This article originally ran in 2014 and has been updated in celebration of Kate Bush’s birthday on July 30th.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
Considering the formidable back catalog of someone as musically gifted as Kate Bush, the inevitable dilemma is what to leave out of any top 10. With 10 studio albums and 33 singles to ponder, it’s a particularly tough ask.
Despite Bush’s status as a national treasure in the UK and considerable success around the world, her career has never really taken off in the US — until this year’s “Running Up That Hill” explosion, that is. Indeed, Bush’s genius is finally getting the recognition it deserves in the States (though this list was formed long before Stranger Things put her back on the map).
For those new to the Kate Bush train (welcome!), we’ve put together a proper crash course — her 10 best songs to date — which should bring everyone up to speed on what they might have been missing. With any cult-like star comes an even more intense debate, so feel free to throw out your honorable mentions in the comments sections on social media.
— Tony Hardy
10. “Sunset” (2005)
“Sunset” comes from Bush’s 2005 double album, Aerial. The record is divided into two parts: Sea of Honey, a collection of stand-alone songs, and Sky of Honey, a song cycle/concept record narrating the artistry of day becoming night. Sky of Honey, from which “Sunset” hails, is amorphous in concept, but powerful in execution. Like The Ninth Wave before it, Sky is a collection of wonderful tracks — each has merit on its own, but they all work so well together that it’s hard not to see them as a whole. Given the chance, we’d have listed both of those song cycles as “tracks” on this list, but then it might as well be an album list. Simply put, there needed to be some representation here, and it was a hard choice.
“Sunset” makes the grade for everything that it embodies. Nestled in the heart of Sky of Honey, it treats us to the transition of day into night through Bush’s musical lens. Like the album itself, the song is a journey, transitioning from languid jazz to hot Spanish guitars as the sky fills with stars and the night comes alive. Many have tried, with varying degrees of success, to bring the magic of a day to life with the power of paint, music, and poetry. With “Sunset” and Sky of Honey, Kate Bush finally succeeds. — Cap Blackard
09. “December Will Be Magic Again” (1980)
A one-off single that’s criminally underappreciated and certainly underplayed, Bush’s Christmas track is the type of song every American mall needs to be injected with post-Thanksgiving. “December Will Be Magic Again” sees Bush name-dropping everyone from Bing Crosby to Oscar Wilde, all without sugaring our sweet tooth as so many Christmas originals do. Maybe that’s because she opts for descriptions of black soot instead of sparkling snow.
Written in 1979 but released for the holiday season of 1980, the best it saw was a spot at No. 29 on the UK Singles Chart before nosediving the actual week of December 25th. It was never given a promotional video. It was never tacked on to any of her albums. It still doesn’t have a proper upload on YouTube (unless you count the Nightmare Before Christmas slideshow or lol cats). Instead, the 7-inch saw two alternate versions — the quiet, melodramatic take from her 1979 Christmas television special (seen above) and a childish cut that features bongos and slide whistles.
They’ve since made it on to a few holiday compilation albums. Wood blocks, thin bass, and sleigh bells all add up beautifully here. Not only is this one of Kate Bush’s hidden gems, but it’s a Christmas song that actually won’t annoy you. — Nina Corcoran
08. “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” (1978)
If there’s any doubt about Kate Bush’s talent as a songwriter, let “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” serve as the solid proof that she knows what she’s doing. Written when she was only 13 years old, the song describes a theory she developed about the men she knew at the time. “[It’s] the fact that they just are little boys inside and how wonderful it is that they manage to retain this magic,” she told Self Portrait in 1978, emphasizing the beauty of how a man can communicate with a younger girl because the two are on the same level.
When she finally stepped into AIR Studios to record it three years later, she was overwhelmed by the size of the orchestra there to play alongside her. Their delicate violin swells give warmth to her piano’s daydreaming, uniting to form a true gem, especially considering her age.
All her hard work paid off: “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” was her first single to reach the Billboard Pop Singles chart. Those who purchased the physical single separately from the album will notice an important, albeit minor, difference. The single opens with a hurried echoing of the phrase “He’s here!” and a giggle, a rather creepy touch since it sounds like it’s coming from a group of children. As the rest unfolds, Bush’s complete faith in her lyrics clears up whatever predatory tones could be drawn from the otherwise remarkably mature song. — N.C.
07. “Wow” (1978)
Bush’s second album, Lionheart, came out in an unseemly rush nine months after her debut. The singer later confessed to feeling undue pressure from her record label, who were keen to cash in. Yet the album still flaunted some gems, and its second single, “Wow,” is the most tempting jewel among them. Lyrically, it speaks of the artificiality of the stage — the inner loneliness, the repetition of performing, the gushing falsehood of praise, the never quite making it — but more broadly it seems to be about the duplicity of show business and, by implication, the music industry.
The song is blessed with striking melody lines with orchestral instruments complementing sensitive bass. Whether dropping an innuendo about Vaseline, scaling vocal heights, or descending two octaves to hit an unexpected bass note, Kate Bush is always in command of her stage. — T.H.
06. “The Sensual World” (1989)
“The Sensual World” was the song that got me into Kate Bush. Before, there had been the curiosity of “Wuthering Heights” and the enigma of “Wow” (a great track, but one that my beginner self simply wasn’t ready for). I didn’t know what to make of her. With “Sensual World,” it all came together. Here, amidst Macedonian hooks, Bush whispers lyrics that pour with the opulent nectar. Never before had I heard anything that so aptly combined sexuality with poetry. It is “sensuality” in every sense of the word — not lewd or bawdy, but graceful and hungry for all the pleasures of living. It was too enticing to resist.
The song was inspired by Molly Bloom’s monologue from the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Instead of writing her own lyrics, Bush was originally going to take the character’s speech verbatim from the end of the book. But she couldn’t secure the rights (until it was re-recorded in 2011) and instead wrote lyrics about Bloom stepping from the pages of the book to be enraptured by the beauty of existence. It’s a classic situation of artist creating genius from limitations. Though she released the original version (“Flower of the Mountain”) as part of her Director’s Cut project, “Sensual World” remains the better of the two – a luxuriant exploration of the sensual and sublime. — C.B.