Music

The 25 Greatest Love Songs of the 1990s

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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 ’00s, and click here for the best love songs of the ’60s, the best love songs of the ’70s, and the best love songs of the ’80s. Okay, now you can tell us what we missed. Have fun! — The Nerve Editors

25. The Jesus & Mary Chain with Hope Sandoval, “Sometimes Always” (1994)

“Sometimes Always” is the perfect reconciliation song, sung sweetly by Hope Sandoval and written by then-boyfriend William Reid. Despite its jangly popness, the song feels intimate and full of love, though these days I have to wonder about the wisdom of falling back into a relationship with a guy who says, “I always knew you’d take me back.” But, you know, when you’re young and idealistic, the makeup sex that goes along with refrains like these is heady and full of flowers. Linda Park, of SXSW

Listen: The Jesus & Mary Chain with Hope Sandoval, “Sometimes Always”

24. Jawbreaker, “Chesterfield King” (1991)

Blake Schwarzenbach was the Charles Bukowski of early ’90s alternative. Gruff-voiced but tender, he was unashamed to sing of “Killin’ cops and readin’ Kerouac” and his feelings side by side. “Chesterfield King” is the best view of this dichotomy: it’s a downright touching account of suburban love, the kind that seemingly happens every fall night across the country, delivered in a boozy four minutes. Buk would have been proud. — Alex Heigl

Listen: Jawbreaker, “Chesterfield King”

23. D’Angelo, “Higher” (1995)

D’Angelo’s sanctified organ elevates his multi-tracked choir of sweet soul vocals in the album closer from Brown Sugar. Anchored by the band’s impossibly deep groove, “Higher” shows why gospel and R&B are as inextricably linked as church and sex: they’re both transcendent, but firmly in the here and now — exactly how you want falling in love to be. — A.H.

Listen: D’Angelo, “Higher”

22. Smashing Pumpkins, “Luna” (1993)

For suburban kids hitting their stride during the Clinton years, there weren’t very many love songs to choose from. There was plenty of raging against the machine and Pavement-style irony to go around, but romance was generally the subject of mockery. In order to break through the era’s postmodern glaze, you either had to be an outcast, or be too comically self-indulgent to notice the world around you. Billy Corgan, at least for a time, was both. Siamese Dream was one of the few pop-rock albums of that time to express love and emotional vulnerability in a straightforward way; the beautiful closer, “Luna,” with that naked final refrain (“I’m in love with you”) became the private soundtrack to many a school-bus love affair. Michael Edison Hayden

Listen: Smashing Pumpkins, “Luna”

21. REM, “At My Most Beautiful” (1999)

Most of REM’s perceived love songs (“The One I Love,” “Losing My Religion”), well, aren’t. But “At My Most Beautiful” speaks to love in as unmistakable and unambiguous terms as Michael Stipe ever used. The simplicity pays off. Stipe confessing that he “reads bad poetry into your machine” over a delicate Beach Boys homage might also make this the most beautiful moment in the REM catalogue. — Jonathan Keefe, of Slant Magazine

Listen: REM, “At My Most Beautiful”

20. Wilco, “I Got You (At The End Of The Century)”(1996)

When it comes to love, Jeff Tweedy takes the long view. He doesn’t fall for someone for a few months, or even a few years. He loves for centuries. This rare heartache-free Wilco track is also undeniable proof that all great love songs must include at least eight bars of oohing. — Delia Pless

Listen: Wilco, “I Got You (At The End Of The Century)”

19. Mariah Carey, “Emotions” (1991)

Mariah Carey hits a dizzying number of love-song cliches — feeling like you’re in a dream, flying high, never feeling so satisfied — in the space of four minutes. Yet, thanks to her soaring, rapturous voice, the song plays like a work of genuine, unadulterated joy, when it could’ve just been the credits soundtrack to some godawful rom-com. — Kristin Hunt

Listen: Mariah Carey, “Emotions”

18. Bjork, “Possibly Maybe”

This bittersweet song from Bjork deftly explains the process of falling in (and possibly out) of love. It all starts with the right person breaking through your defenses, followed by the excitement and anxiety of what might come next. Love is unpredictable and presents plenty of opportunities for doubt, but Bjork makes the hoping for it sound worthwhile. — Carlos Cabrera

Listen: Bjork, “Possibly Maybe”

17. Extreme, “More Than Words” (1990)

The men of Extreme have on thing in common with writing teachers the world over: they’re big believers in show, don’t tell. On “More Than Words,” Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt yearn for something more than a simple “I love you.” Especially given that “More Than Words” comes from an album called Pornograffiti, Extreme turns out to be surprisingly insightful about the non-verbal rewards of love. — K.H.

Listen: Extreme, “More Than Words”

16. Salt-n-Pepa featuring En Vogue, “Whatta Man” (1994)

At first glance, this might appear to be just another maneater’s anthem — and the video doesn’t exactly disprove that notion — but listen again. This is Salt-n-Pepa’s ode to a “God-sent original, the man of [their] dreams,” and what might have come across as braggadocio turns out to be sheer, infectious joy. — A.H.

Listen: Salt-n-Pepa featuring En Vogue, “Whatta Man”

15. Green Day, “2000 Light Years Away” (1992)

One of the warmest songs ever written about the pain and pleasure of a long-distance relationship comes from none other than Billie Joe Armstrong, writing to his future wife. It’s sweet and sincere, and it might feature the catchiest catchy chorus in a discography full of them. — Peter Smith

Listen: Green Day, “2000 Light Years Away”

14. Buena Vista Social Club, “Dos Gardenias” (1997)

“Dos Gardenias” makes you think of old, still-happily-married couples. I imagine them waltzing slowly, appreciatively, but knowing which way the other is going to go without thinking — the way you know how to cook your favorite meal. The song is a bolero, and the lyrics are about devotion, after all. When Ibrahim Ferrer sings, “te quiero, te adoro, mi vida,” the words seem to embrace you like a faithful lover. — Maura Hehir

Listen: Buena Vista Social Club, “Dos Gardenias”

13. Lauryn Hill, “Nothing Even Matters” (1998)

D’Angelo pops up again on this sweetly soulful duet, which Hill wrote as a tribute to the great Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway tracks of the ’70s. The way the pair’s voices wind around each other is so intimate, so impossibly intertwined, that it’s hard to believe they weren’t lovers. — A.H.

Listen: Lauryn Hill, “Nothing Even Matters”

12. The Cure, “Friday I’m In Love” (1992)

Robert Smith has more or less disowned “Friday I’m In Love” — not goth enough, probably — but it features one of the most concrete and moving images in a catalogue full of oversized abstractions: Smith wakes up to find his wife noshing on a midnight snack. It’s weirdly ravishing. — P.S.

Listen: The Cure, “Friday I’m In Love”

11. Weezer, “Buddy Holly” (1994)

It’s strange in retrospect, but in 1994, “geek chic” really wasn’t a thing. This gleeful celebration of us-against-the-world, fuck-’em-if-they-don’t-understand romance stood out even more amidst the heroin-seriousness of contemporary rock radio. Someone remind Rivers Cuomo how to write songs like this. — P.S.

Listen: Weezer, “Buddy Holly”

10. The Pretenders, “I’ll Stand By You” (1994)

Where other love songs focus on joy and romance, “I’ll Stand By You” is a more adult sentiment. Chrissie Hynde assures her lover that no matter how bad things get, she’ll be there. The perfect line “Nothing you confess could make me love you less” captures true love more accurately than a thousand promises of wedding bells and candles. — Mike DiBenedetto

Listen: The Pretenders, “I’ll Stand By You”

9. Seal, “Kiss From A Rose” (1994)

Sweeping. Epic. Overblown, perhaps; or maybe you’re just intimidated by its grandeur. This is what Led Zeppelin would have recorded if they survived into the ’90s and abruptly switched to making R&B. “Kiss From A Rose” still gives me chills, no matter how many times I’ve drunkenly yelled that “Bay-bay!” — A.H.

Listen: Seal, “Kiss From A Rose”

8. Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You” (1994)

Now I know how Extreme felt: putting the wistful beauty of “Fade Into You” into words is almost impossible. The song aches, perfectly translating the dizzy-headed feeling of desire into dreamy folk. My breath catches in my throat every time I hear Hope Sandoval sing, hauntingly distant, “I want to hold the hand inside you.” — Colette McIntyre

Listen: Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”

7. The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love” (1999)

The Magnetic Fields are nothing if not frank: “The book of love is long and boring… Some of it is just really dumb.” But that candor only makes their earnest tenderness more affecting, when they sing, “I love it when you read to me, and you can read me anything.” Bonus points for making reading romantic. — K.H.

Listen: The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love”

6. Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence” (1990)

“Enjoy The Silence” could be interpreted as sulky, complaining that words only screw things up in a relationship. But I like to think that it’s more about finding someone whose company you can enjoy without needing to chatter. It’s like what Mia Wallace says in Pulp Fiction: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special: you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share silence.” — M.H.

Listen: Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence”

5. Aaliyah, “One in a Million”(1996)

Creeping and insistent, “One in a Million” barely sounds like a love song before it breaks into that honeyed, slow-burn chorus. As the layers build and shimmer, you slowly realize you’re being pulled into a twisting, turning tidal wave, and you love it. This one was made for slow dances and lingering embraces that turn into long nights. — A.H.

Listen: Aaliyah, “One in a Million”

4. Oasis, “Wonderwall” (1995)

“Wonderwall” manages to join adult anxiety and world-weariness with child-like sweetness, optimism, and faith that your experience is the only one of its kind in the entire world. It’s jaded enough to know that life will always be hard, but still hopeful enough to believe that one person can make it all better. — Garrett Carey

Listen: Oasis, “Wonderwall”

3. Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris” (1998)

If you’re getting ready to roast us for putting “Iris” on here, stop right now and listen to it. The Goo Goo Dolls may have a deeply stupid name, but goddamn, did they know their way around a melody. There’s not an ounce of insincerity that soaring, beautiful chorus. Drop your guard and let this song in. We won’t tell anyone. — A.H.

Listen: Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”

2. The Roots, “You Got Me” (1999)

Erykah Badu’s sweet vocal hook weaves in and out of “You Got Me’s” backing track, while Black Thought spins a finely-detailed story of love triumphing over all. The band’s groove is everything you want in a lover: supportive yet assertive, and, as evidenced by ?uestlove’s part at 3:33, agile. — A.H.

Listen: The Roots, “You Got Me”

1. Foo Fighters, “Everlong” (1997)

The Foo Fighters never topped this electrifying promise of eternal devotion. Much of their later discography feels blandly competent, but for at least one song, they were sublime. — P.S.

Listen: Foo Fighters, “Everlong”