Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega emerged in the mid-1980s after serving an apprenticeship in folk music in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her introspective and gentle songs were immediately successful at a time when singer-songwriters weren’t popular. Her first two albums spawned hits like ‘Marlene on the Wall’, ‘Luka’, and ‘Tom’s Diner’.
Ranking Vega’s albums is interesting, as her catalogue is remarkably even. She hasn’t made a particularly bad album, and while her 1980s albums often feature her strongest songs they’re weakened by dated textures and production.
Suzanne Vega Albums Ranked in Order of Excellence
#8 Days of Open Hand
Vega spent two years touring 1987’s Solitude Standing and was then pressured to quickly release a follow-up. Days of Open Hands often features unremarkable songs dressed up in ornate arrangements, as producer Anton Sarko and Vega use textures from all over the world. There’s dumbek (an Egyptian drum) and ney (a Middle Eastern flute), as well as Phillip Glass on string arrangements. It’s still worth hearing strong tracks like ‘Tired of Sleeping’ and ‘Pilgrimage’.
#7 Nine Objects of Desire
Vega’s second and final album with producer Mitchell Froom is romantic, often focusing on Vega and Froom’s recent marriage and the birth of their daughter. The titular nine objects of desire also include death and a plum. Nine Objects lacks the experimental edge of Vega’s previous collaboration with Froom. Instead, it focuses on a jazz-tinged sound, which doesn’t suit Vega’s gentle vocals, even though the folk-flavoured tracks like ‘World Before Columbus’are typically excellent.
#6 Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
Like Vega’s other 21st century albums, Tales has a clear theme. Vega had recently become interested in tarot reading, and songs like ‘Fool’s Complaint’ and ‘Portrait of the Knight of Wands’ are clearly themed around the cards. David Bowie alumni Gerry Leonard produces, co-writes most of the songs, and plays guitar. He’s a great foil for Vega, and his lead guitar on ‘Portrait’ is lovely while he also leads Vega towards a more rock-oriented sound on occasion. Tales and the next three albums on the list were tough to separate in terms of quality.
#5 Songs in Red and Gray
Songs in Red and Gray is largely written about Vega’s divorce from Mitchell Froom. It’s the Vega album that sticks closest to the gentle folk-rock sound she’s known for. Vega’s portraits of relationship breakdown are nuanced and eloquent, and songs like ‘Penitent’ are among her best.
#4 Beauty & Crime
Vega’s seventh studio album is themed around her home city of New York. There are stories of famous residents (‘Frank and Ava’) and personal tales, like her brother who survived 9/11 and then succumbed to alcoholism. Famous guests include Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on guitar and KT Tunstall on backing vocals.
#3 Suzanne Vega
Singer-songwriters weren’t in vogue in the mid-1980s, and Vega had a tough time landing a recording contract. A&M expected her debut album to sell 30,000 copies – it sold a million. ‘Marlene on the Wall’ remains Vega’s biggest hit in the U.K. This album of simple, acoustic pieces is simple and unadorned, showing the influence Lou Reed had on Vega’s writing.
On most of her albums, Vega struggles to thrive outside the intelligent folk-rock that fits her gentle voice. On 99.9F°, producer Mitchell Froom successfully makes her music work in other contexts. The clattering percussion of the title track and ‘Blood Makes Noise’, backed with Bruce Thomas’ creative bass lines, work nicely. It’s not all boundary pushing – songs like ‘Bad Wisdom’ and ‘In Liverpool’ are great examples of Vega’s usual folk-rock.
#1 Solitude Standing
Vega’s second album remains her most successful, opening with her two most famous songs, the a capella ‘Tom’s Diner’ and the child abuse examination of ‘Luka’. But it’s the wealth of great album tracks that makes Solitude Standing Vega’s best album – the multi-part ‘Ironbound/Fancy Poultry’, the gorgeous ‘Gypsy’ (written when Vega was 18), and the icy grandeur of the title track.
I’ve omitted Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers, Vega’s album of songs for her musical about author Carson McCullers.
How did your favourite Vega album fare? What’s your favourite Vega song?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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