Love songs seem to fall into two categories. Most of them are about new, fresh, optimistic love. Then there are those other love songs written with desperation, grief, and misanthropy -- and the love is always unrequited. These heartbreakers are about the people who’ll never find love. Songs so dark and void of hope, their lyrics could be read as a suicide note. These are the 10 best of those types in no particular order.
You Can’t Put Your Arm Around a Memory
By 1978 when Johnny Thunders released this song, the New York Dolls had been broken up for two years after they flamed out in a drug-fueled crash landing with Malcom McLaren at the helm. “You Can’t Put Your Arm Around a Memory” has been given several interpretations over the years. Some say it’s about heroin, others claim it’s about his strange affair with “baby groupie” Sable Starr. In her Thunders bio (Johnny Thunders… In Cold Blood) Nina Antonia says Thunders’ wrote it years before he was a New York Doll and before he ever started shooting dope. Ultimately, it’s about loss.
I Only Think of You
Another song that could be about lost love or drugs; the best ones always straddle that juxtaposition.
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
A man breaks up with a Soho prostitute after they fell into a shameful romantic relationship. It’s a tale as old as time. According to Marc Almond, this kitchen-sink drama was inspired by the characters he’d observe from this window of his Brewer Street flat. They were the thrill-seekers who’d frequent the seedy Pink Piano Bar and become seduced by the Raymond Revue Bar drag queens.
“Strange how you stopped loving me, how you stopped needing me, when she came along.” Brutal.
Always on My Mind
“Always on My Mind” was kicking around for a couple years. BJ Thomas and Gwen McCrae sang versions of the song, but both came and went unnoticed. Then Elvis recorded it a couple weeks after he and Priscilla split; releasing it as a B-side on October 31, 1972. While The King didn’t write it, his pain and reflection gave it a sense of gravitas and regret.
Too Love Somebody
The Bee Gees
The popular consensus is that Barry Gibb wrote “To Love Somebody” with Otis Redding in mind less than a year before his untimely demise, but it was actually written for his manager, Robert Stigwood. “It was for Robert,” Gibb said unabashedly in a 2001 Mojo interview. “He meant a great deal to me. I don't think it was a homosexual affection but a tremendous admiration for this man's abilities and gifts.”
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
When Graham Nash ended his extra-marital affair with Joni Mitchell after he found out she was shacked up with Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel, he wrote “Letter to a Cactus Tree.” Nash’s friend Neil Young wrote “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” about the breakup. Hundreds of cover versions have been recorded (including Saint Etienne’s sublime rendition in 1990), but Young’s 1970 original is the version that conveys true heartbreak.
You’re Gonna Need Me
Dionne Warwick has made a career of singing about heartbreak. The Bee Gees even wrote a song titled “Heartbreaker” for her; her most successful song of the ‘80s. This was another throwaway B-side written by Holland–Dozier–Holland after Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s partnership imploded. “Walk on By” might be the quintessential Warwick single, but “You’re Gonna Need Me” is her song with the sharpest teeth.
The Modern Lovers
Jonathan Richman explained “I’m Straight” best in 1971: “This song is for the time when you’re a boyfriend and you see a girlfriend going down the street with someone you think very little of, and get scared, and finally get the nerve to call her and tell her what a fool you think she’s being… and then there’s a moment on the phone where you get nervous and your heart starts to get a little sick and you get very sad…” We’ve all had our Hippie Johnny to bear.
Not For Me
A dark, negative, nihilistic love song for the ages. To be able to observe love all around you and realize it will never be deserved or obtained is what this specific genre of music is all about. Written by Bobby Darin who died young and enjoyed only fleeting moments of love, but still died broken-hearted.
Enjoy these songs and several hundred honorable mentions here spotify:
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