These top 10 songs are so good. Like so crazy good. Like the only Kate Bush songs better are Side 2 of Hounds of Love and Disk 2 of Aerial. I struggled with how to order these but I think I got it right for my definition of right.
Now can I get real a second? For just a millisecond?
10. Love and Anger
“Love and Anger” (official video) was the third single from 1989’s The Sensual World and it reached #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in the USA. That makes it the only one of her songs to reach #1 on any US chart because we in the US have something musically wrong with us. I played this song to death during my first year as a DJ at KTUH. Bush’s early mentor, David Gilmour, is featured on guitar on this track and (generously) his work is a subtle part of the whole and even when he solos. Famously, Bush struggled to figure out with what this song was all about and released it without ever quite figuring it out. In a way, its great that one of her songs perplexed her as much as some of her songs have perplexed her fans.
9. Symphony in Blue
“Symphony in Blue” was the second single from 1978’s Lionheart but only in Canada and Japan (everywhere else it was “Wow”). The Canadian single was pressed in blue vinyl. Kids, back during the 70’s and 80’s, records pressed on novelty colors and in novelty shapes were a popular collector’s item. Most of them could successfully be played on your record player. Its worth remembering that Kate Bush was only 20 when her second album came out. This song is sort of her “in my room” tune – she talks about her room, her philosophy and other things she enjoys (specifically sex). While it sort of screams “this song was created in the 1970’s,” it is everything that is good about 70’s music. Musically and lyrically, I feel like this is Bush at her least self-conscious. She’s crafted a great song and just plays it with confidence and perhaps just a little hint of cheekiness.
8. Eat the Music
Oh, that video. So problematic. I played this song a bunch during my last year at KTUH. Oddly, when I was downloading songs into my library at the dawn of MP3s, I couldn’t remember if I’d ever heard anything from The Red Shoes album – 1993 was the start of my “music dark ages” period between when I stopped being a DJ and when the Internet made everything available. When I first played “Eat the Music” again, I emitted what passes for a squeal of delight. I remembered loving this song back in the day – and I still do. Its basically an extended metaphor using fruit (and what’s inside) to represent how we conceal ourselves within ourselves. Bush urges us to open up. Anyhow, the song still suffers a bit from (what I consider to be) the production issues that plague The Red Shoes, but I can get past that because its a pretty joyous celebration of being one’s self.
7. Wuthering Heights
Today is Easter and what better way to celebrate it than to listen to a song about somebody returning from the dead to visit somebody they love? “Wuthering Heights” was Bush’s first single (from her 1978 debut album, The Kick Inside) and it was an enormous hit. Indeed, it set the course for her entire career – a song based on literature,an iconoclastic composition, and a dramatic performance that highlighted her huge vocal range. Theatre people love Kate Bush because we all want to create dramas that are as effective as what she can do in four minutes. Bush’s voice matured rapidly between 1978 and the mid-80’s so when she put out her greatest hits collection – The Whole Story – she rerecorded the vocal on this track. It was gorgeous of course, but I prefer her youthful enthusiasm on the original better. The drama building into those final “Heathcliff – its me Cathy” lines is one of the great musical moments of the 70’s. To put this song into context, it knocked Abba’s “Take A Chance On Me” out of the number 1 spot. What a time to be alive! It was the biggest selling song of the year in England that year. When you start your career with your largest hit, you’re in an unfortunate place where everything you do forever after that is going to be compared unfavorably to your huge start. Bush used this success to push for greater artistic control and – if I like 6 singles better than this one – this is the song that allowed her to create the rest of her work on her own terms.
For the record, if you play “Tania” by Camper Van Beethoven right after this song, they blend together perfectly. I encourage you to do it. No, now. The song is a quirky little delight, somewhat influenced by Eastern European music. Released as the second single from her 1980 album Never For Ever, “Babooshka” was a big hit in a bunch of different countries (though not the US). If you have a moment, I encourage you to watch her performance of this song on the 1980 Dr. Hook television special. Dr. Hook had a television special in the UK because the world is strange. At the end of the song, they broke a bunch of actual plates and dishes in the studio to get just the right sound.
5. Suspended in Gaffa
“Suspended in Gaffa” was released as a single from 1982’s The Dreaming pretty much everywhere in the world except the UK and USA. It is so beloved among Bush fans that they named their early USENET Kate Bush page “rec.music.gaffa” and later (in 1996) started Gaffa.org, one of the best fan sites for Bush on the Internet. The lyrics are about – in the most general sense – catching a glimpse of something you want and realizing you’re going to have to work very hard to get that thing you want. In specific, they’re based on a very Roman Catholic idea that (in Purgatory) you catch a glimpse of God but then have to work hard to be allowed into heaven where you’ll see him all the time. Gaffa is the UK term for gaffer’s tape. The chorus specifically refers to feeling like you can’t get to the thing you want (because you’re stuck in mud or suspended in gaffa). What I really love about the song, though, includes the rhythmic changes (the chorus sounds like calliope music), Bush’s use of her vocal range to suggest different moods or points of view, and the backing vocals. The song is crazy catchy and trying to sing the verses without breathing is a great vocal exercise.
4. King of the Mountain
“King of the Mountain” was the only single-for-sale from 2005’s Aerial. I’ve mentioned several times that disc 2 of that album is one of Bush’s crowning achievements. Alas, no singles were released from that side – just as well, it should be listened to as a whole. On the first disc, there’s a bunch of great songs and I’m pleased to report that “King of the Mountain” meets my approval for choice of single – though I like “How to be Invisible” even better. The lyrics of the song are ostensibly about Elvis and whether he might still be alive living happily apart from fame, though they’re really about the pressure of extreme wealth and fame. I’ve always sort of felt that one should avoid becoming famous if one can (I’d be ok with being stupidly wealthy in case anyone out there wants to make that happen). 2005 Kate Bush is cool, focused and relaxed and her music sounds fantastic. In 20 years, I think the production on Aerial is still going to sound as good as it did when it was released. At her best, Bush achieves a kind of timelessness in her songs – this was hits that mark.
3. This Woman’s Work
Lest you think nothing good came out of the 1988 film She’s Having A Baby, Bush composed this song for the movie. Specifically, she watched a scene where Kevin Bacon’s character anxiously awaits news of whether his wife and child have died in birth and then she wrote the song to match the scene. Yes, the scene was edited together in a specific way and she wrote the song to match the edit. Whenever you hear this song, you’re hearing a song that was inspired by Kevin Bacon. The lyrics, thus, are written from a male point of view and are filled with regret. The song was a minor his when it was released as a single from The Sensual World but has since gone on to be something of a popular standard. I find Bush’s delivery of the final list of “all the things” to be profoundly moving entirely based on her delivery. If you’re interested, listen to her 2011 rerecording of the song from her Director’s Cut album. With all of the 80’s production stuff removed and 23 more years of experience and one baby under her belt, the song has a very different kind of emotional depth
OK, so, for 30 years, I thought the title was “Cloudbursting” (with an “r”) not “Cloudbusting.” Not that this is a major change, but dyslexia makes every day a little tiny adventure. The second single from 1985’s Hounds of Love is a towering musical achievement. The lyrics were based on Peter Reich’s memoir of his life with his father, Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (I encourage you to read that Wikipedia entry about this controversial and fascinating figure). Bush saw a story about a child realizing adults were fallible in his memoir and constructed “Cloudbusting” around that theme. The rhythm of the song is at first provided entirely by cellos, later joined by other strings and finally joined by military drumming. The sense of increasing tension and drama that leads to the affirmative “Your son’s coming out” refrain at the end is powerful and inspiring. Indeed, everything about this song is pitch perfect. It manages to sound timeless to me in the way that many of her best songs do and I always look forward to hearing it.
1. Night of the Swallow
Wut? “Night of the Swallow” was released as a single in Ireland only – presumably because of the extensive use of Irish instruments. It was the fifth single from 1982’s The Dreaming and, obviously, is my favorite song from that album and one of my favorite songs of all time. I didn’t realize it was a single until I started writing this a few weeks ago and I knew immediately it was the top song on my list. The song is ostensibly about a smuggler wanting to go off on a job and his wife worrying that he’s going to get killed. Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics (but reading Bush’s take on them reinforces my belief that she’s pretty conservative in her opinions). What gets me about this song is sheer variety of things going on – there’s some amazing shifts from verse to chorus and back, there’s that fantastic syncopated “Let me – let me go,” there’s the complicated chorus itself which Bush delivers with increasing urgency, there’s the Irish arrangement… really, everything about this song gets me engaged and excited and that, in the end, is a huge gift.
Thank you for reading, those of you what read these things. New Order is next.