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Let’s Get It On

10 classic love songs to play on Valentine’s Day

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    'Simply Beautiful' Al Green (1972)

    Looking for the musical equivalent of tantric sex? You’ll find it in this song, whose undeniable intensity stems from Green whispering his lustful lyrics across a gentle and slowly grinding arrangement of Southern soul. He uses his falsetto like a master, injecting moans and sighs in extraordinary displays of tension and release. 

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    'I Will Always Love You' Dolly Parton (1973)

    This torch song became an unforgettable hit when Whitney Houston sang it in the 1992 movie The Bodyguard. But Dolly Parton’s original, recorded nearly two decades earlier, still delivers plenty of power and poignancy — especially when you consider the source of that quiver in her voice: On the eve of launching her solo career, Parton sang this as a farewell to Porter Wagoner, her longtime duet partner and mentor.

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    'Distant Lover' Marvin Gaye (1973)

    Although the title track to Marvin Gaye’s 1973 LP Let’s Get It On still reigns as his most erotic classic, this ballad from the same album kindles a more nuanced emotional fire, with Gaye lamenting that a long-distance love affair may be flickering out. Gaye’s vocals glide from his divine falsetto to an incendiary tenor as the ballad unfurls a bittersweet narrative worthy of a film adaptation.

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    'Help Me' Joni Mitchell (1974)

    Joni Mitchell always excels at articulating complex emotions. Here she offers a cautionary tale of trying to resist falling in love with a commitment-phobe who’s likely to run at the first sign the relationship is getting serious. The song’s tumbling melody and billowing arrangement nevertheless convey the intoxicating and (seemingly) carefree pleasures of sex. 

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    'Can’t Hide Love' Earth, Wind & Fire (1975)

    A couple of the signature ballads — “Reasons” and “After the Love Is Gone”— from this powerhouse band describe decaying love, but “Can’t Hide Love” is considerably more optimistic, with lead singer Maurice White crooning about the delicious sexual tension between him and a vacillating paramour. 

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    'Inside My Love' Minnie Riperton (1975)

    A decade before the Parents Music Resource Center appointed itself Lord High Gatekeeper of Explicit Lyrics, Minnie Riperton (the mother of actress Maya Rudolph) recorded, in her angelic soprano, this blunt invitation to devilish deeds. It didn’t chart higher than No. 5 during her tragically short lifetime — Riperton died of breast cancer at 31 in 1979 — but hip-hop sampling and continual airplay on urban radio have made it an R&B classic.  

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    'Sweet Thing' Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (1975)

    It’s unclear whether Chaka Khan is singing from the perspective of the other woman in a clandestine affair or from that of one who’s trying to tame a rolling stone. That ambiguity does nothing to dial down the steamy heat of this classic, in which her vocals raise the temperature with each verse until the song bursts into a controlled erotic burn. 

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    'A House Is Not a Home' Luther Vandross (1981)

    Long after Dionne Warwick’s 1964 rendition of this song, Burt Bacharach and Hal David found one of their greatest lyrical interpreters in Luther Vandross, a former backup singer for David Bowie. Vandross’s silky baritone and conversational phrasing frame this melancholic classic with an unexpected vulnerability. Give it a listen first if you ever need to beg your lover for forgiveness. 

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    'If I Was Your Girlfriend' Prince (1987)

    Is it a love song or a psychosexual thriller? Prince confides that the emotional intimacy between him and his lover can never approach the deeper, intra-gender bond she enjoys with her closest female friends. His accelerated, almost cartoonish falsetto transcends every previous instance of his gender-blending artistry. If you can overlook the daffy vocals, you can almost feel Prince’s heart beating as he yearns for a deeper connection.

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    'Everybody Here Wants You' Jeff Buckley (1998)

    This soul-stirring ballad by the singer and former session musician (his life cut sort at 30) has become a neo-soul staple. The song pays tribute to his girlfriend at the time, Joan Wasser, whose star seemed to shine so brightly in public that Buckley always felt a bit eclipsed. If you’ve ever had to compete for your lover’s attention or, worse, been banished into the friend zone by someone you want to be much more than that to, you’ll feel Buckley’s universal pain. 

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