I’m finally attempting to fell this giant that has been lurking in my blog drafts for at least three years. Joanna Newsom is one of my all-time favorite musicians with a repertoire of purely flawless songs with bulletproof songwriting, lush expansive instrumental arrangements and truly unique vocal deliveries. She may be the most essential songwriter of the last twenty years (??) and man has she made some truly unforgettable songs. If you’ve beaten around the bush for the past two decades on checking out her music, I recommend you use this handy, heavily-biased list of tunes for you to start your journey. Reminder, Spotify is a banana and her music is not on there! Go out and buy it!
1. “Sawdust & Diamonds” [Ys, 2006]
Where “Good Intentions Paving Company” hooked me into Joanna Newsom’s music (more on that song later), “Sawdust & Diamonds” truly pulled me down the well into absolute depravity, leading me to a life of laying in bed, being completely engrossed in the dramatic Ys and its vivid depictions of stories of grief and happiness and all of it. I haven’t really read into the lyrics on this one yet (and yes it’s my favorite, crucify me!) but it seems like the narrator is a creation being brought to life by external forces and being brought to do things. Her lyrical imagery is at her best on this song, with a line like “hold me close, cooed the dove, now stuffed with sawdust and diamonds”. It really let me dive in and explore Newsom’s extraordinary songwriting style and instrumentally it’s so otherworldly it made me want to stay and take the time to do the exploring. If you haven’t broken into the world of Joanna Newsom or have scoffed at the idea before, take the time and listen to this song. Its emotion and pristine songwriting will hook you – guaranteed.
2. “Baby Birch” [Have One On Me, 2010]
If you don’t feel anything after listening to this song, I really have no idea what kind of person you are. Very likely a emotionless one, maybe? I know that seems harsh, but seriously now. Might be the most devastating song she’s ever written. Masterfully arranged, written, performed, produced, etc. It’s the best. The depth of metaphors, the shock of the imagery, the force of the instrumentals, the swiftness and grace of Newsom’s voice, the steadiness of the harp. This song truly has it all. It starts slow, with almost only harp and Newsom’s buoyant voice. Then, very subtly additional instrumentation starts to creep in, with errant bumps of electric guitar, then claps of percussion, some lute-like stringed instrument, some medieval flute. It’s wonderful.
3. “Cosmia” [Ys, 2006]
Ys is one of those albums where within the first second you hear a song you go “OH” or react in some way. Maybe that’s just me, but to me, the opening harp melody on “Cosmia” is instantly iconic. Immediately you know this song is going to be full of drama, and you’d be right. The lush orchestral backing Ys lavishes in is in full form here, snaking around Newsom’s vocal and harp lines, providing an impeccable accompaniment. In “Cosmia” the narrator is lost in her own grief, looking to follow moths to the light in the dark, spending her days sleeping and waiting in the night. Genius annotations say this song alludes to a friend of Newsom’s that died in a car crash, referenced by the lyric “will you call me, when you get there”. After that line, the song goes into a stabbing tantrum, with orchestral and harp fury pounding against the listeners heartstrings. It’s a vivid depiction of grief and yet another reason why Newsom is on another level on Ys. This song also most distinctly reminds me of something Björk might have written for Vespertine, in terms of vocal melody and in concept. But that’s just an added little bonus, for me. I can have it as a treat.
4. “Have One On Me” [Have One On Me, 2010]
Acting kind of like an overture to the overall concept of Have One On Me, or like projecting a similar anecdote to that of the narrator’s upcoming story for the album, Newsom sings of Countess Lola Montez in Germany, who fled to California after the mid-19th century revolutions took place there. The thought of this being an overture is further enhanced since… it’s the title track of the record. C’mon now. As we’ve learned with the rest of her discography, Joanna can weave a mean narrative, especially if she’s given a great story and mythology behind it. Taking the life of this rebellious and rambunctious woman (a dancer, at that!) in a particularly turbulent time in history and crafting an ultra-compelling tale that eclipses 11 minutes in length was all in a day’s work. It’s gorgeous, expansive and engaging. Hearing it live was an ultimate treat.
5. “Sapokanikan” [Divers, 2015]
It’s SO hard for me to pick a favorite song off of Divers, so I decided to go with the one I heard first. This song ain’t no slouch though, packing in some of Newsom’s most complex wordplay to date into a relatively brief five minutes. Can we appreciate how she wrote the piano line in the second verse to no longer play chords, but broken down chords that eventually morph into a mixture of both deconstructed and constructed chords? It’s kind of like we’re listening to this song constantly unfurl until we realize Newsom has us exactly where she wants us, wrapped up in this majestic story and laying out a beautiful climax where she hits her high register. The flutes and piano at the end? Come on. How can you not like this album?? It’s absurdly good.
6. “Good Intentions Paving Company” [Have One On Me, 2010]
The song that hooked me in for good! I remember this song was offered as a free blog download before Have One On Me was released and I put it on in the car with my mom and she was like “what is this”, in a bad way. I loved how weirdly soulful it was, how it wasn’t super shrill and piercing like the early Newsom I had heard. I loved its multiple phases, switching from a jolly pop song (as pop as Joanna can get, so far in her career, maybe), and then slows down to be more serious and pleading, then revs back up into the galloping piano line. I have this song in particular for really getting me into Joanna Newsom, so it clearly has to place HIGH in my favorite songs.
7. “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” [Divers, 2015]
Ok so I feel like this isn’t a super popular choice, but I had to include it on this list. For one, it’s my most-listened to Joanna song according to my Last.fm. It’s one of her most straightforward songs lyrically and musically, telling the tale of a futuristic, time-traveling military unit, further establishing the over-arching narrative of time and time travel across Divers. That’s all great. But there’s this harmonious ending line of the track at 4:16 that gives me goosebumps to this day. My partner thinks it’s cheesy, but man – what a harmony, and a great way to cap off the track. We even get two refrains of it as the instrumental intro carries us off, almost like the fabric of time and space are crumbling around us and the memories of the passage are the only things we’re carrying to the place we’re warping to. The instrumental ending by the way – fantastic. Love a good fiddle solo, a prominent accordion part – it really nails the aesthetic of an old-timey street band playing behind Newsom’s character.
8. “Peach, Plum, Pear” [The Milk-Eyed Mender, 2004]
I remember when I would trawl the iTunes Store for music I might like in high school, I saw “Peach, Plum, Pear” was the most popular song on Joanna Newsom’s page. Just based on the 30 second preview, I hated it. Time passes. Have One On Me comes out, I really start listening to Ys, okay. Now we’re back. Yes, it’s great. Simple harpsichord backing and perhaps Newsom’s most iconic vocal delivery. Lots of great multi-tracked vocal moments. The song tells the story of a narrator becoming infatuated with another person, but becoming jealous of those not in relationships and becomes restless, not wanting to be tied down. Similar themes pop up in more of her work later, especially on Have One On Me. It’s iconic either way
9. “Does Not Suffice” [Have One On Me, 2010]
“Does Not Suffice” is the unassuming closer to the massive Have One On Me. How on earth could you aptly wrap up a work of that magnitude? Newsom pulls it off with style by interpolating the melody from another album cut “In California” (which almost made this list) and lyrically wraps up the story and drama we’ve been observing all this time. Newsom’s character is seen packing up all her stuff, reflecting on the failed relationship that has tossed her through rough currents of emotions, and moving on. The track starts and sustains demure enough, pretty solemn and reserved. However, on the outro Newsom’s voice echoes further away as a violin duo takes on a thorny duet as thunderous percussion rumbles through the soundscape and cavernous reverb swallows the track whole. It’s not often when Newsom’s work kind of collapses into chaos, so seeing the whole sheen and well-groomed flair become undone, it’s like the era is truly being capped off. Seeing this song live was a trip – Joanna was just wailing on the piano and had the reverb + delay on max. It was awesome.
10. “Sadie” [The Milk-Eyed Mender, 2004]
“Saaaaaaa-diiiieeeee” is a make-or-break moment for some would-be Joanna fans. It punches you right in the face with her high-pitched voice, but man does it mellow out for the rest of the tune, cooling down into one of her most tender and genuine in her discography, singing of a lost pet (and easily applying this lyrics to any passed friend or loved one). As someone who lost a pet this year (about a week before writing this, in fact), this song really hits me!
MORE ESSENTIAL JOANNA NEWSOM TRACKS:
I realize I’ve essentially posted the rest of her discography down here but like, deal with it.
- “Anecdotes” [Divers]
- “Bridges and Balloons” [The Milk-Eyed Mender]
- “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” [The Milk-Eyed Mender]
- “Divers” [Divers]
- “Easy” [Have One On Me]
- “Emily” [Ys]
- “‘En Gallop'” [The Milk-Eyed Mender]
- “Esme” [Have One On Me]
- “Go Long” [Have One On Me]
- “In California” [Have One On Me]
- “Kingfisher” [Have One On Me]
- “Leaving The City” [Divers]
- “On A Good Day” [Have One On Me]
- “Only Skin” [Ys]
- “Soft As Chalk” [Have One On Me]
- “Sprout And The Bean” [The Milk-Eyed Mender]
- “Swansea” [The Milk-Eyed Mender]
- “The Book Of Right-On” [The Milk-Eyed Mender]
- “The Things I Say” [Divers]
- “Time, As a Symptom” [Divers] *my partner’s favorite Joanna song
- “’81” [Have One On Me]
Everything went downhill, and fast, after her first album.
She over-thought, over-produced, and lost the raw, quirky sincerity. Suddenly the music became these difficult, laborious, narrative ballads that change tempo just as soon as you start to get into the song. Volumes of poetic / pretentious lyrics that actually say nothing. A mask. Telling us nothing about the creator at all and having nothing to say about the world today. Detached mimicry of poets.