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Sinéad O’Connor’s 10 Greatest Songs

The iconic Irish singer died July 26 at the age of 56
Sinead O'Connor in Concert
(photo: Laurence Labat / Sygma via Getty Images)

Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish singer/songwriter of enormous talent and integrity who rose to fame in the late ‘80s, died in London on Wednesday at the age of 56. O’Connor’s second album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, became a worldwide blockbuster after her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was released as a single. A fearlessly outspoken public figure, O’Connor used her newfound fame to advocate for a number of causes, including anti-racism, women’s rights, and child abuse, and endured heavy criticism for speaking out against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Beyond the controversy, personal crises, and difficult relationships with Prince and other musical contemporaries, O’Connor was a hugely important artist. Some of her best-known recordings were of other people’s songs, but her restless and wide-ranging original songwriting intertwined the personal and the political like few others. Over the course of her career, O’Connor released 10 studio albums which moved freely between pop, rock, folk, jazz standards, country, R&B, and dance music. On soundtracks and singles, she collaborated with artists including Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, Shane McGowan, Asian Dub Foundation, and the Chieftains.

Here’s a look back at 10 of O’Connor’s greatest recorded performances.

10. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (1990)

I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was a remarkable album with no two tracks alike, which of course made it difficult to sustain the success of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Its next biggest hit, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” was a self-assured statement from a young woman determined to be true to herself in the midst of becoming both a mother and a celebrity: “I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience.” It was O’Connor’s second No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Modern Rock (now Alternative) chart, making her the first female solo artist to top that list multiple times. Since then, only Alanis Morissette and Billie EIlish have repeated the feat.

9. “Heroine” with the Edge (1986)

In 1986, U2 guitarist the Edge was enlisted to score Paul Mayersberg’s film Captive. A 19-year-old O’Connor, at the time fronting the Dublin band Ton Ton Macoute, co-wrote and sang the soundtrack album’s single, which also featured the Edge’s bandmate Larry Mullen Jr. on drums. It was the first time the world outside Ireland got a chance to hear this unique new voice, more than a year before O’Connor’s debut album was released. Later, she would collaborate with Bono on a song for a film based on the violent Irish/British conflict, 1993’s In the Name of the Father.

8. “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” with MC Lyte (1988)

O’Connor’s 1987 debut The Lion and the Cobra was an international word-of-mouth sleeper hit. For the album’s fourth single in 1988, O’Connor released an extended remix of “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” featuring 28 bars from 17-year-old rap phenom MC Lyte. In 1988, even R&B singers had not yet begun to customarily feature guest rappers on songs, but O’Connor was a passionate hip-hop fan who soon after made a cameo in Lyte’s “Lyte As a Rock” video. O’Connor also performed at the 1989 Grammys with the Public Enemy logo dyed into her hair to protest the first award for the genre, Best Rap Performance, not being included in the televised ceremony.

7. “Dense Water Deeper Down” (2014)

After playing guitar on the two albums that launched her career, O’Connor primarily recorded as a vocalist for the next two decades. However, she played guitar or bass on several tracks on her final album I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, including this jangly number about a torrid love affair: “He’s dense water deeper down / He makes me forget everything my mother warned / I think about him every night.”

6. “No Man’s Woman” (2000)

Years before “mansplaining” became a household word, O’Connor coined a similar portmanteau, “mantrolling,” on an anthem of escaping the patriarchy. “No Man’s Woman” was O’Connor’s comeback single from Faith and Courage, her first full-length album in nearly six years. The video starred O’Connor as a runaway bride, nearly unfamiliar with long hair until she pulls off her wig to reveal her iconic buzz cut.

5. “Black Boys on Mopeds” (1990)

The inner sleeve of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got featured a photo of the family of Colin Roach, whose 1983 murder by London police is referenced in the lyrics of “Black Boys on Mopeds.” The gorgeous acoustic track, written by O’Connor and arranged by World Party frontman Karl Wallinger, is one of her most widely covered songs, with versions released by Chevelle, Amanda Palmer, and the Nields.

4. “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” (1992)

O’Connor made it clear that she was never going to make obvious, commercially savvy career moves when she released Am I Not Your Girl? at the height of her fame. An eclectic collection of covers, primarily consisting of songs written before O’Connor was born, the album found its centerpiece with a rendition of the early Loretta Lynn single “Success.” O’Connor’s version expands both the title and the arrangement, transforming a quiet country song into a dramatic masterpiece of symphonic pop.

3. “War (live on Saturday Night Live)” (1992)

O’Connor promoted Am I Not Your Girl? a week after its release with an appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” and another cover that did not appear on the album. Most of the lyrics from Bob Marley’s 1976 single “War” were adapted from a 1963 speech by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and with this televised a cappella rendition, O’Connor nearly turned the song back into a political oratory in a chilling, legendary performance in protest of child abuse in the Catholic Church. Holding up a photo of Pope John Paul II, tearing it to shreds, and declaring “Fight the real enemy,” O’Connor risked her career to make a bold statement. Every subsequent revelation about the Catholic Church in the decades since has further vindicated O’Connor’s moment of bravery.

2. “Mandinka” (1987)

O’Connor wrote her strident breakthrough single after reading about the Mandinka tribe of West Africa in Alex Haley’s Roots, and performed the college radio hit on both Late Night with David Letterman and the 1989 Grammys. After O’Connor posted a video in 2017 discussing suicidal thoughts after losing custody of her son Shane, Fiona Apple responded with a video showing love and support for O’Connor. Ecstatically singing along with O’Connor’s Grammys performance of “Mandinka,” Apple declared “She’s the fucking best. She’s our hero!”

1. “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)

Many artists covered Prince songs in the ‘80s and usually chose selections from his solo albums that were already great, fully realized tracks. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a relative obscurity though, having been released in 1985 by the short-lived Paisley Park band the Family. Prince wrote the song while his housekeeper Sandy was on an extended leave of absence, and the lyric “All the flowers that you planted in the backyard all died when you went away” was not a metaphor – the pop superstar was simply sad that his house was a mess. O’Connor and her co-producer, British dance hitmaker Nellee Hooper (Soul II Soul, Bjork), turned “Nothing Compares 2 U” into a regal, heartbreaking love song which topped charts all over the world and proved, for once, that someone besides Prince could make the definitive recording of a Prince song.