Sinéad O’Connor’s Best: 12 of Her Finest Musical Moments

Today’s news of Sinéad O’Connor’s death at age 56 and the desperate tangle of her life immediately reminded us of the emotional, imagistic depths of her songwriting, her tactile interpretive skills and the piercingly distinctive range of her vocals. For all of the genuine pain she felt throughout her life, O’Connor displayed empowerment, spirituality, savagery, anti-establishment sentiment and, yes, quietude, like no other vocalist could.

Here are 12 magical moments in the Sinéad O’Connor songbook.

“Heroine” (Theme from “Captive”) with the Edge (1986)
When the Edge was offered the opportunity to create an Infinite Guitar-filled, ambient soundscape for the 1986 Anglo-French drama “Captive,” he turned to fellow U2 member Larry Mullen Jr. and recent Ensign label signee O’Connor for this moody tale of self-doubt and firm, feminine empowerment. The Sinéad era begins with a whisper and a scream.

“Mandinka” (1987)

Think about her spiky, ruminative “The Lion and the Cobra” debut – the menacing atmospheres, the crouching punkish guitars, her caterwauling vocals touching on sense memory, sacred screeds and sensuality. Bold stuff. All of a sudden, there’s her Alex Haley’s “Roots”-inspired “Mandinka” with its chiming six-strings, its double-drummed rhythms, her whooping crane singing and an irresistibly poppy melody that shifts the mood (or at least the commercial fates) of O’Connor’s first album.

“I Want Your (Hands on Me)” (1987)
Commandingly sexual and breathy in a fashion that had nothing to do with Donna Summer’s orgasmic yawn, O’Connor (and one of the track’s co-writers, producer and then-husband John Reynolds) pinned her cooing vocal and icy, sensual lyrics to a clunky programmed pulse. Later, O’Connor remixed this track with fellow heroine-rapper MC Lyte for an era-appropriate “Street Mix.”

“I Am Stretched on Your Grave” (1990)
O’Connor’s translation of an anonymous 17th-century Irish poem, “Táim sínte ar do thuama,” with an updated musical theme by Philip King, starts off in her nasal Irish deadpan accent with a spare bass and Soul II Soul-era pulse behind her. As the song went on, the vocalist’s open-throated moan and the track’s repetition was utterly mesmerizing, especially if you were lucky enough to catch her doing this mass hypnosis live.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)
The simplicity of its arrangement, the hollow reverberation of her voice against its slow elegant backdrop, even its stark, face-front video – if you haven’t watched this in a minute, get entranced all over again. She and Prince had their disputes about this, but “Nothing Compares 2 U” remains a quiet stunner.

“Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” (1992)
Two back-to-back critically acclaimed albums and the mega-popularity of “Nothing Compares 2 U” pushed O’Connor to move from the spotlight and produce a not-so-populist cover song album follow-up, “Am I Not Your Girl?,” with songs such as the sort-of-on-the-nose “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home.” Penned by country music songwriter Johnny Mullins and bolstered by a Gil Evans-ish big band arrangement, it is the video – O’Connor smartly signing in ASL – that’s most potent.

“War” (1993)
Bob Marley’s cutting chant against “the philosophy that holds one race superior” was given greater heft when O’Connor performed this a cappella version on “Saturday Night Live.” She made headlines when she tore a photo of Pope John Paul into pieces in protest against sexual abuse within the Catholic church, staring into the camera and saying “Fight the real enemy” before blowing out a set of votive candles. Though NBC received only received 4,400 complaint calls, somehow O’Connor’s career never recovered, and she got a ban from “SNL” for life.

“Thank You for Hearing Me” (1994)
Sticking again with trance-like melody and sparse arrangements, O’Connor’s softest vocal line dips and undulates elegantly as it pulls the listener into a tribute to/diatribe against Peter Gabriel, her one-time paramour. “Thank you for breaking my heart / Thank you for tearing me apart,” sings O’Connor in her patented quiver.

“Emma’s Song” (2000)
Co-produced by Brian Eno as a rich Celtic chamber ballad, O’Connor is at her lower register, sing-song-y best when singing a blissful imaginary lullaby.

“Lay Your Head Down” (2011)
The 2011 period drama “Albert Nobbs” featured a cello-and-piano-heavy score composed by Brian Byrne, and this song, co-written by the film’s star, Glenn Close. O’Connor here uses her signature gentle quiver and warm whispers, while also adding a layer of stunning clarion clarity to her performance.

“The Wolf Is Getting Married” (2012)
After an album of reggae covers and Irish language traditional, 2012’s “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?” album was her return to full band rock outs, and the organ-driven, multi-drummed “Wolf” – co-written with longtime collaborator Marco Pirroni – found her in her fullest, most robust voice.

“The Skye Boat Song” (Theme from ‘Outlander”) (2023)
For the opening titles of “Outlander’s” season 7, William Ross’ 1782 Gaelic composition gets its spookiest-ever reading from O’Connor in full ghostly specter mode, nailing the tone of the Scottish moors and the unknowing transmogrified future to follow.

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