Suzanne Vega Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

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.

#2 99.9F°

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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    • According to me at least! Her debut is quite cohesive and low-key, her second is more confident and expansive – it’s like a battle of ideological viewpoints.

  1. I’ve mentioned in prior chats my “one degree of separation” from Vega’s band but have not really followed her career or music that closely. I really should. Not for that reason as such but just because I like her music. I ought to give some of these a spin.

      • I’ll give that one a spin. Yeah, my buddy’s Facebook page says “Works at Suzanne Vega.” It’s unclear to me if he still is. Last I heard he was working in a Broadway pit. Less life on the road.

  2. Luka is a great song no matter the commercial arrangements. And the other songs from Solitude Standing are very good too. I agree with you.
    Still, I believe that Tracy Chapman is a contemporary better artist.
    Regards from Montevideo, Uruguay.

    • Thanks for writing in! I never warmed to Luka that much – it’s a lot simpler than a lot of her stuff. I think she paved the way for Tracy Chapman. I think Tracy Chapman’s debut is maybe better than any individual Vega album, but Vega’s been very consistent over her career.

  3. Suzanne Vega produced some very interesting music and I have always enjoyed listening to her songs. She is complicated and musically diversified. Sometimes sonic disharmony, but somehow attractive and very interesting in terms of sound.

  4. I’ve been a huge fan of Suzanne Vega since my teenage days and to me there is no worst album. I have them all and they are all awesome, but if I should rate them, this would be my order respectively the points:
    this album contains one of my favorite songs of her “In Liverpool”. I also like “when heroes go down” and “blood makes noise”. The rest is still good, but to my mind too much percussion and too experimental.
    Suzanne Vega
    Solitude standing
    days of open hands
    These albums remind me of the times when I was a teenager and first came in contact with her music. I really loved them, the lyrics touched me deeply and I heard them over and over again. I still love the songs on these albums for example “Marlene on the wall”, “Luka”, “book of dreams” or “pilgrimage”, but I must admit that it would have become a bit boring, if Vega wouldn’t have developed herself further.
    nine objects of desire
    another of my favorite songs is on this album “no cheap thrill”, I also love “bithday”, “honeymoon suite” or “world before columbus”.
    songs in red and grey
    In this album Suzanne Vega comes to term with her divorce and it is very personal but not too depressing. I love nearly every song on this album.
    beauty and crime
    in the realm of the Queen of pentacles
    I think Suzanne Vega became better and better the older she gets. The songs and the lyrics are more mature and diversified. She really has developed herself further. My favorite album is “in the realm…” It is so diversified and has a lot of surprisings in the songs. For example “Don’t uncork what you can’t contain”, “the laying off of hands” or the beautiful “horizon”, a song that really touches me deeply.
    Greetings from Germany and sorry for my limitated english skills

      • thank you for your answer. I forgot to mention Vega’s album “lover and beloved…” about Carson McCullers. I heard it once and I like it but the songs are not composed by herself and it is so different from her other albums that I didn’t want to compare it.
        By the way I meant “tales from the realm of the queen of pentacles” not “in the realm…” and the one song I mentioned is not “the laying off but the laying on of hands”.

  5. Have thought hard about this one!

    For me it’s the quality of the lyrics aligned to the quality of the musical setting that marks out her better work. I know you can say that of all artists but it seems to me that many of her songs are imagist poems put into a musical context – some poems are stronger than others and the same for their musical contexts. And when the marriage between the two works is a very personal choice with SV.

    Also like many artists, while the ability with lyrics increases over time, the facility with melody gradually declines. Maybe your thoughts on the middle albums of artists being the best generally may reflect this?

    So here goes for the albums I know well

    7 Nine Objects of Desire (good poems but weaker musically)

    6 99.9 F (over-produced and tries too hard to be edgy and relevant)

    5 Beauty and Crime (an interesting sort of ‘concept’ album but a little unengaged)

    4 Suzanne Vega (great poems Small Blue Thing, Marlene on the wall etc but lacking musical colour)

    3 Songs in Red and Gray (as much observational and analytical as imagist and the personal candour grips)

    2 Days of Open Hand (not the best poems but stands up to repeated listening more than all the others because of musical variety and interest)

    1 Solitude Standing (Not perfect but excellent throughout – Ironbound/Fancy Poultry is my favourite SV song and there’s Tom’s Diner, the title track etc)

    • Thanks for the thoughtful post!

      I have no idea why melodic facility diminishes with time. It doesn’t seem to in classical or jazz, but it’s a clearly established pattern for Vega.

      I see we’re quite different on Vega – you really don’t like the Froom albums, right?

      • Hadn’t appreciated that Mitchell Froom was the producer of both albums but there does seem to be a conscious effort to reposition her sound and range particularly on 99.9 F. To me the results are overly dramatic, self conscious and draw attention to the production rather than serving the songs, which are strong on 99 but weaker on NOOD.

        I know his work as producer with Crowded House and Richard Thompson and I don’t feel uncomfortable with his work there even though I recognize he leaves a heavy personal stamp. Maybe his influence was just too marked on 99 and unbalances the end product. It seems as much his album as hers.

        Again more thoughts for you. Favourite artists include Damien Rice and Bridge of Sighs era Robin Trower. The latter may be too Hendrix, blues psychedelia for you but James Dewar was a great singer and Trower a fine guitarist. Rice is so influential on music in the 2010s and wrote a couple of great albums.

        • I like O, although I haven’t heard it for years.

          I’ve been listening to Procol Harum a bit lately – I should probably keep going through to Trower as well.

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