What makes a great love song?
The answer, of course, is in the ears of the beholder. What makes one listener swoon may grate on another like the sound of a dial-up modem. And almost any song can become a love song if it conjures an emotional memory of someone we love, or loved.
As the most universal — and the most shopworn — of subjects, love has been inspiring songwriters for centuries. Of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “love” appears in the lyrics more than any other word.
Yes, love songs are more common than Internet cats. Great love songs, however, are much rarer.
Making a shortlist of the greatest love songs of all time would be a daunting task because there are just so many (see the gallery above). So we narrowed our criteria.
Here’s our list of the 16 best love songs of this millennium — defined as an affirmation of desire toward someone, preferably with some emotional heft. Our rules: Songs in English only, sorry. No more than one song per artist. And no wildly obscure tunes by that indie band that you and 37 other people liked in college.
No doubt you will disagree with most of our choices. (This is an admittedly mainstream, pop-dominated list.) That’s fine, everyone’s tastes are different. But consider casting a vote below for your favorite, or least-hated, song.
What are your favorite love songs of the last 16 years? Tell us in the comments.
‘Fallin” — Alicia Keys (2001)
It was a tough call between this song and “If I Ain’t Got You,” Keys’ 2004 single about how little material things matter compared to the power of human relationships. But “Fallin’,” Keys’ first hit, deftly expresses both the ecstasy and the ache of being in love.
‘Come Away With Me’ — Norah Jones (2002)
“Don’t Know Why” was the hit from Norah Jones’ debut album, which sold a bazillion copies and won her five Grammys. But this sultry invitation, with promises of mountaintop kisses and walking together in grassy fields, is much more romantic. “Come away with me in the night …” Jones sings, “…and I will write you a song.” That’s a hard offer to resist.
‘Crazy in Love’ — Beyonce (2003)
You know those early, heady days of a romance, when everything is fresh and intense? Beyonce captures that giddy feeling in her first No. 1 solo hit, with help from a killer horn riff and raps from her then-new boyfriend, Jay-Z. When they sing about being “so crazy right now,” you believe them.
‘Maps’ — Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003)
No, this alternative-rock jam is not a typical love song. An apparent plea to a departing wayward lover, it features a shimmering guitar line by Nick Zinner and an emotional vocal from front woman Karen O. As she wails, “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you” over and over, you feel her pain.
‘First Day of My Life’ — Bright Eyes (2005)
The breathy, wistful songs of Conor Oberst, who records under the name Bright Eyes, can be almost too sensitive for their own good. But this spare, heartfelt ballad — just him and a guitar — beautifully captures the limitless promise of new love. “Yours is the first face that I saw,” he sings. “I think I was blind before I met you.” Aww, how sweet.
‘We Belong Together’ — Mariah Carey (2005)
The queen of ’90s pop makes our list for this comeback smash, a straightforward lament about realizing (too late?) that a departed lover was The One. Carey conjures genuine emotion in her plaintive vocal. Bonus points for the video, which has her jilting Eric Roberts at the altar to run off with Wentworth Miller.
‘Chasing Cars’ — Snow Patrol (2006)
No, we’re not sure what the title means either. But this deceptively simple ballad, used to great effect on “Grey’s Anatomy,” builds to a heart-tugging crescendo. “If I lay here / If I just lay here / Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” Yes, I think we would.
‘Falling Slowly’ — The Swell Season (2007)
This lilting duet was on a 2006 Swell Season album, but it wasn’t until “Once” hit movie theaters the following year that it became a hit. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sang it together in the film, the romantic chemistry between them was unmistakable. “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for best song in 2008.
‘You Belong With Me’ — Taylor Swift (2008)
Several of Swift’s well-crafted narrative songs about young love could have made our list. We chose this one because its lyrics — “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers / she’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers” — resonate with any high schooler who has felt like a misfit while battling a more popular classmate for the affections of a crush.
‘Make You Feel My Love’ — Adele (2008)
This 1997 Bob Dylan song has been covered by everyone from Garth Brooks to Kelly Clarkson, but when Adele recorded it for her debut album she made it her own. The British singer’s big, soulful voice wrings emotion from every line.
‘Need You Now’ — Lady Antebellum (2009)
A late-night booty call doesn’t sound like the most romantic topic for a song. But who can’t relate to the yearning in Hillary Scott’s voice when she sings, “It’s a quarter after one, I’m a little drunk and I need you now. Said I wouldn’t call, but I’ve lost all control and I need you now.” There’s a reason it won record of the year and song of the year at the Grammys. We’ve all been there.
‘Home’ — Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (2010)
If you prefer peppy love songs to sad ones, this ramshackle hippie anthem is for you. A valentine from one lover to another, the song has some goofy lyrics (“Holy moley, me oh my, you’re the apple of my eye”) but its sentiment is one that anyone in love can appreciate: “Home is wherever I’m with you.” Indeed.
‘Just the Way You Are’ — Bruno Mars (2010)
Yes, Billy Joel said it first. But Mars brings a new energy to a timeworn feeling. It’s hard to resist a lover who tells you, “When I see your face, there’s not a thing that I would change, ’cause you’re amazing just the way you are.”
‘All of Me’ — John Legend (2013)
The neo-soul crooner pours himself into this stripped-down piano ballad, a full-hearted paean to a lover and “all your perfect imperfections.” The song, Legend’s first chart-topping hit, was inspired by his then-fiancée, model Chrissy Teigen.
‘Stay With Me’ — Sam Smith (2014)
Smith’s aching tenor elevates this raw ballad, in which the singer begs his one-night stand not to leave. The young British crooner layered his own voice in the recording studio to sound like a gospel choir, adding heft to the swelling chorus. The song’s blunt honesty — “this ain’t love, it’s clear to see” — only adds to its emotional power. Sometimes we just need to feel loved for a moment, even when we know it’s not real.
‘Thinking Out Loud’ — Ed Sheeran (2014)
At first listen, this unabashedly sappy tune doesn’t sound that special. But it’s slow-burning charms, buoyed by Sheeran’s soulful promise that “I will be loving you ’til we’re 70,” have captivated listeners around the world. “Thinking Out Loud” became the first single to spend a full year in the UK top 40 and its old-fashioned, ballroom-dance video has racked up close to a billion views. It’s up for both song and record of the year at the 2016 Grammys.