It is a moving target and an obsession. At times fleeting but occasionally forever. Intoxicating and transfixing one minute, mercurial and pained the next. It might look like folding laundry together on a Sunday morning, or laughing so hard you can’t catch your breath. Maybe it's a fond farewell or a heart full of gratitude for something that could never have survived, but was wonderful while it lasted. It could be the snap of a suitcase or slam of the door — sounds that are sometimes more final than any goodbye.
Depending on our personal and lived experiences, “true” love is a sliding-scale definition, and you don’t have to look much further for proof of that than the thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of love songs in the world.
CBC Music asked musicians and songwriters to tell us about their favourite “true” love songs. From the melancholic beauty of Nick Cave to the soulful stirrings of Etta James, scroll down to check out what Bonnie Raitt, Austra, Scott Helman, Donovan Woods, Kira Isabella, Born Ruffians, the Sheepdogs, Lindi Ortega, Ben Caplan and many more musicians think makes the “truest” love song.
“Right off the bat, I would have to say, [Aretha Franklin’s] ‘I've Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You’ or Etta James' ‘A Sunday Kind of Love.’ It depends if you're going to do something to a love song. That's a different thing!”
“I’d have to say my all time favourite love song would be ‘At Last’ by Etta James. Such a beautiful song about finding love. Growing up I performed at a lot of weddings, so I sang a ton of love songs, and singing that song was always a great moment. I think that’s where my love for writing love songs really started.”
Sulynn Hago (Propagandhi)
“‘Purple Rain’ just hit me. I don't even know if that's legit. There's something in the mood, that first chord. My partner and I, we'll just play it and it has this mood to it. I also like a lot of Johnny Cash's love songs. So ‘Purple Rain’ was my first instinct. I can see Johnny Cash making a true love song because he has such strong narratives and he really captures a genuine human emotion. I'm sure that within his big catalogue there's probably one. So let's just go with ‘Purple Rain.’"
"It was a toss-up for me here: I could have gone with ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ by Bob Dylan with its evocative expression of the rueful regret tied up with lost love. But I'm going for John Martyn's ‘Couldn't Love You More.’ It's so simply stated, so tender and romantic, and the way he sings it is wonderfully warm and full of heart and soul. I sung this song over the phone to my wife one Valentine’s Day when I was on tour in the UK, and it said it all perfectly."
Louise Burns (solo, Gold & Youth)
“‘Into My Arms’ by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. To explain my choice I will quote the man himself: ‘All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain.’ ‘Into my Arms’ has the duende. Somber, subtle, lavish yet hollow — it's a transcendent battle between the ephemeral and the ethereal!”
“This whole album is probably one of my all-time favourite love records. Nick is, I think, a great lyricist and singer, and he is just flat out sexy. He has a distinct way of writing, and singing, about love, sex, suffering and heartbreak that sounds as if he is singing just for you. He knows all the details. The power of this song is that it seems to work whether you are in the throes of seduction, brokenhearted, coupled, or just doing the laundry — he always makes me want to be a lover ... and I love him for it!"
Joseph Shabason (DIANA)
“My favourite 'true' love song is ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ by the Blue Nile. It's not the most romantic love song of all time but I've always loved it because Paul Buchanan sings as honestly and urgently about fleeting love as most singers do about ‘true love forever.’ We've all had relationships that were passionate and intense but totally doomed from the start, but for whatever reason, those kinds of relationships don't ever get sung about in a way that gives them any real meaning. ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ is one of the only songs that I know that deals with fleeting love in a way that seems both joyful and urgent while still being tender and heartbreaking.”
Kathryn Calder (solo, New Pornographers)
“I feel the only real possible option for me, the greatest, best, love song of all time is ‘God Only Knows’ by Brian Wilson. Not only is it one of the most beautiful songs ever written, but it can still make me sentimental thousands of plays later. It describes perfectly the feeling of being in love and knowing that if something ever happened to the one you love, it would be total devastation. But hey, that's the deal we make with love!”
“Daniel Johnston’s 'True Love Will Find You In the End' — it’s a silver lining for the constantly brokenhearted!”
"'Shelter From The Storm’ by Bob Dylan. It encapsulates the entire narrative of love from beginning to end in the most beautiful way.”
“Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is a true love song to me, primarily because of its universality (as proven by every child my age knowing how to sing it as soon as The Bodyguard came out). The backstory is also striking, because Dolly Parton wrote it when she wanted to leave her music mentor Porter Wagoner and strike out on her own. I always hear Dolly longing for independence while graciously acknowledging the importance of their time together."
“Lucinda Williams’ ‘I Just Wanted to See You So Bad’ perfectly captures that chemical desire to be close to a someone, all logic and reasoning aside. I'm the kind of person who gets hung up — you know, total infatuation when I fall for someone — and when I heard this track for the first time I was like, ‘Damn! She gets me!’ At the end of it she's at this guy's hotel and it almost doesn't matter that she drove her car in the middle of the night — she's just there. She showed up. And that's intense, and that's real, and it's Lucinda! So obviously the delivery is incredibly badass."
Noah Fralick (Young Rival)
“Andre Ethier's ‘Never Be Your Girl’ is about the dark side of love. This is one of the saddest songs I've ever heard, eloquently and tragically describing the disorienting feeling of unrequited love, of wanting something so badly but it never being so. And, c'mon, have you ever heard both Jesus and Stalin mentioned in a love song?”
[Editor's note: there is no reliable video or embed of the song available. Apologies!]
Luke (Born Ruffians)
“Randy Newman’s ‘Love Story (You and Me).’ It's the practical, straightforward, narrative form lyrics that make this the truest love song to me. It's a relationship from beginning to end, nice and clean. Every line is perfectly representative of the North American love story. There's first brush infatuation mixed with the practical ‘I like you, you like me too.’ Over-compensatory love for your child ‘some day he may be President.’ And on to the sometimes monotonous middle-age portion ‘some nights we'll go out dancing, if I'm not too tired.’"
Andrew Eichinger (Seaway)
“My favourite ‘true’ love song would have to be ‘Miserable’ by Lit. This song fully encompasses the stages of love in one catchy chorus. ‘You make me come. You make me complete. You make me completely miserable.’ Honestly, genius. Plus the video is just great.”
Jean-Guy Roy (Federal Lights)
“Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realize’ covers all the different loves; love in happiness, love in pain, love in romance, love in mortality. The idea that love can be found in everything is hopeful."
“Paul Brady’s ‘Arthur McBride’ is an old Irish folk song. It's beautiful, but it's not really a love song; rather, it's a song about British military recruiters trying to convince Arthur McBride and his cousin (both Irish) to join the British army. They resist and fight back, choosing freedom and love for their own country. There is nobody in the world with a voice like Paul Brady. It’s incredibly pure and emotive. Years ago, I fell in love with an Irish boy while I was traveling. One night, inside his chilly and damp Belfast apartment, he put this song on and accidentally pressed repeat. With Paul Brady’s voice swirling through the room, I told him I loved him for the first time. The song played over and over and over again, but we took no notice. I don't think I'll ever be able to listen to this song without remembering that perfect moment."
Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies)
"’Harley’ by Don Henry is a song about loving a child, and the story is beautiful, and warm and funny. When my daughter was born over 20 years ago, I sung it to her thousands of times to put her to sleep. Last year for Christmas she recorded it with her brother as a surprise gift for me. I'm still crying about it!”
Ewan Currie (the Sheepdogs)
"'Blue Sky' by the Allman Brothers was written by guitarist Dickey Betts for his wife Sandy 'Bluesky' Wabegijig. It's like a summer's day in a bottle, evoking that idyllic state of bliss that accompanies walking hand in hand with the one you love.”
Matthew Barron (Van Damsel)
“This is an interesting topic. I really like the song ‘What You Don't Do’ by Lianne La Havas. For La Havas, love is simple. She feels the connection with her partner, and the closer they get, the easier it is to accept that love without needing any kind of ‘proof.’ She doesn't need grand gestures or sweet nothings to feel love.
“With social media today, there is a lot of pressure to be showing off, and that includes showing love and affection for your partner. La Havas doesn't think that's necessary. She is comfortable in her relationship and doesn't need it to be bolstered by social acceptance. This type of quiet, easy, and confident love really rings true to me. It's the kind of message we don't hear often enough in a world that thrives on views, likes, and follows.”
Maya Postepski (Austra)
“My pick is a real heartbreaker: it's a classic French break-up song, ‘Je Suis Venue Te Dire Que Je M'en Vais,’ written by Serge Gainsbourg that has been covered and made super sexy by Jo Lemaire & Flouze. Listen and feel your heart shatter.”
“Roxette's ‘It Must Have Been Love.’ Lately I've been all about Roxette's writing and production from that era and this is such a hit. The song is just so intense and bittersweet. So full of vivid imagery in the lyrics and such raw emotion in the vocal. I think what makes it true is that it's so iconic and, well, I just can't get it out of my head.”
Sam Cash & the Romantic Dogs
“Jason Collett’s ‘Almost Summer’ is the perfect summation of that phase of adolescent love that many know as their first true experience of the feeling. It’s not as cookie cutter of an event as the fairy tales lead you to believe — it’s messy, and belligerent, and intoxicated, and awkward, and at its very core painfully honest and beautiful."
“The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ is hands down for me one of the love songs that rings the truest. There's such a heartbreaking mix of venom and romance in the bittersweet call-and-response interplay between Kirsty MacColl and Shane McGowan as they bicker and reminisce about their youthful dreams crushed by alcohol and drugs. But somewhere in all of that viscousness and resignation you can't help but feel love's hope and promise, even if it ultimately fails to save them. It's such a beautifully-rendered take on love's complexity and imperfection."
"Bob Dylan has introduced ‘Isis,’ this (now unfortunately titled) song by saying, ‘This is a song about marriage,’ and I guess that’s true. I mean, he wrote it. But it’s also about some weird quest to a pyramid to find a treasure and a guy dies. I think though that what Dylan is talking about is how messy true love is. Needing someone is difficult. Loving someone is totally exhausting. Or as Bob puts it, ‘What drives me to you is what drives me insane!’ It doesn’t get more romantic than that."
The Bros Landreth
“John Hiatt’s ‘Lipstick Sunset’ is off my favourite John Hiatt record, Bring the Family. It's a beautifully written tune, masterfully played and it has a nostalgic quality for me because that record was played on repeat in our house when we were growing up. It's a heartbreaker in a way that only John Hiatt can deliver."
“A.A. Bondy’s ‘Lover's Waltz’ has been haunting me the last few years, to the point that I recorded my own version and put it on my new album. I can't think of a song that better articulates the beauty and mystery of being overwhelmed by love. The double meaning of the refrain, 'Over our heads, over our heads'. I love thinking about the concept of marriage as a waltz. Spinning as one until whatever cruel end."
Koady Chaisson (The East Pointers)
“I went through a rough stretch a few years back and one of the ways I came out on the other side was by listening to the beautiful songs of Gene MacLellan. The one that often fell on repeat was ‘Shiloh's Song.’ Two-and-a-half minutes of pure emotion:
'I want you so much to be happy
And just to see you smile
Makes it all worthwhile.'
“Thanks for that, Gene.”
“Blake Mills’ ‘Don't Tell All Our Friends About Me.’ I got a kick out of this song's message right from the get go. Blake Mills sings to his partner about the repercussions of a stupid mistake. He spends most of the song justifying his actions and trying to prove that he wasn't so wrong, and that, furthermore, it should be nobody’s business but theirs. He pleads, ‘Please! Don't tell all our friends about me.’ In a relationship, it's just so easy to let your crazy fly despite that inner voice telling you ‘No! Don't do it.’ The things you say within a couple can be so laughable and absurd at times! It really feels like you're sitting at the table with him and his girlfriend, in the middle of a ‘moment.’ I love how honest it is.”
Daniel Carriere (Royal Tusk)
“Mac DeMarco’s 'Still Together.' As far as favourite love songs, I look for tunes that feel genuine. Trying to write about love is contradictory in nature and often trying to pin such an elusive feeling down will come across as trite and/or disingenuous. Mac DeMarco's 'Still Together' seems to sidestep these common shortcomings. His candid lyrics seem as personal as a written letter that you'd be lucky enough to have a glimpse of. The song doesn't specifically talk about love but you can feel it- a calm and playful kind of love, seeping through the cracks. The simple chorus lyric of 'still together' in some kind of cosmic love-cry of a melody seals the deal for me. Awesome song.”
“I love love ‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye! LOL! OK, I do love that song but seriously, I love Jann Arden’s song, ‘Ode to a Friend.’ Maybe not the typical kind of love song most people have in mind for Valentine’s but for me it sums up simply what it is to love someone beyond the obvious physical connection. The craving to be together and the unconditional acceptance, physical comfort and peace of mind you feel when you are together are things that make a romantic relationship that much stronger. What else is there?”
“I am not sure actual love songs are something I think about all that much, but I definitely have songs that resonate around the subject and feeling. One that always comes to mind is the Weakerthans' ‘Pamphleteer.’ It’s kind of a perfect song that is vulnerable and human and real and is a song of my age and time.”
Ron Hawkins (Lowest of the Low)
“‘I Want You’ by Elvis Costello: never have sexual predation and obsession sounded so damn musical."
“John Legend's ‘Ordinary People’ represents a realistic view of love. Deep and intense but also partnered with struggle and work to make the relationship function. People aren't perfect but love makes you want to be.”
“‘Into Giants’ by Patrick Watson captures all the thrill and promise of a new lover and the feeling that with this person anything could be possible. ‘Jumping over all the bad times/ It's easy when I'm holding your hand/ Started as lovers don't know where it's going to end.’ And I love the Handel-like trumpet! So triumphant!”
"Randy Newman’s ‘Feels Like Home’ captures the truest expression of what love means to me in this song, and that meaning is ‘home’: the feeling I get when I know love is with me inside and out. "
“‘Tupelo Honey’ by Van Morrison:
'You can't stop us on the road to freedom
You can't keep us, 'cause our eyes can see.'
“Isn't that what true love does: open our eyes and give us a chance at freedom? Plus, if you have trouble believing that you are anything less than 'as sweet as tupelo honey,' the voice of Van Morrison will melt all those doubts away.”
“I consider ‘So Long, Marianne’ by Leonard Cohen to be one of the ‘truest’ love songs. The most overwhelming feeling at the end of any relationship is that of bittersweetness. At the same time that you are defeated by the loss of something so meaningful, you can already feel the joy in remembering that love. It's a terrible, beautiful feeling. The chorus captures that feeling so vividly when Cohen sings the lines, ‘It's time that we began to laugh and cry about it all again.’"
Nate Daniels (Cairo)
"Don't look for love in faces, places
It's in you, that's where you'll find."
"The truest love song speaks not of love for another, but love for one's self; wielding one's impregnable ability to fully accept and share themselves as they are. Only then do we deserve love. That's why Ray LaMontagne’s ‘Be Here Now’ will always remain one of my favourite unconventional love songs."
Bobs & LoLo
“‘Cindy Seahorse’ is a true tale of loneliness, self-discovery and love; the story of Cindy Seahorse is one that resonates with many. The sweet piano accompaniment and touching lyrics guide listeners on a journey for friendship and acceptance showing us that we are all seahorses in an ocean of love.”
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner