Kate Bush Albums From Worst To Best

Kate Bush Albums From Worst To Best

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.


Lionheart (1978)

Whimsy is an inextricable part of Kate Bush's DNA, particularly on her romantic early LP trilogy. But where The Kick Inside married those whimsical impulses to inventive song structures and poetry, Lionheart is simply whimsy overload. The progressive edge of Bush's debut was softened and smoothed, replaced by loads of grand piano and textural atmosphere. Stunning lead single "Wow" demonstrates that Bush hadn't lost her grip entirely, but Lionheart feels slight compared to the rest of her catalogue: Tracks like "In Search of Peter Pan" and "Kashka from Baghdad" are tiring and monochromatic, lacking the sonic and lyrical focus Bush would master soon enough.


The Dreaming (1982)

Though it's her second LP of the 1980s (following Never for Ever), The Dreaming is Kate Bush's first '80s album in spirit : Fresh from lending vocals to Peter Gabriel's Melt, Bush armed herself with the Fairlight CMI (the world's first sampling synthesizer, which Gabriel himself helped to popularize) and started work on her most divisive LP to date. Her first self-produced work, The Dreaming boasts some of Bush's most powerful songs (the turbulent, Shining-inspired "Get Out of My House," the heartbreaking glimpse-of-God anthem "Suspended in Gaffa") and also some of her most puzzling (the disjointed title-track, marred by Bush's awkward attempt at an Australian accent). It's a dark, heady, and decisively unromantic approach, layering Bush's bizarre shrieks and moans over stark synth pads and drowned-out rhythms. It's an important pivot point in her catalogue, paving the way for her American breakout album, 1985's Hounds of Love — which improves in every possible way upon The Dreaming's murky foundation.


The Red Shoes (1993)

The Red Shoes is the black sheep of Bush's catalogue. With its bland, dated production, surprisingly high-profile cameos (Eric Clapton? Prince?), and overlong tracklist, it almost feels like the work of a different artist. For the first time in her career, Bush seems a bit unsure of herself, bouncing back and forth between pop accessibility (the surprisingly bouncy "Rubberband Girl"), mournful balladry ("Moments of Pleasure," dedicated in part to her late mother), and witchy art-rock ("Lily"). On one hand, it's impressive how much stylistic ground Bush covered here — but The Red Shoes still pales in comparison to her stellar '80s work.


Director's Cut (2011)

Director's Cut is clearly an album Bush made largely for herself, and at this point in her career, she'd surely earned that privilege. Her main goal was re-working material from The Red Shoes, warming up that album's sterile, digitized production. She succeeded: "Lily" is transformed into a ghoulish funk ceremony, with Bush's Christian-witchcraft poetry bolstered by John Giblin's liquidy bass ; liberated from its dated mix, "Rubberband Girl" emerges as a raw, Stones-y rocker. Some re-casted moments from The Sensual World feel less necessary (Did gaining lyrical access James Joyce's Ulysses really add much to the already-splendid title-track?), but even the least revelatory moments on Director's Cut still feel sonically fresh.


Aerial (2005)

Following the release of The Red Shoes, Bush vanished from the music industry for 12 years. Tabloid-bait myths circled about her reclusive (and odd) behavior, when in actuality, she was simply raising her son, Bertie, away from the public eye, tinkering with new music at a very leisurely pace. The double-disc Aerial is appropriately insular and earthy, blending bits of Renaissance Faire folk, piano balladry, and flamenco into extended aural sighs. A Sea of Honey is the more visceral (and engaging) of the two discs, with Bush's arresting Elvis daydream "King of the Mountain" and the oddly sensual "Mrs. Bartolozzi," which boasts a bizarre sexual metaphor (clothes twisting erotically in a washing machine) that only Bush could sell successfully.


50 Words For Snow (2011)

Bush's 10th LP opens with "Snowflake," an evocative drift of nothingness. "The world is so loud," Bush sings — almost whispers — over a sparse, hollow bed of tom-toms and grand piano. It's the story of a snowflake's birth and descent to Earth, and the cascading arrangement brings that story to life. The rest of 50 Words for Snow follows a similar trajectory: Bush explores seven wintry themes (two eternally separated lovers in "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," the sad myth of the Yeti in "Wild Man"), as her band skitters quietly beneath — or drops out entirely, leaving only Bush's husky alto and keys in the foreground. There's no "Running Up That Hill" to reward your attentiveness — only more layers of snowy atmosphere.


The Kick Inside (1978)

The Kate Bush Myth begins in grandiose fashion with The Kick Inside. Yes, this is the album with "Wuthering Heights," a fanciful tale of unrequited romance sung in Bush's high, piercing chirp — still one of the weirdest hits in pop history. But The Kick Inside is stuffed with greatness throughout — in a way, it's the most adventurous album she ever recorded (even more staggering since she wrote a number of these songs as a teenager). "Feel It" is an erotic, jazzy piano ballad about an early sexual experience ; the hard-hitting "James And The Cold Gun" borrows masterfully from Pink Floyd's psychedelic turmoil; "The Saxophone Song" is an overlooked epic, Bush soaring dramatically over a proggy barrage of sax and synth. The sappier, more sentimental stuff ("L'Amour Looks Something Like You," the laborious title-track) is a bit over-dramatic for its own good — but even those weak spots are immaculately crafted. Bush's work only grew stronger down the road, but The Kick Inside was one hell of an introduction.


Never For Ever (1980)

With Never For Ever, Kate Bush closes out her romantic phase with grace — and a surprising amount of muscle : This is the first Bush album featuring the talents of Del Palmer and John Giblin (two of her most frequent collaborators), whose signature fretless bass sounds help anchor and propel Bush's ethereal flights of fancy. The playing is unanimously stellar, but so is the songwriting: "Dellius" points toward a more conventional pop direction, with Bush daydreaming over a silky drum machine; "Violin" is the most convincing rocker in her catalogue, a Roxy Music-styled art-rock track filled with violent guitar leads. Never For Ever is Bush's most varied and musically exciting album : The Irish-inflected ballad "Army Dreamers" sits harmoniously next to the luxurious sparkle of "Egypt," which climaxes in a proggy 7/8 section.


Hounds Of Love (1985)

Bush had been a fixture on the UK charts since day one, but the American public didn't catch on until her brilliant fifth LP, Hounds of Love. It's a "break-out" album in every sense of the word, offering her most concentrated blast of sensual hooks and polished production. Robert Christgau once called "Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)" "a woman's orgasm in 4:58," and it's hard to think of a more apt description, but it's only one ecstatic highlight in a flawless first half — from the yearning "Hounds of Love" (complete with fake dog barks) and the philosophical, cello-led "Cloudbusting." By contrast, the album's darker, more impressionistic second half (a conceptual suite titled The Ninth Wave) tends to drag a bit. Nonetheless, Hounds of Love remains a towering achievement.


The Sensual World (1989)

"Stepping out of the page," Bush sings on her sixth studio album, "into the sensual world." And did she ever. The title-track is the peak of her entire catalogue — balancing the sexy with the scary, bagpipes and bass charging wildly under her orgasmic imagery. Bush has never been immune to filler, but The Sensual World is an all-around knock-out, from the simmering "This Woman's Work" to the propulsive, positively joyous "Love and Anger." All of what Bush had been working toward paid off here: Her voice had deepened and matured ; her cast of collaborators had grown more chemistry ; her lyrics more carefully chosen and her melodies sharpened. Building on the expressive Hounds of Love before it, The Sensual World is an bold, colorful masterpiece — the sound of Bush abandoning fairy tales for an even more imaginative real life.

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