Top 10 Suzanne Vega Albums looks at an artist that straddles the genres of folk, alternative & pop with her breathy voice & poetical lyrics. If you want something different in your music, listen to Suzanne Vega. She finds inspiration not just from love, but from a wide variety of sources like myths, child abuse and plays. This is not light-hearted music. Some of her songs such as “The Queen and the Soldier” and “Fifty-Fifty Chance” can be downright disturbing, but in a good way.
She began writing songs when she was 14. Her first songs appeared on compilation albums of new music on the Fast Folk label (which was also a magazine.) It wasn’t long before she managed to get her own record deal, with her first album materializing in 1985. She was one of the first artists to have her work released on MIDI files. For someone who claimed in interviews that she can’t sing, she’s put out an impressive body of work. Ranking Suzanne Vega albums is very difficult, indeed.
#10 – Solitude Standing: Live at the Barbican
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Solitude Standing, Suzanne Vega did a tour where she performed the album in full live, then did other songs. This is a best-of album done in as a live show. Most singer’s voice changes remarkably in 25 years, but not Suzanne Vega’s. Her voice seems as ageless and filled with just as wistful a longing as when her first album appeared. A big plus with this album is that Suzanne Vega often gives stories behind many of the songs. For example, she said she listened to a lot of Peter Gabriel and Phillip Glass when she was writing the song “Solitude Standing” – in a bare room with a futon near a meat market. This two-disc album was released in 2013.
#9 – Days of Open Hand
Suzanne Vega co-wrote most of the songs on this 1990 album with the album’s co-producer, Anton Sanko. One notable exception was the deeply disturbing “Fifty-Fifty Chance” Having the strings arranged by none other than Phillip Glass helps bring an almost unbearable tension to Suzanne Vega’s vocals. The lyrics do not specify what the song is about, but it seems that it is about a failed suicide attempt. Overall, the album is good but uneven in comparison to the other albums on our list. Suzanne Vega has said she was not happy with the album, partially because her label was miffed that it did not sell as well as Solitude Standing. It did win a Grammy in 1991 for Best Recording Package. In interviews, Suzanne Vega said that all of the songs were inspired by dreams.
#8 – Beauty & Crime
This 2007 offering was the first album Suzanne Vega did for her current label, Blue Note. It did not sell well, despite many critics liking it. It did win a Grammy for Best Engineered Album. The first three tracks sound much different from any of her other albums, in that many songs have a soft jazz feel. Any electrical instruments (other than electric guitars) are kept to a minimum. Only the later tracks have a sound that Suzanne Vega fans had come to expect.
#7 – Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers
All of the songs on this 2016 album were inspired by the writings of Carson McCullers, best known as the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Well, actually it was specifically inspired by a 2011 play about the writer called Carson McCullers Talks About Love. You don’t need to know about the play or Carson McCullers to appreciate the songs. Although a concept album, the songs stand up by themselves. Time has finally caught up with Suzanne Vega’s voice, however, making it thinner. Many of the songs were co-written with Duncan Sheik and the others were written with Michael Jeffrey Stevens. This is a much quieter album than any of her previous works, but there are still tense pieces like “Instant of the Hour After” with lines like, “How I love you, how I loathe you.”
#6 – Songs in Red and Gray
Suzanne Vega rarely writes songs about herself. Here in this 2001 offering, she ditches that and writes songs about her life. This album came out after her divorce from her producer Michael Froom. The sounds harken back to her 1985 debut album, particularly in tracks like “Soap and Water” where she writes, “Slip me loose of this wedding band.” Only one song was co-written, this time with Jack Hardy. Although it sold reasonably well in Europe, the album was mostly ignored in America. Her label would drop her because of how badly the album sold.
#5 – Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
Magic and myth appear in many of Suzanne Vega songs. Here, she tackles subjects like genies and the Tarot. It’s hard not to think that we’ve met the Queen of Pentacles before in her 1985 song “The Queen and the Soldier.” One song, “Song of the Stoic” is a look at the infamous Luka as an adult. This album is a complex work with rich arrangements. Many songs also have a more folky feel than some of her previous albums, especially with banjos and mandolins appearing. There still are darker, hard-driving works, such as “I Never Wear White.” Many guest musicians appear here, most notably bassist Tony Levin, infamous for his work with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. This time around, Suzanne Vega only wrote two of the songs by herself. The rest were co-written with Gerry Leonard. This 2014 album sold very well by post-Solitude Standing standards.
#4 – Nine Objects of Desire
This 1996 album picks up where 99 Fahrenheit Degrees left off. She took a few years off to have a daughter, Ruby. By now, she’d come to realize that it was best to make music to please herself and not worry if it would be a hit. This is another genre-defying work ranging from the hard rock “Birth-day (Love Made Real)” to the Latin-flavored sultry “Caramel.” Most of the songs were written by Suzanne Vega, but three of them were co-written with her then-husband, the album’s producer, Mitchell Froom. This has some wonderful touches, with eerie strings in “Stockings” and the nearly breathless delivery during the verses in “Casual Match.” Sadly, it did not sell anywhere near as well as her previous albums. It deserves more listeners.
#3 – Suzanne Vega
This was initially filed under “folk” in music stores when this was released back in 1985, when you actually had to go to stores to buy music. This was a very different kind of folk singer. Her instruments were modern and the topics did not center on quaint traditions or righting wrongs. Sometimes, she sounded like a very small woman in a large room. The album cover was helpful in that the songs were listed on the front and not the back. Songs included fan favorites like “Marlene on the Wall”, “Small Blue Thing” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” If you listen to just one Suzanne Vega song in your life, make it “The Queen and the Soldier.” If you ever find a person that hates that song, stay far away from him or her Something is really, deeply wrong with anyone that hates “The Queen and the Soldier.”
#2 – Solitude Standing
Her sophomore album, originally titled Tom’s Diner, turned out to be her best-selling album. It came out in 1987 and still sounds as good today as back then. Unlike many albums from the 80s, this one stands up to repeat listening. Many of the songs did not make the cut for her first album because back then you had to be concerned with how long an album was. One such song was “Gypsy”, which took ten years from when it was originally written (when she was just 18) to finally being released on record. The album contains her two best-known songs, “Luka”, about an abused boy, and “Tom’s Diner”, an a cappella piece that took on a life of its own when it was covered by DNA in 1990, which in turn inspired Tom’s Album (1991), an entire album consisting of artists like REM, Beth Watson and Nikki D either covering the song or doing songs inspired by “Tom’s Diner”.
#1 – 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees
It’s not often the word “Fahrenheit” appears on the music charts, but it did here in this 1992 award-winning album. The single “Blood Makes Noise” even topped the alternative charts in America. This is one of those albums that defies the usual genre classifications. Some songs like “Blood Makes Noise” and the title track are hard, fast, dark and quirky, with elaborate electronic arrangements. Other songs like the gorgeous “Blood Sings”, which is about when Suzanne Vega first met her father, harkens back to her folk days when it was just her and her guitar (and a little synth.). The album sold well, breaking unto the Top 40 in America.
Top 10 Suzanne Vega Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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