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The 25 Greatest Love Songs of the 1980s

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The 25 Greatest Love Songs of the 1980s

Your hair reminds us of a warm, safe place, where, as children, we'd hi-ee-ide.

Read this first! Bloggers, DJs, and critics helped us assemble this comprehensive list of great love songs. Before you tell us what we missed, a few notes. One, we excluded breakup songs and come-back-to-me songs and please-sleep-with-me songs. These are love songs — songs you could play to your current squeeze immediately after saying, "Steve/Miriam, this song explains my feelings for you, which may be nuanced but are ultimately positive," and not expect to sleep on the couch. Two, we limited it to one song per artist, with a couple of exceptions, like The Beatles, because they're The Beatles. Lastly, come back next week for the best love songs of the '90s, and click here for the best love songs of the '60s and the best love songs of the '70s. Okay, now you can tell us what we missed. Have fun! — The Nerve Editors

25. The Jam, "Precious" (1982)

When you listen to funk music, you're almost physically compelled to get freaky. The Jam must have realized that when they wrote this love song, and consequently strayed from their mod/punk roots to explore a funkier side. With eager, yet desperate lyrics like, "But I don't need to bleed you dry/Or take you over for the rest of your life/It's just that I need something solid in mine," "Precious" argues that lust is not necessarily always a physical sensation. Listen to that erratic, ecstatic drumbeat, that wailing trumpet, that bass line that crawls up your spine. Maybe love and lust aren't so different after all. — Maura Hehir

Listen: The Jam, "Precious"

 

24. The Pixies, "Gigantic" (1988)

"Gigantic" has been interpreted in a number of ways, graphic and otherwise. But the song's real joy doesn't need any deeper parsing: Kim Deal's insanely endearing vocal is by turns coy and impassioned, and the massive guitars at the song's end sound like a lover's swoon. — Alex Heigl

Listen: The Pixies, "Gigantic"

 

23. Billy Bragg, "The Milkman of Human Kindness" (1983)

The first track on Billy Bragg's first record is this promise of constancy and compassion. Delivered in the most endearingly rough voice imaginable, "The Milkman of Human Kindness" is as simple and sweet a dedication as has ever been put to tape. —Peter Smith

Listen: Billy Bragg, "The Milkman of Human Kindness"

 

22. Kate Bush, "Running Up That Hill" (1985)

Kate Bush's intense love song finds the arty chanteuse longing for the ability to trade places with her partner, the better for them to know each other. It's at once a plea for understanding, and reassurance during a wincing push into deeper intimacy ("Do you want to know that it doesn't hurt me? It doesn't hurt me"). Sexy, right? — P.S.

Listen: Kate Bush, "Running Up That Hill"

 

21. Kool and the Gang, "Joanna" (1984)

"Joanna" is a simple song about a simple man simply loving a simple lady. Even the music video is simple: it's set in Joanna's Diner, where Kool and his Gang croon about how she makes them feel "nice" as she rustles up some eggs, over-easy. But sometimes, the simplest love is the best kind of love. — M.H.

Listen: Kool and the Gang, "Joanna"

 

20. Tom Waits, "Johnsburg, Illinois" (1983)

On an album of subterranean dwarf rock and unprovoked mule kicking, Tom Waits slipped in this tender ballad to the woman he'd just married. With its lilting melody and raw vocal performance, it seems to capture almost childlike disbelief that love could be so sweet. And this after years of insisting he was "better off without a wife." — P.S.

Listen: Tom Waits, "Johnsburg, Illinois"

 

19. Modern English, "I Melt With You" (1982)

With bubbly keyboards and a thin, jerky guitar line, "I Melt With You" makes everyone dance — usually in a dorky, euphoric manner, relying on a lot of spinning and jumping up and down. If that's not a commentary on love, I don't know what is. —Colette McIntyre

Listen: Modern English, "I Melt With You"

 

18. The Whispers, "It's a Love Thing" (1980)

If you're looking to score points on a roller disco date, look no further than "It's a Love Thing." Here, The Whispers don't hold anything back — not their gushing adoration, not the pounding in their hearts, and certainly not their infectious, boogie-worthy beats. — Kristin Hunt

Listen: The Whispers, "It's a Love Thing"

 

17. Crowded House, "Don't Dream It's Over" (1986)

Despite being memorably featured in the 90210 episode where Brenda and Dylan break up, this is not a breakup song. Instead, it's a defiant song of recommitment from singer Neil Finn to his wife. It's as perfectly constructed as it is touching in its "us against the world" spirit. — P.S.

Listen: Crowded House, "Don't Dream It's Over"

 

16. Anita Baker, "Sweet Love" (1986)

According to "Sweet Love," when you meet the right person, there's no uncertainly or fear, only an overwhelming faith in the strength of your bond. When Anita Baker's in love with you, you need nothing else. All necessities are provided, all anxieties are soothed. — Carlos Cabrera

Listen: Anita Baker, "Sweet Love"

 

15. Tears For Fears, "Head Over Heels" (1985)

While the first few synth chords will never let you forget what year it was, Curt Smith's voice and Roland Orzabal's lyrics never get old. "Head Over Heels" perfectly captures the feeling of being blindsided by love — how scary and thrilling it can be, all at once. — C.C.

Listen: Tears For Fears, "Head Over Heels"

 

14. INXS, "Never Tear Us Apart" (1988)

Michael Hutchence sang one of the hottest songs of the '80s ("The One Thing"), and also this, one of the most romantic. My goodness, it comes complete with a sax solo! Those lilting strings and aforementioned sax send us soaring into a star-filled sky, full of confidence that they can never tear us apart. — Linda Park, of SXSW

Listen: INXS, "Never Tear Us Apart"

 

13. The Cars, "You Might Think" (1984)

Sometimes people have a hard time accepting love — they find it almost inconceivable that someone could care so deeply for them. The Cars sing about that reticence from the determined perspective of someone working hard to build their lover up, to let them know that they are, and always will be, worth it. It's a beautiful and nuanced sentiment, almost obscured by how goddamn fun this song is. — A.H.

Listen: The Cars, "You Might Think"

 

12. Sade, "Your Love is King" (1984)

There is no operator smoother than Sade. "Your Love is King" hit radio at exactly at the right moment — disco had finally died and R&B was searching for its next sound. Earthy and understated yet undeniably sultry, the song proved that passion can be subtle and still intense. Its sexiness lies in its reserve; "Your Love is King" takes its time, but when the climax comes, it's well worth it.  — C.M.

Listen: Sade, "Your Love is King"

 

11. The Smiths, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" (1986)

Romantic in the eighteenth-century sense of the word — grandiose, sweeping, and death-obsessed — "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" is the apex of The Smiths' catalog. Maybe it borders on ridiculous, but so does young love. Only Morrissey could turn a phrase like "if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die" into a sincere plea for togetherness. — C.M.

Listen: The Smiths, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out"

 

10. Michael Jackson, "The Way You Make Me Feel" (1987)

Michael Jackson's voice lent his every performance just a hint of desperation. But the joy he brings to "The Way You Make Me Feel" is almost pure. Even when he's spouting gibberish like "Acha-hoo" and "Chika chika chika," it sounds like he's speaking in tongues out of sheer glee. — A.H.

Listen: Michael Jackson, "The Way You Make Me Feel"

 

9. Rufus & Chaka Khan, "Ain't Nobody" (1983)

"Ain't Nobody" is contagious; the song's repeating synthesizer loop gets trapped in your head for days and you can't help but groove. Chaka's voice is an insurmountable force, soaring above the bassline. The song is impassioned and just a little dirty; that feeling of danger makes it unforgettable. — C.M.

Listen: Rufus & Chaka Khan, "Ain't Nobody"

 

8. U2, "With or Without You" (1988)

In this ambiguous classic, Bono has got it bad. Even twenty plus years later, "With or Without You" remains of U2's most impassioned, emotionally resonant songs to date — that howl he lets out has to stir you, even if you think U2 is a little much. — K.H.

Listen: U2, "With or Without You"

 

7. The Cure, "Lovesong" (1989)

There had been plenty of nervous pop moments in The Cure’s dark catalog before this 1989 smash, but it only took a deceptively subtle two-word twist for Robert Smith to modify all of his previous moping, revealing him helplessly, hopelessly in love. “Whenever I’m alone, with you…” Written as a wedding present to his childhood sweetheart (now wife of twenty-three years), and containing only the starkest, simplest language possible (plus some truly, truly sweet guitar), it earns its blankly descriptive title, lifting it to some sort of platonic ideal. — Jeff Klingman

Listen: The Cure, "Lovesong"

 

6. Guns N' Roses, "Sweet Child O' Mine" (1987)

Is there a better romance than metal romance? Pheromones and hot nights all wrapped up in a teased-out halo preserved in time through a haze of Aqua Net. I would love to say that this song played host to a great romance in Dallas, Texas in the summer of '88. But alas, it merely provided the soundtrack to some teenage fantasies of boys in leather pants during those steamy months of fast times and virginal confusion. — Linda Park, of SXSW

Listen: Guns N' Roses, "Sweet Child O' Mine"

 

5. Pete Townshend, "Let My Love Open the Door" (1980)

Who doesn't want to be saved by Pete Townshend and his groovy love? Or, you know, by any man or woman who would give you a four-leaf clover and take all the worry out of your mind? It's easy to be closed off in this oft-fucked-up world, but I'm pretty sure we all dream of redemptive love and an open heart. — Linda Park, of SXSW

Listen: Pete Townshend, "Let My Love Open the Door"

 

4. Prince, "Adore" (1987)

Prince overdubs himself into the world's coolest soul harmony group, just so he can serenade that crucial lady he plans to worship until the end of time. His warmest ballad is also his funniest, as he pledges, "You can burn all my clothes, smash up my ride — well, maybe not the ride." On his latest tour, he changed that line to "smash up my Bentley," but the sentiment remains undeniable: he's got to have your face on his pillowcase. — Rob Sheffield, writer for Rolling Stone and author of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran

Listen: Prince, "Adore"

 

3. Talking Heads, "This Must Be The Place" (1983)

"I try to write about small things — paper, animals, a house. Love is kind of big." That's David Byrne on writing love songs. Nevertheless, he managed one of the most beautiful ever, which builds in five minutes from uncertainty to soaring joy. Having entered a relationship with the most basic hopes ("I'm just an animal looking for a home — share the same space for a minute or two"), Byrne realizes he's gotten a lot more. Okay, I have to stop writing about this now, because I'm kind of tearing up. — P.S.

Listen: Talking Heads, "This Must Be The Place"

 

2. Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes" (1986)

If you leave Say Anything out of it, "In Your Eyes" is a touching song about love under pressure. Like "Don't Give Up," also off Gabriel's hit So, it's a testament to love's ability to keep you sane while you struggle to stay alive. — P.S.

Listen: Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes"

 

1. Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time" (1983)

Cyndi Lauper's most enduring masterpiece hits at the very essence of commitment. Lauper may be most often (and unfairly) remembered for the excesses of her image, but she captures real romance in the most simple and straightforward of lines: If you're lost, you can look and you will find me, time after time. — Jonathan Keefe, of Slant Magazine

Listen: Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time"