English art-pop artist Kate Bush is a creative genius, who siphoned her influences into her own unique blend. The folk music from her Irish mother, the progressive rock that her older brothers listened to as teenagers, and radio-friendly pop like Elton John were all melded into Kate Bush’s music. Literature is also an important influence – Bush launched her career with a musical interpretation of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ – along with mysticism and the Catholicism of her youth.
Kate Bush was discovered by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and was signed by EMI at 16. At 18, she released her debut album, 1978’s The Kick Inside, and over the next decade she went from strength to strength, building art-rock masterpieces like Hounds of Love and The Dreaming on her Fairlight Synthesizer. Never prolific, Bush’s output slowed down after 1993’s The Red Shoes, but she has reemerged occasionally with worthwhile music, notably 2005’s Aerial.
Like Aretha Franklin is the touchstone for soul belters, Kate Bush is the default reference point for female art-pop. Adventurous female artists like Björk and Florence Welch have acknowledged her influence. This is my opinionated list of Kate Bush’s ten best songs. Despite starting her career in 1978, Bush has released a mere nine studio albums – this list touches on all of them except 1978’s Lionheart.
Kate Bush’s Ten Best Songs
#10 – Snowed in at Wheeler Street
from 50 Words For Snow, 2011
Kate Bush’s most recent studio album, 50 Words for Snow, is an insular work that’s heavy on atmosphere. When you think of Elton John duet, the first thing that comes to mind is his peppy number with Kiki Dee, but here John is subdued and world-weary, the perfect foil for Bush on this icy and regretful tune.
#9 – Experiment IV
from The Whole Story, 1986
Released at the height of Kate Bush’s popularity, the 1986 compilation The Whole Story is her best-selling record. Twelve tracks to cover Bush’s first decade is insufficient, but the compilation does offer a fantastic new track, the science fiction of ‘Experiment IV’ with Nigel Kennedy on violin. Fans of House may enjoy watching out for Hugh Laurie alongside other luminaries of British comedy in the music video.
#8 – Moments of Pleasure
from The Red Shoes, 1993
The Red Shoes featured many weaknesses of a 1990s release from an established superstar. The musical ideas are there, but diluted by a long running time and a plethora of guest appearances. ‘Moments of Pleasure’ was written about people close to Bush who had recently died, and the chorus “to those we love, to those who will survive” was dedicated to her sick mother, who passed away before the album was released. It’s more adult contemporary than most of Bush’s work, but the piano figure is gorgeous.
#7 – Breathing
from Never For Ever, 1980
Bush’s third album was a recovery from her rushed sophomore record – it was the first album by a British female solo artist to top the UK chart. The song is written about a foetus during nuclear fallout. Bush is joined by English folkie Roy Harper on backing vocals.
Bush later explained to Deanne Pearson of Smash Hits (UK): “It’s about a baby still in the mother’s womb at the time of a nuclear fallout, but it’s more of a spiritual being. It has all its senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing, and it knows what is going on outside the mother’s womb, and yet it wants desperately to carry on living, as we all do of course.“
#6 – Night of the Swallow
from The Dreaming, 1985
1982’s The Dreaming is like a series of short films – songs that paint visual images with their lyrics and textures. The album sold poorly by Bush’s standards, but it’s now acclaimed as one of her best works. ‘Night of the Swallow’ features musicians from Planxty and The Chieftains. It’s written from the perspective of a woman whose lover is a smuggler, persuading him not to undertake a risky operation.
#5 – Running Up That Hill
from Hounds of Love, 1985
‘Running Up That Hill’ was a huge success for Bush, fusing her unique artistic sensibilities with a huge sounding 1980s production. The galloping rhythm and dramatic vocals accompany Bush’s musings about gender swapping. ‘Running Up That Hill’ made #3 on the UK chart, her second most successful single.
Bush later told Radio 1’s Richard Skinner: I was trying to say that, really, a man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman. And if we could actually swap each other’s roles, if we could actually be in each other’s place for a while, I think we’d both be very surprised! [Laughs] And I think it would lead to a greater understanding. And really the only way I could think it could be done was either… you know, I thought a deal with the devil, you know. And I thought, ‘well, no, why not a deal with God!’ You know, because in a way it’s so much more powerful the whole idea of asking God to make a deal with you.
#4 – Love and Anger
from The Sensual World, 1989
1989’s The Sensual World was disappointingly smooth and mainstream. The third single, ‘Love and Anger’, is the clear highlight – a rock song with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on guitar. ‘Love and Anger’ reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, Bush’s only US chart-topper.
Bush later recalled to NME: This song! This bloody song! It was one of the most difficult to put together, yet the first to be written. I came back to it 18 months later and pieced it together. It doesn’t really have a story. It’s just me trying to write a song, ha-ha.
#3 – Nocturn
from Aerial, 2005
After a twelve year album hiatus, Bush triumphantly returned with Aerial. The record’s two discs are divided by theme – the second disc, A Sky of Honey, is a narrative about a day of outdoor adventures. ‘Nocturn’ features a couple bathing in the dark under a diamond sky – “We stand in the Atlantic/We become panoramic.” Backed by a funky beat, with Weather Report’s Peter Erskine on drums, ‘Nocturn’ is gently alluring.
#2 – Wuthering Heights
from The Kick Inside, 1978
Bush’s breakthrough hit remains her most iconic song. Released when Bush was only 18, it was the first entirely self-penned UK number one hit for a female artist. The song was inspired by Emily Brontë’s book, distilling the book’s romance into a soaring art-pop epic. “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” is held each year in locations all over the world, where participants wear red dresses and recreate the song’s music video. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was re-released with a re-recorded vocal for 1986’s The Whole Story.
#1 – Cloudbusting
from Hounds of Love, 1985
“I still dream of Orgonon” is the evocative opening line of the second single taken from Hounds of Love. ‘Cloudbusting’ is inspired by ‘A Book of Dreams’, Peter Reich’s memoir. Reich describes helping with his father’s experiments with a rainmaking machine, a cloudbuster, and his father’s subsequent arrest and imprisonment. Bush is backed by strings from The Medici Sextet, whose strings provide the propulsion for this gorgeous track.
Kate Bush has a stellar catalogue, and a lot of great songs missed the cut. Omissions of note include the beautiful piano ballads ‘This Woman’s Work’, ‘Under The Ivy’, and ‘The Man With A Child In His Eyes’, the magnificent song cycle on the second side of Hounds of Love, and standout tracks like ‘Get Out Of My House’ and ‘Pull Out The Pin’ from 1982’s The Dreaming.
Did I include your favourite Kate Bush song? Do you have a top ten?