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.
05. “Breathing” (1980)
“Breathing” is very much a child of its time. Its mixed imagery of fetal development and nuclear fallout was brought into focus by an accompanying video in which Bush is wrapped in an opaque, plastic bubble set in a womb-like structure. It is strangely sexual as well as foreboding — well, at least until Kate Bush swaps her fetal lair for a protective jumpsuit and a post-holocaust emergence from a lake. The song itself has a disturbing elemental quality because it deals with primary fears in the face of an escalating crisis as nuclear weapons moved into the US base at Greenham Common, England.
Its slow-building symphonic structure adds a further sense of gravitas with a spoken passage describing a nuclear explosion over looping piano and fretless bass figures. It all resolves into a coda in which an increasingly frantic Bush responds to the questioning of her male chorus. “Breathing” heralds a maturing Kate Bush with the confidence to have her say on social issues, and it remains a fascinating work to this day. — T.H.
04. “This Woman’s Work” (1989)
Kate Bush’s compassion knows no bounds. Even though “This Woman’s Work” was written for the 1988 John Hughes film She’s Having a Baby — specifically the scene where Kevin Bacon discovers his wife and unborn baby’s lives are being threatened — you don’t have to have seen the footage to feel the force of the song’s anxiety. She takes a scene from life we’re all familiar with, childbirth in the hospital, and steps into the shoes of the husband who is pacing in the lobby.
It’s one of her most gentle, emotional ballads. With every swell of bass and strings, her own harmonic backing vocals begin to scream, outlining the frustration that fuels his climactic list of regrets: verbal fights, stale adventures, ignored needs. Kate Bush doesn’t just take the time to write from the perspective of the overlooked father-to-be; she places herself in his skin so snugly that his string of worries are sung with unbelievable passion.
So, yeah, she may not know what it’s like to have a breakdown in that hospital lobby, but she sure as hell empathizes with remarkable clarity. — N.C.
03. “Hounds of Love” (1985)
When I talk about Kate Bush, I worry I sound like a crazy person. I mean, if some rando told you that the strange lady who sings about a book you had to read in high school “lives in the wilderness of my soul,” you’d have every right to be cynical. To my credit, I haven’t ever said that to anyone — but I come close every time. That’s the thing about her … she’s a modest, normal person and is perhaps too polite to openly say that she’s channeled ancient forces that, though long forgotten by man, lay dormant within all of us. That’s what “Hounds of Love” is about.
Hear me out. At face value, “Hounds” is a narrative about being afraid of giving in to love personified as a pack of dogs hunting the singer. But there’s something larger at play, something goosebump-invoking that, much like a spell, is only made clear in the sum of its parts. The synths and strings mesh perfectly with a powerful rhythm, combining the ancient (drums) with the most celestial sounds man has invented. “Hounds” commands dancing.
If you’re listening to the song and feeling it, it’s not an option — it’s speaking to you. Kate’s lead vocals are potent and mature, while her backups coo and bark to aid the playful balance. She sings about love, but what’s happening here is bigger than romance; it’s “love” itself. Love is ancient and terrifying, but like this song, if you give in to it, you’ll find something wild, beautiful, and maybe even a little bit magical. — C.B.
02. “Running Up That Hill” (1985)
“Running Up That Hill” is an exhausting, emotional dive masked in the carefree gleam of the ’80s. With steady drumming and warbling synth, it’s a song whose pain is never diminished because it pulses with determination, even when Bush is face to face with defeat. It doesn’t matter how many times we hear her worried questioning: “Is there so much hate for the ones we love?/ Tell me, we both matter, don’t we?” She’s there encouraging us to keep fighting.
There’s a reason everyone from Placebo to Wye Oak has covered the song. Its wavering status as a double-edged sword makes it both an ideal Saturday morning workout song and the cue for an existentialist sob. It’s as complex as we want it to be. Not only was “Running Up That Hill” Kate Bush’s first 12″ single, but it was one of her riskiest plays with religion. Originally titled “A Deal with God,” the single saw Bush penning the tale of man and woman trying to understand one another and, ultimately, asking to make a deal with God instead of the devil to do so.
The twisted nature of the religious role reversals doesn’t come across as dark until the very end of the song when a warped version of her voice sings demonically and is cut. If you’re not careful, you may miss it. Then again, maybe that’s the point. — N.C.
01. “Wuthering Heights” (1978)
Kate Bush was just 19 when her Emily Brontë-inspired debut single displaced Abba’s “Take a Chance on Me” as the UK’s No. 1 in February 1978. According to the singer, the initial spark for the song came from catching the end of a film adaptation of Brontë’s classic on TV some years earlier. The idea clearly stuck with Bush, who oddly was known as Cathy as a child, but she didn’t translate it into a song for some time. When she came to record her debut album, The Kick Inside, Bush had around 50 songs to choose from, but “Wuthering Heights” was not among them. She wrote it in “a night and a half” prior to recording the album with a full moon to guide her.
“Wuthering Heights” broke both ground and mold; Bush became the first woman to top the UK charts with a self-penned song, while musically, she broke the conventions of pop music. The single’s success puts a lie to the notion that the lowest common denominator rules for the general listening public. Similar to how Queen was embraced for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bush’s song struck a universal chord for its creativity and sheer difference.
Whether dancing like a Gothic banshee or uncannily fitting words that really ought not to scan into her twisting melody lines, Bush personified the song’s heroine with remarkable clarity of emotion. The theme of a dead lover unable to leave the living one alone is one you’ll find throughout traditional Scottish and Border balladry. Yet, in 1978, it led to the creation of something wholly new and unique in popular music. — T.H.