Love is a thing we all want, but it’s not exactly easy to come by. In fact, it’s probably inevitable that you’ll find yourself in a situation where you are loving on someone that doesn’t love you back. And when that happens, there’s nothing better than listening to a bunch of songs about unrequited love so you can finally feel understood and less alone.
So, without further ado, here are some of our favorite songs about loving a man or woman that doesn’t love you back.
Best Songs About Unrequited Love
Let’s begin with the woman who perhaps sings the best love songs, and forlorn songs, in modern music: Adele.
Someone Like You by Adele
Adele’s second studio album marked something truly extraordinary for the celebrated piano-playing pop artist, providing us with timeless hits like “Rolling in the Deep”, “Set Fire to the Rain”, and “Rumour Has It”.
The album’s closer, “Someone Like You”, served as the second single from the album and received universal acclaim. The simple and soulful piano melody is the sole music behind Adele’s emotional vocals as she sings a sincere and somber song for a past lover who has now “settled down” with someone else.
The emotion comes through powerfully and the imagery is palpable. We have a scene of Adele “turn[ing] up out of the blue uninvited” because for her “it isn’t over” and she was hoping to rekindle the lost love. Unfortunately, he has moved on and she will have to move on as well.
Commercially, the song performed exceedingly well by topping the charts in several countries, marking her first number one single on the UK charts, and becoming the best-selling single of 2011. As of 2022, “Someone Like You” is the fourth best-selling single of the 21st century.
Dancing On My Own by Robyn
A few seconds into “Dancing On My Own” and you may not realize the flux of emotion that is imminent. The song presents like just another electropop song for the clubs, although the mid-tempo beat is more conducive to walking rather than dancing.
It’s when Robyn sings that the carefree vibes of the synth and rhythm gets supplemented by a simplicity and sincerity as Robyn sings about spotting her ex at a club with another woman. Robyn’s “in the corner, watching [him] kiss her” but both literally and metaphorically, he cannot see her despite her “giving it [her] all.” Despite her best efforts, she must face that he no longer loves her and has moved on with someone new.
“Dancing On My Own” performed well upon release in 2010, clinching the number one spot in Sweden where Robyn hails from as well as the peak position of number three on the US Billboard Dance Club Songs list. However, it would create a legacy and become acknowledged as the best song of the decade by Rolling Stone, NME, Stereogum, Slant, Consequence, AP, Insider, Esquire, iNews, Vanyaland, and Audiofemme.
Today, it is regarded as Robyn’s signature song and ironically unites legions of lonely fans all dancing on their own but together.
Heartbreaker by Mariah Carey f/Jay-Z
You couldn’t find two bigger names in pop, R&B, and hip hop than Mariah Carey and Jay-Z in the 1990s so, despite mixed reviews from critics, “Heartbreaker” was bound to be a success. Featured as the lead single on Mariah’s seventh studio album, the song draws inspiration from 1982’s “Attack of the Name Game” for the hook, features catchy refrains, and all is pushed forward by Carey’s undeniable vocal presence.
Lyrically, the song revolves around Carey’s addiction to her lover. In her opinion, his “love’s so good” and “although [she] should, [she] can’t leave [him] alone” because he’s so sweet and “disarming.” Despite knowing his reputation as a player, she “keep[s] on coming back incessantly.” She knew “right from the start [he’d] go and break [her] heart” but she simply cannot resist this person, even though he doesn’t reciprocate or treat her respectfully the way she deserves.
“Heartbreaker” was massively successful, charting on 41 different charts in 25 different countries including number one spots in the US, UK, and New Zealand. The music video, directed by Bret Ratner, would also go down as one of the most expensive videos ever filmed costing over $2.5 million dollars.
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Linger by The Cranberries
“Linger” marked the second single from The Cranberries’ debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? and was the band’s breakthrough single, reaching peak positions of number eight and number fourteen in the US and UK respectively.
At the time, The Cranberries had recently lost their original singer when Dolores O’Riordan arrived to audition. Impressed by her vocal talent, the band gave O’Riordan a cassette that included the music for “Linger”, and she would return a few days later with the lyrics written.
Everything about “Linger” drips emotion from the slow sweeping arpeggios that create a dream-like introduction to the smoothly strummed guitar chords on the lead-in, the soothing strings overlapping all as the drums gently ease us into O’Riordan’s melancholic serenade.
It’s one of those songs that touches your heart and we can feel O’Riordan’s pain and emotion when she erupts into the chorus– “I’m in so deep. You know I’m such a fool for you.” Her love is so deep, but it is unrequited as her lover is holding hands with someone else, “lying all the time”, and treating the relationship like “a game.”
Everything You Want by Vertical Horizon
Alternative rock became a dominating force in mainstream music following the fizzling of the early ‘90s grunge scene, giving rise to lesser known acts like Candlebox, Spacehog, The Verve Pipe, and New Radicals to name just a few.
Vertical Horizon was one such band in the scene and became known for a song called “Everything You Want”, which fuses a trippy tremolo sounding lead guitar effect with tried-and-true clean guitar strumming patterns for an all-around alt-rock cookie cutter classic about unrequited love.
Singer Matt Scannell wrote the lyrics describing a complex person capable of seeing everything around her except the thing that she needs most– the love and support of her friend.
“He’s everything you want. He’s everything you need. He’s everything inside of you that you wish you could be. He says all the right things at exactly the right time, but he means nothing to you and you don’t know why.”
In the final chorus, Scannel raises the stakes as well as the octave of his singing to express the urgency, all while revealing that he is the “he” from the chorus. The words change to “I am everything you want, I am everything you need” because he needs her to know that he loves her and he’s been waiting in the winds for her all this time.
The song performed well and reached the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100, also receiving honors as the “Most Played Single of 2000.” Unfortunately for Vertical Horizon, their future singles would fail to capitalize on the success as the band faded into obscurity.
Motorcycle Drive By by Third Eye Blind
Third Eye Blind’s eponymous debut in 1997 pulled out some mega hits including “Semi-Charmed Life”, “Jumper”, and “How’s It Going to Be”. While it charted modestly, the band’s fusion of hard rock elements, pop sensibility, and lyrical poetry would become influential in defining the sound of music moving into the 2000s and beyond.
“Motorcycle Drive By”, while not a single, exemplifies the beauty and elegance present in everything that singer-songwriter Stephan Jenkins pens. The song tells a story of Jenkins who has traveled to New York, presumably from San Francisco where the band hails from, to visit a friend. The two enjoy a deep friendship, but Jenkins wants more. Unfortunately, his feelings are unrequited–
“That’s when I knew that I could never have you. I knew that before you did. Still I’m the one who’s stupid.”
Despite knowing that she will never reciprocate, he still celebrates her beauty and paints a picture of her driving by on a motorcycle and smiling despite cigarette ash flying in her eyes. He expresses that he would like to do “things” that she doesn’t “believe in”, that he “would like to build something”, but she’ll “never see it happen.”
From the beginning, “Motorcycle Drive By” is an acoustic ballad with clean guitar tones and minimal presence from any other instrument, but the end of the second verse shows something truly special as Jenkins sings “I’ve never been so alone, and I’ve, I’ve never been so alive!” and the rest of the band comes crashing in with distorted guitars, drums, and a headbanging rhythm that helps express that unrequited love so well.
The song was never a single, but the musical crescendo and sophisticated poetry of Stephan Jenkins make this one an absolute must-listen.
Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team) by Taking Back Sunday
Taking Back Sunday has enjoyed a long and fruitful career in the subgenre of rock music called “emo.” In fact, their 2002 single “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team)” is one of the most iconic tunes of the era, introducing the trademark dual vocals by lead vocalist Adam Lazzara and rhythm guitarist John Nolan who would depart from the band only to reunite almost a decade later amidst distorted guitars, screaming, and a whole lot of angst.
“Cute Without the ‘E’” is a treasure trove of time-tested emo slogans ranging from “And will you tell all your friends you’ve got your gun to my head” to “I know you well enough to know you never loved me”, giving MySpace era kids ample ammo to poignantly point at their unrequited crushes, failed relationships, and other causes of romantic heartache.
The juxtaposition of clean tone guitar chords, heavy distortion, screaming, wailing, and near sobbing through the emotional rawness of the lyrics is enough to ease the pain of any romantic mishap or stint of unrequited love. Like all the best music, it’s pure therapy in the form of sound.
Fans of the 2000s emo and pop punk scene regard this song as one of the greats, and it is widely played at emo-themed parties and karaoke bars. Just make sure you and your friends work out who’s singing what part when the vocals overlap. You can’t both be Adam.
Your Boyfriend Sucks by The Ataris
The Ataris would become moderately successful during the early 2000s emo and pop punk scene with singles like “In This Diary” and their cover of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”, but “Your Boyfriend Sucks” would appear two albums and three years before that time.
Although the band was relatively unknown at the time and the song was not a single, it is an all-around great rock song combining elements of raw skate punk and emo-alt rock for a gritty, emotional joyride. Singer Kris Roe urges a friend to give up on a constantly neglectful, unfaithful, dishonest boyfriend and instead consider him as a romantic option. Unfortunately, it’s to no avail–
“Finally got the nerve to tell you how much you mean to me. You said that I was your best friend, a real sweet guy– but that’s all I’d ever be. And I’m still here, waiting there to catch you if you fall. I don’t know why I care so much when I shouldn’t care at all.”
Although the music is your basic pop-punk fare, the outro is unique as all instruments break down and slow down as Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale monologue comes shining through amidst meandering guitar chords and omnipresent drum fills. It’s an absolute delight.
Grenade by Bruno Mars
“Grenade” is the second single from Bruno Mars’ debut studio album Doo-Wops & Hooligans, and it almost was presented as a 1960’s style surf-rock song until it was reworked completely only two days before recording it.
Instead, we get a soulful ballad detailing heartbreak and unrequited love as Mars croons about his unappreciated, unacknowledged attempts to illustrate his dedication to a hopeful lover. “Yes, I would die for ya, baby, but you won’t do the same.”
Despite the barebones beginning and almost complete breakdown of pop tropes, the second verse brings in a booming beat that brings a rhythm to the song and gets us bobbing our heads in time. Although the vibe is somber and melancholic, Mars still finds a way to make it catchy and dancey in perfect pop fashion.
Commercially, it was well-regarded and skyrocketed to the number one position in fifteen countries including the United States. It would be the third number one single by the then relatively new face in the music scene, and would indicate the greatness that would follow Mars as he continued remaining prevalent in the scene thereafter.
Work Out by J. Cole
While most songs about unrequited love are sung from the hopeful lover, J. Cole flips the trope on its head with a tune about entering a situation with a non-committal mindset from the jump. A swag-heavy uninhibited J. Cole acknowledges that “we’ve got a good thing” but “girl, I can’t be your man. No, ma’am” urging her to let go and just enjoy the moment, even if it’s just for one night.
“Work Out” marked J. Cole’s lead single from his 2011 debut album Cole World: A Sideline Story. Commercially, the track performed well, featuring in the top 20 positions on numerous US charts including the Billboard Hot 100. The single only enjoyed number one status, however, on the Billboard Rhythmic chart.
There’s a lot to love about the tune, from the catchy hook to the carefree vibe and effortless flow from J. Cole to the Daft Punk-esque robot singing backup vocals intermittently to the Paula Abdul inspired outro.
While fellow rapper Nas felt personally disappointed by this song, it’s an overall great song and worth a spot on any party playlist.
Just a Friend by Biz Markie
Rapper and funnyman Biz Markie is known for many achievements, but none are quite as widely known as his 1989 single “Just a Friend” where he combines storytelling rap with his own personal brand of “singing” for hilarious effect.
The Biz gives us a cautionary tale never to get romantically involved with “a girl who says she just has a friend”, as he unfolds a narrative over three verses where a girl he is courting and dating continually alleges that she has “a friend” but no boyfriend. Upon surprising her at her college, Markie walks in to find “a fella tongue-kissin’ my girl in the mouth.”
From the piano melody to Biz’s commanding yet smooth rapping voice juxtaposed with his hilariously strained style of singing, “Just a Friend” is endlessly catchy and lets us have a laugh at his expense while also providing a cautionary tale.
“Just a Friend” reached the Top 40 position in several countries including a peak position of number nine in the United States, and would become the most successful single of Biz Markie’s career.
Ms. Fat Booty by Mos Def
Mos Def was no newbie to the scene when he released his first solo album in 1999 Black on Both Sides and the lead single “Ms. Fat Booty” that, despite the lighthearted lyrical content, subtly showcased an unparalleled talent for vocal delivery and storytelling.
Mos Def paints a pretty picture from the get-go of a girl giving out “the fake cell phone and name”, an illustrious yet elusive kind of lady who “likes cats with big things– jewels chip, money clip, phone flip, the six range.” Mos approaches her but is denied immediately only to be given a second chance later upon discovering he and Ms. Fat Booty herself share a common friend who introduces them.
The two get together and begin a casual fling, hooking up intermittently for almost nine months, but Mos wants more. He divulges that he’s experiencing “flu-like symptoms when shorty not around, I need more than to knock it down, I’m really trying to lock it down.” Unfortunately, “commitment is something she can’t manage, wake up the next morning, she gone like it was magic.”
With a beat featuring samples of Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead”, superior lyrical flow, and a penchant for vivid imagery, “Ms. Fat Booty” is an underrated masterpiece that shows why Mos Def is one of the greatest rappers of the ‘90s as well as of all time.
Many artists write songs about unrequited love, romantic misadventures, heartache, and pain in order to cope with the feelings and emotions while giving us a chance to express our own pain and address it. A great song gives us some reprieve from our personal problems, but in many cases it’s also a cathartic experience that helps us overcome and move past the hurt.