10 Greatest Love Songs (That Aren't Actually Love Songs)

In case you haven't set foot in a grocery store in the past week only to be assaulted by a red and pink barrage to the eyes, let us clue you in: Valentine's Day is on the way. You've no doubt began prepping (or you've at least convinced yourself that waiting until the last minute is a good idea): ordering flowers, picking out snazzy duds, and getting a special sexytime iTunes playlist ready.

But wait one minute, before you drag that mp3 into that immaculately arranged mix. It's easy to be fooled by smooth grooves and sexy beats, so we've went and selected a couple of offenders, songs that trick you into thinking they're love songs. They're not, and we've got 'em, the Top 10 Love Songs (That Aren't Actually Love Songs).

Tammy Wynette, "Stand By Your Man" [1975]

Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" is a wrecking ball, heavier than the bleakest grindcore record Relapse is about to put out, more crushing than that guy Skrillex is about to sign to OWSLA, and as sexually nihilistic as Lil Wayne's "Love Me." Not that you'd notice at first. The lilting, twangy Telecaster, warm piano, swelling pedal steel, and Wynette's melted butter-on-a-brass plate voice go out of the way to obscure the point, sweetening the ultimately bitter point that she manages to sneak in there at the very beginning: "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman." You're just going to have to put up with your man's lying, lowdown dirty shit for your whole life.

"And he'll have good times/doing things that you don't understand/but if you love him/you'll forgive/even though he's hard to understand/and if you love him/oh, be proud of him/cause after all he's just a man," Wynette sings, just before she sends her voice into the stratosphere, belting out the classic chorus, "Stand by your man/give him an arm to cling to/and something warm to come to/when nights are cold and lonely."

"Something warm?" Oh, Tammy! It's a sentiment so rooted in tragedy it should be unbearable to listen to, but just like The Crystals "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" or Antony & The Johnsons' "Fistful of Love," it's too gorgeous to turn away. In the end, maybe Wynette gets the last laugh: That "he's just a man" dismissal, so grotesque in its submission (or sarcasm?), hits harder than any kick to the soft stuff. -- Jason P. Woodbury

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Lionel Richie, "Hello" [1984]

Lionel Richie is known for little else other than having an afro, a mustache, siring Nicole Richie, and singing "Hello." If you were skimming the R&B radio stations in the Valley (so many of them, I know) you might tune into this song, think "Oh, cute," and go about your day. But as this video clearly illustrates, there's a lot going on in this song that isn't so kosher.

Richie plays a teacher who follows a blind pottery student around, watching her from the shadows as she eats lunch, talks with her friends, and does Jazzercize. He even goes so far as to call her on the phone and breathe into the receiver like Brian Peppers. In the end, turns out the girl was just as creepy as her professor, and she made a bust of his cranium in his honor. Weeeird.

In Richie's defense, he hated the video, created by "Beat It" director Bob Giraldi. Claiming the story had zero relationship to the song, Giraldi responded to the Motown legend, "You're not creating the story, I am." When Richie said the bust looked nothing like him, Giraldi reminded him, "Uh duh, the chick was blind, 'ya doofus." What a dick.

In high school, I did the whole unrequited love lap so many times that I can tell you all about how much "love" I felt for girls I never expressed it to. I followed plenty of chicks through the hallway, hoping they'd turn around. But instead of softly saying, "Hello? Is it me you're looking for?" they said, "Whaddya want?"

Joey Comeau said it best -- unrequited love is a waste of time. Walk it off. Go find someone worth your time. And stop being so damn creepy about it. -- Troy Farah

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Wilco, "I'll Fight" [2009]

In the world of popular music, any song is a love song by default until proven otherwise. And of course, everyone wants to be safe and protected. It's a plus if you're being protected by a romantic man that writes you songs with sweet ditties and wants nothing more than to keep you from harm. He'll even die for you if necessary.

"I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go for you/ I'll fight, I'll fight, I'll fight, I'll fight for you/ I'll die, I'll die, I'll die, I'll die for you/ I will, I will, I will"

Pretty sweet, huh? I'm pretty sure this song has been played at many-a-wedding without a second thought.

Nay. Screw you Jeff Tweedy and your lack of enunciation. Aside from the chorus, the lyrics to Wilco's "I'll Fight" read nothing like a love song. You see, back in the days of the Civil War, rich folk could pay men desperate for dollars to go to war in place of their beloved sons. The song is written from that soldier's perspective. It's about a desperate man in a dangerous situation, not about a desperate man willing to lay down his life for his love.

"I took your place, a deal was made, and I was paid/ And the gold as I was told was a place where my body could be laid/ And we will steal your life and die old in better homes/ Surrounded by your peers without suffering or fear/ Grandchildren far and near/ And none will shed a tear/ For the love no longer here"

It's pretty easy to decipher when you break it down. Maybe, deep down, we all subconsciously want Tweedy writing love songs about us, but fine... I guess this is the nobler story. -- Christina Caldwell

See also:

-Q&A: Wilco's John Stirratt on The Whole Love, The Autumn Defense, and Lacking Irony -Live Review: Wilco @ Gammage Auditorium, 1/21/12

Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time" [1984]

Let's face it: It's damn near impossible to hear the first three chords of Cyndi Lauper's 1984 chart topper "Time After Time" and not think of that one time you put this song on repeat, downed two bottles of Pinot Grigio and a pack of cigarettes and cried, alone. Okay, maybe that is just me... but I doubt it? (Crickets)

That's why saying this quintessential '80s ballad wasn't necessarily inspired by a romantic relationship is kind of like being the guy who says the sky isn't blue; it's just how the human eye interprets white light. Everyone hates that guy, though that guy is, well, technically right. As for the inspiration of "Time After Time," the proof is in the lyrics, people.

When record label execs demanded one more song out of Lauper and Rob Hyman (who co-wrote and sang backup vocals on the track), both artists suggest a case of writer's block in the recording studio was the real stimulus for this classic "love song." Lyrics such as "the second hand unwinds," referencing Lauper's producer's backwards-winding watch, and "the drum beats out of time,'' about looking around the studio and just going with what you see (kind of like Steve Carell stammering "I love lamp" in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). The song's chorus, as well as the verse, hint at a less-than-poetic inspiration, too. "You said go slow, I fall behind" Lauper sings, referencing the shift from an upbeat reggae beat to a slower, more romantic speed.

So, yeah, it's a song packed with "nothing special" inspiration -- though the end result is pretty damn sweet, isn't it? -- Nicole Smith

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Green Day, "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" [1997]

One of the most invigorating career moves for rock bands that are painted as two-dimensional tough guys or hapless goofballs is the soft-hearted four-chord ballad. Though rare is the "sentimental acoustic wedding song" that also cashes in big on graduation ceremony slideshows.

The seemingly fond recollections in Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" are assumed to be the stuff of nostalgia. In fact, lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong has said he initially penned the song as a somber send-off for an ex, but then later decided it needed more of a fuck-off tone (thus the addition of a parenthesized title).

It's also rumored the song is aimed at Green Day's early Berkeley punk scene following that abandoned the group after it achieved massive mainstream success. It's one thing to know that a slow-dance classic is actually a bitter breakup song, but I can taste the betrayal felt by late '90s Hot Topic loiterers knowing that one of the most overused prom finales of all time is also a straight-faced kiss off to self-satisfied punk ideology.

Whereas Blink-182 ad-libbed spoof lyrics in place of the most emotionally raw lines in their suicide ballad "Adam's Song" when I saw them open for Green Day as a teenager, Armstrong played "Good Riddance" an hour later without flinching. Very misleading, but some would say very mature as well. -- Chase Kamp

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-Green Day's New Song "Epic as Fuck"? Not Even Close. -Throwback Thursday: Green Day's Dookie

Al Green, "Still in Love With You" [1972]

Look -- there's no going wrong with Al Green. The guy could sing about taking out the trash and make it sound sexy. The guy could sing about running to the grocery store for some two-percent and make it sound sexy. The guy could sing about Jesus and make it sound sexy.

So don't mistake it: "Still in Love With You" is sexy, and it's totally romantic. But if you listen closely, what's Al saying here?

And if you let me know how you feel/Let me know if this love is really real But it seems to me/That I'm wrapped up in your love

Green's certainly smitten, but what does his would be lover think of him? "If you want me to be," he sings, "I'm still in love with you." Green's got plenty of odes to fidelity, but here his affection is not quite requited, though chances are that the lady isn't going to be able to resist when he hits that high note. -- Jason P. Woodbury

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LL Cool J, "Hey Lover" [1995]

LL Cool J is the undisputed champion of making sexy hip-hop love songs for the ladies. Let's be clear: no one does it better. From "I Need Love" to "Doin' It," Uncle L has dominated with hits for decades. In fact, one could argue that the entire last half of LL's career has been propelled entirely by sultry cuts designed to get the ladies worked up. It's his bread and butter and he's really good at it. But upon closer examination of one of Cool J's most popular songs, "Hey Lover", I've realized that this song displays a much darker version of the 45-year-old New York rapper: as a creepy stalker, following a woman he's interested in with an almost obsessive manner.

The first thing that stood out to me about this song, is LL's opening line about seeing the girl he is obsessing over...with her actual boyfriend. Not only is she smiling, but she's holding a Coach bag indicating that she seems pretty happy in her relationship. However, the moment that LL makes eye contact with the lovely lady, he immediately makes it entire life's goal to make this woman his. This propels LL into super-stalker status, including driving past her every morning at the bus stop, fantasizing about the various sexual things he would do to her, and stalking her at the mall. The Boyz II Men chorus even indicates that "this is more than a crush," which is very strange considering that it seems that LL hasn't even had a conversation with this woman.

It's pretty clear that LL doesn't need help getting play, but on "Hey Lover", LL takes it to the new level by considering breaking up a seemingly decent relationship for the sake of fulfilling his carnal urges. Not even all the lip licking in the world can hide how shady that is. -- Jaron Ikner

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Rilo Kiley, "Does He Love You?" [2004]

"All the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate," belts out Jenny Lewis in the beginning of "Does He Love You?," the now-infamous melodramatic high school anthem of 2004. Casually listening to the song in the car while driving with friends, it's easy to miss the subtle, bitter tone of Lewis' vocals outside of the chorus: "Does he love you? Does he love you? Will he hold your tiny face in his hands?"

The narrative of the song features a love triangle involving the speaker, who's visited by the same married man who writes her letters twice a week. The speaker is hesitant to admit his love, "I think he loves me," but yet is convinced, "when he leaves her [his wife], he's coming out to California." Yet, the husband gives his wife a ring, and she's pregnant, and by all accounts leads the "perfect" life: they share a place by the park and run a shop for antiques downtown; he loves her, Lewis broodingly admits, and the two of them will soon become three.

The speaker picks up the phone late at night to a confession by the wife who admits through her tears that she only married her husband because she felt "her time was running out," but now she does love him, and with their child they are "complete." Then the husband calls her in denial to insist he will leave his wife and come out to California, yet the speaker knows this isn't true because he's "distant," and addressing directly to the wife, she sings, "your husband will never leave you, he will never leave you for me..."

Happy Valentine's Day, right? -- Yezmin Villarreal

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Mark Kozelek, "Metropol 47" [2000]

The thing about Mark Kozelek, be it in his solo material or work with Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, is that he makes almost perfect make out music. The slow rhythms and atmospheric way he hits notes with his guitar and vocal chords really set the mood. Just don't pay attention too closely: his lyrics are absolutely morose. Sure, if you and your partner are on some mutually damaged Blue Valentine vibes, the lyrics to songs like "24" and "Katy Song" might be fitting for your nihilistic amorous adventures, but if your levels of serotonin (or any one of the other neurotransmitters hypothesized to be linked with depression) are normal, lines like "glass on the pavement under my shoe, that's all my life amounts to without you" will probably feel off-putting.

The song "Metropol 47" really straddles that line between perfect make out song and a statement on the bleakness of life.The song structure is simple and folky; it's basically two chords played with a very percussive strumming pattern. The lyrics are all about desire and affection, but there is a creepy undercurrent. Every line is a command. It's not like Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," in which the narrator is merely outlining his desires without being too imposing. Here, the narrator is imperatively telling a person to do stuff like "flash a smile and face at me," or "speak your native tongue to me." He's doing this out of a sense of desperation, eventually commanding his lover to "buy me one more day".

The lyrics are about vainly fighting the inevitability of a relationship ending. There might be some zen in acknowledging this impermanence, but there is a chance the person you are making out with will think too much into these lyrics and your selection of this song and decide it's not worth it. Or they will take its carpe diem message to heart and make out with increased fervor. They might just think it's a pretty song. Consider all these outcomes when you make your next make out playlist. -- Mike Bogumill

See also:

-Review: Mark Kozelek, Rock 'N' Roll Singer

Seal, "Kiss from a Rose" [1995]

Never mind all of it. Never mind the fact that "kisses" and "roses" are Valentine's Day staples. Forget those lyrics, about obsession, about the intersecting sensations of pleasure and pain. "Kiss from a Rose" isn't a song about dark-hued love; it's about Batman, specifically the rubber-suited one from 1995's Batman Forever (the first appearance of "Bat nipples").

Sure, you can logically argue that "Kiss from a Rose" came out in 1994, appearing on Seal, the second self-titled LP by the English singer. You can remind us all that it hit the charts, promptly fell off, and was rescued by Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher when he felt it deserved a spot in his theatrical, colorful take on the Batman mythos. You could also argue that the lyrics are resolutely Batman-free, with no mention of capes, cowls, fearing the night, or Robin. You could also argue that it is a love song, albeit a sort of vague, not particularly well-defined love song, and that its lyrics have nothing to do with Jim Carrey, Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, and Nicole Kidman.

But -- and here's the operative but -- if you don't immediately think of Seal stomping around on a Gotham rooftop, emoting wildly in front of a flashing Bat-Signal, you're totally missing the point. -- Jason P. Woodbury

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-Chicano Batman Descends Onto Phoenix -10 Greatest TV Themes of All Time -Holy Playlist, Batman! Seven Songs in Honor of The Dark Knight Rises

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