Kate Bush exploded into popular music with her first single, 1978’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. She became the first artist to have an entirely self-penned number-one single in the UK, and she achieved this milestone while she was still a teenager. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is still Bush’s signature track, inspiring the annual event The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever, but it merely heralded the beginning of a celebrated and creative career.
Bush hasn’t been very prolific, only releasing nine albums of original material in her forty years as a recording artist, but that just means that almost everything she’s recorded is worth hearing. 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 are all melded into Kate Bush’s distinctive art-pop.
I’ve only covered Bush’s studio records of original material. This overlooks 2011’s The Director’s Cut, which contains reworkings of material from 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes. It also leaves out live albums – most recently, 2016’s Before the Dawn.
Kate Bush Albums: Ranked
Kate Bush’s second album arrived less than ten months after her debut. It wasn’t rushed in terms of song-writing – Bush had written most of these songs before she released The Kick Inside – but in terms of recording and production. Bush later told Sounds that “Considering how quickly we made it it’s a bloody good album, but I’m not really happy with it”. The single ‘Wow’ is strong, showing off Bush’s vocal acrobatics in the chorus, and there’s enough personality throughout Lionheart to satisfy dedicated fans.
#8 The Sensual World
Bush followed up the phenomenally successful Hounds of Love with the platinum-selling The Sensual World. After the unified album statement of Hounds, The Sensual World feels more like a collection of odds and bobs. Some songs are terrific, like ‘Love and Anger’, fuelled by David Gilmour’s aggressive guitar, and the adult contemporary of ‘This Woman’s Work’. Overall The Sensual World feels lethargic, although the Trio Bulgarka add some welcome energy and weirdness to tracks like ‘Rocket’s Tail’.
#7 50 Words for Snow
Bush’s most recent studio album is still 2011’s 50 Words for Snow. The title is taken from the urban legend that the Inuit have 50 words for snow – on the title track Stephen Fry drops in to recite 50 phrases like “anklebreaker” and “erase-o-dust”. Sir Elton John duets with Bush on the overwrought but enjoyable ‘Snowed in on Wheeler Street’, while veteran drummer Steve Gadd’s drumming is an important component. Often atmosphere takes precedence over songcraft, but 50 Words for Snow is still immersive and impressive.
#6 The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes was accompanied by a short film, The Line, the Cross and the Curve. It suffers from the CD bloat of the early 1990s, running for 55 minutes, and it’s stuffed with appearances with guest stars like Eric Clapton and Prince. There’s a solid collection of tunes here nonetheless, like the gorgeous piano-based ‘Moments of Pleasure’ and the madcap single ‘Rubberband Girl’.
#5 The Kick Inside
Released at the age of 19, Bush’s debut album provided a confident start to her career. Even more impressively, ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’ and ‘The Saxophone Song’ were recorded when Bush was 16. Lead single ‘Wuthering Heights’ remains Bush’s signature song, a soaring and romantic adaptation of the Bronte tale. There’s lots of solid album material too – the gentle beauty of ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’, the controversial title track, and the more rock-oriented ‘James and the Cold Gun’.
#4 Never For Ever
Bush rebounded from the disappointing Lionheart with a confident third album. Never For Ever was the first album of original by a female solo artist to enter the UK chart at number one. It’s more diverse than before – the singles alone furnish the record with the acoustic waltz of ‘Army Dreamers’, the intense art-pop of ‘Breathing’, and the energetic pop-rock of ‘Babooshka’.
After a twelve-year hiatus, Bush returned triumphantly with the double album Aerial. The first disc is enjoyable, with songs like ‘Pi’ and ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ that revel in the mundane. The second disc is magnificent, a song cycle that tracks a day of a couple’s adventures in the outdoors. It culminates in ‘Nocturne’, an ambient and funky wonder propelled by the drumming of Weather Report’s Peter Erskine – “we stand in the Atlantic/And we become panoramic” is a great line.
#2 The Dreaming
The Dreaming was Kate Bush’s first self-produced record. She took advantage of her artistic freedom to spend hours in the studio with a Fairlight CMI digital sampling synthesizer. She explored different textures – Irish folk on ‘Night of the Swallow’ and indigenous Australia on the title track. The songs of The Dreaming are like mini-movies – a portrait of ‘Houdini’ and a tale from the Vietnam War on ‘Pull Out The Pin’. The album’s first two singles are heavy going, but The Dreaming presents Bush’s genius at its most unfettered.
#1 Hounds of Love
The Dreaming was a disappointing seller by Bush’s standards. Bush responded by taking time off, then building a home studio so she could record whenever she wanted. Like The Dreaming, Hounds of Love was constructed on the Fairlight- this time Bush took her demos and polished and overdubbed them in the studio. The results are far more accessible, particularly the first side, loaded with hits like ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Cloudbusting’. The second side is a song cycle about drowning, and songs like ‘And Dream of Sheep’ and ‘Jig of Life’ are gorgeous. It’s worth picking up an expanded version for phenomenal outtakes like ‘Under the Ivy’ and ‘My Lagan Love’.