What are the greatest love songs? That's almost as hard to answer as the question, "What makes an ideal lover?" How romantic a particular song seems depends in part on the circumstances -- a Paul McCartney ballad that sounds terminally soppy to an unattached listener might seem the epitome of amour to a couple in the first blush of love.
With that in mind, what follows is meant less as a definitive list than as a set of suggestions. How you act on them is up to you and your sweetie.
Ten Great Love Songs
* "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell). Though the interplay between Marvin and Tammi on the chorus is full of drama, it's the key change on the final chorus that lifts this single above the rest.
* "Without You" (Harry Nilsson). This verges on being a lost-love lament, but there's too much hope and passion in Nilsson's voice to take this as an ending.
* "Always and Forever" (Heatwave). A slow-dance classic, this ballad builds to its climax with eloquent simplicity.
* "Just the Way You Are" (Billy Joel). Never mind that Joel left the woman he wrote this for; the lithe, swinging melody and plain-spoken sentiment stand up.
* "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (Roberta Flack). No song has ever captured the first blush of romance better than this Ewan McColl ballad.
* "When a Man Loves a Woman" (Percy Sledge). Few songs have ever presented real-life passion with the sense of drama this song delivers. Although Michael Bolton's rendition has its points (see main story), Sledge's single is perfect for lovers who are also soul fans.
* "Love Me Tender" (Elvis Presley). No matter how many times this recording is imitated, nobody quite gets the song's balance of sweetness and sincerity as perfectly as Presley. As cliched as his croon may sound elsewhere, it's still a heart-melter here.
* "With or Without You" (U2). Despite the ambivalence of the lyric, there's something unmistakably romantic about the way Bono's artfully restrained vocal tugs against the gentle thrum of the band.
* "I Can't Stop Loving You" (Ray Charles). Other singers might have let the corny backing chorus and string-drenched arrangement overwhelm them, yet Charles not only cuts through the froth but conveys the sort of sincerity that makes you take the lyric at face value. An oldie, but a goodie.
* "I Will Always Love You" (Whitney Houston). Say what you will for Houston's lack of subtlety elsewhere, but here her over-the-top delivery so intensifies the effect of the melody that only the stoniest cynics (or most-dedicated Houston-haters) could listen without being moved.
* Roxy Music, "Avalon" (Warner Bros. 23686). Between its sumptuous sound and the quavering beauty of Bryan Ferry's voice, this album generates an aura that makes unromantic thoughts impossible.
* Tony Bennett, "The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album" (Fantasy 439). Though it could be taken simply as a classic jazz vocal session, no sooner does Bennett sing "The Touch of Your Lips" or "My Foolish Heart," than most listeners will find themselves thinking less about jazz and more about love.
* Anita Baker, "Rapture" (Elektra 60444). Between the sensual pulse of the music and the satiny purr of Baker's voice, these songs come on like the aural equivalent of champagne, roses and candlelight.
* Frank Sinatra, "In the Wee Small Hours" (Capitol 46571). Funny, isn't it, that an album seemingly obsessed with loneliness would be so perfect for togetherness?
* Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On" (Motown 314 530 055). Despite the frankly erotic nature of the material, Gaye's loverman is such an unabashed romantic that his carnal desires come across as almost noble. Now, that's pillow-talk!
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear excerpts from the 10 great love songs, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6148 after you hear the greeting.