While starting this blog, my family has shown me tremendous support in the form of shares, feelings and kind words. My next post is going to be about an artist that is not only one of my favorites of all time, but that happened to be relevant and important to them as well.
I was 23, my “year-off” after college was lasting a little longer than expected. I spent most of my mornings lying in bed, drinking coffee from the mug that my pal Noah gave me as a parting gift when I left the dorm for the last time. I found myself listening to music from different artists and decades and all that. Few struck a chord (music pun #1) with me as true as Cat Stevens. A soul-searchy 23 year old, trying to figure out the purpose of life, trying to be happy, trying to find a niche in a world that placed such a heavy emphasis on work and “the grind” and trying to one-up your peers; Cat found me right when I needed him to. I fell for someone shortly after, and Stevens’ music was instrumental (music pun #2) during that part of my life as well. That is a story for another time though.
Cat Stevens was a one-of-a-kind folk-pop music icon, who failed to gain much mainstream success until the release of his 1970 album Tea for the Tillerman (one of the best albums of all time). In 1978, as his career was very much still in full swing, Cat Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam and disappeared from much of the world to focus on his faith, nearly without a trace. 28 years later, after decades of a silence, and a bizarre controversy, and multiple Islamic music albums, Yusuf’s son brought a guitar back into his home, and Yusuf was enamored again. He re-examined his faith, and found that he could once again use music as a tool to reach out to others. In 2006, Yusuf Islam returned to the music world, and has released 4 albums since then. Now performing as Cat Stevens / Yusuf, his 2017 album was incredible, and on behalf of the music world, I’m glad you’re back Yusuf.
Most of the songs in this countdown sound similar, Cat rarely strayed away from folk and folk rock music, and when he did it wasn’t nearly as successful as when he was in his in his niche. My favorite Cat Stevens / Yusuf songs are light, peaceful, questioning and soft, so be ready to hear a lot of songs with these traits. Alright, let’s get on with it!
25. Portobello Road
Matthew & Son
The countdown starts off with a song from Cat Stevens’ first album. The album itself has some nice little diddies on it, including “Here Comes My Baby”, “I’ve Found a Love”, “Lady” and “I Love My Dog”. The only issue is that the songs on this first album weren’t really as mellow or reflective as some of the stuff he made in the 70’s, and so I couldn’t use too many spaces on the countdown for his early material. “Portobello Road” is the only selection from Matthew & Son on the countdown because it shows you where Cat Stevens started out, talent-wise, but also gives a nod to the essence of folk music: simple lyrics with nothing much more than an acoustic guitar in the background.
24. Hard Headed Woman
Tea for the Tillerman
In 1969, Cat Stevens contracted tuberculosis in such a vicious way that he nearly died. After this scare (and because Stevens’ producers were trying to market him as a “pop star” and trying to change his sound to reflect that), Cat Stevens sabotaged his music contract in order to move closer to a folk rock sound. With a new contract, Stevens’ desire to make folk rock, combined with an increasingly introspective and spiritual demeanor that came about from the TB scare resulted in, hands down, one of the greatest albums of all time in Tea for the Tillerman. Frankly, I could list every song off this album on the countdown, but variety is the spice of life, so I have to make careful selections from it. The first of many is “Hard Headed Woman” which is the second track off of the album. The song starts off quiet, and evolves into a fuller, louder, more orchestral sounding tune, and then finishes soft yet again. You can hear Stevens’ vocal talent and folk guitar prowess early on, as well as his talent for accompanying his voice and guitar with delightful symphonic string elements. A lot of this early and very successful material is full of spiritual speculation and introspection, a niche that a very young and successful Cat Stevens occupied like no other artist could.
23. Morning Has Broken
Teaser and the Firecat
Okay so a little story about this one: I used to do retreats and camps for my High School. About a hundred of us would go this huge mass of land that the Marist Brothers owned and just get to know each other and ourselves better and whatnot. In the mornings, we would all be woken up by a super loud song, and everybody would rush out of their sleep to try and shower up first and be ready the earliest. The songs were played so loudly, I figured they were projected over a PA system or something. They weren’t though, it was just a tiny plug-in stereo that knew just how to echo off all the right walls and stairs to sound larger than life. On Saturday morning, we would always be wake to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. On Sundays though, when it was time to leave, and the weekend had wrapped up, and everyone in the hundred of us felt just a little bit closer to every other one of the hundred, we woke to “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens. Those feelings and memories have always been tied to this song. I didn’t find out until years later what the song was called or who it was by, and it’s not my favorite by him, but I couldn’t possibly leave it off the countdown with all that it means to me, and so many others.
22. Child for a Day
There aren’t going to be a lot of songs on the countdown from the time period in the mid-late 70’s right before Cat Stevens fell off the face the earth. A lot of his later 70’s albums feature awkward arrangements of more lively songs, which don’t really suit Stevens’ style well enough to be listed on a countdown like this, especially since this countdown is attempting to highlight the softer more reflective and introspective side of Cat. However, this tune off of his 1977 album Izitso, is a good mix of folk and rock. Extra instruments on this song don’t feel awkward or forced. Honestly, this song would be included on the countdown just for the intro alone. The instrumental intro from 0:00-0:22 is a perfect example of how sometimes music needs no words at all to set a mood. The song starts with a simple guitar picking pattern with some piano alongside, and then the piano evolves into some other sounds that make it the musical equivalent of “serenity.” The rest of the song isn’t bad either, but the intro is the main reason for the songs inclusion here.
21. Just Another Night
Back to Earth
This one is from the last album that Cat would record before he left the pop music world and converted to Islam. Cat Stevens had already changed his name to Yusuf Islam, although the album was sold under his former name Cat Stevens. Apparently, during the recording sessions for this album Yusuf was praying nearly 5 times a day, but was in a contract which had him obligated to record another album. The recording sessions for this album took sort of a melancholy turn, because everybody involved understood that it was going to be the last time the world would hear from Cat Stevens. (until almost 30 years later). This song starts off much like “Child for a Day” with a very peaceful and melodic intro, incorporating light piano. It erupts into a noisy bridge midway through, but constantly carries the sort of reflective, spiritual and soft Cat Stevens edge that I love from his Tea for the Tillerman days.
20. Two Fine People
This is the only song on the countdown that wasn’t on any of Stevens’ major albums. “Two Fine People” was released as a single in 1975, and Cat Stevens has openly admitted he basically took part of the song from one of his much more popular songs from earlier in his career, it won’t be the last time we see Stevens do this either ($2 if you can guess which song before it comes up in the countdown). Aside from the familiarity that came with the song because of it being composed after one of his more popular numbers, the chorus is a much more upbeat and pop oriented sound than what we’re used to from Stevens, it’s almost dance-able. Plus it’s nice to have a selection on the countdown that isn’t overly mellow or spiritual. Have fun with this one!
19. Oh Very Young
Buddha and the Chocolate Box
Movie fans may recognize this track from the beginning of Kingpin. Keeping in line with the theme of Cat Stevens songs that have peaceful guitar/piano instrumental intros, “Oh Very Young” fits the same mold. This is the only selection off of the Buddha and the Chocolate Box album. He named this album because he was holding a Buddha figure in one hand and a chocolate box in the other while traveling to a gig. He figured that if he died on the plane these would be the last two items he would have held, chocolate representing the material world, and Buddha representing the spiritual. This song leans more toward the spiritual, and is one of the more piano/keyboard oriented songs we’ve had thus far on the countdown. It’s easy to forget that Cat was also a great keyboardist with his guitar taking the forefront on most of his songs, but this song serves as evidence of that.
Catch Bull at Four
“Ruins” is a song that is very aptly titled. Cat Stevens really has a remarkable talent to make his guitar emit notes that can make you feel like you’re in another place in time, and the very simple guitar and melody he uses to start the song really makes you feel like you’re sitting amongst the ruins. This song goes through a lot of different phases; it is both quiet and reflective at times, but can also get loud and a little chaotic. What Stevens does especially well in this title, is drift from the soft and quiet parts into the noisy chorus parts. I’m obviously a bigger fan of the quieter and more reflective stuff, that’s my favorite kind of music, however a song like this keeps this list from becoming a little monotonous. Pretty good stuff here.
17. Blackness of the Night
The Laughing Apple
In 2017, Cat Stevens/Yusuf released his fourth secular album since returning to the music world: The Laughing Apple. I was pleasantly surprised, the songs have an incredibly soft feel, reminiscent of Tea for the Tillerman, and Yusuf is an artist who knows how to adjust his playing to the age of his voice. There are a few cuts from The Laughing Apple which were also released on his second album New Masters circa 1968, but have been re-recorded. “Blackness of the Night” is one of these re-released songs, but the 2017 version is majestic. After a gloomy but hopeful intro, Stevens’ (Yusuf) begins to sing, his voice older, deeper, more weathered. The song is an extension of the intro, it’s both depressing in content, but optimistic in mood. On top of the complex emotion and spiritual tones, his voice, now ripe with age lends a touch of wisdom to the song; Yusuf now sings from the other side of his introspection and longing from his Cat Stevens days, singing from the point of view of someone who has lived some semblance of a fulfilled and complete life.
16. If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out
Harold and Maude (Soundtrack)
In 1971, Cat Stevens was tasked with providing music for the movie Harold and Maude, and in doing so, came up with two of his best songs. This one is pretty well known, I think it circulated on some sort of commercial when I was in college. If you haven’t seen Harold and Maude, I would recommend that you do, it’s a cult classic, only made more special by the soundtrack itself. The song is simple, nothing more than just guitar and vocals, and the lyrics are simple as well, but the beauty of this song lies in its simplicity.
15. The Wind
Teaser and the Firecat
“The Wind” is a song much like the previous selection, just Cat Stevens in his natural element, strictly guitar and vocals, singing about spirituality and emotions and feelings and all that good stuff. “The Wind” is only 1:42 long, but that only lends to its delightful simplicity. When I was first getting into Cat Stevens, it was songs like this one that stuck out to me most. As someone who spent most of his early twenties pondering life’s purpose, dealing with depression, wondering about humanity and the concept of a soul, it is music like this that can really center some of those meanderings and feed your spirit.
14. Wild World
Tea for the Tillerman
“Wild World” is one of the definitive Cat Stevens songs; its rock oriented enough to have garnered radio play, it was released in his heyday (1970 right off of his most critically acclaimed album). As far as popularity goes, I’d say this is top 3, but that doesn’t necessarily earn it a top 3 spot on this countdown. “Wild World” is a marvelous, classic tune, which has all the attributes of his biggest works off of Tea for the Tillerman. It’s another song that blends Cat’s classic mix of gloomy and deep, but also hopeful and optimistic. Also, this is the song that he based “Two Fine People” off of. I won’t put too many words to this one, as most of you have heard it already; no need to beat a dead horse with description on a song that speaks for itself.
Catch Bull at Four
I’m pretty sure this is the first song on the countdown that prominently features Cat Stevens’ more aggressive vocals. A few of the songs from Catch Bull at Four feature Cat’s more intense and loud vocals (it’s also evident on “Bitterblue” on the Teaser and the Firecat album). I really like this song, it’s very different from the rest of the stuff we’ve covered thus far. I love Cat Stevens, honestly, and so the fact that his catalog can be somewhat repetitive is no problem at all for me. However to the outside listener, I can see it being a bit bland and repetitious. “Angelsea” is a song that can break up that monotony, with a chorus sung like a spiritual chant by many background vocalists (after a little research, the chanting does not actually mean anything, just sounds good.) Also, the guitar is much less delicate than it is on a lot of the other songs on this list. Cat would do this every so often, but this is the one song where it really works for me, garnering it a spot smack in the middle of the countdown.
12. Midday (Avoid City After Dark)
An Other Cup
In 2006, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens (currently known as Yusuf, but has been listing himself as Cat Stevens/Yusuf or Yusuf/Cat Stevens) on recent releases) returned to the secular music world with his first album in about 28 years. Most people speculated that he would never return, and it’s an understatement to say that it was a breath of fresh air when he did. One of the songs on that album that marked Yusuf’s return to music, An Other Cup, was even fortunate enough to make his all-time top 25 countdown. “Midday” is a hard track to find; it’s not on Spotify, and there’s one lone studio recording on YouTube, but it’s worth the searching you would have to do to come across it. You won’t find it on any old greatest hits album either. The song is really groovy; Yusuf returns with the same delicate instruments that he used to feature (mostly guitars and keyboard) but with a little more of a worldly/latin sound and percussion. Simple and quaint lyrics lure you into the song right before the chorus chimes in. The chorus on this one though is all horns and percussion, and my oh my is it glorious. This is a song that could slip through the cracks, but I was fortunate enough to catch it.
Teaser and the Firecat
Where are all my This Is Us fans at?! The hit show has used a few Cat Stevens songs within their episodes, but this one has been the most prominently featured, and for good reason. If my reviews haven’t been clear enough, I think Cat Stevens is one of the best musicians to have ever musicianed; he brings a delicacy to his songs that is rarely found, and made songs about spirituality, emotions and introspection cool and listenable. The fact that an emotional blockbuster show like This is Us features him every now and then is good proof of that point. “Moonshadow” is similar to “The Wind”. It’s on the same album (though it’s not as short) and it’s another song that features mostly just guitar and vocals. Before you say, “This is a nice song, but what the hell is a Moonshadow?” I found this nice little quote from the man himself about the inspiration for the song: “I was on a holiday in Spain. I was a kid from the West End (of London) – bright lights, et cetera. I never got to see the moon on its own in the dark, there were always streetlamps. So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow. I thought that was so cool, I’d never seen it before.” Cool, huh?
10. Miles from Nowhere
Tea for the Tillerman
Another one off the Tillerman album. This song has a very evident arc, starting quietly – miles from nowhere. Midway through the song things get a little hectic and chaotic, but only to return to a similar peaceful mood as the beginning of the song, still miles from nowhere. It’s another spiritual song, constantly relying on the idea that our physical presence isn’t all our beings are limited to. Also, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for when he shouts “Miles from NOWHEA!” at 0:50. Just a solid tune, y’all.
9. See What Love Did to Me
The Laughing Apple
It’s a testament to Cat Stevens / Yusuf as an artist, to have a song made in 2017 still make it this high up on a countdown spanning his career, after such success in the 70’s. Honestly when I heard this song I was so refreshed; after listening to old Cat Stevens songs for years, I heard Yusuf came out with new music in 2017 and it resembled everything I and other Cat Stevens fans loved from his 2017 music. The guitar is light and airy, the lyrics are simple but so, so deep. There is are some overarching musical elements in this one that seem to tie into Yusuf’s time recording non-secular Islamic music. All in all though, as much as I love Tea for the Tillerman, a song that reminds you that an artist still has the tools and spirit that once made him an anomaly deserves to be this high up on the list.
Mona Bone Jakon
Finally, a song from the album before his best. A lot of the songs on this album have all the things I love best in a Cat Stevens song: just pure and clean guitar, his light and airy tone, and calming lyrics. This one in particular, the album’s closing song, sounds just a closing song should. It’s a little melancholy, with a near perfect string accompaniment. Even the title, lilywhite; Cat just has a talent for putting two words together to create a new, peaceful and smooth word, and then to create a song that matches that mood. Truth be told, this song would be higher up on the list but my favorite part of the song at 2:09, ended up turning into a full song of its own which is listed later ($1 if you can guess this one before it comes up); it would be unfair to list them both so close to each other!
Mona Bone Jakon
Another lovely song off the Mona Bone Jakon album. This was one of my original favorites. It captivates Cat Stevens’ ability to sing about some really deep, not always peaceful/positive topics, but to still make it so damn breezy! If you read the lyrics to the song, they’re pretty heavy; he sings about trouble and death and despair. Yet, the music itself is really relaxing, you probably would not even notice the subject matter until the third listen-through or so. But, once I took a step back, noticed the lyrics and their contradiction in the music, I yet again noticed the true beauty of the music of Cat Stevens. Not only was the pairing of the dark lyrics with the calming music not a contradiction at all, it was another way of looking at trouble. It was another way of expressing how someone can feel all of these negative subjects in a way that seems at peace. “Trouble” is a song that can really change your way of looking at an emotion, and that’s something only truly good music can to, in my humble opinion.
6. Peace Train
Teaser and the Firecat
“Peace Train” is one of Cat’s most popular songs, and rightfully so. I would say he does a great job of capturing the essence of peace (as he normally does) for this tune, but this one actually has the subject matter of peace, rather than just the peaceful music behind it. The lyrics are made more powerful by the additional voices chiming in adding to the chorus and some other phrasing. It seems easy to write a song with peace as the main subject and simply resigning it to cliche, but this is one of the most successful peace anthems in my eyes. Cat admitted that he wrote the song while he was on a literal train, but it doesn’t take away from the metaphor; we’re all humans, we’re all in this life together in one way or another, we’re all riding the same train. It’s our job to make the ride as peaceful as possible. The message remains relevant, and sadly, may always be needed.
5. Fill My Eyes
Mona Bone Jakon
Another song off of Mona Bone Jakon, which provides the same refreshing, light feel as the other two listed above. This one just resonates with me best. I can’t really lay out a direct message of the song, it’s almost too simple for that. He means exactly what he’s saying. I think I just like the reflective feel of the tune the most. It’s a wonderful Sunday morning song to have with some coffee. Take some deep breaths. Appreciate what you’ve taken for granted lately. Do all that good stuff. Enjoy the music.
4. Don’t Be Shy
Harold and Maude
I feel as though I should say it again; Watch Harold and Maude if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s strange sure, but it’s also beautiful. Remember “Lilywhite” and the part that got turned into a whole song? Go and listen to 2:09 of “Lilywhite” again, and you’ll know exactly how this song came to be. Lyrically, I think the message is one that is lacking in music in general, so I’m glad this song exists. It’s a song that’s expressing the fear one usually feels in not only expressing their emotions, but feeling their emotions honestly. Emotions are part of being human, whether we like that or not, and so much ugliness is born of negative emotion not processed, or the fear/shame that can come with expressing your truest emotionality. The intro of this song is also gorgeous and gentle, which is one of my favorite characteristics of folk music.
3. Father and Son
Tea for the Tillerman
I believe that this song is the sweetest form of guidance ever put into music. Some lines are spoken from the point of view of a father to a son, and others are spoken from the son to a third party; you’ll be able to tell the difference because when Stevens is singing the father’s parts he is calmer, and when he is singing the sons parts he is usually louder, a little more frantic, and these sections normally end with “I have to go away.” It seems the song is about a father giving his son advice, and the son knowing he cannot follow that advice or get through to his father, resulting in the decision to leave. It’s interesting though, there are so many different places to find yourself in that dynamic. Do we resonate with the father, do we resonate with the son’s desires and frustration? It’s all subjective, sure, and you will take the song in and process it the way that feels best to you. All I know is that if I’m ever feeling overwhelmed, or stressed, that first verse tends to put things in perspective and I can relax a little bit, which is nice.
2. Tea for the Tillerman
Tea for the Tillerman
So, although this is my number 2 Cat Stevens song of all time, I have one major major issue with it. That issue, is that the song is barely over a minute long; WHY CAN’T IT LAST FOREVER? I guess maybe if it lasted longer, it wouldn’t be nearly as perfect? I honestly don’t know what the song is about: the tillerman, sure, but most of the meaning is lost on me. You don’t need to know what good art is about to appreciate it, I think, and this song is a piece of fine, fine art. The piano is perfect, Cat’s vocal runs are on-point, the way the song erupts into a burst of sunlight is amazing.
1. Where Do the Children Play?
Tea for the Tillerman
Yes, my top 3 songs were all from Tea for the Tillerman. If you haven’t figured it out by now, GET THAT ALBUM. This is the opening track, and it sets the mood oh so well. I believe this is another Cat Stevens track used in This Is Us. Lyrically, it’s pretty straightforward. The song challenges the notions of overdoing the modernization of the world. Skyscrapers, machines, technology; civilization is advancing rapidly around us, more so today than ever. Hell, I’m writing this all on a blog on the interwebs. The chorus is a very short two or three lines, followed by the ever-memorable guitar riff that can always do something to me emotionally I can’t quite put into words. The song itself, is art. It’s all the things I’ve been speaking about throughout the article, all the things Stevens does so well, but it’s all of those things turned up to 11 (in the softest way possible). Is humanity advancing faster than we can actually handle? Are the social media sites and all encompassing mobile phones making us less capable to handle emotions and more absorbed in ourselves? Is our need for advancement actually setting individuals back? I don’t know. Probably.
I was staring at my phone the other day in a deli and a woman comes in and non-judgmentally says, “Oh how we love our phones.”
“I’d probably be better off without it,” I reply without thinking.
“You’re probably right,” she giggled.
The overaching question (in the song, in Stevens’/Yusuf’s music/ in the world, maybe): where do the children play? Children playing seems to come up in Cat Stevens / Yusuf’s lyrics often as a sign of simplicity, purity and consistency. As long as there is humanity, there will be children, and children do not need to be taught the need to play with others, they just do. As long as this holds true, and we hold strong to our values, to simplicity, to peace, to honesty, to authenticity; I think we’ll all be okay.
Thanks to those of you who made it through this article as well! I’ll always acknowledge that 25 songs is a whole lot, and these articles are meant to be read at your own leisure. For those of you who liked the article, or are Cat Stevens / Yusuf fans, I’ve listed a BUNCH of honorable mentions below, be careful though, there are many. I could have easily made a top 50. I’ll list them in order of the ones which just missed the cut:
How Can I Tell You, Daytime, the rest of Tea for the Tillerman (Longer Boats, Sad Lisa, But I Might Die Tonight, On the Road to Find Out, Into White), Maybe You’re Right, The First Cut is the Deepest, The Laughing Apple (2017), Sitting, Foreigner Suite, Here Comes My Baby, Lady, You Can Do (Whatever), Bitterblue, Bring Another Bottle Baby, Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night), Rubylove, Grandsons, Mighty Peace, Katmandu, Last Love Song, King of Trees.