10 Best Joanna Newsom Songs
Few artists can claim to have burst on the scene with three initial LPs as strong and consistent as those Joanna Newsom has released. And those who can, like the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, were able to take their creative gifts and ignite large stages in front of huge audiences. It’s not so easy when you’re a harpist with a tendency toward sprawling songs, orchestral arrangements and dense and complicated lyrics. Factor in a voice that lacks the polish usually required for commercial success, and it’s even harder. The story goes that Newsom wanted to learn the harp at five years old and was told she needed to learn the piano first. By the seventh grade, her parent had bought her first full-sized harp, and she became attached to it deeply. Her big break came when Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy came upon one of her home-recorded EPs and asked her to tour with him. He also landed her a deal with Drag City. Barely into her 30s, she’s had her songs recorded by the likes of the Decemberists, M Ward and Billy Bragg, and in honor of this truly special artist’s upcoming reemergence at the Pitchfork Music Festival, we’ve made this list of the 10 Best Joanna Newsom Songs.
At No. 10 on our 10 Best Joanna Newsom Songs list is one that technically was never released through a label, though it was featured on her initial self-distributed EP. She rerecorded many of the songs for ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender,’ but not ‘The Fray,’ which is probably good, since it doesn’t fit with that material as well. It’s always been problematic to describe Newsom “childlike,” as her words are very adult, and a sense of whimsy isn’t something that should be seen as solely for children. This, however, is Newsom at her youngest — 20 years old — and at her youngest in spirit. It’s amazing that she wrote much of that first album at such an early age. She sounds green, but the song captures her ability to filter familiar ideas through new and original compositions. That timeless quality is what makes her accessible, and it’s a key to her success.
The ambition of ‘Ys’ is likely the first thing a listener notices about it, as the album contains five long and cinematic songs. ‘Only Skin’ is the longest, and it might be the most cinematic, but the best part of the song is the first note Joanna Newsom sings, a squeak that seems impossible to replicate. While Newsom’s vocals may be too raw for some, these kind of perfect imperfections are what make her stand out.
If ‘Ys’ seemed ambitious, Newsom’s third album mixed the long and the short songs over three records, a triple LP that is balanced and expertly sequenced. ‘Occident’ is one of the few tracks that sees Newsom going for a larger arrangement, not with orchestration, but with drums and a more traditional rock and roll vibe. It’s these types of numbers that one hopes she’ll explore on future records, but none of her releases have been predictable, and it’s unlikely we have any idea what is in store for LP4.
No. 7 on our list of the 10 Best Joanna Newsom Songs is the lead track from ‘Ys,’ ‘Emily.’ The album featured some of the best creative musical talents of our time, including Jim O’Rourke, Steve Albini, Bill Callahan and Van Dyke Parks, who provided string arrangements. But it’s the multiple Newsoms that appear six minutes in that stick out as the most memorable part of the song. Joanna’s sister Emily backs her up for this part, making you wonder whether the collaboration has been a lifetime in the making. For all the new tricks present, it’s an old one that really makes an impact.
It’s ironic that ‘Sadie’ might be one of Joanna Newsom’s more difficult songs to love. Though she fearlessly strikes harsh notes, the song is lyrically tender and relatable, the key line being “bury this bone to gnaw on it later / gnawing on the telephone / and ’til then we pray and suspend the notion that these lives do never end.” In the story, she’s eulogizing a dog and putting forth the idea that we shouldn’t save things for later, because we run the risk of never getting to them. She transfers that message to our families and friends, insisting we shouldn’t wait too long to let them know we love them. Personal side note: My dog’s name is Tumbleweed, and thought I can’t say this song was the inspiration for that name, the significance comes from it.
‘Good Intentions Paving Company’
Up-tempo Joanna Newsom? It does exist, and the proof is in ‘Good Intentions Paving Company,’ which boasts a party-vibe arrangement, bouncing piano accompaniment and hopeful lyrics describing love at its early confident beginnings. Newsom has plenty of sad stories, and this one has its share of doubt and uncertainty and complexity, but the hope she places in love is very real and inspiring.
‘Sawdust and Diamonds’
Coming in at No. 4 on our list of the 10 Best Joanna Newsom Songs is ‘Sawdust and Diamonds,’ a revelation of a tune from ‘Ys’ that sees the singer practically reinventing her voice. It’s so controlled and focused that when she does let loose, it feels deliberate. ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’ is also notable for being the only ‘Ys’ song that features Newsom alone with her harp, and there’s something special in that. It’s such an emotional and intensely performed song that it seems right that she not share the experience of creating it with anyone else.
‘Peach, Plum, Pear’
If there were a consensus formed on Joanna Newsom’s most “important” song, ‘Peach, Plum, Pear’ would be it, which is strange, in that it’s atypical of her work. Newsome uses the harpsichord as accompaniment, mixing in a choir of her own backing vocals to create a menacing presence. She balances that with the gentle delivery of the words “you’ve changed some.” The lyrics center on a chance encounter with an old flame and some deeply feminine insecurities that she presents in eloquent and real fashion, not simply writing them off. After all, life isn’t a children’s story, and we don’t always overcome our insecurities. We all have our own quirks and conditioning, and much like the idiosyncrasies in Newsom’s vocals, these are things we must learn to accept.
Whether there’s an abortion or a miscarriage or something else at the center of ‘Baby Birch’ is very much up for debate, and the fact that Newsom writes heavy, ambiguous songs that can read like Hemingway stories is an under-appreciated part of her music. But as much as she is a legitimate literary wonder, the joy of ‘Baby Birch’ comes in spite of the sadness, through the slow build and satisfying payoff at the end. ‘Baby Birch’ has long been the finale of Joanna Newsom’s live show, and it’s easy to see why.
‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’
Topping our list of the 10 Best Joanna Newsom songs is this gem from her first album. It’s about as beautiful as music gets, and it’s actually been released three times, with a slightly less realized version showing up on her self-distributed EP ‘Walnut Whales’ and a wonderful rearrangement landing on the Ys Street Band EP. The latter includes accompaniment from Neal Morgan, who plays drums and helps arrange the music for her live shows. His appearance highlights some of her best single phrases, particularly this section: “There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road / There are some dragons who were built to have and hold / And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly / And some great bellies ache with many bumblebees / And they sting so terribly.” It’s about a crushing end to a relationship, and it’s similar to how ‘Have One On Me’ ends, but it’s also poetry, and the melody is challenging, elegant and genius.