Joan Baez

My article this month will be dedicated to an artist whose sound lends itself to the change of seasons from Summer to Fall, and who currently finds herself in the midst of a farewell tour (I desperately want to attend one of her shows at the Beacon Theater).  I stumbled onto Joan Baez very late in my journey into folk music.  I had already fallen in love with Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and other folk legends, and through my exploration into the genre I had heard Joan Baez’s name come up often.  Yet, although she is seen as an inspiration to some of the legendary names I listed above, she never garnered as much popular attention as any of them.  Even still, her importance to the genre and to music as a whole may only be paralleled by Bob Dylan, who she frequently covered.  One of my all time favorite YouTube videos is a clip of Donovan (a Scottish psychedelic folk legend) speaking about a song of his called “Turquoise” which was found on an old jukebox that once belonged to John Lennon.  Immediately he explained that falling in love with folk music meant falling in love with Joan Baez; her and the genre were inseparable.  You can view the video here:

With that being said, it wasn’t until her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2017 that I fully delved into her music.  Joan Baez is a music legend, a woman who not only paved her way into music history, but has also been a political activist since the very early days of her career.  She embodied, and continues to embody what the folk music scene of the 60’s really was all about, despite still not getting her due.  Her being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017 despite having her first official recording in 1960 tells you all you need to know about one of the most unsung (PUN) heroes of folk music.

Baez’s folk music career mostly began in Massachusetts in the late 50’s as the folk scene was evolving around college campuses.  Baez was gifted with a naturally beautiful and operatic voice, and is one hell of a guitar player; she could both sing and play complex folk songs with apparent ease.  She could sing fluently in both English and Spanish and was conscious about many civil rights and social justice issues. It’s no surprise that people were instantly enamored with who they called the “Barefoot Madonna”; a naturally beautiful and talented folk singer with a crisp and clear voice.  Her earthly beauty, her undeniable talent and her passion for activism paved the way for an artist who has been an driving force in the folk music genre for approximately six decades.

Before I sing Joan’s praises (pun) any more, I’ll let you know what to expect from this countdown, since I’m sure not many readers know much, if any, of her catalog.  Joan primarily performed interpretations of other artists songs (she frequently covered Bob Dylan songs).  Her recordings are often not much more than just her opera-esque vocals and her clean finger-picking folk-styled guitar.  This countdown is best listened to on a crisp fall morning, with a cup of coffee, some songs best suited for the rain, and some best suited for the sunshine. I hope you enjoy, and hope that this article sheds light on one of the most underrated musical legends of this century, and someone who is so rarely heard on classic/soft rock radio despite her immense amount of studio recordings. I’d be a fool to not wonder if her lack of recognition comes strictly from her being a woman in a white-male dominated music industry. Anyway, without further ado:

25. For Sasha

Honest Lullabye

1979

Okay so maybe this song only made the countdown because I have a best friend named Sasha.  Or maybe it’s on the countdown because it is a beautifully reflective and heavy song that exemplifies Baez’s ability to deliver classic folk well into the late 70’s (almost 20 years after her first album debuted).  Yeah, let’s go with the second reason. It’s a tune that Baez penned herself (which is rare for her), and the subject matter is the Holocaust; Baez never shied away from controversial or heavy topics.  The reason this song comes in so early into the countdown is because as good as the song and sound are, late 70’s Joan Baez is not prime-time Joan Baez, although it does work well as an early taste to the kind of music you’ll be digesting throughout the countdown.

24. Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)

Joan Baez

1960

This song is from Joan’s debut (and my favorite) album (self-titled) which consisted entirely of her interpretations of traditional folk songs.  This tune is an English folk ballad from the 18th century, and the lyrics are a dialogue between two lovers, one who is leaving and one who is being left behind.  The lyrics themselves are simple and poetic, but you can hear Joan’s vocal and guitar ability clearly throughout the song.  This song hits upon elements that are the very essence of folk music. It features intricate guitar and vocal arrangements that bring about a feeling of simplicity (because in the end, it’s just guitar and vocals) and it also tells a tale, a story without any background; it is poetry set to music. It’s also pretty fitting that her final tour is titled the Fare Thee Well Tour, which I presume is named after this song nearly 58 years after her first recording of it.

23. Children and All That Jazz

Diamonds & Rust

1975

This song is super interesting, not sure if I’ve really ever heard a song like it, and I especially haven’t heard any other Joan Baez songs like it.  Most of the lyrics feature names (of children, I’m guessing) and short phrases that give glimpses into moments or feelings that may occur when raising children.  I’m sure the title is a double meaning, jazz referring to the lyrics which detail the chaos (for lack of a better word) of raising children, “Look at your t-shirt/I see you’re all wet now/I’ll give you a bath if/You go to bed now”, but also jazz referring to the multiple jazz-influenced musical breakdowns in the song.  All around, it’s an interesting and enjoyable tune, but much like raising children, it can be a little hectic and loud, and if you listen to it too many times in a row, you may find yourself with a parent-sized headache.

22. Billy Rose (Prison Trilogy)

Come from the Shadows

1972

Another Baez penned song, this song is subtitled Prison Trilogy because it details three separate stories all relating to individuals and their experiences with the prison system.  All of the stories seemingly end in tragedy, which is a nice counterbalance to the peaceful simplicity of the melody and fingerpicking pattern on the tune.  This one’s got a bit of a country/western twang in it, and shows the depths of Joan’s political activism.  Not only does she touch upon the idea of razing prisons to the ground, but she also highlights circumstances of the prisoners in the song, showing the listener that if circumstances were different, lives would not be lost, and showing the listener that a lot of times prisons do not solve problems, but can exacerbate them.  It’s a song composed in 1972 that deals with subject matter that is still being debated in the states today. In the liner notes of this album, Baez writes, “…In 1972 if you don’t fight against a rotten thing you become a part of it,” and she has definitely always been a fighter.

21. Mary Hamilton

Joan Baez

1960

So many of these early recordings off of the Joan Baez album are on the countdown because they just exemplify what I believe the folk music genre to be about.  The album itself was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.  Similar to “Fare Thee Well,” “Mary Hamilton” is a simple traditional folk ballad, only this one is from 16th Century Scotland.  The song details the story of a woman named Mary Hamilton, who had a baby with the King of Scots.  Long story short, the Queen (and everybody else) find out, even after Mary shipped her baby off to sea in a little makeshift boat, and Mary sits and recounts her feelings right before she is to be put to death.  Cool relatable uplifting song, right?

20. Simple Twist of Fate

Diamonds & Rust

1975

This is a pretty cool selection to throw on the countdown for two reasons mainly.  First, it’s kind of a hard rocker for a folk artist like Joan Baez.  In general, her Diamonds & Rust album is a little more dynamic than all her others as in it’s not just straight folk, and there are more instruments (and even an unfortunately underwhelming Joni Mitchell feature!) Also this is the first Bob Dylan cover that I’ve included on the countdown, even though as I’ve often stated Joan Baez covered Dylan pretty much all the time.  Musically the song is great, Dylan lyrics, some pretty hard rocking guitar and a ton of awesome piano playing.  I could definitely do without the Dylan impression at 2:19 though. I almost chose her cover  of “Blue Sky” instead of this selection, because it is an equally hard rocker, but in terms of its comparison to the original recordings, “Simple Twist of Fate” sticks out more for sure.

19. Pack Up Your Sorrows

Pack Up Your Sorrows (Single)

1966

Similar to the previous song, this song is on the countdown because it is really enjoyable to listen to.  The sound is filled with more than just Baez’s vocals and guitar, and there’s a lot more instrumentation in the song, lending itself to more of a “folk rock” feel, instead of straight “folk.”  This goes to show you though, that whether it’s folk, traditional folk, or folk rock, Baez could do it all, and do it all better than almost anybody else at the time.

 

18. Diamonds & Rust

Diamonds & Rust

1975

This song is an interesting one for a few reasons.  First off, it’s a Joan Baez original and as I mentioned above, Joan Baez primarily interpreted songs written by other artists and songwriters.  Second, it’s a song that is about a past relationship with an ex-lover (none other than folk legend Bob Dylan) whose songs she frequently covered, both before and after their relationship had began and ended.  Third, it is one of Baez’s most popular and critically acclaimed songs.  So why is it coming onto the countdown so early?  I guess it’s a personal choice thing, but I really love the Baez songs that make me feel like nostalgia, that remind me of autumn on a desolate east coast in the late 60’s even though I was never there. This does not do either of those for me, and occupies a niche for Baez that no other song does, but that is only warranting of a number 18 slot on the countdown (in my humble opinion, of course.)

17. Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer

Diamonds & Rust

1975

This is the last selection from Diamonds & Rust that’s going to be included on the countdown. It’s a cover of a slightly lesser known Stevie Wonder song, and highlights a really different aspect of Baez’s sound, focusing mostly on the piano.  It’s more of a soft rock/ballad, as opposed to a folk song.  I think all of the songs on Diamonds & Rust highlight some really atypical aspects of Baez’s long running musical career, but it would feel unfair to overload the countdown with all of the different tracks from this album, and not focus on what Joan Baez was best known for in the first place.  Anyway, this song highlights Joan’s vocal ability. The song itself is greatly composed because well, Stevie Wonder made it.  It’s also the song that Stevie performed at Michael Jackson’s funeral, feel free to look up that version as well. The reason it is not higher up on the countdown is because it doesn’t stray far away enough from the original.  It comes up just short of feeling like authentic Joan.

16. Heaven Help Us All

Blessed Are…

1971

Honestly, this song is just friggin’ cool.  The phrasing, the way it evolves into a choir like church hymn at the chorus, the lyrics themselves.  Why does this song have such a cool jazzy feel to it, you ask? If you guessed that’s because it was first written for and performed by Stevie Wonder (I know that most people probably didn’t guess that) you would be correct. This recording though strays far away enough from the original Wonder recording to give it it’s own life when sung by Baez.  The album itself is Joan’s longest studio recording to date, and I’d be lying if I told you that I’ve listened to every song on the album, but I can say with enough confidence that this is one of the gems on the album, and represents how Joan was evolving from simple guitar/vocal arrangements to more complete recordings after her experimentation with country music in the late 60’s/’70.

15. Sweet Sir Galahad

One Day at a Time

1970

Speaking of her experimentation with Country music in the late ’60’s and 1970, this song comes from her second album of country-ish recordings.  “Sweet Sir Galahad” is deeply rooted in folk, but has some very light country elements (you can hear some twang deep in the background at different moments).  Also, it’s important to note that it was the first Baez-penned song to be included on one of her studio albums, that is to say that she made it throughout the entirety of the 60’s recording albums comprised of songs that she did not herself write.  The lyrics were inspired by her younger sister’s relationship with a music producer, but it’s disguised as a folk tale.   I initially wrote more about the events that inspired the song, but I think it would be better to have Joan Baez explain it to you herself, therefore I’ve included a live recording of this one (don’t fret, it’s nearly identical to the studio recording because Joan Baez is awesome).

14. Less Than the Song

Where Are You Now, My Son?

1973

This one almost didn’t make the countdown initially, and I can’t even remember why.  There are a lot of interesting things working here, including the drum beat that hums along throughout most of the song, giving the song sort of a “Kumbaya” vibe.  Add the layered vocals and harmonies throughout the song as well as the complete dynamic change that the chorus brings and you have a pretty neat Baez song that’s unlike most of her others.  I especially dig the layered “all your dreams are real” vocal at about 1:24. This song isn’t a Baez original, although it comes from an album that is comprised of a lot of songs she wrote herself.

13. No Expectations

One Day at a Time

1970

This one is a cover of a Rolling Stones’ song that comes on Baez’s second of two country inspired albums.  It’s less folky than most of her other songs, including a driving bassline, some solid piano and guitar playing and a more upbeat feel, as well as some country elements that lend themselves well to this recording.  I think Joan’s recording puts a great spin on an already good Stones track (I might even prefer it to the original). It’s got a light and breezy aspect to it, which can lend itself to the melancholy, but at peace lyrics. It’s great to hear Baez on these recordings that feel like they could belong on a classic rock station, just to remind you that even though she could sing folk and protest songs, she was also an extremely talented musician through and through.

12. With God on Our Side

Joan Baez in Concert

1963

Here is a live recording from pretty early in her career.  Her vocals are clear and strong, and the guitar playing is nice as well, but the subject matter is anything but nice.  Initially upon hearing the song, I thought, “How nice, a civil rights activist can still sing songs about God and religion.  It’s rare that those two go hand-in-hand nowadays.”  I (as I often am) was wrong about the subject matter of the song.  The “with God on our side” she sings often is only there to highlight the contradiction: the contradiction that a nation killed so many of its native residents in the name of God, that America is cool with Germany after a near genocide and still considers itself the nation of God, and how often we align ourselves with God when it comes to matters of war and matters of killing others.  I think her point is, that if God was truly on our side there would be no war at all. The message still rings true today, as a lot of these old protest songs and civil rights era messages are suddenly and sadly relevant again. With all that said, the song still sounds great and Baez’s talent can’t be denied throughout the recording. You might want to listen to this one with the lyrics on the screen. The link I’ve included is from ’66, although the album version is from ’62.

11. There but for Fortune

Joan Baez/5

1964

So this next number was a charting hit for Baez in ’64.  It is a cover (the original writer being a man named Phil Ochs), and to be honest with you, I don’t entirely understand the meaning of the song itself. “There but for Fortune” leads me to believe that the unfortunate people she sings about in the four verses (a prisoner, a hobo, a drunk, a nation bombed) are only separated from a young person in a positive state because of misfortune, bad luck, and nothing more.  It is a somber sounding folk diddy that’s easy to listen to and get lost in because it’s so gentle, but like many of her other songs, there is a much deeper meaning behind the lyrics, and my guess is that it’s meant to let you ponder how fortunate (or unfortunate) we are, given nothing more than the circumstances that we are born into.

10. Farewell, Angelina

Farewell, Angelina

1965

This recording, a Bob Dylan cover, comes in the mid sixties, when Joan Baez was evolving with the folk scene, and including arrangements that were more than just reworkings of traditional folk ballads (i.e. Mary Hamilton, Fare Thee Well).  Even on this recording, it is overwhelmingly folk, but you can begin to here some bass and drums quietly waltzing along behind her vocals and guitar. I use the term waltz purposefully as well, given the song does have a folk/waltz feel to it: two genres that very, very rarely cross paths.  This one has hints of anti-war and lost innocence, and I definitely prefer the Baez cover to the Dylan original.

9. Love Song to a Stranger

Come from the Shadows

1972

I knew I was going to be drawn to this song immediately upon seeing the title.  We so rarely get love songs from Baez that are accessible, given her propensity to cover traditional folk songs, and this one is a song that Baez wrote herself.  Even though in the “Sweet Sir Galahad” live video listed above she puts down her own songwriting, the poetry in this song is absolutely astounding.  When you listen to this one, try to do it twice, once to watch the video, her playing and to experience the live performance itself, and once to watch with the lyrics on screen.  I won’t break it down line by line, and it may not be a love song in the traditional sense of the word, but for someone who has spent the majority of his 20’s single, this song details how beautiful some of those memories can be, even if they are not “love” in a traditional forever sense.

8. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Any Day Now

1968

There’s a whole lot of Joan’s country sound going to work on this one.  From her phrasing to the melody and guitar themselves, this song is short, sweet and to the point.  Baez is someone who has mastered the art of interpreting others songs, specifically Bob Dylan’s and this one is no different.  It’s a great take on the original, more melodic and breezy feeling.  Also that little piano breakdown at 1:11 is awesome, and so is the way the piano fills the rest of the song in the background.  Plain and simple, this is just a fantastic song that, if you’re not careful, can find itself stuck in your head before you know it.  I know I found myself humming the refrain throughout the days after my second listen or so.

7. Please Come to Boston

From Every Stage

1976

This is a live selection from her 1975 concert tour.  A cover of a Dave Loggins original, this tune is just perfect.  It’s got a real easy listening feel, and I fell in love with the tune as soon as Joan opens up with “Please come to Boston in the springtime.”  The song is song from the point of view of a woman who is receiving letters from a lover in Boston, Denver and then Los Angeles, pleading with her to move with him to these different locations.  Honestly I just love the whole verse where he pleads with her to come to Boston; for anyone who has been to Boston and can understand its charm, and its promise for a nicer, simpler and slower life (even more so in the 70’s, I’d assume), this song does a great job of painting that picture with the words and music.  “You can sell your paintings out on the sidewalk, by a cafe where I hope that I’ll be working soon,” is such a great line, the lyrics really do sound as if they were taken from actual love letters and that highlights Baez’s knack for picking extraordinary selections to perform. There is some slight western twang in the background of this one, and the chorus fills up with harmonizing voices and drums in a turn away from the softer, more reflective verses.  All in all, fantastic song.

6. Fennario

Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2

1963

Another live selection, which I particularly like for the intro.  Here is a traditional Scottish folk song covered by Baez early in her career. It sets itself aside because of the sing-songy lyrics and the way all of the lines end in an “Oh.” What’s really great on this particular recording (aside from the melody itself and the bit about her having a good time and asking to take off her shoes, met by applause) is her guitar playing and finger-picking.  The recording, even though its from a live show, is incredibly clean, and you can hear her guitar work very clearly.  It’s both an impressive testament to her musical ability, as well as a great sounding classic folk tune.  What I wouldn’t give to have been at a Joan Baez concert in the early 60’s, seems like some pretty interesting stuff.

5. Silver Dagger

Joan Baez

1960

Another selection from Joan Baez’s first eponymous album. It delivers pure unadulterated folk, as a primary source from a time where folk music was infiltrating the pop music world.  I’d be naive to say that Joan Baez was a founder of folk, but she was part of the class of folk musicians who helped folk music infiltrate the popular music world and as a result pop culture itself.  The album itself received special recognition from the Library of Congress for it’s “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy.”  “Silver Digger” is the first song off of this first album, and it’s a really great introduction to Baez.  The guitar playing is pretty off the wall and her vocals are strong and clean.  This traditional folk ballad details a female turning away a potential suitor at the warning of her mother.  I just love that first line though, “Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother.”  A lot of folk music can really bring you to a different time and place just with a line like that, not at all having to set a scene, or give a prologue or preface.  Folk music is the music of story telling, and this recording is a prime example of early Joan Baez, and early popular folk music.

4. The President Sang Amazing Grace

Whistle Down the Wind

2018

To go along with her Fare Thee Well Tour, Joan Baez also released a new album called Whistle Down the Wind. I always try to include a modern song on all of these countdowns as a way of saying that none of these artists have truly passed their prime, but that the music industry has changed instead.  Journey had “After All These Years”, Cat Stevens had “See What Love Did to Me”, and unfortunately Nina Simone passed before I could throw a post millennium song on the countdown.  This selection however, seems like the best one of the modern choices thus far.  I’ve highlighted a few of Joan Baez’s songs that deal overtly with political situations throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and she is an artist who has spent her life advocating for social justice and reform.  I mentioned previously that a lot of these issues have come full circle, and we are often confronting harsh realities and deep divides even within tight familial units.  I try to not be overtly political in my articles, but with an artist like this you really can’t help it, and I deeply deeply believe that the current administration has pushed down the gas pedal on the issues that drive people with different viewpoints further apart.  So after about a decade of not releasing any studio material, Joan Baez released an album of new music, and on it she released the song I’ve selected here.  “The President Sang Amazing Grace” (another interpretation, not originally her song) is about the shooting that took place in Charleston, and Obama’s reaction.  It opens up with a very church sounding piano, and Baez’s voice sounds weathered and aged, but still immaculate; almost as if she’s acknowledging that she has been singing for all these years and what has really changed? A nation and community that so desperately needed healing, and needed to feel like things were going to be alright, were met by a leader who seemed to know exactly what to say.  He did not try to drive a divide between the shooter and the victims.  He did not advocate for the white supremacist shooter or have to be begged to condemn the shooter.  He placed emphasis on the word “United” at the end of his sermon, with the goal of bringing people together, especially in the wake of tragedy.  When he begins to sing, you can see the faces in the crowd light up, even after such an unspeakable tragedy;  a President, who was bashed for being a “secret Muslim” performing one of the most beautifully Christian eulogies I have ever seen by a sitting President.  I could go on for paragraphs, but I will just include the link to the song, and then the link to the event the song is based off of, and hope that you can feel a semblance of the optimism I feel when seeing/hearing those two back-to-back: it’s an optimism that I haven’t truly felt in a couple years.

3. Forever Young

From Every Stage

1976

So I may be biased here. I think if any artist that I cover does a cover of “Forever Young,” I’d probably include it on their countdown just because I believe it to be a supremely written song, filled with emotion and nostalgia and all that good stuff. This live recording was taken from a 1975 concert which was then thrown onto a 1976 album with other song excerpts from the tour itself.  Aside from Bob Dylan’s spectacular lyrics (seriously, I love this fucking song), Baez delivers it slowly, gracefully, and with power when needed.  The recording isn’t too long, it doesn’t try to bring the house down, it just does exactly what it needs to do.  I hope I haven’t misled people into thinking that Joan Baez is simply some glorified cover artist disguised as a folk icon.  When she decided to “cover” (I’d prefer the term interpret) a song, she really has a talent of knowing when to mold it to her sound and when to not.  She is a master of interpreting the songs of others, not simply covering them, and this recording is a prime example of her ability to do so. Beautiful stuff on this one.

2. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Blessed Are…

1971

This song, originally sung by the Band (who were frequent collaborators with Bob Dylan), was the first song I heard and loved by Joan Baez.  It’s got more folk-rock to it, than just traditional folk (you can tell the difference by the pace and the amount of instrumentation in it).  It’s actually one of Baez’s highest charting songs.  There are some differences in Baez’s lyrics compared to the original, and apparently that’s because she never sat and learned the song and it’s lyrics officially, but based her own recording off of her listening to the Band’s album multiple times.  This song has a more radio-friendly feel to it than most of her other songs, which could explain the way it climbed the charts.  When I was searching for a YouTube video to put down for this one, I read one of the comments on a live version and it said, “She was a year ahead of me at Boston University. she got kicked out for wearing pants.”  Now I’m not sure how true that is, but there’s really nothing more Joan than that.  She’s a badass, a nonconforming kick-ass musician with a career that is still going on since the 60’s.  This song about the civil war comes in at number two strictly because of it’s listenability; it’s easy to like, easy to listen to, and easy to hit the replay button on.

1. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

Farewell, Angelina

1965

If you’re not in the mood for this one, it can be difficult to listen to, but if you are in the mood for a song like this, it’s nothing short of beautiful.  Clocking in at 7:40 in running time (and I hope you know I absolutely love long songs), this Dylan cover goes through many ups and downs, in mood and volume.  When I talk about that Sunday morning with a coffee kind of folk music, this is what I mean.  It’s a song from relatively early in Baez’s career, in the stage right after she was singing pretty much only traditional folk ballads, and started covering Dylan and adding more instrumentation to her music.  The instrumentation is immaculate, the guitar in this song is light and airy, like rain.  It is not just Joan playing guitar on this one, but in the first few seconds you can see what I mean when I say immaculate.  The lyrics themselves, well they’re pretty dark.  Bob Dylan wrote the poetry with basically all negative themes, ranging from apocalyptic to cryptic to just plain dark.  It was speculated that the hard rain he was singing about could have been atomic rain, or a nuclear fallout, as the song was written right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For some reason though, when performed by Joan Baez, the song STILL manages to be somewhat soothing. When I think of the hard rain in Baez’s interpretation it feels different, and maybe it’s because she is a woman singing and that inspires more hope and confidence in me than when I hear Dylan sing it. I end up thinking of a hard rain to wash all of the dark themes in question away, a hard rain that’s like folk music and writing on a grey Sunday morning. I think of a hard rain that feels like the two guitars gently intertwining in the background of a 7-minute song that can lull me into a sense of calm. I think of a hard rain that sounds like the legend of Joan Baez.

As always, thanks for reading all the way through. Joan Baez is one of our greatest living musical legends, and does not at all get the due she deserves, but hopefully this article provided some highlights to a musical catalog that spans almost six decades, and has gone through many phases and changes along the way.  The honorable mentions section for Joan Baez is a long one, just based off of the sheer number of songs she’s recorded (I mean, 25 studio albums is astounding).  I’ll list them in chronological order:

60’s: Her Traditional Folk, Mostly Dylan Covers and Slight Country Era

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (Live)”, ” We Shall Overcome (Live)”, “Turquoise” (this is the song from the Donovan video at the beginning of the article – full circle!), “Dangling Conversation” (Simon & Garfunkel cover), “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”,

70’s: Increased focus on writing her own songs & adding more instruments, and an album entirely in Spanish!

“Ghetto”, “Blessed Are…”, “In the Quiet Morning (for Janis Joplin)”, “Gracias a la Vida”, “Hello in There”, “Jesse”, “Dida” (feat. Joni Mitchell), “Blowin’ in the Wind (Live)”

80’s: Didn’t get into this much, but some nice world/African centered songs

“Asimbonanga”, “Biko”, “China”

90’s-Present: Deeper voice, still remarkable talent, alternative rock sound

“Rexroth’s Daughter”

 

Journey

In 2009, when I was a Freshman in college, I bet a friend of mine $20 that Journey would make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before Phish did.  I had spent countless hours watching videos of Journey performing live when I was in high school; I marveled at Steve Perry’s vocal range, Neal Schon’s effortless guitar playing, Jonathan Cain’s songwriting, Ross Valory’s intricate basslines, Steve Smith making Journey’s drum tracks look like child’s play.  I was convinced I would win the bet, and then the years passed.  Fast forward to 2017, me and that same friend sat at a bar in Downtown Brooklyn hours before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: Journey would be inducted that night (Phish induction still pending).  We waited, both checking our phones for ticket prices to drop from the upper $400’s but to no avail, the show started and me and my pal ended up heading to his apartment to drink beer and listen to studio recordings of the inducted bands on his TV and reminisce about college days.  Electric Light Orchestra finished playing for the Barclay’s Center crowd, and I was following the progress of the show on Twitter as Joan Baez began performing.  I checked again and again until I saw it. The tickets had dropped to somewhere near $150.  It did not take much convincing for either us, as we bought the tickets even though the show had already started, ran to print them out at a Kinko’s or something and then took a cab to the Barclay’s center to watch the rest of the show. The debt was paid with a beer purchased for me at the Barclay’s center (shockingly close enough to $20) with seats practically on the floor, as we watched Journey and countless others play, even though Steve Perry didn’t join them in the performance (apologies to the man in the row in front of me who said he had spent his savings to get a ticket to see Steve sing with the band again).

Journey started as a progressive rock band with some of the former members of the band Santana, and their first three albums left much to be desired.  Largely instrumental progressive rock, the albums failed to have much success, and so did Journey. Knowing they needed a change circa 1977/1978, the band wanted to shift their focus toward the emphasis on vocals: enter Steve Perry. Once Perry was thrown into the mix, the bands whole career path changed, and they became one of the best hard/pop-rock bands to ever grace the stage.  Steve Perry is one of the best rock vocalists in history, and the rest of the band members which I listed above (plus Gregg Rolie, Aynsley Dunbar, and for a brief moment Randy Jackson) all brought something intricate and unique to the table in terms of musicality.

As I work on some side projects having to do with my poetry, I had to pick a band that I was comfortable with, so that I could write effortlessly about their top 25 songs and focus my energy on my other projects.  In this countdown, expect a lot of familiar radio friendly hits, with some obscure picks, and even two songs not sung by Steve Perry. Also expect a lot of strange space/spaceship themed album art. What you shouldn’t expect on this countdown is “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”, because even though it’s popular, it is easily one of my least favorite Journey songs, an overplayed movie soundtrack song at best, and I will say no more on the matter. Let’s start with a bonus though, because its terribly hard to limit one of my favorite bands ever to just 25 songs.

B: Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’

Evolution

1979

Steve Perry gets to highlight his vocals since the rock elements of Journey take a back seat on this soulful number. Evolution was the second Journey album with Steve Perry as their vocalist.  After their shift from a progressive rock band with pretty forgettable vocals, Journey had to decide when and where Steve Perry would shine without completely changing the identity and dynamic in the band.  This resulted in a lot of early songs having shared vocals with Steve Perry and Gregg Rolie, their original keyboardist/vocalist, but more on that later.  This song also has a pretty good “Na Na Na” section, which always run the risk of sounding corny and forced. The only reason this song doesn’t grab a spot right on the actual countdown, is that there are parts of it that are practically a carbon copy of Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love” right about at 0:35.  Check it out below!

25. Mother, Father

Escape

1981

Here is the first song from what I consider to be the essential Journey album.  It’s the album where Jonathan Cain fully joined the band and contributed to the songwriting, which ended up complimenting Steve Perry’s pop-vocal style better than Gregg Rolie’s.  Neal Schon still hits heavy with guitar licks and solo’s, but altogether this lineup of the band created an absolutely incredible rock album.  This song tries to hit on some heavy aspects of a broken family, but can sometimes fall flat.  I didn’t fall in love with Journey for their take on family trauma, and it’s evident why.  That being said, the harmonies on the chorus are fun to listen to and Neal Schon shreds his guitar solos like always. This song almost didn’t make the countdown but I think in order to understand the magic of Journey, you have to hear how Steve Perry’s vocals evolve into the song, hitting on some high notes, and even delving into an incredible falsetto at around 4:58 (we don’t often hear Steve’s falsetto because his voice could get so high up there in range without it!) If it wasn’t for this falsetto at the end, this song would be replaced on the countdown by “Still They Ride.”  Feel free to listen to both.

24. After All These Years

Revelation

2008

As I was delving into Journey in high school, watching video after video on YouTube, there was often a frequent debate in the comments section on whether or not Journey was still Journey without Steve Perry, and I often had to confront the reality that I’d never see Journey in their prime, and may not ever see Steve Perry sing in person at all.  Right around this time, YouTube was blowing up, and I’d have to imagine it played a part in Journey finding their at that time new, and still current singer.  Neal Schon had seen videos of Arnel Pineda, a Filipino rock singer and invited him to audition for Journey.  The rest is, as they say, history.  It would be unfair to do a countdown for Journey and not include at least one song with vocals provided by the man who has allowed Journey to keep touring, and allowed the fans to continue to get something as close to the peak Journey experience as possible.  This song was made in 2008, the first single to feature Pineda on vocals.  It’s about a long lasting and still-going love, which lends itself very well to an older group of rocker’s who’ve probably all had their fair share of marriages. In that sense, it makes the subject matter believable and accessible. It also has a completely fuckin’ awesome guitar solo at 2:50.  Damn Neal, I thought those kinds of solos were left back in the days of 80’s arena ballads.

 

23. Wheel in the Sky

Infinity

1978

Coming in 23rd on this countdown is a pretty popular radio-play receiving number.  This song is off of Journey’s first album with Steve Perry as their vocalist, so understandably it took them another year or two to really perfect their sound.  This album still had Gregg Rolie on keyboards, so you’re listening to some of the start of their more pop sound, but with heavy grounding in hard rock and progressive elements.  The reason it comes in so low on the countdown is because its just not as fun to listen to as some of their other songs! Maybe it’s a little too complex and dark  to have the charm of some of their other hits. That first line is great though.

 

23. Higher Place

Arrival

2001

As you can see by the year, here’s another (and the last) non-Steve Perry sung song.  Singing this one is Steve Augeri, who had a short but pretty cool stint with the band.  Steve Augeri’s voice is great as well, but Journey could never get passed looking like they were just trying to find a Steve Perry replacement.  Also, sometimes Augeri had to strain his voice to get it as high as Perry did naturally. As musicians age, vocals seem to be the hardest instrument to keep pristine, and as Journey aged, it seemed as though they just kept looking for younger and newer versions of Steve Perry.  It’s like if someone gets divorced and they just keep bringing around a younger but similar looking version of their ex-spouse. It’s just kind of sad. Thank goodness for Arnel. Steve Augeri had to leave the band after some vocal issues as well, but what he left behind is this gem of a song, a hard rocker that’s both soft and driving in the verses only to erupt into a full blast of awesome at the chorus.  The pre-chorus provides just enough build-up for the chorus itself to do what it was designed to do: rock your socks off.

21. Be Good to Yourself

Raised on Radio

1986

This next number is off of Raised on Radio, the last album released before Journey would disappear from the music scene for nearly 10 years.  Steve Perry would experiment with recording solo albums, and internal band conflicts changed the lineup almost entirely, except for Steve Perry, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain.  Disputes over which direction to take the band, who would fill in for the band members who had left, etc., would end up breaking the band up.  This is also the only album on here that doesn’t have some sort of space contraption on the artwork! All that aside, the sounds of these later recordings take on more 80’s, a little more synth a little more energy.  You can hear Perry’s voice becoming a little more gritty here (this starts becoming evident around 1982-ish, probably due to constant touring and the inability to maintain and care for such an incredible vocal range during the demand of these tours). The song itself, pretty simple, pretty corny, but a decent sound and message.  We are often our own worst critics, and figuring out how to be kind to ourselves, especially when circumstances don’t find us receiving much compassion from external sources, can really go a long way.

20. Only Solutions

Tron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

1982

So, for all the crap I talked about “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” being a crummy 80’s movie soundtrack song in the intro to this article, I have to include one in it’s place.  “Only Solutions” was featured in Tron, and brings a fun futuristic pop-rock sound to the countdown.  Often in the 80’s popular rock bands would create songs that would go on to be used in feature films, boosting both the band’s and the movie’s popularity simultaneously.  You can also start hearing the grittiness I was talking about in Steve Perry’s voice in comparison to his early years. This album was later released as a bonus track on the Frontiers album.

19. Just the Same Way

Evolution

1979

After Perry joined the band, Journey was tasked with figuring out how to incorporate Steve Perry into the sound they had already cultivated.  This song is a prime example of the difference of their earlier years and their 80’s years.  While Gregg Rolie was still in the band, he sometimes took primary vocals over on songs, while Steve Perry was just there to provide some background vocals or repetition on Rolie’s parts.  Perry also sings a breakdown in this song.  This song is great because it doesn’t strictly rely on Perry’s vocals to make it sound good, the instrumentation does it well enough (clean keyboards balanced out by experienced hard rock musicians trying to contain themselves throughout the song). Also, Gregg Rolie isn’t a bad vocalist by any means at all! He’s just no Steve Perry.

18. Anytime

Infinity

1978

This song normally comes right after a song you will hear later in the countdown. On the album itself there is no pause between when “Feeling That Way” finishes and “Anytime” begins. It’s another one where Gregg Rolie takes primarily vocal duties and Steve Perry gets very small moments to shine while he provides background vocals. Sometimes this give and take between Rolie and Perry works, though, as you’re reminded of how stellar Perry’s vocals are ANYTIME (get it?) that the focus shifts from Rolie to him. All in all, this just a decent track with a really raw and evident classic rock sound and feel.

 

17. I’ll Be Alright without You

Raised on Radio

1986

Another tune from the Raised on Radio days (it should be mentioned that Randy Jackson of American Idol fame played the bass for Journey on this album, as the bass takes a more prominent role in driving the songs during this era).  This song has a lot of Steve Perry written all over it.  More oriented in pop ballad, primarily focused on love/romance or its struggles.  I tend to like the Raised on Radio stuff although it’s much softer and toned down from Journey’s best material, and this song is a good example.  Great song structure, great vocals, and a simply incredible guitar solo from Neal Schon at 3:05 .  Often when talking about Journey it’s easy to get lost in what Steve Perry meant to the band.  Hopefully you are seeing Neal Schon’s relevance so far in this countdown, because I believe he is one of the most underrated guitarists ever.  This song does a good job of showing how Neal Schon can use his instrument to completely fit the mood of any song that Journey was composing, despite some of his reservations about the direction that the band was going in.  The little lick at 3:59 can just as easily get stuck in your head as a vocal melody can, and it takes one hell of a guitarist to pull that off.

 

16. Only the Young

Vision Quest Soundtrack

1985

Similar to “Only Solutions”, this song was made and featured on a soundtrack to an 80’s movie, later released as a bonus track on Journey’s Frontiers album.  This song has a lot of the components of all of the popular mid-80’s Journey songs, some synth, driving and consistent drum and bass beats, a cool Schon guitar-solo, and Steve Perry. Perry’s voice is stronger and more forceful on this one than some of Journey’s other stuff.  It’s also nice to marvel at the way Neal Schon’s guitar can fit into these synth-y 80’s songs without needing to be a focal point or crying for help, and you can hear that as soon as the song starts, with little notes filling the space in the song rather than being the center of attention.  If you’re wondering why you’re hearing so much of the 80’s stuff, it’s because all of Journey’s best stuff from the late 70’s is coming up later.  While the 80’s stuff is good, it’s not nearly as good as what’s to come.

15. Somethin’ to Hide

Infinity

1978

“Somethin’ to Hide” is another song off of Journey’s first album with Steve Perry.  A lot of the songs on this album have kind of an echoey and void-y feel, as if they’re playing the songs on some far away desolate planet, with amps loud enough to ring out over the universe (you can really hear that on this track and “Anytime” from before).  It seems for this track they were comfortable to let Steve do all the singing, and that falsetto I talked about before makes another appearance. It’s great to hear when Steve sings along side Schon’s guitar at about 2:45. This is just an awesome vocal performance.

14. Sweet and Simple

Evolution

1979

I really like the sound on their Evolution album.  This is one of two songs (other one coming later) on that album that allow Steve to just sing out, and be complimented perfectly by the piano, which is then complimented perfectly by Schon’s guitar. The guitar in this song has the ability to fill the background during the verses, chiming in here and there with a nice, SWEET AND SIMPLE tone (get it?).  Schon’s guitar is also allowed to burst into some powerful chords during the chorus, and allowed to go into one of those tasty guitar solos as well.  All the while, you can tell Steve and the band are beginning to gel, with Perry’s vocals getting more powerful when the rest of the band does so, otherwise floating effortlessly around the guitar and piano.  Sweet and Simple seems to be the perfect title for such a song.

13. Patiently

Infinity

1978

“Patiently” is the first song that Steve Perry and Neal Schon ever wrote together.  Steve Perry wrote the lyrics about being the road and away from home for long periods, while Neal Schon wrote most of the music.  The result is awesome.  The song starts with one of those alone in the universe sounds I talked about on “Somethin’ to Hide. Similar to “Sweet and Simple” Perry sings softly over piano and a softer guitar for the verse, all complimenting each other nicely.  Then when we hear the guitar start gearing up and getting heavy at 1:36 (on the studio recording) we know we’re in for a treat. Bursting guitar along with Steve Perry using a higher and more forceful part of his vocal register which both culminate into one of those famous Schon solo’s, only to quiet back down and come full circle.  This was one of those songs that really got people on board with Steve Perry’s arrival in Journey, and set the tone for a band that would, in a few years, become larger than they thought possible. For this one, I found this grainy video of Journey performing it live before Perry found his full confidence and before Neal Schon found out that he looked cooler without the mustache.  You can find the studio version on YouTube, but part of the magic for me is watching Journey play live and how that developed by the early 80’s.

12. Open Arms

Infinity

1981

This song is pretty popular, so I can bet that most of you reading have heard it before.  It is our second selection off of the Escape album, where you see a group of incredible talented musicians who seem to know exactly when to pick their moments to play to their full potential, and when to fall in line behind Steve Perry’s voice.  A widely popular ballad, this song is mostly the band falling in line.  I’ve selected a live video, just to show you how much three years made a difference for Journey.  The previous video was in 1978, and you saw a shy, mostly stagnant Steve Perry, in a small crowd on the Midnight Special.  Now, fast forward to about 1981, and you see a sold out arena, a way more comfortable Perry, and a band that seems as it had been playing together for years, even though that particular line-up of musicians had only been together for maybe a year or two at that point (Gregg Rolie had left the band and so Jonathan Cain is playing keys in this video).  The contrasts in the videos are pretty stark, but the music always remains incredible.

11. Feeling That Way

Infinity

1978

This is the song I referred to before, which normally precedes “Anytime”.  Another track off of Infinity, you will see the band using Rolie and Perry’s vocals together, trying to see how they fit.  Another video that shows the complete difference a few years would make for this band.  This song has a lot of the elements that make Journey great at play, Rolie’s piano is always awesome, Perry gets to shine in bits and pieces, Schon’s guitar is going wild at times here, and the harmonies are on point. Also have to give a nod to all the cans of Budweiser around the studio in this video; the video itself is a video made in the 70’s that looks like it’s a video made recently trying way too hard to seem like it was made 70’s.

10. Stay Awhile

Departure

1980

Our first out of two songs on the countdown that come from the Departure album.  Departure as a whole is an alright album, but seemed to take a step back from Evolution in terms of Journey figuring out what worked for them and what didn’t.  It was also the last album to feature Gregg Rolie on keyboards.  By this time, Journey was blowing up in Japan, and a lot of the footage you’ll see from this era of the band has them playing concerts to droves of seated fans in Japan.  “Stay Awhile” is a simple and short song, that often would play after “Lights” during live shows, after Neal Schon would connect both of them with a solo.  You can hear the similarities in the guitar if you compare it to “Lights”.  When “Lights” appears on the countdown later, I’ll throw in a video of them performing the “Stay Awhile” with it.

9. The Party’s Over (Hopelessly in Love)

Captured

1981

This next number is the only studio recording released on their 1981 live album Captured.  Honestly, Neal Schon just sort of shreds guitar the whole entire song while Perry’s vocals are clean and powerful, his phrasing making the song a digestible power-pop/rock song despite the intensity, power and speed of the other instruments.  Not much else to be said about this gem.

8. Any Way You Want It

Departure

1980

I go back and forth with this one.  Did being in those Ford commercials or whatever turn this song into nothing more than a catchy commercial jingle? I would say after much careful thought and consideration, that no, it didn’t, and that this song is still awesome.  It’s got a bit of a different composition than most other Journey songs, and that’s because while Journey was on tour with Thin Lizzy, they picked up on some of what the legendary Phil Lynott did best. Perry said,  “It’s guitar-voice, guitar-voice, more guitar-guitar-guitar-voice. It be voice-voice and back and forth and that’s something that Neal and I think just instinctually picked up by hanging out with him.” You can hear the voice and guitar going back and forth, which highlights what I’ve been raving about this whole article, Steve’s immaculate pitch, and Neal’s incredible guitar work.  No song shows that much more than this one. It’s an essential Journey track, and an essential song for classic rock as a whole as well.

7. Too Late

Evolution

1979

Very similar to “Sweet and Simple”, this tune comes in so high on the countdown because it’s just delightful. It’s soft when it needs to be, but can also ramp up the decibels when it needs to as well.  It’s a serene but powerful ballad in the earlier part of Steve Perry’s tenure with Journey.

6. Girl Can’t Help It

Raised on Radio

1986

Although this later end of the countdown is largely reserved for Journey’s earlier tracks, “Girl Can’t Help It” is a later song that deserves its slot this high up on the countdown.  It’s a soulful 80’s rocker that sees Journey’s revamped lineup harmonizing during the chorus just about as good as the band did with the original Steve Perry lineup of 1978.  With a couple of solid solos from Neal Schon at the end of the song and a super-cool Randy Jackson bassline, this song is a great balance between rock and pop and soul.  It highlights how even though Journey was a band full of extra talented musicians, they also knew how to use their instruments to construct catchy pop-rock tunes while still being able to make the music feel not boring; most bands who tried to simplify their sound to make their talent more marketable for pop/rock radio failed to do this.  You can always count on a Schon solo to remind you just who you’re dealing with though, even in the midst of one of Journey’s catchiest pop tunes.

5. Escape

Escape

1981

The reason Escape is the number one Journey album around is that even songs you’ve never heard on this one are incredible.  “Escape” is a hard rocker that allows you to marvel at the musicality of Journey while also keeping the music enjoyable to listen to.  The song evolves, or goes through phases, so that you can pick and choose which melody/riff are your favorite (fyi: they’re all good).  This song is proof that even though Journey was largely known as an 80’s ballad band, they could still hard rock with the best of ’em.  The background harmonies, Steve Perry’s wailing vocals (in their prime) and the hard rocking instrumentation by Journey’s most cohesive lineup; this song is an essential track to listen to if you want to understand what’s so special about Journey.  By the time 3:30 comes around, you’ve basically forgotten how the song began and how it transformed as it played, so yes, I think it’s best to listen again after you’ve finished up the first time.

4. Stone in Love

Escape

1981

This song could also be high up on a countdown called “The Best Classic Rock Songs You May Have Never Heard.”  Okay, so maybe not the best name for a countdown, but this song has a real authentic classic rock feel.  The choruses are mostly followed by rockin’ guitar solos, the harmonies are pristine, and Steve Perry’s lyrics about the good ol’ nights falling in love are reminiscent of that other super awesome Journey song… what’s it called again?  That’s why this album is so good as well, all the songs have a similar hard/classic rock feel, Perry’s lyrics are relate-able and nostalgic.  It’s everything that classic rock should be about.

3. Lights

Infinity

1978

There are no real surprises in store for these last three songs on the countdown.  They’re all ever popular on classic rock radio stations, and rightfully so.  This one was written by Perry in his first year with the band, it seems by the subject matter of most of the Perry-penned tracks on Infinity that he was having a hard time being away from home while touring and being in a band.  But if that sadness resulted in “Lights” then I’m sure glad he was sad.  Perry’s homesick and longing lyrics mix so well with Schon’s driving guitar riff throughout the song and his absolutely fitting guitar solo later in the song (I can’t rave enough about Schon’s ability to provide a fitting solo to every song Journey’s ever made, they never seem forced or out of place in the slightest).  The song is about their hometown of San Francisco, and I had the pleasure of watching Pat Monahan of Train speak about how much the song meant to him and his band while inducting Journey into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago.  If you haven’t heard this song before, then YouTube the studio version.  If you have though, the video I’ve attached is the live version that goes into “Stay Awhile” which you heard earlier in the countdown.  Schon plays a solo that he specifically designed to be able to play Lights into Stay Awhile, as they were songs from two different albums, and you can only hear this solo when they do these two songs together live.  Also, Perry’s vocals in this live recording are insane.

2. Faithfully

Frontiers

1983

This is the only song from Frontiers on the countdown.  After the success of Escape, Journey didn’t release another album for two years, and the result was, unfortunately, one of my least favorite Steve Perry fronted Journey albums.  Delving heavily into synth-driven rock and space themed songs in a way that never fully resonated with me, most of the songs on Frontiers are forgettable.  Among them though, is this absolutely essential ballad.  Another song about being on the road too long and missing home or a person in particular, this song has the same elements that work for Journey’s all time best song (comin’ up next), it has a recognizable piano intro, nostalgic and relate-able lyrics, driving guitar solos and Steve Perry.  The way the song erupts at the end will never cease to impress me, with Schon’s guitar wailing and Perry’s forceful singing of “I’m still yours” over the solo.  80’s arena ballads are considered by many to be a dark spot in rock music, every 80’s bands were trying to fill arenas by singing emotional slow ballads, and unfortunately Journey is to blame.  Because of the success of “Faithfully” and the formula that Journey had mastered (soulful vocals, driving guitar, intense drumming) other bands spent most of the 80’s trying to replicate the formula.  After hearing “Faithfully” though, there’s no need to look any further to find the quintessential ballad.  I mean 3:00 and onward is just, absolutely masterful.

1. Don’t Stop Believin’

Escape

1981

Normally, when you delve deep into a band’s catalog, you’ll find that their most popular song is not actually their best song, but marketed and timed well.  This is not the case with Journey.  Journey’s essential track, their most popular well known song, is absolutely and unequivocally their best.  It is one of the best and most well known rock songs of all time.  It can be heard at sporting events, bars and other events all over the world ’til this very day.  When I was in high school, I was in Maryland and it was right before social media had connected everybody to the point of zero separation.  I was riding around in the back seat of the car, listening to an iPod that wasn’t mine, and “Don’t Stop Believin'” came on the shuffle.  I had known (and been crushing on) a girl who (like most high school girls at the time)  loved “Don’t Stop Believin'” and to have heard it for the first time with her mind, I discovered what it felt like to miss someone far away from you so deeply that I’ll always refer to it as the first time I fell and felt in love.  To have that emotion magnified by a song from almost 25 years prior was something magical.  Another time I was in the Dominican Republic on a resort and it was my first time out of the country.  I remember walking around the resort at night, feeling alive and young and old and responsible all at once, when I heard “Don’t Stop Believin'” and a chorus of voices ringing out from the sports themed bar located at the center of the resort.  A song that can unite people despite age or location is what Journey created with their masterpiece.  The intro is, in my humble opinion, the best and most recognizable piano intro for any rock song to date, the guitar solo is just as memorable as the verses and chorus themselves.  The song is so unequivocally Journey in all the best ways, and no matter how many times it’s played, or how many drunken strangers I hear singing along, I, along with so many others, will never grow tired of “Don’t Stop Believin'” or Journey: one of my favorite rock bands of all time.

I, as always, hope you enjoyed reading the article and listening to the music.  Since I’ve been an avid Journey fan for a long time, the list of honorable mentions for this countdown is long, but worth listening to.  If you liked any songs, I again encourage you to look up some live versions just to give a better glimpse of how the songs come together, of how good Perry & Schon and the rest of the band are and just how damn good Journey is.  Also, I will not be addressing any comments that believe “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” is one of Journey’s best songs: it is not good.  Here are the honorable mentions:

“Spaceman” (the only track I like from before Perry joined the band), “Majestic” (an awesome 1 minute instrumental intro song), “Do You Recall”, “Daydream”, “Someday Soon”, “People and Places”, “Departure” (Another super dope short instrumental song), “Good Morning Girl”, “Who’s Crying Now” (a pretty popular one), “Still They Ride” (Not going to lie, this song should be on the countdown in retrospect but I am too tired to replace one of the songs I already put on here), ” Send Her My Love” (Another popular one), “After the Fall”, “Suzanne”, “It Could Have Been You”, “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever”, “Ask the Lonely”, “When You Love a Woman”, “When I Think of You”, “Baby I’m a Leavin’ You”(a Journey reggae song?!)

Cat Stevens

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

1967

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

1970

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

1971

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

Izitso

1977

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

1978

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

Single

1975

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

1974

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.

18. Ruins

Catch Bull at Four

1972

“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

2017

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)

1971

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

1971

“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

1970

“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.

13. Angelsea

Catch Bull at Four

1972

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

2006

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.

11. Moonshadow

Teaser and the Firecat

1971

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

1970

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

2017

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.

8. Lilywhite

Mona Bone Jakon

1970

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!

7. Trouble

Mona Bone Jakon

1970

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

1971

“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

1970

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

1971

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

1970

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

1970

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

1970

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 UsLyrically, 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.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone (born Eunice Waymon) changed her name so that she could begin to play jazz clubs without her parents becoming aware that she was making money playing jazz, which her family referred to as the “devil’s music.”  The name has become synonymous with Jazz, Civil Rights, and protest all alike.  After considerable success throughout the 60’s and very early 70’s, Nina Simone shied away from the public eye for the later part of her life.  She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in her life, and passed away from breast cancer in 2003, at the age of 70.

As we transition from Black History Month into Women’s History Month, I feel it’s only appropriate that my first Top 25 countdown be about an individual who paved the way for many people in both communities.  Hopefully, this article can give an introduction to an artist that many people know the name of, but whose recording career can sometimes rest in obscurity.

25. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Broadway-Blues-Ballads

1964

Upon hearing Nina’s version of the song for the first time, I was only familiar with the cover version done by the band, The Animals.  This version is a bit slower, which allows Nina the ability to do whatever it is that she does so well with her voice. It’s up for debate whether she is singing from the point of view of herself, reiterating her humanity as a music icon, or she is singing from the point of view of the Civil Rights movement, pleading with the popular audience in the 60’s to see blacks as human beings with components of both good and bad.  Either way, this song makes a great choice for number 25 on the list, to introduce you to what Nina can do vocally, and what the message in her music is primarily about.

24. Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

1961

This song is kind of a fun choice to throw on the list.  A sing-songy re-telling of the story of the Apple and the Garden of Eden erupts into a party at the chorus.  The story-telling verses are mostly just drumsticks and piano, but when the chorus comes around I have a hard time believing I wouldn’t have taken a bite of the fruit for myself if I was hanging around Eden. Just sounds like fun.

23. Gin House Blues

Forbidden Fruit

1961

What? You say that this song is only on the list because I’m a sucker for booze and songs about booze?  Although that’s mostly true, it’s songs like these that show why Nina was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year.  Even though she didn’t write this song, this cover of a Bessie Smith song is delivered very well.  Smooth rocking tunes about alcohol, what more could you ask for?

22. That’s Him Over There

The Amazing Nina Simone

1959

A few of the songs on this list are here simply because they are enjoyable pieces of light jazz to listen to.  This is one of them.  Mostly just Nina accompanied by her piano with very minor production, this song is quite simply “pleasant.”

 

21. Exactly Like You (Live)

Nina Simone at Town Hall

1959

This is another song that highlights Nina’s singing and playing ability, even without the presence of her overarching career message.  There’s a point in the song where she breaks down into a little piano solo at about 1:45 and ad libs some scat-like phrases on top of it; it is solid evidence of Nina’s ability as a jazz pianist, despite her presence in the realm of pop music.

20. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Pastel Blues

1965

Another Bessie Smith cover, which made the list because (aside from another nod to alcohol in the opening lyrics), the recording and delivery itself is great.  Nina Simone was an artist who could bring a room to their emotional knees (i.e. “Mississippi Goddam” but we’ll get to that one in a second), but also could deliver just plain good jazz and piano pop songs.  Along with another song coming later on the list, this recording off of the Pastel Blues album is super clean and easy to listen to.

19. Mississippi Goddam (Live)

Nina Simone in Concert

1964

It pains me to put this song so low down on the countdown, but to me, it’s not as aesthetically pleasing as some of her other songs.  HOWEVER, this song is absolutely incredible as a musical primary source of the Civil Rights Era. Nina penned this one herself also, the subject matter being some of the many famous murders of blacks by whites at the time (Medgar Evers, the Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama) and performed it in front of a mostly white audience.  It starts with a light show-tune instrumental, and Nina announces the song as a show-tune, but states that “the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”  The crowd initially laughs at Simone’s commentary and then quickly realizes that the song is not a light, happy show-tune, but a commentary on the state of racism in the U.S. at the time. You can almost feel the shift in the recording as the crowd realizes that they are in over their heads while Nina sings loudly, “you’re all gonna die and die like flies.” When Nina says to the crowd “I bet you thought I was kidding didn’t ya?” she’s no longer met with laughter, but silence.  This is admittedly a stretch, but this song is kind of like the Red Wedding without all the blood. (Sorry for the spoiler but if you haven’t watched it yet, are you really ever going to?)

18. Ain’t Got No, I Got Life

(Single)

1968

This song is a medley from the musical Hair and marked sort of a resurgence of Nina’s career at the time it was released. The lyrics seem to be put into a different context when Nina sings them, always seemingly related to the concept of being black in America, but it the message isn’t as outright as it is in some of her other songs. That being said, it’s a good combination of two songs and the tone of the song shifting midway through keeps it interesting even after multiple listen-throughs.

17. To Be Young, Gifted and Black

(Single)

1969

On many levels, Nina Simone was a pioneer of black power through music, and perhaps no song portrays this as well as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”  This song is different from some of her other empowerment anthems in that it is focused on empowering young black individuals, rather than broadcasting the struggle of African Americans during this particular time in history.  Nina focused so much of her energy on challenging the notion that to be black was anything but to be beautiful, and she harbored that energy into one of the shorter, more pop/soul oriented tracks on this list.

16. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

Silk & Soul

1967

Although it is a cover, this is another statement song that seems to mean so much more when it’s sung by Simone.  The lyrics don’t leave anything up to the imagination as Nina sings of her wishes of equality in everyday life in the form of freedom.  Another plus – the song also sounds good, which is imperative if you want a song with a message to reach a widespread audience. As a bonus, check out Nina Simone talking about what it means to be free in this interview before listening to the song:

15. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

To Love Somebody

1969

Most of Simone’s later studio albums consisted of multiple covers and interpretations of other famous songs.  Even the album this song was released on is titled based off of her cover of the Bee Gees’ 1967 song.  This included quite a few Bob Dylan covers (“Just Like a Woman”, “Mr. Bojangles”, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”), but this one is the best.  This recording is soft, airy and folky, while still staying true to Simone’s strengths. Vocally, she sings this one softer than some of her other songs, and with a great underlying piano foundation.

14. My Baby Just Cares for Me

Little Girl Blue

1958

This one is from Nina’s first ever studio album, Little Girl Blue. The subtitle on the front of the album cover is “Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club” and although I never had the opportunity to be in an exclusive side street club in the late 50’s, the album does a good job of achieving that sound.  Nina’s early tracks don’t showcase her vocal ability as much as her later albums do, but on a lot of these songs Nina’s able to break into piano solos which can be equally as enjoyable.

13. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today

Nina Simone and Piano!

1969

A cover of a Randy Newman song, Nina delivers this one with a vocal prowess that is a little louder and harsher than a lot of her softer recordings at that time, but is also void of a lot of the production on her later albums.  The name of the album this one is on is Nina Simone and Piano! and that’s really all you’re hearing on the recordings.   In this one specifically, Nina does an exceptional job of portraying the mood of the song and lyrics using just her two original instruments and it pays off.

12. Do What You Gotta Do

‘Nuff Said!

1968

For fans of modern pop/rap music, you’ll recognize quite a bit of this song starting as early as the first verse.  Kanye West had Rihanna basically sing the entire first verse of this song on his song “Famous.”  I think it always pays to know where the original samples come from and what artists your favorite sampling artists are getting their inspiration from.  Aside from the sample, this song is this high up on the list because it’s a rare recording that feels similar to some Motown soul recordings, highlighting Nina’s ability as a recording artist outside of her normal piano/vocal arrangements.

11. Since I Fell for You

Nina Simone Sings the Blues

1967

I can’t say that I have any particular soft spot for the blues, but this track is just what the album promises: pure unadulterated blues.  From the piano, harmonica, and guitar instrumentals singing back and forth with Nina’s own vocals, this is a blues song that is as blues-y as blues gets, performed by a woman whose affinity was not strictly for blues. In some ways, it’s more enjoyable and palatable than other songs of the era from blues greats.

10. Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

1971

I was nervous when I first listened to this one because of how much I love the original Beatles version.  Maybe it was just the way the sun was shining in through the window as I watched the snow melt from my seat on the B48 the morning that I first heard it, but this cover stays true enough to the original while being its own recording completely.  The vocals are higher in Nina’s register than a lot of the other songs on the list, and the piano is also really light and sparse (minus a few breakdowns).  When you cover a song as great as “Here Comes the Sun” you really have to outdo yourself to make it work, and this does far more than just work; it’s marvelous.

9. I Loves You, Porgy

Little Girl Blue

1958

This is regarded as the song that really started Nina Simone’s career. It charted in the Billboard top 20, and the rest of her career followed suit.  As with “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” there’s an ambiance in the recording of these early songs that’s so pleasant that I can’t help but feel like I’m in a tiny street side jazz club while listening. It’s a very slow, pretty and sensual recording, nearing in on beautiful.

8. Trouble in Mind

Pastel Blues

1965

Honestly, I was hooked on this song in the first 3 seconds.  Simone’s piano intro is happy and jazz-filled.  When her vocals and a bit of guitar come in to compliment it for the rest of the song, it makes for a recording that’s really pleasant.  I don’t need to go into too much detail about what makes this a great tune; you can get that on your first listen-through.

7. Why? (The King of Love is Dead)

‘Nuff Said!

1968

While I’ve described Nina Simone as somewhat of a Civil Rights musical hero and highlighted some of her best protest and inspirational songs, no song portrays this as well as this one right here.  The King of Love referred to in the title is none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this live recording took place just three days after his assassination.  Written by Nina’s bass player after the assassination, this recording is the first time anybody had heard the song, meaning they only had 3 days to compose, learn and perform it; still the recording is flawless, and the song epitomizes a Civil Rights legend’s reaction to Dr. King’s death through song.  It’s not just a song; it is an audible piece of history.

6. Love Me or Leave Me

Let It All Out

1966

I first heard this song when I was in the 7th grade. My teacher, Ms. Morgan, brought it in to play for the class.  Even though back then old music just sounded like old music with no other discernible qualities, the song stuck out to me still, and I downloaded it from Limewire (I know, so badass) when I got home.  Years later, this song still hasn’t grown old to me.  The quick rapping style of the verses is enjoyable to listen to, but her piano playing throughout the song is something to really marvel at. The classical breakdown in the middle of the song (an open homage to Bach) proves yet again that Nina could really play piano with the best of ‘em.

5. Lilac Wine

Wild is the Wind

1966

Another alcohol themed song! “Lilac Wine” starts off in a dark place, Nina’s vocals and playing haunting, captivating the spirit of pain.  Then, as she begins to sing about the wine, her tone softens and so does the music, replicating the effect that a glass (or 7 glasses) of wine can have on a broken heart.  Aesthetically pleasing and soothing after the dark beginning, the song is something to listen to all the way through its shifts and changes; the musical equivalent of wine (and I love me some wine).

4. Sunday in Savannah (Live)

‘Nuff Said!

1968

Part of the joy of listening to live Nina Simone songs is hearing the way she speaks to the crowd before a song begins.  This song was also taken from the same concert recorded 3 days after the assassination of MLK.  Full of insight and warmth, the intro to this song is enough to land it this high on the countdown; she spends about 2 whole minutes thanking the people who have come to see her in hopes that she can provide some type of relief for the tragedy that had just occurred. That’s only enhanced when she spends the next four minutes playing a delightful little song about a beautiful Sunday in Savannah.  The intro and the song combine to form a piece that’s another nice little piece of history, capturing the mood and essence of the black south in the late 1960’s.

3. I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl

Nina Simone Sings the Blues

1967

I didn’t want to weigh down the final selections of the countdown with all long live songs, or large instrumental breakdowns.  So coming in at number three is this sweet little bluesy jazz number.  Modeled after a song by Bessie Smith, this one is a long tongue in cheek metaphor for being uh, “in the mood.”  It’s short, sweet and to the point. It’s just a quality sounding and well-written tune; the prime example of Nina’s ability to make catchy jazz-pop numbers as well as hard-hitting protest songs.

2. Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You

Nina Simone and Piano!

1969

Much like the other recording off of this album, this song just has Nina and her piano goin’ at it.  This one though, is a love song, and other than “Lilac Wine” and “I Loves You Porgy” we don’t have a lot of those from Nina.  I initially didn’t have this song on the countdown but was shown it by a friend, and immediately regretted missing it.  But I’m only human, so these countdowns aren’t perfect.  With this song on it though, this countdown is a little closer to perfect.  This song showcases her vocals, which get bigger and grander and evolve into something magical toward the end of the song, and her piano playing accompanies this change perfectly.  I prefer the beginning; the first line is a thing of pure beauty, “Darling, you are always needed.”  Even though Nina did not write the song, her performance is pure beauty.  Nina also was quite fond of this entire album, saying that she would much rather be remembered for this than for songs like “My Baby Just Cares for Me”.  So let’s remember Nina with this incredible love tune coming in at number 2.

1. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Live)

Black Gold

1970

Here we are! My all-time favorite Nina Simone song is upon us! Thanks for reading through the article if you’ve had the patience to do so and I hope you enjoyed the music.  Number 1 is another live track, a cover, with a long spoken intro. Nina starts off by speaking with the audience about how tired she is (perhaps foreshadowing her upcoming slowdown in studio album releases and later mental health issues), but as always she is willing to pour her soul into another number. Nina speaks softly to a mostly quiet room (save for a few coughs), leaving the listener reflecting on the great mystery of life and time. This song is very light and slow, a true reflection piece, and by the time she starts singing, her intro has more likely than not put you in a place to reflect on time: time passed, time passing now, time soon to pass us by.  This song is number one on the list because it’s one of those rare gems that can put you in a mood and cause you to reflect on a universal emotion, but that reflection is profoundly different for each of us; a vivid and intricate web of memories of people and places and events, and of course time.

Thanks to everyone who read and finished all the way through the article.  I know that 25 songs can take up a good chunk of your day.  If you enjoyed these 25 and want some more quality Nina Simone songs, here were the honorable mentions that almost made the countdown, but didn’t quite get there:

“Seems Like I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You”, “Feeling Good”, “Suzanne”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “Strange Fruit”, “Sinnerman”, “To Love Somebody”, “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”, the entire Wild is the Wind album