You know you’ve transcended to “legend” status when critics use your name as an adjective. These days, “Kate Bush-ian” is a shortcut descriptor (usually a lazy one — and one I’ve overused myself) thrown at any authoritative female singer-songwriter (Natasha Khan, Florence Welch) whose music harnesses an ethereal grandeur. And nobody deserves to be an adjective more than Kate Bush. This is an artist who never knew how to be anything but herself, and never bothered to try.
Raised in an idyllic English farmhouse, Bush grew up absorbing classic literature, along with her brothers’ folk and prog-rock records. It’s that combination of romance and bombast that fueled her early teenage songwriting, much of which wound up on her debut album, 1978’s The Kick Inside. Released in the immediate wake of punk’s brutal cultural assault, the album (and Bush’s career) seemed destined for a quick and painless death. This was the exact opposite of fashionable — an album that opened with 20 seconds of whale-song, an album laced with erotic fairy-tales and lushly orchestrated art-rock. But it worked — massively, in spite of the seemingly improbable odds.
“Wuthering Heights” was a ripe “fuck you” to everything deemed cool in popular music — and also a number one hit in the U.K. That subversion, ironically, makes it as punk as humanly possible. Thirty-five years later, it’s still a head-trip — an overly theatrical swoon built on Bush’s galloping, operatic alto, a galactic guitar solo, and frilly Emily Brontë references.
But Bush was more than an oddball novelty act, and she drove home that point by surrounding herself with the highest caliber of musicians. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour was her early mentor, executive producing some of her songs and appearing on several subsequent albums. The credits on a Kate Bush LP often read like a “who’s who” in session players (folks like John Giblin, Steve Gadd, Larry Fast, and Morris Pert). One fact that’s often lost in the Kate Bush mythology is that she’s one hell of a piano player with an inventive approach to her instrument and an unparalleled feel. In many ways, Bush is the Great Little Sister of Prog-Rock, and it’s a title she wears proudly.
One of her most iconic vocals is on a song she didn’t even write: “Don’t Give Up,” an empowering gospel triumph from Peter Gabriel’s 1986 breakthrough, So. Bush plays the part of the angelic siren — pleading with Gabriel’s distraught protagonist to keep his head above water, her halo of a voice gliding over the groove. In the (cheesy and marvelous) music video for that track, Bush and Gabriel cradle each other against a static backdrop, trading vocal lines in consolation. Years later, the two have followed a stunningly similar career trajectory: producing their own work, recording at a snail’s pace, following their elusive artistic impulses.
Both seem to make music in a bubble — and in many ways, Bush has done exactly that. After 1993’s lukewarm The Red Shoes, she vanished from the public eye for over a decade. When she emerged again, with the 2005 double-LP Aerial, there were no startling interview revelations, no publicist-friendly narratives of isolation and redemption. She’d simply released new music — because she felt like it. Ultimately, nobody’s more “Kate Bush-ian” than Kate Bush.
It isn’t easy ranking Bush’s catalogue — a ten-album behemoth with a gradual, logical evolution. From prog to synth-pop to new-age, there’s very little she hasn’t attempted, though not a single second has felt forced or contrived. Inevitably, though, Bush’s best albums are the ones that challenge as well as transport, balancing the immediate with the abstract. Check out our list, then share your Director’s Cut in the comments section.
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