By the time Nico died of a heart attack at the age of 49, she’d become a punchline. Bloated, ravaged by addiction, and reduced to singing to bored audiences in tiny clubs, she was a shadow of the icy-blonde whose ethereal beauty and mysterious ways had made her the muse of everyone from Bob Dylan to Jackson Browne. But Andy Warhol’s “Pop Girl of ’66” was always less hung up on her own image than everyone else. The press may have framed her as a cautionary tale and a sad-sack junkie, but Nico was always far more than the sum total of people’s prejudices. She was never just a muse, never just a hanger-on, and God forbid, never just a wannabee. Her obituaries may have focused more on the men she’d dated than the music she’d made, but Nico was an artist. In recognition of her role in avant-rock history, these are the 10 best Nico songs of all time.
# 10 – It Was a Pleasure Then
Even now, Chelsea Girl, Nico’s first solo offering, remains her most famous album. It’s certainly her most accessible. A bittersweet, folky affair with ornate sting arrangements and lithesome melodies, it ranks as her only album with even a hint of commercial appeal. Nico, predictably, hated it. She hated the arrangements, hated the production, and really, really hated the flute. But Nico’s artistic sensibilities were always a little bit different from everyone else’s. Sure, the arrangements are a little tepid and the production is overcomplicated, but her chilly vocals and deadpan delivery carry it through. “It Was a Pleasure Then” is one of its highlights. John Cale and Lou Reed add backup, but even Cale’s distorted viola can’t compete with the unearthly quality of Nico’s soaring soprano.
# 9 – I’ll Keep It With Mine
Nothing in Nico’s back pages could ever be described as ‘fun,’ but on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” she gets as close to lighthearted as she ever would. Judy Collins once claimed that Bob Dylan wrote the song for her. He might have, but considering he penned it while vacationing with Nico in Greece, the German chanteuse arguably has more claim over it than her Canadian counterpart. Either way, Nico’s dark, utterly unrecognizable interpretation beats Collins’ organ-heavy, misguidedly sunny version hands down.
# 8 – These Days
The loner anthem to end all loner anthems, “These Days” ranks as Nico’s most iconic song. Written, incredibly, at the age of just 16 years old by Jackson Browne, it weighs heavily in sadness. Or at least, Nico’s version does. Listening to Jackson Browne’s own twangy version, it becomes clear very quickly that the affecting misery of the song is embedded, not so much in the lyrics, but in Nico’s delivery.
# 7 – Das Lied der Deutschen
It’d be wrong to say Nico courted controversy, but equally, it wouldn’t be true to say she steered away from it. When she decided to include “Das Lied der Deutschen” on 1974’s The End, she claimed it was done in the same spirit as Jimi Hendrix performed “Star-Spangled Banner.” But ultimately, Jimi Hendrix didn’t make comments about Jews and had never hit a mixed-race woman in the face while saying “I hate black people.” Nico stood accused of both. Whether she intended it or not, her decision to record an anthem steeped so deeply in Nazi connotations that even Germany refuses to claim anything but the third stanza made a point. It wasn’t a pretty point and it wasn’t a pretty song. But Nico never did pretty anyway. If you can listen to it without prejudice, you’ll find it a rewarding, if unsettling, listen.
# 6 – Janitor of Lunacy
When The Marble Index tanked, Elektra dropped Nico like a hot potato. Fortunately, Reprise was happy enough to give her a second chance. After teaming up once again with John Cale, she released Deserstshore. It’s not a perfect album, and it lacks the intensity that made its predecessor so extraordinary. But if you can overlook the saccharine sappiness of its weaker moments, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Blessed with a potent vocal performance from Nico, the unnervingly tense “Janitor of Lunacy” is one of its standouts.
# 5 – The End
If you thought the Doors’ original version of “The End” was bleak, just wait till you hear Nico’s interpretation. As black as night and twice as chilling, it takes the listener on a journey of such bleak intensity, it’s all you can do not to bury your head under the duvet and hope it all goes away. But bleak can be beautiful. For all its dystopian darkness, the song’s understated purity is breathtakingly compelling.
#4 – Facing the Wind
If Chelsea Girl was approachable, its successor, The Marble Index, was anything but. Lester Banks called it “the greatest piece of ‘avant-garde classical’ ‘serious’ music of the last half of the 20th century so far.” He also said it scared the bejesus out of him. He had a point on both counts. On “Facing the Wind,” John Cale’s rich arrangement wraps around the discordant gusts of harmonium and Nico’s despairing vocals to create something stunningly ethereal. It’s not easy listening, and it’s not going to put a smile on your face, But this is art, and it’s not art’s job to make you feel better.
# 3 – Ari’s Song
If you’re looking for an album to soothe your troubled brow and brighten up your day, don’t listen to The Marble Index. It’s a demanding listen, and if you don’t feel exhausted by the end of it, you haven’t been paying attention. Not every song is an uphill slog though. On the touching tribute to Nico’s son, “Ari’s Song,” Cale’s lush arrangements provide the perfect counterpoint to the deeply personal lyrics. But this is still Nico, and while it may have a touching beauty, a comforting lullaby it’s not.
# 2 – No One Is There
Ultimately, not many people want to listen to music that makes them feel harrowed – hence Nico’s lack of commercial success. She didn’t make music to entertain the masses. She might it to romance the few. She didn’t dance with the devil but she did frighten the angels, and that was the point. Her music repelled as much as it intrigued – rarely more so than on “No One is There,” a song of such annihilating beauty, it makes everything else seem boringly obvious.
# 1 – Frozen Warnings
Some songs are for background listening. “Frozen Warnings” isn’t that kind of song. It’s not designed to be played at dinner parties. God forbid it should ever be played in an elevator, and any doctor who plays it in their surgery should have their license removed immediately. Basically, it’s a song that demands you do nothing but listen. Stoically beautifully, pristinely elegant, and utterly bewitching, it’s Nico in a nutshell.
Top 10 Nico Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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