The '80s were a strange time for country music. The decade began with the Urban Cowboy craze and ended with the famed Class of '89, with the sound of country radio swinging wildly between pop crossover and neotraditional country in the intervening years. The country love song, a staple of the genre throughout its history, also changed shape throughout the decade, at times embracing pop gloss and at others veering into more rock- and folk-tinged territory.
Our list of the 10 best love songs of the '80s is a surprisingly mixed bag, with efforts by Nashville veterans Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Dolly Parton enduring alongside the works of alt-country upstarts Lucinda Williams and Rodney Crowell. It's proof that, despite many folks' justifiable hatred of the schmaltz that dominated the decade's early years, there were always more nuanced, thoughtful love songs on offer — you just had to look a little harder to find them.
10. "Your Love," Tammy Wynette
Tammy Wynette struggled during the 80s, faced as she was with a landscape that saw her sound and image as terribly outdated. But her 1987 album Higher Ground, a rootsy return-to-form that followed unconvincing attempts to rebrand herself as a crossover act, contains some of her most underloved gems. The best of these is lead single "Your Love," a joyous ode to the love's restorative power that features uncredited backing vocals from none other than Ricky Skaggs.
9. "I Always Get Lucky with You," George Jones
Only George Jones could draw such a moving vocal performance from a song as unsubtle as "I Always Get Lucky with You." Originally a non-single from Merle Haggard's 1981 album Big City, Jones managed in 1983 to make the song's double-entendres sound like sincere professions of love, giving him his ninth and final solo No. 1 country hit.
8. "Love is Alive," The Judds
William Shakespeare has nothing on the Judds. On this essential cut from their 1984 debut, Why Not Me, the duo takes flowery metaphors and abstractions of love to task, instead finding it much closer to home. "Love is a man and he's mine," Wynonna declares at the end of each verse, putting a fine point on the song's no-nonsense approach to romantic love.
7. "Ocean Front Property," George Strait
"I've got some ocean front property in Arizona," George Strait sings on this iconic track from his 1987 album of the same name, proving that the long-reigning King of Country is both an irrepressible charmer and a very bad liar.
6. "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried," Rodney Crowell
Among the 80s' more unlikely commercial successes was singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who cut his teeth singing harmony for Emmylou Harris and writing essential outlaw cuts like "Bluebird Wine" and "I Ain't Living Long Like This." The best-remembered of the record-breaking five No. 1 country hits from 1988's Diamonds & Dirt is the rockabilly-flavored "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried," on which Crowell cheerfully affirms his devotion to a partner he's clearly wronged one too many times.
5. "Miami, My Amy," Keith Whitley
Keith Whitley's too-brief career — which ended in 1989, when he tragically succumbed to alcoholism — spawned several of the decade's defining hits, including "Miami My Amy," a moving portrait of a bicoastal relationship that culminates with the narrator's decision to move across the country so he can be closer to his beloved Amy. Swoon.
4. "Money," KT Oslin
"80s Ladies" phenom KT Oslin was no stranger to nuanced depictions of love and life. But "Money," a little remembered single from her 1988 album This Woman, is as straightforward as they come: "I don't need money," Oslin croons over shimmery, synth-tinged production. "All I need is you."
3. "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You," Dolly Parton
Even during her peak years as a crossover artist, which began with 1977's "Here I Come Again" and concluded with "9 to 5" in 1983, Dolly Parton declared her continued fealty to country by delivering songs like the steel-drenched waltz, "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You." Co-written by Pebe Sebert — best known as mom to pop star Kesha, who recorded the song as a duet with Parton in 2017 — the song describes a romantic connection so strong that memories of former lovers barely even register.
2. "Side of the Road," Lucinda Williams
Released an entire decade before 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the album widely considered her masterpiece, Lucinda Williams' self-titled third LP is no less of a landmark. One of its many high points is "Side of the Road," which radically asserts that romantic love and self-reliance don't have to be mutually exclusive.
1. "Love at the Five and Dime," Nanci Griffith
Nanci Griffith's self-penned saga of a couple whose love story begins with a fateful waltz across the aisles of the local Woodworth's is one of the single greatest achievements of the decade. Kathy Mattea's 1986 version went to No. 3 on the country charts — the beginning of an impressive run at radio for Mattea — but it's Griffith's more plainspoken rendition that endures.
READ MORE: 15 Best '90s Country Love Songs