It’s surprising to learn that the only significant acting credit associated with Annie Lennox is a role in a Robert Altman-directed adaptation of a Harold Pinter play. If you’ve watched any of the videos she made as a member of the mega-selling pop duo Eurythmics or for her solo albums, particularly those created with the aid of UK director Sophie Muller, you’ve seen her range. Hell, all you need to do is watch the clip for her 1992 single, “Why.” The camera spends a long time focused on Lennox’s face as she puts on makeup and examines her visage. She is at times amused, crestfallen, furious, and reserved. Once she is all made-up and costumed in her Diva-wear, she confronts the camera and cycles through even more moods: playful, lustful, fearful, impassioned, passive … It’s a reflection of a song that recounts the wounds of a broken relationship, but it’s also a marvelous showcase for Lennox’s impressive acting range.
This chameleonic quality is precisely why Lennox is considered one of the world’s greatest living singers. Even when she’s singing a song written by someone else, as on her most recent album Nostalgia, a collection of her favorite tunes from the jazz and blues canon, her voice changes almost imperceptibly to capture the raw emotion of each one. She doesn’t dare try to replicate the growl of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for her take on “I Put A Spell On You,” preferring instead to add a subtle tone of frustration and desire around the edges of that familiar alto, and on the Duke Ellington classic “Mood Indigo,” she adds an ironically catty twinge to the lamenting lyrics, inspired by Don Was’s swinging arrangement.
The 60-year-old Scot singer/songwriter’s career has been marked by this rare and remarkable quality. And she’s had plenty of occasion to display this over the years, having worked in an admirable number of different musical styles. Most recently, at this year’s Grammy Awards, she blew away Hozier as his duet partner on his own song. But when Lennox came to the attention of the European music scene, it was in 1977, and she was a power-pop/post-punk player in her first band, the Tourists — where she started working with her longtime partner (and now-former flame) Dave Stewart. Later working alongside Stewart in Eurythmics, she was able to give off vibes both chilly and toasty in the service of blinking technopop, stomping R&B, cut-and-paste art rock, and pure Europop bliss. And throughout her solo career, she’s moved in a dozen different artistic directions, guided only by her own curiosity and a need to express her deeply felt emotions.
The beautiful and frustrating thing about a list like this is that it’s going to stir up debate. And likely the first argument anyone’s going to make is about my omission of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” Lennox’s breakthrough 1983 single with Eurythmics. When I put together a list like this, I look at it more as a 10-way tie for first. I also try to find the best way to best represent an artist’s career as a whole, putting 10 different spotlights on their varied gifts. In this, I approached it like Muller’s direction in the “Why” video, looking for those nuances and shades of personality that, when combined, best sum up Lennox’s long career as a vocalist. These 10 songs, in my mind, provide the most complete picture of Lennox’s remarkable ability to capture the core of a song’s essence using only her voice as her tool. By my rough mental metrics, “Sweet Dreams” just barely got edged out of the picture. Hopefully that eases your troubled mind on the matter, and if not, well, that’s what our comments section is for.
10. “Walking On Broken Glass” (from Diva, 1992)
This song could easily have been a slow, soulful, burning ballad, with Lennox pitching her pleas for relief to the heavens in the wake of a shattered relationship, with fists clenched and strings sweeping behind her like gale force winds. Instead, the singer and songwriter follows the path of her Motown inspirations, casting this song with an “Ain’t That Peculiar”-like bounce anchored by that insistent opening piano line and a string section that bobs and weaves through the whole song. Listen, though, for Lennox’s absolute restraint through almost every moment here. She only pitches her voice up in the bridge as the song reaches its emotional peak, otherwise choosing a tone of resignation and near-defeat as she tends to the wounds still festering on in her soul and on her soles.
09. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (from Medusa, 1995)
Prior to recording Medusa, Lennox had considered retirement, but returned to the studio to play around with the idea of speaking her inner dialogue through the work of other writers. Through that lens, Paul Simon’s “Something So Right” feels like a shout-out to her husband, while “No More ‘I Love You’s” comes off as a last goodbye to lovers of the past (which included her Eurythmics cohort Stewart). Others were nods to those artists that inspired her to take up a career in music (the Temptations, the Clash, and Al Green, among them). This selection, a cover of a track found on Neil Young’s 1970 album After The Gold Rush, feels much more resonant when viewed through that lens: a plea following the breakup of her former band to keep moving forward. It helps that Lennox drops her voice down to a husky rumble, a move that minimizes the otherwise raw power of her singing but adds a deep well of emotion to the original folksy melody. She may have helped build the castles that she’s now watching smolder, but this is Lennox arriving at the “river of sight.”
08. “Into The West” (from The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King Soundtrack, 2003)
On paper, this is pure treacle. A tune overrun with syrupy strings and horns, all pitched to maximum emotional effect as accompaniment for your slow walk out of a movie theater. But damn if it doesn’t send even the most cynical fantasy fan rushing for the tissue box. The song runs deep, aiming to soothe the troubled spirit facing the end of their days and, in turn, helping ease the hearts of their loved ones. And it wouldn’t be nearly as affecting without a powerhouse like Lennox turning the lyrics (which she had a hand in writing) into both a lullaby and triumphal call from the mountaintops. Great as the studio version is, if you really want to hear the power of this song, watch the live performance Lennox gave of it at the 2004 Oscars. She looks downright possessed as she teases out each emotional upswing and downward swoop.
07. “Savage” (from the Eurythmics’ Savage, 1987)
Possibly the most underrated album in the Eurythmics’ discography, the duo’s sixth full-length is marked by meaty, clattering production that sounded as if Dave Stewart had spent the previous year subsisting on a diet of the Art Of Noise albums. Lennox responded with some of her most daring lyrics to date, casting herself in a brazenly and alluringly sexual light. The album proceeds into downcast balladry on the title track, but it is cut through with an air of danger via Stewart’s guitar stabs and the breathy croon that Lennox employs. She also sounds exhausted here, all the better to capture the “over it” sensibility of the character she’s portraying in the song. She’s like a fading ’50s movie star, taking her regular seat at the end of a bar and spouting lines to a handsome bloke nearby through a cloud of cigarette smoke. She’s well aware that she could easily seduce him, but she’s not sure if it’s worth the trouble.
06. “Take Me To Your Heart” (from the Eurythmics’ In The Garden, 1981)
The first album that Lennox and Dave Stewart worked on outside the fold of the Tourists is the product of songwriters still finding their collective voice. They still hadn’t completely shed the guitar-heavy post-punk approach of their previous band even as they sprinkled a healthy amount of synthesizer pixie dust over much of it. In The Garden is a fine enough album, but it doesn’t get any finer than this track. You can hear hints of the cool, sultry reserve that Lennox would bring to the next Eurythmics album as she plays against the herky-jerky beat and the splay of tinny keyboard melodies. The surface of these lyrics is a romantic notion, but with the way she sings it, the true meaning of her hot and bothered intentions becomes clear. Replace the word “heart” in the title with “bed” or “backseat” in your mind as you listen to this song and you’ll see just what I mean.
05. “Bitter Pill” (from Bare, 2003)
Like all good albums born of a relationship’s dissolution, Lennox’s third solo record, Bare, is splattered with all the shades of the emotional palette. She’s furious, regretful, rueful, and shattered in equal measure. On this highlight from the album, Lennox tempers her anger with a peppy R&B groove that feels as if it was borrowed from an En Vogue session. But the acid on her tongue is still palpable as she takes herself and her ex to task; him for causing the pain, and her for blindly accepting it as she’s “hangin’ on by my nails … hopin’ I won’t fall.” Ultimately, the song is a defiant one, the kind of anthem that sits comfortably on a playlist alongside “You Don’t Own Me” and “Irreplaceable.” When Lennox sings, “It means nothing to me / You mean nothing to me,” in the chorus, you want to cheer her on as she sashays towards a better future and, hopefully, a better man.
04. “Here Comes The Rain Again” (from the Eurythmics’ Touch, 1983)
The second top-10 hit for Eurythmics is a marvel of arranging and performance. Surely, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys lamented that Stewart and Lennox beat them to the punch of matching up the trill of arpeggiated Moroder-like synths with Gainsbourg-like string parts. As well, the song feels like it is just one extended chorus, one sustained outpouring of emotion that not even the “Talk to me” section offers much reprieve from. The key though is to pay close attention to the way Lennox sings this desperate love song. At the beginning, she sounds coy and a little reserved, but as it moves forward, a forcefulness starts to take over. By the last verses, she’s sparring with a background vocal that is firing off sparks and explosions as she tries to maintain her cool, repeating those mantra-like lines. It’s hard to know by that point whether to brave the downpour and run into her open arms or phone someone for help.
03. “Would I Lie To You?” (from the Eurythmics’ Be Yourself Tonight, 1985)
There was always a vein of ’60s R&B running underneath even the most synthesized of Eurythmics songs. You could imagine that with a sweet Wrecking Crew arrangement, “Here Comes The Rain Again” could have been a hit for the Supremes. On their fourth album, Stewart and Lennox decided to tap into that rich source material to help drive at least part of these new recordings. Landing a coup like getting Aretha Franklin to join in the fun on their empowering anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” was great enough, but writing a song as urgent and bracing as “Would I Lie To You?” on top of that is downright unfair. It also put to rest any lingering doubts about Lennox’s abilities as a vocalist. She throws down on this track, setting that two-timing son of a bitch back on his heels and she growls out her intentions to pack her bags and fly the coop. Why she feels the need to clean the floor on her way out is anyone’s guess, but when faced with someone as determined and fiery as Lennox is, you’d do well to not question her motivations. Just take your lumps and say goodbye.
02. “Love Is A Stranger” (from the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), 1983)
Although it is named after the Eurythmics’s eventual #1 U.S. single, the duo’s second album opens with a different mindset. The cold sweat of the title track was to come, but before they got there, Lennox and Stewart had seduction on the mind. 32 years later, this song, with its insistent Roland 606 beat and those feather synth trills, sounds as fresh and sexy as ever. Things get even more heated when Lennox eventually slinks in, hair shorn and dyed orange, tempting you to jump into that open car and perform unspeakable acts on the leather seats. Who among us hasn’t wanted someone to hear “I want you” in that same breathy cadence and slight catch of urgency coming from the voice of their paramour? Great as the LP’s title track is, this is the stuff dreams are made of. At least the kind of dreams that you’re embarrassed to talk about out loud.
01. “Why” (from Diva, 1992)
The world tends to cast a slightly suspicious glance at any artist that releases his or her first album outside the fold of a well-known band. At least that’s the case for anyone that isn’t Annie Lennox. For as much as many of us loved what Dave Stewart brought to Eurythmics, it seemed that the world knew that he and Lennox were equals in that creative endeavor. So when she finally unleashed a solo album on the world, some three years after the band’s split, the expectation was that greatness awaited. And while the album maybe didn’t live up to those hopes, Diva’s first single remains an enduring classic. A bold enough move to have your first single be a torch ballad of regret, but this one is a weeper for the ages. It’s a musical version of the Kübler-Ross model with Lennox hitting the grief stage as she welcomes her ex-lover “down to the water’s edge” to “cast away those doubts,” spilling out “the contents of her head” during the depression stage, and then crumpling to the floor repeating the phrase, “You don’t know how I feel” as acceptance sets in. This was the song that you put on repeat to cope with that awful breakup because in every syllable she sings, you can hear that Lennox has been there too and feels just as bad as you do.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.
[Photo by Galuschka/ullstein bild.]