Lucky 13: Prison, the Moon, Tupelo and Troubled Waters – 13 of My Favorite Love Songs

If there’s ever been a good time to devote a blog to love songs, it’s now, at the ass end of a year that will go down in history for its genius at stirring misery, havoc and hate. Coronavirus, social unrest, a U.S. presidential election that divided friends, family, pets, those two guys in the checkout line, the couples sitting next to each other at the outdoor café because you can’t sit indoors, what with the pandemic and all, and meanwhile you better duck because you might catch a stray bullet from that gun-wielding protester who’s …..oh, never mind.

No need to rehash all that here.

This blog is about love. In musical form!

I’ve compiled a list of 13 of my favorite love songs. I’m not saying they are my most favorite love songs, though I’m not saying they’re not, either.

Before we begin, it must be said that I’m not the kind of dude who naturally gravitates toward love songs. Not because I have anything against love. Heck, I love love! It’s better than basketball, better than tacos, better than free delivery, better than meatball subs. Nearly as good as tamales!

No, it’s just that I have deep psychological scars from hearing a certain kind of love song during my formative teen years, when you’re supposed to develop an intelligent worldview about worldly matters like love, but instead turned on the radio to hear….

I write the songs that make the whole world sing…..

Feelings….nothing more than…..feelings……

Some people want to fill the woooooorld with silly love songs….

We had joy we had fun we had seasons in the sun….

You’re havin’ my baby….

You see my agony here.

Anyway, about the list:

  • I decided against including songs about unrequited love, lost love, psychotic love, or the bitter, angry embers of a love affair gone terribly wrong. That’s another list for another day. A couple of songs on this list hint at love that could use a little finessing to get right, but that’s different.
  • The list is a reflection of my age, geography and musical tastes. Only two were recorded in the last 40 years. All but one were made by artists from English-speaking countries. Sorry.
  • I put as much emphasis on the sound as the words. It has to have the right sonic qualities, or I ain’t interested. Each of these songs is pleasing to the ear, and in some cases the words don’t even matter to me.
  • I’ve linked YouTube videos to each artist if you want to hear the song. I’ve also linked some cover versions.
  • Each song includes a sample love lyric, chosen by me using a mathematical formula based on the nth degree of Loveness, divided by lovicousness.
  • These are not listed in any particular order, other than just switching up different styles.

Anyway, on to the list…..

Tupelo Honey, Van Morrison: The reason I put this song first on the list is because I can’t think of a better line than “She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey.” It’s poetic not only in terms of the words, but also in terms of the cadence – Tupelo honey is a very rhythmic phrase. Say it out loud: Too-puh-low honey. Then there’s the cultural history behind it (Tupelo is where Elvis was born). And I love the opening stanza:

You can take all the tea in China/put it in a big brown bag for me/sail it right around all the seven oceans/drop it straight into the deep blue sea

In other words: Ain’t nothing more important than my woman, Jack.

The song clocks in at just under seven minutes, and not a single moment is wasted. As always, Van makes expert use of horns and backing vocals in the arrangement. I also like how he pronounces “China” as “Chiney” in the last measure. He might be a grouch, a contrarian and maybe off his rocker, but The Man knows his way around a love song.

Sample love lyric:

She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
Just like honey, baby, from the bee

Love and Affection, Joan Armatrading: A song that’s more about the prospect of love than the reality of it. You get an idea from the opening line: “I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion.” I never understood why Joan didn’t become a bigger international star, or why this didn’t become a bigger hit beyond the UK, where she grew up after being born in the West Indies. She’s a first-rate songwriter, and a soulful singer and musician. Nowhere is that more evident than on this ballad of someone who just wants to share a few tender moments with some unknown body else. The arrangement is beautiful, segueing from a soft ballad in the beginning to a grittier R&B vibe.

Sample love lyric:

No conversation
No wave goodnight
Just make love
With affection

Let’s Get Lost, Chet Baker: Chet earned fame as a jazz trumpeter in the West Coast style, but somewhere along the way he got this idea he could sing. And he could, sort of. So can I, so can you. He didn’t have a lot of range, and most of his vocal performances, quite frankly, are kind of middling. But on this song, he nailed it. It was the perfect vehicle for Chet’s voice, and the arrangement is brilliant, highlighted by Chet’s trumpet playing and the comping of pianist Russ Freeman. It’s a song about forgetting everyone else for a while and just getting away with your lover. And who doesn’t want to do that? Plus, it swings.

Sample love lyric:

Let’s defrost in a romantic mist
Let’s get crossed off everybody’s list

Someday We’ll Be Together, Diana Ross & the Supremes: It’s all about the guitar groove that chugs along behind Diana’s seductive voice. The song was recorded for Motown, which usually featured tight arrangements in a set formula. But this seemed to have a more bluesy, Memphis feel to it. I remember seeing them perform this song as a kid of 10 or 11, maybe on the Ed Sullivan Show. And my main memory as a boy beginning to notice girls? Damn, they’re pretty.

You’re far away from me my love, and just as sure my, my baby
As there are stars above,
I wanna say, I wanna say, I wanna say, some day we’ll be together

I’ve Just Seen a Face, The Beatles: Perfectly captures the feeling you get when you see someone for the first time and they spin your head around, take your breath away, make your heart go all thumpity thumpy – even if you’re drunk and it’s 2 a.m. Hey, we’ve all been there. The bouncy melody and song structure are what nail it for me. It’s perfect Paulie Mac.

Sample love lyric:

Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d have never been aware
But as it is I’ll dream of her
Tonight

Despacito, Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee: I just love the music on this song. It’s like a mini-opera in less than five minutes, with a gentle Spanish guitar intro, followed by a couple of bouncy Caribbean pop refrains, sliced in half by the rap break, then crashes together in ever-rising intensity as we sprint toward the finish. The melody immediately sticks in your ear, and I remember hearing it everywhere during our various trips around Europe while we’ve been living in London. The video behind it smashed the YouTube record for most views before getting passed recently by something called “Baby Shark Dance.”

“Despacito” is the proud product of little old Puerto Rico, so it’s all sung in Spanish. I didn’t even know the words until much later, and found out through an English translation that it’s pretty much about a booty call where the two lovers should take things slooooowly once the clothes come off. Luis Fonsi insists it’s really about taking a love affair slowly – not just between the sheets, but also when you’re meeting for coffee. I’ll accept that. If you want to hear an excellent, acoustic cover version, check out this one featuring Korean guitarist JeA and vocalist Juwon Park.

Sample love lyric:

Ya, ya me está gustando más de lo normal
Todos mis sentidos van pidiendo más
Esto hay que tomarlo sin ningún apuro

Fly Me to the Moon, Frank Sinatra. A standard written by Bart Howard and recorded by everybody. I’ll go with Frankie’s version, which is more upbeat and brassy than the ballad treatment you find with other renditions. This song harkens back to my childhood, when my parents would play it on our old Hi-Fi. That memory probably has something to do with its inclusion on this list. Plus, it swings like a ring a ding ding. For a 21st century take, here’s a way-cool version by the John Hepbir Quartet, featuring Sara Oschlag on vocals.

Sample love lyric:

Fill my heart with song
And let me sing forevermore
You are all I long for
All I worship and adore

Christmas in Prison, John Prine: It’s Christmas in prison, and an inmate is missing his woman. In lesser hands, this could have been an overly maudlin tale of a guy feeling sorry for himself, done up in rote Nashville formula. But in the hands of John Prine, it’s a matter-of-fact look at spending Christmas behind bars, so what are you gonna do? You’re gonna watch the searchlight spin around the yard, eat some turkey, and think about the woman back home. I always thought the tune sounded familiar, and some of it seems to be borrowed from “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds. How do I know about “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds? I don’t really know.

Sample love lyric:

Her heart is as big
As this whole goddamn jail

Someone to Watch Over Me, Ella Fitzgerald. Ella could probably sing the instructions from a how-to manual on how to operate chain saws and still make it sound romantic. Her take on this standard by George and Ira Gershwin is all dreamy elegance, her voice seeming to float above the sparse arrangement.

Sample love lyric:

Although he may not be the man
Some girls think of as handsome
To my heart he carries the key

Linger, The Cranberries: I felt this list needed something alternative, something 90s, something with a slight edge of anger, lathered with the resignation that no matter how much love hurts, it might be the one thing in the world worth hurting over. Co-writer and singer Dolores O’Riordan was perfect for the role, and her Irish mezzo-soprano voice the perfect delivery vehicle. The melody and arrangement are lovely; the message maybe less so.

Sample love lyric:

You know I’m such a fool for you
You’ve got me wrapped around your finger
Do you have to let it linger?

Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel/Aretha Franklin:  This reliable old warhorse has earned its place in the pantheon of Great Love Songs, even though I don’t think it’s really about romantic love. The narrator could be anyone – a friend, parent, sibling, neighbor, lover, ex-lover, parole officer. Anyone who’s always there when you need them the most. The way Aretha sings it, tinged with gospel, makes it sound like a hymn from God to the believers. The original version by S&G starts out slow and builds to a crashing crescendo, and Art Garfunkel’s voice is magical. Aretha’s version is done up as more of a blues, and her voice is much the same. Both tug the ol’ heartstrings.

Sample love lyric:

When you’re down and out,
When you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you.

Let’s Stay Together, Al Green: Come on, it’s Al MF Green. You can’t have a list like this without some Al Green.

Sample love lyric:

Loving you whether, whether
Times are good or bad
Happy or sad

Dreaming, Blondie: I’m not even sure this is a love song. She meets a guy in a restaurant and he can tell that she’s no debutante. Then he asks her what’s her pleasure – a movie or a measure? – and maybe they make plans to meet at the movies. Is the guy a dream lover? A gigolo? A drug dealer? I don’t know. It looks like they never meet at the movies, though.

It sure sounds like a love song – very lush despite its fast pace and feverish drums, with the usual catchy pop melody dreamed up by guitarist Chris Stein, a woefully underrated talent. And then there are the lyrics by Debbie Harry, which sound both uplifting and heartbreaking all at the same time.

I never realized how good this song could be as a slower ballad until I heard YouTube star Puddles the Clown perform it that way. It’s a revelation, let me tell you. Puddles is a magnificent weirdo who reinvents familiar hits. Link to his version right here. (Note: he’s one of the singers who sings “rarity” instead of the original “verité.” I don’t know when or how that happened, but I like “verité” better).

It could be that any song featuring Debbie Harry in the late 70s/early 80s conjured up lovesick notions for men (and women) of a certain age, since so many had a crush on her. It wasn’t just her looks, either. She just seemed like the coolest chick (or dude) on the block – and in a natural, unpretentious way. She couldn’t dance to save her life, but she still tried to. She hardly fit the image of a glamorous pop star, having cut her chops at CBGB, the dank and legendary punk club in New York’s grimy Bowery district. CBGB attracted a small army of misfits to see a small collection of misfit bands that would later go on to much bigger things: Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Television.

Blondie became the biggest.

Sample love lyric:

Beat feet, walking a two-mile
Meet me, meet me at the turnstile
I never met him, I’ll never forget him

So that’s the list. Except, except….

There’s one more, sort of an overtime song, because the score is tied and the fans will not settle for a tie. I didn’t really include a personal song on the list, something specific to me and my life, so I’ll just add the following:

Love’s Gonna Find You, Indigo Swing: I first heard this song about 20 years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles and a co-worker owned the CD it was on. She used to invite me out to the swing clubs that were in vogue at the time. I didn’t know how to swing dance, but I gave it my best shot. My co-worker was a good swing dancer, and she didn’t seem to mind me doing the same three Myrtle Beach shag moves over and over. We eventually started dating, and we’d still go out to the swing clubs. I’d sit at the table drinking while half the men in the place asked her to dance. I was more than happy about it, because it kept me off the dance floor. My mother told me before I departed for L.A. that I’d meet my wife there. Well, I did. She’s the co-worker who used to invite me out to the swing clubs. I still can’t swing dance too well, but we’re still together.

Sample love lyric:

Love is gonna find you

Be careful, kids. Love is gonna find you….

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