A funny thing happened to Sara Bareilles on the road to stardom in 2007. She wrote “Love Song’’ all about not wanting to write one just to appease her record label with a big hit. And then the song actually became a huge hit.
It was a wry commentary on how we still want and expect to hear love songs, especially on the radio. Few subjects in music sound as sweet as matters of the heart.
Of course, we all define the form differently. Is it a celebration of all the ways love is grand (the Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand’’)? Or is it a bittersweet memory of how it went wrong (Adele, “Rolling in the Deep’’)?
With Valentine’s Day lurking, I spent some time with recent love songs across genres. Some of them are popular, others should be, but they all say something about how powerful music can be as the soundtrack to feeling moonstruck.
Bruno Mars, “It Will Rain’’
No need to ask: He’s a smooth operator. Reminiscent of Beyoncé’s “Halo’’ (which, by the way, is my favorite love song of the past few years), “It Will Rain’’ is pure sensation. Those silky vocals glide over the sweeping melodies, and Mars scores bonus points for saying it’ll rain without his lady’s love. Bill Withers, he of “Ain’t No Sunshine,’’ would be proud.
Lady Gaga, “You and I’’
Unless you’re counting “Bad Romance,’’ I don’t think of Gaga in the context of love songs. She’s got other things on her mind: fame (“Paparazzi’’), exotic men (“Alejandro’’), Madonna (“Born This Way’’). The same aversion could be attributed to Kelly Clarkson’s repertoire. (Or as a colleague recently put it: “It’s always a kiss-off - I don’t need you, I’m gaining weight, and no one can stop me.’’) “You and I,’’ however, is Gaga’s sturdy salute to two kindred spirits, and it’s as memorable as anything Elton John wrote in the ’70s.
Paul McCartney, “My Valentine’’
As one of two originals on McCartney’s new “Kisses on the Bottom,’’ a jazz-pop collection of songs he grew up with, “My Valentine’’ is a reflection of the album’s after-hours elegance. Not since Chet Baker has the notion of calling your beloved your valentine sounded quite so seductive.
Rihanna, “We Found Love’’
It’s rare for a love song to appeal to the heart as much as the feet. Like Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,’’ “We Found Love’’ is one of those anthems best heard with the sun out and the windows down. The video is almost as beautiful as the song.
Hayes Carll, “Another Like You’’
The country canon is full of punch lines masquerading as odes to love (Behold: “Whiskey, If You Were a Woman’’). With “(We’re Not) the Jet Set,’’ George Jones and Tammy Wynette were among the first duet partners to make the love song so damn amusing. Decades later, John Prine and Iris DeMent followed that up with “In Spite of Ourselves.’’ Carll is the latest country singer to tickle the funny bone with a he-said-she-said exchange between two opposites: a liberal and a conservative.
Lana Del Rey, “Video Games’’
Grab a tissue and cue the smoke motion, because “Video Games’’ puts a tear in my eye every time. Love her or loathe her - and there’s hardly any middle ground - Del Rey pulled off a stunning performance on this sleepy-eyed ballad about fixating on little moments that mean so much. I don’t know how you whistle someone’s name, but I really want to find out when Del Rey croons that line like the second coming of Julie London.
Leonard Cohen, “Crazy to Love You’’
The first lines go: “Had to go crazy to love you/ Had to go down to the pit/ Had to do time in the tower/ Begging my crazy to quit.’’ And when it’s Leonard Cohen singing those fateful words, the well just got a little deeper. A bare-bones ballad on Cohen’s new album, “Old Ideas,’’ the song is delicately fingerpicked on acoustic guitar, recalling Cohen’s earliest work.
The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew in Drag’’
Ugh. We’ve all been there: You fall in love with someone only to realize they’re not who you thought they were. Leave it to Stephin Merritt to write an incredibly catchy love song about going head over heels for a guy who dresses as a doll. The lead single from “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,’’ the Magnetic Fields’ forthcoming album, “Andrew in Drag’’ is the most gender-bending fun pop music has had since, say, RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work).’’