With both Prince and David Bowie passing away last year, Bush became the leading candidate for the top spot on my “greatest living musician” list. There are people who are much more rabid fans than I, but my mouth has been known to foam (with rabies – because I’m rabid) at times when I’ve discussed her and her music.
It sort of goes without saying that all of her songs are at the very least beautiful. That’s not to say that I always like all of her songs, but it is to say that I’m going to judge myself on whether I can describe them without using the word “beautiful” or its synonyms because (as I just said) that should go without saying.
Methodology: So, here’s what I do. To decide which songs should be considered for my list, I visit Wikipedia and then supplement that with a visit to Discogs. Songs that were used in some way to promote an album or were made available for individual sale are added in chronological order to a spreadsheet. The 21st century makes this a little challenging since some song (like “Lake Tahoe”) were used to promote an album (in this case, by video) but were not released as a single. I none-the-less counted “Lake Tahoe” as a single. Just because of personal preference, I don’t include cover songs, remixes or re-releases of earlier hits or live versions of songs that appeared on other albums.
I make a playlist in iTunes of every song I can purchase (assuming I don’t already own them). I listen to the list a few times then reorder it based on the idea that I want to enjoy each song more than the prior song. I then listen to this list and reorder it until I’m satisfied that I really do enjoy each song more than the last. I recognize that my opinion on this could easily change in a matter of days and (for both the U2 list and The Cure list) have sometimes re-ordered stuff on the fly.
Anyhow, that’s about all. Please leave a comment if you read! And away we go:
Honorable Mention. Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel (with Kate Bush)
From Peter Gabriel’s 1986 So album, it must be stressed that this is a Peter Gabriel song even if Bush is sort of the star. The song is essentially about a man beaten down by unemployment and the angelic presence (presumably his wife) that urges him not to give up. I like Bush’s laconic delivery of the chorus – it sounds like she’s going to miss the beat when she sings “give” but she just sort of makes it work. I waver between really liking this song and being vaguely annoyed by it – which is my reaction to several of Gabriel’s songs (not most, not even many). I am sure this has been discussed by wiser people than I, but Bush has a lot in common with Gabriel and the other Prog-Rock artists of the 70’s – her penchant for jams, for lyrics that tell stories, for concept albums, etc.
40. Be Kind to My Mistakes
“Be Kind To My Mistakes” was a song recorded for the 1987 movie Castaway. It has that kind of big 80’s production that she brought to “Experiment IV” and, to a lesser extent, on Hounds of Love. I mean, the song isn’t bad (these are all good songs, Brent). The lyrics are written from the perspective of the male character from the film, which is a true story based on a memoir by Lucy Irvine. She answered an ad and agreed to spend a year on a deserted island with a man. He knows she’s going to write a book on her experience and, in the film, his last words to her are “be kind to my mistakes.” The song sounds to me like the producer of the film called her up and said “I want a Kate Bush sounding song for my film – could you make the most most Kate Bush sounding song you can? No, I mean, ‘Experiment IV’ era Kate Bush.” It ranks last on my list primarily because it is the most forgettable song on the list. Furthermore, you have to buy the entire Castaway album on iTunes or Amazon or what have you if you want to own this one song and who the heck wants to do that?
OK, now we have to address “π” from 2005’s Aerial. Now, let me just say that Aerial has to be in the conversation “which Kate Bush album is the best Kate Bush album.” The second disc in particular (a concept album-within-an-album which recounts one day in a woman’s life) is just perfection. The first disc is more of a collection of songs on different subjects almost all of which are among her best. And then there’s “π.” Now, I love the concept behind “π” – Bush basically sings the numbers of π. There are always jokes about how singers are so great they can sing the phone book and it would still be compelling. Bush can sing the digits of π and indeed it is compelling. Furthermore, the song is a love song aimed at a man who loves numbers. The little sort of unspoken backstory of the song is that Bush is singing this string of numbers to seduce this man. That’s great too. There are two issues I have with the song. First, she gets π wrong. Second, and this is the bigger deal, the “he loves his numbers” refrain that breaks up her π verses is annoying and makes the song feel repetitive to me. I suspect the fear was that just singing π would be tedious, but I’m from the Phillip Glass school of singing about numbers and I’m content to just listen to them flow endlessly. Remove those little pseudo-choruses and this song would shoot up in my estimation.
I didn’t intend to place Bush’s soundtrack work on the lower end of the list, but here’s her song from the 2007 film The Golden Compass. Del Palmer – one of Bush’s long term collaborators – reports that it was created in about 10 days. Bush – especially in recent years – has taken her time with her albums. I applaud her willingness to go from zero to finished tune in such a short time, but I also feel like this song sounds unfinished. Like it sounds like 60% of a song. That 60% is quite good, but I want 40% more. Also, you can’t purchase this one without buying the whole soundtrack to The Golden Compass, so boo.
37. The Big Sky
Kate Bush released Hounds of Love in 1985 and it was one of her most popular (and artistically successful) albums. Side 2 in particular – a concept suite about a woman who is drowning – is brilliant. Maybe her greatest achievement. Every single song on that side of the album is remarkable – some (I’m thinking “Jig of Life” in particular) are among my favorite songs of all time. In fact, if I were to make a list of all of Bush’s songs, Side 2 of Hounds of Love might make up most of the top 10. Its that good. Side 1 is a collection of very strong songs. If the production work sounds a little dated now, well, it does on many of her other albums as well. Anyhow, the only song I don’t especially care for on Side 1 is also one of the four singles from the album. The theme of the song – which I interpret as celebrating the little pleasure we enjoyed as children, such as looking at the sky – is well thought out and the lyrics are decent, as is Bush’s vocal performance. I just find something about the 80’s bombast of the production to be off-putting on this particular song.
36. There Goes a Tenner
“There Goes A Tenner” was released as a single from 1982’s The Dreaming in England and Ireland only and was sort of a flop. In this song, Kate Bush tells the story of a failed bank robbery from the perspective of one of the thieves. The ending slips into a dream-like surrealism (which is appropriate considering the overall themes of its parent album). I’ve always assumed that the thieves are all killed because they use too much explosive to blow open the safe and that the last verse – which starts with them getting arrested and ends with Bush observing falling money and reflecting on the past – is her character’s hallucinating as she dies. The song doesn’t quite work for me though for two reasons. I don’t care for the Eno-esque keyboard breaks between the verses (though I get that those are there to tie in the dream state at the end). I also don’t feel like Bush quite pulls off this character. She veers in and out of the accent. I suppose one could make an argument that she’s playing several different members of the gang of robbers, but the lyrics don’t seem to support that. To whit, instead of embodying the character (which she does so well on many of her other songs), she sounds like she’s just pretending to be the character. It sort of knocks me out of the reality of the song.
35. The Man with the Child in His Eyes
I predict this is my most controversial low-ranking. “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” is considered to be one of Bush’s all-time classics. It was her second single from her 1978 debut album, The Kick Inside. She performed it on Saturday Night Live (with Paul Schaffer on piano). There are a couple of ways to read this song. For years, I thought she was singing about a man who still had the spirit of a child. Then I realized how old Bush was when she wrote the song – she was 13. OK, so, maybe it still was intended as a love song from Bush’s perspective, but the idea that this man has a child in his eyes reads a lot more like child molestation to me in that light. Now, it should be made clear that Bush’s thoughts on the song are really much more conservative than mine. Once you’ve released a song into the wild, it takes on its own meanings. That all said, the main reason I rank this song so low is because I find it to be a little boring. Good for her for writing such a successful and well loved song at such a young age. She became an even better writer as she matured.
34. December Will Be Magic Again
“December Will Be Magic Again” is a Christmas single recorded and first performed for a Christmas Special featuring Bush in 1979 but released as a single in 1980. No luck finding a place I could purchase it for downloads. I have suggested to Sean TC O’Sean of Oil in the Alley that he and I really need to record a Christmas song because even if its not very good, it will be played to death in December by radio stations desperate to fill as much time between airings of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” Bank. I am sure that some artists record Christmas songs and albums because they love the holiday or want to celebrate Christ or for other more benign reasons, but cynically I also believe most record them because they’re an easy cash-grab. Bush tends to be rather conservative and a trifle old-fashioned in her views so I suspect she seriously loves Christmas and recorded this song without a hint of cynicism. Good for her! Still not really crazy about the song which (like most of the songs at this end of my list) suffers ultimately from being forgettable.
33. Moments of Pleasure
“Moments of Pleasure” was the second single from 1993’s The Red Shoes. It took her 12 years to record her next album after that one. I mentioned earlier that I feel like several of Bush’s album suffer from production issues. To some extent, when production work is good, you don’t really notice it (because you’re just listening to the music). When production work unduly calls attention to itself or is bad, you notice it. I’m not sure if its because this album tended to emphasize (to my ear) high end or because it all sounds like its recorded just a little too loudly (which results in it sounding accidentally distorted to me), but for whatever reasons, the production on this whole album was a barrier for entry for me. I have to work past it just to get to the things I enjoy about the album. Bush rerecorded a bunch of songs from this record (and from her previous album, The Sensual World) on an album titled Director’s Cut in 2011. To a song, the Director’s Cut versions of her songs feature superior production to their original versions. Anyhow, “Moments of Pleasure” feature a great vocal performance from Bush and (other than the production) my only critique is that is rambles a bit. This happens sometimes when we improvise songs for musicals – we don’t quite know where to end it and just keep adding a little more and then a little more.
32. Strange Phenomena
“Strange Phenomena” was released as a single in Brazil only from her 1978 album The Kick Inside. There’s a joke about The Cars’ first album – it contains so many classic Cars songs that it should just have been called The Cars’ Greatest Hits upon release. I think the same thing is true of The Kick Inside. Its really an exceptionally impressive debut album. “Strange Phenomena,” like all the songs on the album, sounds straight out of 1978. This is a production issue. Bush’s next three albums all sound great and I don’t even think about the production. I don’t know, I feel like like her label was really trying to create a specific popular in 1978 sound on her album to move units. It worked, but the album (as brilliant as it is) sounds dated to me. Whatever, man. “Strange Phenomena” is about celebrating odd coincidences. Bush was a precocious teenager and wrote about some genuinely interesting subjects, but her lyrics in this period frequently sound to me like they were written by a teenager. Because, I mean, they were. Better than I could write, but still.
31. Ne T’enfuis Pas
“Ne T’enfuis Pas” (which means “Don’t Run Away”) was originally the b-side of “There Goes a Tenner” but was released as an a side in Canada and France in 1982. Bush wrote the song and then a pair of French speaking songwriters translated the lyrics to French for her. The song offers many small delights. I especially enjoy the simple Fairlight keyboard work from Bush and Del Palmer’s drug programming and bass work. I don’t speak enough French to understand what she’s singing (I took four years of French – did I ever know enough to understand what she was singer? No. No I did not.) and yet I feel like I can hear her genuine desire that her lover not run away from her. Good luck finding a download of this tune, but I’d gladly add this to my library if I could.
Coming Next: Ghosts, Babies and Life on the Stage.