time
Our round up of the most popular, most enduring and famous love songs ever...
No one can resist a good love song. And no musical playlist - be it pop, jazz, folk or classical - is complete without one. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the most famous love songs in history.
Best love songs of all time
1. 'Je t’aime, moi non plus’ by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
Translating as ‘I love you…me neither’, this naughty little song was originally written by director Serge Gainsbourg for Brigitte Bardot in 1967. But the version we know is the one he recorded, in 1969, with his then-partner: the English-French actress and singer Jane Birkin, who died last month, aged 76.
Birkin, apparently had heard the Bardot version and thought it 'so hot’. She later admitted that ‘I only sang it because I didn't want anybody else to sing it’, jealous at the thought of Gainsbourg sharing a recording studio with someone else.
She also ‘got a bit carried away with the heavy breathing – so much so, in fact, that I was told to calm down, which meant that at one point I stopped breathing altogether. If you listen to the record now, you can still hear that little gap.’
Some speculated that they had actually recorded themselves having sex, to which Gainsbourg retorted: ‘Thank goodness it wasn't, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-playing record.’
2. 'O Soave Fanciulla' from Puccini’s La bohème
This goose-flesh-inducing classic is taken from La bohème, Puccini’s 1895 opera about a group of young bohemians living in Paris. Sung as the closing number of Act One, as a duet between the main lovers - Rodolfo and Mimi - it is one of the most romantic in all of opera - a cocktail of ravishing orchestration and gooseflesh-inducing melody.
3. 'Ne me quitte pas' by Jacques Brel
Written in 1959 by the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, this song is considered by some as ‘Brel’s ultimate classic’. Brel wrote it after his mistress ‘Zizou’ (Suzanne Gabriello) threw him out of her life and later said that it was not a love song but ‘a hymn to the cowardice of men’, and the degree to which they were prepared to humiliate themselves.
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Still, it sounds quite a lot like a love song, which is why I’m including it in this list anyway.
4. 'Voi che sapete' from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro
Technically this aria from The Marriage of Figaro is about lust rather than love, but let’s not quibble over details. It is sung by the randy teenager Cherubino and describes his involuntary physical response to the Countess, on whom he has a puppyish crush.
Mozart’s music is elegantly simple, but beneath the swan-like surface is a tremulousness befitting the song’s subject matter. As an operatic portrayal of nascent adolescent sexuality, this is spot on.
5. 'Hymne à l'amour' by Edith Piaf
That a song of such innocent, heart-felt passion could come from Piaf is striking: hers is not the happiest of stories. Abandoned at birth by her mother, the French crooner spent much of her youth growing up in a brothel. At 17 she had a child out of wedlock and went on to have a string of failed romances, as well as various drug and alcohol dependencies.
She wrote ‘Hymne à l’amour’ in 1949 for the love of her life: the married French boxer, Marcel Cerdan, with whom she had a year-long affair before he was killed in a plane crash en-route to visit her.
You could say there was something eerily prophetic about the song’s last verse: 'If one day life tears you away from me/If you die and are far from me/It does not matter if you love me.’ It’s certainly one of the most poignant moments in any love song.
6. 'My Funny Valentine' by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
First written in 1937 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, ‘My Funny Valentine’ stands out for being a genuine song about the warts-n’-all reality of human love. Instead of idealising its subject, it lists his faults, before concluding with a declaration of love: 'Your looks are laughable/Unphotographable/yet you’re my favourite work of art’.
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Although originally sung by a woman about a man, the lyrics are neutral enough to allow the song to be sung by either gender; in fact, one of the most famous cover versions was performed by Frank Sinatra. All of which makes this one of the most moving, identifiable love songs in the Great American Songbook.
7. 'Cheek to Cheek' by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Written by Irving Berlin for in 1934 for his new musical Top Hat, this is the iconic song that Fred Astaire sings to Ginger Rogers as they dance, which went on to be nominated for the Best Song Oscar for 1936.
In the event, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ lost out on the award to ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. No matter: it is still one of the most popular songs of all time, having been recorded by at least 438 different artists, and this version, sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (two of the best jazz singers ever), is one of the most popular of all.
8. 'The Water of Tyne' - English traditional
Often taught in schools - it was certainly a favourite with my formidable and ferocious choir mistress - 'The Water of Tyne' is one of the best known British folk songs.
Written in a Newcastle dialect, it tells the story of a lover who has been separated from the singer by the River Tyne and, despite being about 500 years old, is still a musical emblem of the North East, with artists from Sting to Sir Thomas Allen putting their stamp on it.
9. 'The Water is Wide (o Waly Waly)' - Scottish traditional
Sometimes called ‘O Waly Waly’, this old Scottish folk song is as famous for its hymn-like melody as it is for the poignant truth of its lyrics: ‘Love is gentle, love is kind, the sweetest flower when first it’s new. But love grows old and waxes cold.’ Even true love ‘can fade like morning dew.’
Over the years ‘The Water is wide’ has been performed by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to the American jazz band Oregon. Meanwhile various classical arrangements - not least by Benjamin Britten and John Rutter - have capitalised on the song’s spare beauty.
10. 'True Love Ways' by Buddy Holly
Recorded in autumn 1958, this lyrical evocation of domestic bliss was apparently written as a wedding gift for Maria Elena Holly (now aged 90). It is a pretty powerful little song, whose delicate lyrics and beautiful melody, inspired by the old spiritual ‘I’ll be alright’, remind us just how much the world lost when Buddy Holly (pictured top) was killed in an airplane crash just four months later - in February 1959 - aged 22.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.