the top twelve
Text by Fiona Clarke and Ron Jensen

The language of love can be translated in may ways, but the most universal is music. When you’re struggling to express your innermost romantic feelings, in search of an epic breakup tune to help nurse your heartache or a feel-good ballad to remind you of your first crush, let music work its magic.

“Unchained Melody” – The Righteous Brothers

This song has all the corny trappings of a by-the-numbers ballad: the swooning, arpeggiated opening, the crescendo to an epic orchestral finale, lyrics whose blatant emotional manipulation ought to fall right apart under scrutiny. But there’s real, undeniable hunger in Bobby Hatfield’s luminous and raw vocal, the push and pull of the instrumentation is subtle and the words reveal layers where true fidelity fights to overcome lingering doubt.

“God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys 

The uncertainty of the first line (“I may not always love you”) is a classic pop curveball, which works with the swooping transition from intro to verse. Once that miasmic mix of harpsichords and celestial brass clears, and that opening caveat is laid bare, we’re left with a heartbreakingly tender song of yearning, of devotion and of fidelity. 

“When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge

Percy Sledge’s R&B  staple might be one of the most romantic-sounding songs of all time, but the 1966 hit’s lyrics basically boil down to this: Love messes everything up—your judgment, your pride, your friendships, your bank account, the roof over your head. It can deliver a series of powerful knockout punches but, when you’re under its spell, it’s the absolute greatest thing in the world.

“I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton’s farewell to her long-time partner and mentor, country legend Porter Wagoner, when Mr. Grand Ole Opry decided to pursue a solo career, became quite the sensation in 1974. It’s hard to think of a better song in pop culture that captures the “if you love something, set it free” sentiment. While few of us—save Whitney Houston—can belt those high notes like Parton, that doesn’t stop us from wanting to sing along with the chorus, with all the same pent up passion.

“Something” – The Beatles 

“Something” was the first George Harrison-written song to occupy the A-side of a Beatles single. Capturing the swirling triumph of infatuation, more than 150 artists have tried the dreamy, swooning ode on for size, including James Brown, Elvis Presley, Phish, Isaac Hayes and Frank Sinatra, who famously christened it the “greatest love song ever written.”

“Your Song” – Elton John 

Originally appearing as the B-side on John’s second self-titled album, “Your Song” eventually beat out the A-side track as the most favored by fans. The beauty of the track was a true love story, featuring a collaboration between two incredibly talented musicians. John wrote the pretty melody while his long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the self-effacing lyrics. Simple in their delivery, they come across as an effortless and spirited ode to his love. 

“My Girl” – The Temptations

This sugary ’64 chart-topper, the Temptations’ first, might be the best puppy-love song ever. Penned by fellow Motown signees the Miracles, its instantly recognizable guitar riff , peppy finger snaps, unabashed optimism and comforting-as-a-much-needed-hug harmonies can make even the most jaded downer feel all warm inside.

“Let’s Stay Together” – Al Green

Al Green’s greatest gift to the world is that he makes love funky. The lyrics to the Reverend’s landmark 1971 hit, “Let’s Stay Together,” articulate the solemn vows of marriage: “Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.” But sung by Green, these promises are given wings. Covered multiple times since its release, Green’s gorgeous original was given a new lease on life in ’94, when Quentin Tarantino featured it in Pulp Fiction.

“Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison

The Irish belter famously commemorated first love in “Brown Eyed Girl” and summed up hippie-style soul communion on “Into the Mystic,” but he never captured the ecstasy of romance better than on “Sweet Thing,” With help from jazz pros Richard Davis, Jay Berliner and Connie Kay, he starts in the troubadour zone and quickly propels himself to full-on speaking-in-tongues word spew. If love is a drug, then Van was on a heavy dose here.

“Maybe I’m Amazed” – Paul McCartney

Though he’s tied the knot twice since, McCartney never seemed to get over the loss of first wife Linda. Written in 1970, as the Beatles were decaying and tucked on the back end of his modest, home-spun solo debut, “Maybe I’m Amazed” was not originally released as a single and ended with a fade-out. Years later, it would become a concert staple and be released as a meatier live version.

“All Night” –  Beyoncé

Though Queen Bey’s critically acclaimed Lemonade is non-stop tour de force, it is her perhaps the album’s angry early songs filled with jealously and righteous-rage directed at an unfaithful partner (“Hold Up” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself”) that get most of the radio-love. Yet, the cathartic decision to forgive, and start over for love and family completes the arc beautifully. The accompanying visuals, which include footage of the superstar’s husband and daughter as well as couples from all walks of life, is stunning.

“At Last” – Etta James

The most unapologetically romantic slow-dance–wedding–love-scene song in history, Etta James’s 1960 cover of “At Last” may seem a bit cliché. But from the first note, we all know what’s coming – love, finally! -, and James’ soulful crooning induces a shiver every time, whether we expect it to or not. Case in point, pretty much everyone lost it during Beyonce’s rendition at the 2009 presidential inauguration ball, including the Obamas.