In 1987, Tracy Chapman signed a record deal with Elektra Records. A year later, she released her self-titled debut album. Landing as it did during a time when hair metal and arena rock ruled, her introspective brand of acoustic folk-rock should have bombed. Instead, it soared, selling over a million copies in its first two weeks alone and becoming one of the highest-selling albums by a female artist of all time. She’s since released seven more studio albums, all of which have helped affirm her status as one of the most talented singer-songwriters of her generation. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Tracy Chapman songs of all time.
10. Smoke and Ashes
The fourth single from Chapman’s fourth album, New Beginning, stalled at a disappointing No. 119 in the charts. But commercial success is not the yardstick with which to measure an artist like Tracy Chapman. A gorgeously written and perfectly arranged folk-rock classic, it’s a stunning song to kick off our list.
On September 13, 2005, Chapman released her seventh studio album, Where You Live, a simple, deeply alluring offering that re-affirmed her status as one of the best singer-songwriters of her generation. It produced two singles, America and Change, the latter of which hit the top 40 and boasted the added benefit of the perennially talented Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on electric bass guitar.
8. For My Lover
Chapman’s 1988 self-titled debut was a critical and commercial sensation. The music press loved it, with Rolling Stone rightly saying that she “caught everyone’s ear in the hair-metal late Eighties.” Within just two weeks of its release, it had sold one million copies worldwide. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million more units, becoming one of the first albums by a female artist to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide. For My Lover, a beautifully haunting ballad with startlingly vivid lyrics, is one of its highlights.
7. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution
When Tracy Chapman took to the stage at Nelson Mandela’s televised 70th Birthday Tribute and sang the words “poor people gonna rise up, and get their share, poor people gonna rise up, and take what’s theirs,” a collective shiver ran down the audience’s back. The fact an unknown folk singer was in a prime slot may have seemed strange when she walked on the stage (Stevie Wonder’s equipment was playing up, so she got bumped up the schedule), but by the time she left, no one was left in any doubt as to who Tracy Chapman was, and why it mattered.
If you remember Ghetto Gospel, a 2004 song by Tupac Shakur released from the posthumous album Loyal to the Game, you’ll probably remember that it samples Elton John’s song Indian Sunset. But Tupac had originally intended to sample Tracy Chapman’s song Crossroads. During an MTV interview, Tupac explained his love for both the song and its creator. “Tracy Chapman used to move me; she is an idol. I know that’s going to cause mass hysteria in the ‘hood, but she is. I think she’s beautiful, I think she’s deep, I think she has a lot to say, and I think she has a lot of soul in her music. I wanted to bring that soul to “Ghetto Gospel. That song is gospel to me. A lot of her music is, so that was the basis of the song.” In recent years, the original cut with Chapman has surfaced online. If you can’t find it, don’t worry – the original, full-length version from Chapman’s 1989 album of the same name is even better.
5. Telling Stories
All Music describes Chapman’s fourth album, Telling Stories, “as a strong, appealing collection of sturdy, tuneful, and evocative songs.” It might not have the same sparkle as her debut, but it did little to harm her reputation as an intriguing and reliable singer/songwriter. The title track is a particularly strong effort. Some fans have speculated that the song is about her purported relationship with writer Alice Walker in the mid-90s, but it’s unlikely the notoriously private Chapman will be confirming the suspicions any time soon.
4. Give Me One Reason
As songmeaningsandfacts.com says, Give Me One Reason is a song about love – specifically, a woman struggling to keep her crumbling relationship together. Throughout the song, Chapman repeatedly asks her lover to give her a reason to keep their relationship going. She might not have found a reason, but she did find a hit song: released in November 1995, it became Chapman’s biggest hit in the US, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 100 in November 1995. It was also her biggest hit in Australia, where it also reached No. 3. In Canada and Iceland, it topped the charts.
3. Baby Can I Hold You
If you’re of a certain age, a certain country (Ireland or the UK, preferably), and had a thing for boy bands in your youth, you might remember Boyzone’s 1997 hit, Baby, Can I Hold You. What you might not be so familiar with is Chapman’s original, which was released in 1988 as the third single from her debut album. Boyzone’s version reached No. 2 in the UK charts. Chapman’s reached No. 96… proof that life isn’t only unfair, but quite possibly deaf, too.
2. The Promise
In contrast to the next song on our list, The Promise failed to make an impression on the charts. Outside of Chapman’s dedicated fanbase, not many people have even heard it. If you have, count yourself lucky. It might not have been as successful as some of her earlier singles, but few songs in either Chapman’s back catalog or anyone else’s can compare with its raw, tender emotion. Beautifully written, wonderfully sung, and perfectly arranged, it’s a must-listen.
1. Fast Car
Sure, it might be the obvious choice. But only one song on our list of the best Tracy Chapman songs of all time can take the top spot, and that song, predictable or not, was always going to be, can only be, Fast Car. No matter how hauntingly beautiful The Promise is, and no matter how anthemic Talkin’ Bout A Revolution is, Fast Car is the song that defines Tracy Chapman more than any other. If she’d never written another word or sung another note, this song alone would have been enough to secure her legacy.