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Nothing compares to her

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Born December 8, 1966, Sinead O’Connor turns 36 today. Happy birthday!

With her debut album in 1987, she made one of the great classic albums in the history of recorded popular music. Every single song on The Lion and the Cobra seems unprecedented. The compositions, the arrangements, the passion and drive all come together to form one whole with a million unique shards of meaning and invention. It’s the expressions of an old soul in a 20 year old body using the most modern stylistic devices. It sounds at once totally grounded in ancient tradition and mythology and style, yet unlike anything that’s ever come before. Truly this is a visionary achievement. This album will go head to head with any record in the rock music tradition.

Since then her albums have not quite hit that high, merely running from good to excellent, including I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which had her big hit single “Nothing Compares to U.” Some of her best work has not been on her albums, but live recordings, duets, soundtracks and charity work. She has made standards and Irish traditional songs, and some less than obvious covers.

Some people mock her. Screw them. They don’t appreciate her controversies, including the famous incident with the pope’s picture on SNL. She has certainly had some dysfunction, some issues. I say that she’s brave and honest, if sometimes self-destructive or misguided.

Whatever else you want to say about her, you must say that she’s one of the most talented women to ever pick up a microphone.

Here are some morsels that a newcomer to Sinead could start with, emphasizing some rarities:

Just Like U Said It Would B
I Want Your Hands On Me
Drink Before the War (especially relevant right now)
Nothing Compares to U
I Am Stretched on Your Grave
Fire on Babylon
Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home
Daddy I’m Fine
Silent Night
I Believe in You
Danny Boy (of course)
Someday My Prince Will Come (yes, the Disney song)
Ode to Billie Joe (absolutely a must hear)

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  • But if she doesn’t grab you, there’s no getting her. I have her first four albums — can’t listen to any of them. She is so full in her early records of need and anger that she can be downright repellent. (I know, a matter of taste.) And this frustrates me — when she tore the picture of the Pope on SNL 12 years ago, it was to protest pirestly child abuse. I did not know that until this year. I thought it was about Irish conservative politics or something. She communicated what she was doing extremely poorly. Which is par for the course, unless you style yourself as a profound political communicator. Looking back, I agree with her — but I didn’t get what she was saying at the time, at all.

  • Eric Olsen

    She is a real sore spot for me: I love the first two albums (and especially “Mandinka” and “Nothing Comepares”) and can’t really stand anything since – utter collapse. I keep hoping for a return to form and it just keeps getting worse. It is more likely that Rod Stewart will miraculously return to Never a Dull Moment than for Sinead to return to The Lion and the Cobra.

  • Finn Raziel

    Sinead is truly the most diversified, if not one of the most brilliant, female singer-songwriters of the last twenty years. Certainly the most ground-breaking. Sorry, MACDonna doesn’t count in that department (Actual Talent Required). Yes, ‘Lion and Cobra’ was a great album, but I wouldn’t want to hear seven carbon-copies of it — who could handle that much raw power, disc after disc? The 2nd album, ‘I Do Not Want’ was her masterpiece: the one where her songwriting skills and incisiveness found a shimmering, untouchable balance, and of course, there was “The Song” on it. Those two albums alone made her a legend. Sadly, the fame took its toll and her next album ‘Am I Not Your Girl’ was the only one that truly sucked — but not for lack of trying. For Sinead to have followed up the most groundbreaking, critically lauded album of the early 90s with a set of Big band covers was not only a red herring, but a TOTAL miscalculation. Bad move. Two years later came ‘Universal Mother’ a harrowing song-cycle in the tradition of Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks.’ Never a “singles-orientated” artist, Sinead took elegiac excellence to a new high on that haunting and underrated album. Anybody who thinks she “collapsed” artistically needs to give that record another listen. On the contrary, she developed. She explored. All without sacrificing her core, archangelic voice and emotive powers. The little ‘Gospel Oak’ EP in 1997 was a sapphire of a record, but too short. Its six songs were simply stunning, featuring her best lyrics since “The Lion and the Cobra,” albeit without the anger. She was shining her light in a spirit of peace, a spirit of serenity, and the result, while not as in-your-face, by nature, as ‘Lion & Cobra,’ was just as moving. Next came her big 2000 Atlantic Records “Let’s re-invent Sinead!” extravaganza, “Faith & Courage.” A huge (and hugely expensive) album, Sinead really won the day despite the plethora of producers (Wyclef, Dave Stewart, Sherwood) combining all the various motifs from all her previous records onto this one desert island disc — the spit-in-your-eye hooks, the punk-thrash, the Celtic death-dance stuff, the chants, the defiance, the odes to The Mother, the bombastic politics — it’s ALL there, with the latest techno buttons at her disposal for the pushin’. A brilliant synthesis of her essence, her greatness. Finally, her best album came out in 2002: Sean-nos Nua. Thirteen reworked, straight-from-the-peat-bog Irish goosebump-inducing traditionals found Sinead at her interpretative best, her vocal peak, and her most mystic “channelling.” Only one star can be taken away from that record in that she didn’t write any of the songs, but for sheer beauty and mastery, the record ranks right up there with the rest.

    It’s no secret that most people have always chosen to gaze right past Sinead’s voice and lyrics and can’t (or won’t) focus on anything but that bald head and the defiance. (Hey! Women aren’t supposed to be that brutally honest!) Even years after other women have followed her lead and are being embraced for being THAT WAY, The Banshee is still vilified. Perhaps it’s because her schtick is genuine and most people can’t truck with someone so genuine. It’s okay if it’s artifice. As for the Pope-ripping…any idiot who can’t see that she was RIGHT, at this stage of “priestly” revelations and scandals, needs to drop off the face of the Earth. Gutsiest move in rock history and, yes, it effectively destroyed her mainstream career. But John Lennon would have done it, I guarantee. If anyone back in ’92 had paid attention to HER words amid the hoopla, they would have heard loud and clear that the act was in defiance of institutional child sex-abuse in the name of religion.The song she sang on Saturday Night Live before ripping up the old bastard’s picture was all ABOUT child abuse. So…no excuses there, except for a world that was just waiting for an opportunity to hate the angry bald protest-chick even more. So what? She’s rich. She’s a legend. Her collaborations with countless other great artists have left her with a catalogue even greater than that provided by her albums, and she doesn’t give a shit about you or me. And, with only one truly misfired album amid a collection of pure gems, her track record (no pun intended) is stunning. One hundred years from now, she’ll be celebrated and remembered with great dignity. (You gotta check her contribution to the new Massive Attack and Conjure One albums — HOT).