The 12 Best Nina Simone Songs

[Updated 2017.]

"Best-of" lists are, by their very design, highly opinionated and potentially divisive, and this post of Nina Simone's best songs is no different. I've included my personal favorites, leaving out some of the High Priestess of Soul's very good covers because I think the original artists' versions are more definitive (e.g., The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," etc.). The tracks here—with both video and audio included when possible—are cemented in music history as "Nina Simone songs." I took care to post the best live versions available because that's still the best way to experience her music.

1. "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free"

Originated by musician and educator Billy Taylor, this song was made famous by Nina Simone, who took the jazzy civil-rights anthem to gospel heights. It's my absolute favorite out of everything she's ever done, and her spirited live performance in Paris in 1968 is a thing of beauty. At the 3:10 mark, watch her right hand, as it takes command of the audience and hypnotizes them into a game of call-and-response. And then at the 4:20 mark, watch the grace with which she dances, using little more than her arms. Watch:

The original studio recording is on her 1967 album, Silk & Soul, which also included "Go to Hell," a Grammy-nominated track for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. (Aretha Franklin won that year (1968) for "Respect."Silk & Soul was re-issued in 2010, and featured two bonus tracks: "Why Must Your Love Well Be So Dry" and "Save Me," which appears later on this list.

2. "Love Me or Leave Me"

I first heard this song on the soundtrack of the fun and funny Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), which features a pre-Will & Grace Sean Hayes in hot pursuit of gay unrequited love. Here's a young Ms. Simone performing the bouncy song live and in glorious black and white. It features an epic, stunning piano solo at the 0:50 mark, which reminds you that Simone was a classically trained pianist who went to Julliard—and she often crossed that training with her love of jazz improvisation. This is riveting! Watch:

The original studio recording is on her 1958 debut album, Little Girl Blue. Those of you who aren't adamant Nina Simone purists might be interested in DJ Maestro's Little Girl Blue Remixed, which is what the title suggests—electronic dance remixes of tracks from the original album as well as other songs from her repertoire.

3. "My Baby Just Cares for Me"

This song also appeared on Ms. Simone's debut album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958 and remained relatively obscure for nearly 30 years. After the tune was featured in a perfume commercial (Chanel No. 5) directed by Ridley Scott (!) in 1987, it became a hit in Europe and brought her a ton of new fans. Watch:

Aardman Animations, known for the Wallace and Gromit characters as well as Chicken Run, made a claymation music video of the song featuring human-like cats in 1987, further extending Simone's reach. The original studio recording is on her 1958 debut album, Little Girl Blue.

4. "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)"

This is probably Ms. Simone's saddest song. Written by her bass player at the time, Gene Taylor, she and her band performed it for the first time at the Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, New York, just three days after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. When she sings "Did Martin Luther King just die in vain?," it's an emotional moment. That rendition of the song lasted 13 minutes, as the band improvised and Simone sang and spoke about the tragedy. Here's a shorter live version (five minutes long) that's no less powerful, which was performed a couple month's after King's death. It moves me to tears. Watch:

The original live recording is on her 1968 album, 'Nuff Said!

5. "Mississippi Goddam"

Protest songs are, of course, filled with outrage, and this song is one of the angriest—and righteously so. It was written by Ms. Simone as a response to the murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963, as well as the death of four black girls when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed. The tune was controversial for its use of the word "goddamn," a definite swear word at the time. Though the single sold well when it was released, it was banned in several states in the South, with radio stations around the country returning promotional copies of the record broken in half. It makes you want to scream, "Mississippi Goddam!" Ms. Simone performed the song in front of 10,000 people at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery protest marches in 1965. I don't believe there's video of that performance, but here she is several months later in Antibes, France, raging against the machine. There's no denying the force of such lines as: "You don't have to live next to me/Just give me my equality." Watch:

The original live recording is on her 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, which features performances from three different appearances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

6. "Save Me"

This song was originally sung by Aretha Franklin, who made it a funky delight. Ms. Simone takes the baton and runs with it. While I actually prefer Ms. Simone's studio recording for its smoothness and faithfulness to the original, her live performance of the tune in Rome, Italy, in 1969 is a sight to behold. She takes what could be considered a minor song, makes it her own, and elevates it to epic proportions. Watch:

The original studio recording was on the B side of the "To Be Young Gifted and Black" single in 1969. It also appears on the 2010 re-issue of her 1967 album, Silk & Soul.

7. "Ain’t Got No/I Got Life"

This track is medley of two songs from the 1967 hippie musical, Hair. It's upbeat and life-affirming, but it's still a part of Ms. Simone's repertoire of civil-rights anthems. Here she is in London in 1968, performing a very smooth version of the tune. Watch:

The original live recording is on her 1968 album, 'Nuff Said!

8. "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl"

Inspired by Bessie Smith's "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," Ms. Simone re-wrote the lyrics and changed up the melody to make it her own. There's such longing, such ache, in her voice, and it's lovely. Here she is on a French TV show in 1967. Watch:

The original studio version is on her 1967 album, Nina Simone Sings the Blues.

9. "Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out"

Speaking of Bessie Smith, this song is a blues standard popularized by her. Even though I said in my opening paragraph that I wouldn't include covers of songs that are more identified by their original artists, I'm going to have to include this track here. It did well on the charts, for starters, but it continues to frame Ms. Simone as an artist who, like in "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl," can sing the blues with the best of them. There's no live video performance available. So listen:

The original studio recording is on her 1965 album, Pastel Blues.

10. "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black"

My personal connection to this song is the fact that I once had a play produced at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco (Bee). Ms. Simone was friends with Hansberry, who was the first black playwright to be produced on Broadway (the phenomenal A Raisin in the Sun in 1959), and this tune is a tribute to her. Simone and co-writer Weldon Irvine got the title from an unfinished work of Hansberry, who died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 34. The song, which was later covered by Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway, fits perfectly with Simone's political/racial consciousness. Here she is, live at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1969. Watch:

The original studio recording was released as a single and later appeared on her 1970 album, Black Gold.

11. "Take Care of Business"

There's a bit of Latin flavor to this song, as well as a super cool horn section and string section. It's Ms. Simone at her theatrical best. There's no live video available. So listen:

The original studio recording is on her 1965 album, I Put a Spell on You.

12. "For All We Know"

Okay, so this song has been covered by dozens and dozens of other artists, but I think it's a fitting close to this best-of list. It's a sad meditation on life and impending loss. Ms. Simone's voice is haunting here, and her propulsive piano playing is beautiful. Watch:

The original studio recording is on her 1959 album, Nina Simone and Her Friends.

Aren't those the best?! Aren't they?! (Now lists like these tend to include "Four Women," "I Loves You, Porgy," "See-Line Woman," and "Sinnerman," among others, but the 12 I selected are my personal favorites. I thought it might be wise to mention those other ones though.)

If you're looking for a greatest hits compilation, check out the American version of her Gold album, which contains 35 tracks, including some of her best-known songs.

If you're looking for excellent concert footage, check out Nina Simone: Live at Montreux 1976, which features my favorite ever version of my favorite ever Nina Simone song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." (It's not available on YouTube, due to well-monitored copyright restrictions.)

And if you're looking to learn more about Ms. Simone's life and career, there's the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, now available on DVD, and the biopic, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana from Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the new Star Trek movies.

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  1. The first two were really good. The last one was spectacular.

  2. Great picks! How about this one?

  3. Ah, yes, Michael, that one is so goddamn smooth.

    Ken, thanks for the link. Oh, those sweet horns! I dig it.