In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
When we do our monthly Best Covers Ever countdowns, paying tribute to different versions of a given artist’s songs, it’s fun to surprise people with something unexpected. But a couple months ago, when we counted down covers of Prince, it was only ever a race for number two. The best cover of Prince is, in this case, also the most famous. Most famous for a reason. I’m talking, of course, about Sinead O’Connor singing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Here’s a bit of Seuras Og’s writeup from that list:
“Arguably a pretty slim item in the hands of its composer, O’Connor gave it a remarkable polish, inhabiting the lyric and bleeding out the meaning. OK, she had, and still has, the vocal chops to squeeze emotion into and out of almost anything, and this song is a masterclass in voice control, of volume and microphone technique. The video, especially as she sheds unprompted tears, clearly adds to the overall heft, but even without that visual, still the power is immense. Completeness also insists on showing how timeless her ownership of the song has been, with a live performance or two, decades apart, each as striking, in different ways, as the other.”
But Sinead O’Connor had a lot more to offer than just her one big hit—and that’s even just limiting ourselves to the covers world. Sure, she topped our Best Prince Covers list, but she also appeared on our Best Elton John Covers list, our Best ABBA Covers list, our Best Dolly Parton Covers list, our Best Nirvana Covers list. How’s that for range?
Don’t think that her great work petered out after the ’90s, either. Even during the dark stretches when she was popping up in the news for various non-musical reasons, she continued to release powerful music. She wrote some great songs during the later years (check out “The Wolf Is Getting Married” off 2012’s How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? or “Take Me to Church” off 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss), but also delivered interpretations of other artists’ songs every bit as powerful as her Prince and Elton covers from the early ’90s.
Here is a quick ten-song playlist of some of Connor’s most powerful covers beyond the obvious one, from the ’90s right up through the 2020s. Let us know what else you love in the comments. RIP.
1991: Sacrifice (Elton John cover)
1991’s Two Rooms was one of the early big tribute albums, wherein the great and the good celebrate their peers. O’Connor could sing the proverbial phone book, but few other songs demonstrate so well her range and her technique, the timid, breathy whisper to the heart-curdling banshee, often within the same sentence. The build here is so moderated here as to creep right up on you, the change in timbre a sudden surprise that should release tears in any pulse-owning being. The multi-tracking then guarantees it. — Seuras Og
1994: All Apologies (Nirvana cover)
Aside from the occasional strummed chord, the guitar acts more as a percussive instrument in one of Nirvana’s most well-known songs. This is all the accompaniment needed for the breathy, dark angel melodies sung by O’Connor on her rendition of “All Apologies.” O’Connor released this version shortly after Cobain’s suicide. It’s a reverent, simple version that places all emphasis on the words, which are crystal clear and haunting. — Angela Hughey
1998: Chiquitita (ABBA cover)
O’Connor’s magisterial pipes carried this slight ditty into a very much better place, bending and extending the notes in her characteristic way, even if the backing (from early demos, I think) is blandly generic. It actually popped out as a single in 1998, but I don’t recall much impact at the time. More astonishing was when she performed it on a TV comedy show in 1997, over the closing credits, with a seemingly live backing, lost deep in her interpretation. — Seuras Og
2003: Dagger Through the Heart (Dolly Parton cover)
In O’Connor’s eminently readable 2021 memoir Rememberings, she described the cover of “Dagger Through My Heart” she did for the 2003 Dolly tribute album Just Because I’m A Woman as “my favorite collaboration I have ever recorded.” She said she chose the track because she connected with the “anger of the lyric.” Damn, did she ever. Sinéad recorded nearly 90 covers in her career, and her rendition of “Dagger” was unquestionably one of the greatest. The vocal is jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s also an absolute blast to hear her employing the same trademark quiet-loud vocal effect she did on her anthem “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” here. Dolly loved the cover so much, she wrote her a letter: “Well, I have always loved you anyhow, but now I love you more. I absolutely love how you sang “Dagger Through the Heart.” Man alive, I feel that through and through.” Fun Fact: Dolly’s admiration didn’t stop there. Her own video of the track is a direct stylistic nod to Sinéad’s fabled “Nothing Compares To U” vid. — Hope Silverman
2007: Rivers of Babylon (The Melodians cover)
O’Connor long had a fascination with Rasta; her 2005 album Throw Down Your Arms consisted entirely of covers of classic reggae songs, bringing the music to a wider audience. On the followup Theology, she has acoustic and full-band versions of the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” which may be the only song to make memorable appearances in both a movie soundtrack (The Harder They Come) and the Bible (Psalm 137). O’Connor’s near-folk interpretation brings the voice of God, or Jah, to listeners who may have never heard it otherwise, and in a way that commands both respect and understanding. — Patrick Robbins
2007: I Don’t Know How To Love Him (Jesus Christ Superstar cover)
O’Connor had a complicated history with religion, turning away from the institution while immersing herself in the spirituality; she has spoken of “rescuing God from religion” with some of her covers. The same could be said of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which included the hit “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” First performed by Yvonne Elliman (of “If I Can’t Have You” fame), the song becomes something more in O’Connor’s hands – she’s not about to be swept up in a string arrangement, when she can ride strong over it. It also says something that her last line is no longer “I love him so,” but “He’s just one more.” — Patrick Robbins
2012: Queen of Denmark (John Grant cover)
John Grant’s Queen of Denmark was MOJO magazine’s Best Album of 2010, but it didn’t make much of an impression stateside. O’Connor’s riveting, deeply personal cover of the title track on what was often called a “comeback” album, How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?, helped spread the word, delivered with her typical mesmerizing, uncomfortable intimacy. – Ray Padgett
2016: Trouble Will Soon Be Over (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
With her voice having settled into a husky burr, Sinead O’Connor’s “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” reads as a fervent gospel-tinged anthem for change. Building from an a cappella opening, the song gains strength and momentum as it progresses, seemingly emboldened by the lyrics themselves and the inherent potential for change contained therein. It was an eerily prescient rallying cry seemingly made for a year in which everything seemed to go to hell in a proverbial handbasket. – John Paul
2019: Rainy Night in Soho (The Pogues cover)
When O’Connor has appeared in headlines in her final years, it was often for something sad or alarming. But she remained a singular talent, and it was a in September 2019 joy to see popping on the blogs for her musical gifts once again. For an appearance on The Late Late Show – that’s the Irish version, not the James Corden one – she discussed her conversion (she prefers the term “reversion”) to Islam. Moreover, she performed two songs: “Nothing Compares 2 U” and The Pogues Irish-rock classic “Rainy Night in Soho.” Despite the singer’s relative silence in the preceding five years, her voice hadn’t lost a step. – Ray Padgett
2020: Trouble of the World (Mahalia Jackson cover)
Even as her own troubles continued to be well documented in the 2020s, she continued to effortlessly drop this sort of magisterial performance. Every year or two right up until the end, she would resurface with a new cover, and it was always great. This final entry is no exception. She writes, “for me the song isn’t about death or dying. More akin, a message of certainty that the human race is on a journey toward making this world paradise and that we will get there.” More moving than ever hearing it today. – Ray Padgett