When I was 19, a new friend asked me, "So… you must love Kate Bush, right?" I didn't. I didn't know anything about Kate Bush. My friend was shocked by my admission, and added, "You just look like you're a huge Kate Bush fan." Now I was curious. Was this an insult or a compliment? I had to find out. So I went to my local record store to do some vital reconnaissance work.
Beyond the fact that I felt immediately understood by the sometimes kooky, sometimes profound, always fascinating work of Kate Bush, I was absolutely floored and inspired by her list of accomplishments outside the studio walls. First female to hit No. 1 in the UK with a self-penned song? Kate Bush. First female artist to have eight albums simultaneously in the UK Top 40 charts? Kate Bush. Last year, I found out that she co-developed the wireless headset microphone so she could move while singing during her 1979 world tour. What? Get it, Kate.
Since age 19 (the same age Bush was when her debut album was released), I have grown into the Kate Bush devotee that my wise friend always knew I was, and am here to guide the inner superfan in you by sharing my personal Top 5 Kate Bush albums.
Any list of great Kate Bush albums that doesn't have Hounds of Love at or near the top is lying to itself. This album is so good that Pitchfork gave it a perfect score. This album is so good that when Rolling Stone gave it a negative review upon its release, they still compared Hounds' dazzling orchestrations to the later work of The Beatles. It is that good. There's a fresh urgency, a meticulousness, and a sense of freedom in the tracks that is indicative of the two years' time that Bush took to complete it (even turning her family's barn into a 48-track studio to avoid feeling rushed by the time constraints associated with renting studio space elsewhere.)
Side A features classic tracks such as "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" and "Cloudbusting." The arrangements balance effortlessly between the sounds and ideas of the past (lush strings and surprising appearances by balalaika and didgeridoo), and future (Fairlight, LinnDrum). Beyond all that, Bush's lyrics, whether peppered with metaphors or plainly put, are always expressive, thoughtful, and relatable.
In a complete 180, Side B ("The Ninth Wave"), is a conceptual suite based on a stanza from an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem. Bush herself once described it as the story of "a person who is alone in the water for the night [whose] past, present, and future come to keep them awake, to stop them drowning… until the morning comes." I don't know about all that, Kate, but I do know that "Jig of Life" is loaded with ballsy Celtic flair, and is a table-busting jam.
Notable Guest Artists: Martin Glover (Killing Joke), Dave Lawson (Greenslade)
Fun Fact: OutKast’s Big Boi made a video with Pitchfork on why he loves “Running Up That Hill,” and his explanation is pure, joyous, and unimprovable.
Personal Favorite Track: This is an unfair question, but I'm going with "Hounds of Love."
This album (her fourth) is Kate Bush's first venture as a solo producer. Following her immediate success on the pop charts with her prior releases, with this album, Bush takes a very adamant step into the land of the experimental. Not that her prior work wasn't peppered with boundary-pushing tracks, but those records weren't cited by Björk and Big Boi as major influences on their music. The Dreaming was.
With its extreme diversity of instrumentation, old (uilleann pipes) and new (Fairlight CMI), complex time signatures, and Kate Bush's passionate experimentation with the limits of her own voice, I'm going to put this album into a very cool category that I've just now invented: electro-mystical post-punk.
Notable Guest Artists: David Gilmour, Jimmy Bain (Rainbow, Dio), Geoff Downes (Yes, Asia, The Buggles)
Fun Fact: The animal noises on the title track were performed by an ornithologist/professional animal impersonator named Percy Edwards.
Personal Favorite Track: "Sat in Your Lap"
Kate Bush's disappearance from the public eye between 1993's The Red Shoes and the release of 2005's Aerial was a matter of great intrigue for British tabloids. In reality, Bush was raising a child and leisurely tinkering with tracks that would ultimately make up this welcome double-album comeback.
The sonic world of the first album of the pair, A Sea of Honey, varies from cresting symphonic rock to baroque to bare-bones piano/vocal tracks that are all, in different ways, delicate, profound, and highly personal reflections on (among other things) motherhood, history, and grief. The second album, A Sky of Honey, is a single-movement piece meant to evoke "the experience of outdoor adventures on a single summer day," replete with a number of references and samples of different bird songs.
Notable Guest Artists: Peter Erskine (drummer, Weather Report), Lol Creme (10cc), Gary Brooker (Procol Harum)
Fun Fact: The album cover art features a waveform of a blackbird song.
Personal Favorite Track: "How to Be Invisible"
When's the last time you got into an artistic dispute with the James Joyce estate? For Kate Bush, it wasn't terribly long ago. Inspired by the final pages of the iconic Irish author's novel Ulysses, Bush originally put Joyce's words to music in the eponymous first track of The Sensual World. However, before its release, she was met with fierce opposition from the Joyce estate and eventually recalibrated, writing her own lyrics that were merely inspired by Joyce. This ultimately resulted in something more personal, raw, and less like an English major mulling over a term paper.
She makes deft use of celtic instruments and melds Irish tradition with provocative lyrics about sexual desire in a manner I can only assume would have made James Joyce proud. The song is the first track on Side A, and it sets the tone for an album that is reverent, hypnotic, and—should the critics accuse her of resting on her quirky laurels—refreshingly mature.
Of course, if you want to hear Bush's original vision of the song, you do have recourse: Joyce's estate eventually gave her permission to use the original text, which was one of numerous reasons she released Director's Cut (a collection of re-mixed, re-structured, and re-recorded songs from The Sensual World and 1993's The Red Shoes) in 2011. With the first track, "Flower of the Mountain," Bush's intentions for "The Sensual World" are realized.
Notable Guest Artists: David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Michael Nyman (composer, The Piano)
Fun Fact: In 1989, The Cure's Robert Smith chose "The Sensual World" as his favorite single of the year, The Sensual World as his favorite album of the year, and "all of Kate Bush" as part of his list of the "best things of the '80s" in an article for Melody Maker magazine.
Personal Favorite Track: "The Sensual World." Damn right, Robert Smith.
The '70s were a weird and wonderful time. I can't speak from experience, but any decade where a self-producing teenager who writes songs about gothic novels can be a massive pop star is all right by me.
The Kick Inside isn't on this list because I revisit it often, but because it's a debut that really gives you clues as to what Kate Bush will be capable of in her future work. The songs are a bit precocious, but captivating and unique (especially considering they rose to prominence in an era dominated by disco and punk rock).
With topics ranging from Emily Brontë to the teachings of mystic George Gurdjieff, The Kick Inside sets up an ongoing theme of eclectic references and cultural mythology that would come to define Bush's aesthetic. And with co-producer David Gilmour in the album credits, you don't even need to worry about losing your rock cred the next time you feel like caterwauling along to "Wuthering Heights" at karaoke.
Notable Guest Artists: Ian Bairnson (Alan Parsons Project, David Gilmour
Fun Fact: David Gilmour played Kate Bush's demos to executives from EMI during the recording sessions of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. They signed her to their label shortly after.
Personal Favorite Track: "Oh To Be in Love"