Nina Simone was always an artist who defied labels, a classical pianist who could tackle a pop ballad as easily as a jazz standard, who could transform throwaway be-pop ditties into scorching spirituals and gentle folk songs into blistering rockers. She breathed new life into familiar lyrics, while also penning some of the most inspired songs of the civil rights movement. Here, we look back at some of her finest moments with our pick of the 10 best Nina Simone albums of all time.
10. Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall
Simone’s childhood dream was to become the first black classical pianist at Carnegie Hall. When she finally headlined the venue in 1963, she killed it. Simone could never be pigeonholed, and here, she delivers an eclectic set that runs the gamut of styles and genres, all held together by the warm intimacy of the delivery.
9. Wild is the Wind
Named one of the best Nina Simone albums of all time by Far Out Magazine, 1966’s Wild is the Wind consists of a collection of previously unreleased material recorded during sessions with Phillips Records. Its most notable song is Four Women, an original composition by Simone that presents a vivid depiction of the stereotypes often experienced by black women. The lyrics were considered ‘subversive’ by certain quarters, leading to a ban on several radio stations. Today, it’s considered one of her best songs, and rightly so.
8. At The Village Gate
As All Music says, Nina Simone had the rare ability to dig into material and bring out unexpected meaning in familiar lyrics. Here, she breathes fresh life into Just in Time, House of the Rising Sun, and Children Go Where I Send You, among others. The wonderful instrumental version of Bye Bye Blackbird, meanwhile, is an unexpected but very welcome delight.
7. I Put a Spell on You
As vinylmeplease.com notes, Simone’s place in “classic soul” history is sometimes unjustly relegated to two songs, the symphony-backed cover of I Put a Spell on You and the massively popular Feeling Good. Both of those songs can be found here, making it an excellent start for those dipping their toes into the singer’s discography for the first time. But there’s more to Nina Simone than two songs, as the rest of the album’s outstanding tracklist very ably demonstrates.
6. Nina Simone in Concert
Simone was at her best in front of a live audience, where, free from the sometimes smothering effects of the production and orchestration that accompanied her studio efforts, her talent could truly shine. Here, she’s accompanied by nothing more than a small jazz quartet and her piano- the perfect partners, it transpires, to accompany her as she works through a deeply personal collection of songs that rank among the most socially conscious in her catalog. Her renditions of Old Jim Crow, Pirate Jenny, and Mississippi Goddam are particularly splendid.
5. Little Girl Blue
Little Girl Blue was Simone’s very first recording, but already, all of the signs of the great artist she’d become are firmly in place. Her piano playing is stellar, but it’s the mysterious sensuality of the vocals that really grab you. It’s an authoritative statement of intent, and one that, all these years later, still impresses. Key tracks to revisit include the steamy rendition of Willard Robison’s Don’t Smoke in Bed (widely considered to be the definitive version, and for good reason), the beautiful title track, the classical interpretation of Tadd Dameron’s be-bop hit Good Bait, and of course, her signature song I Loves You, Porgy, a song re-recorded many times over her career, but heard her for the first time.
4. The Amazing Nina Simone
If ever an album lived up to its title, it’s this. Released in 1959 as her second album, The Amazing Nina Simone builds on the good work of her debut with a stunning set of songs that range from English folk ballads to spirituals, R&B numbers to jazz standards… there’s even a cover of the theme song from the movie Middle of the Night thrown in for good measure. The dizzying range of styles and genres would dwarf a lesser artist, but in Simone’s capable hands, each song sounds credible.
3. High Priestess of Soul
High Priestess of Soul may have led Simone to be known as the High Priestess of Soul for the rest of her career (a moniker she rejected for placing a label on her art), but Simone’s personal grudges against the album’s title aside, it’s a beautiful affair, and one that perfectly exemplifies her mid-’60’s habit of jumping effortlessly between genres with no thought for convention. There’s blues, pop, soul, jazz, and even a scattering of gospel, all of which is performed with Simone’s characteristic verve. Listen out for her renditions of Work Song and Come Ye in particular.
2. Nina Simone at Town Hall
Recorded in September 1959 at The Town Hall, New York, and released later that same year, Nina Simone at Town Hall is a wonderful recording that captures the energy and exuberance of Simone’s live performances perfectly. Included are joyful versions of Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, Wild Is the Wind, and The Other Woman. We also get the benefit of not one but two versions of Summertime, once as an instrumental and once as a vocal. As an example of Simone’s peerless abilities as both a singer and a pianist, it’s a must-listen.
1. Nina Simone Sings the Blues
Nina Simone Sings the Blues, Simone’s debut with RCA, isn’t simply one of the finest albums of her career, it’s one of the finest albums in music history. The song selection is faultless, moving from the slow-burning opener Do I Move You through to the unnerving In the Dark, the singularly lovely My Man’s Gone Now, the heartbreaking Since I Fell for You, and finally, to the wonderfully sassy Blues for Mama. Altogether, it’s a strutting, swaggering masterpiece, and one that, even now, still sounds every bit as vital and authoritative as it did in 1967.