CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL SCORE: (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 168, (7) Tracy Chapman 159 .......... FINAL FOUR FINAL SCORES: (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 154, (1) Joy Division 90 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 137, (1) The Cure 89 .......... ELITE EIGHT FINAL SCORES: (1) JOY DIVISION 74, (14) Low 60 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 85, (1) Elliott Smith 69 ..... THE CURE 65, (2) Radiohead 58 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 74, (1) Neutral Milk Hotel 44 ..... FINAL SWEET SIXTEEN SCORES: (1) JOY DIVISION 75, (5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave 24 ..... (14) LOW 73, (2) Concrete Blonde (64) ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 78, (4) Gary Jules 44 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 74, (6) Kate Bush 53 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 54, (13) The Church 49 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 73, (3) Sinead O’Connor 35 ..... (1) THE CURE 109, (3) Tori Amos 86 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 76, (6) This Mortal Coil 50 ..... (1) JOY DIVISION 96, (9) Mazzy Star 91 ..... (2) CONCRETE BLONDE 76, (7) Bob Mould 28 ..... (14) LOW 60, (6) Crowded House 51 ..... (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE 65, (4) Alphaville 38 ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 113, (8) Replacements 88 ..... (6) KATE BUSH 87, (3) Nirvana 64 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 99, (2) The Eels 62 ..... (3) GARY JULES 103, (12) Morrissey 63 ..... (6) Kate Bush 72, (3) Nirvana 53 ..... (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR 66, (11) Ride 27 ..... (13) THE CHURCH 106, (5) James 44 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 95, (10) Smashing Pumpkins 40 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 80, (9) New Order 56 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 102, (7) Nine Inch Nails 99 ..... (6) THIS MORTAL COIL 61, (3) Indigo Girls 60 ..... (4) TORI AMOS 89, (5) Swans 40 ..... (1) CURE 82, (8) Tom Waits 68 ............... FINAL 1ST ROUND SCORES: (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE 93, (12) Midnight Oil 38 ..... (7) BOB MOULD 63, (10) Peter Murphy 47 ..... (1) JOY DIVISION 117, (16) Erasure 19 ..... (6) CROWDED HOUSE 98, (11) Leonard Cohen 54 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 199, (10) The Smiths 162 ..... (5) MORRISSEY 115, (12) Morphine 83 ..... (3) NIRVANA 137, (14) Slowdive 102 ..... (8) THE REPLACEMENTS 128, (9) Dream Academy 82 ..... (13) THE CHURCH 262, (4) Magnetic Fields 193 ..... (10) SMASHING PUMPKINS 165, (7) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 155 ..... (9) NEW ORDER 160, (8) Sarah McLachlan 78 ..... (1) JEFF BUCKLEY 204, (16) Bjork 92 ..... (4) TORI AMOS 78, (13) Echo & the Bunnymen 22 ..... (8) TOM WAITS 72, (9) The Pretenders 22 ..... (6) THIS MORTAL COIL 51, (11) Yaz 31 ..... (3) INDIGO GIRLS 71, (14) Pavement 26 ..... (9) MAZZY STAR 132, (8) REM 46 ..... (2) CONCRETE BLONDE 88, (15) Psychedelic Furs 34 ..... (4) ALPHAVILLE 71, (13) Dead Can Dance 36 ..... (14) LOW 120, (3) U2 65 ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 63, (16) 10,000 Maniacs 24 ..... (2) EELS 50, (15) Counting Crows 46 ..... (4) GARY JULES 62, (13) Depeche Mode 19 ..... (6) KATE BUSH 59, (11) Sisters of Mercy 20 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 42, (16) Violent Femmes 12 ..... (11) RIDE 25 (6) Peter Gabriel 24 ..... (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR 37, (14) Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 17, ..... (5) JAMES 24, (12) Red House Painters 23 ..... (7) NINE INCH NAILS 46, (10) Wilco 31, (5) SWANS 31, (12) Pet Shop Boys 18 ..... (1) THE CURE 50, (16) Gear Daddies 10 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 40, (15) Liz Phair 35


Monday, March 21, 2016

The Sweet Sixteen: (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR vs (2) JEFF BUCKLEY

FINAL SCORE: (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 73, (3) Sinead O’Connor 35


(3) Sinead O'Connor, "Three Babies"

Analysis by Laura C. J. Owen

The question that’s already dogged this song in this tournament is why it’s not “Nothing Compares 2 U” (the songs are from the same I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got album).

I am a certainly a big Sad Fan of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the video for which (Sinead: staring straight at the camera, singing and crying) represented one of my most shameful, secret, teenage Sad Music acts: staring into the mirror, whilst reciting sad music/poetry/love letters, whilst crying.

Similar to Sinead, I’m a Northern European style pale. While other Arizona teens ran around in the sun, the only time I ever really liked the way I looked was when I stared into the mirror, facing my sharply-angled, pale face, and thick, black eyebrows, while I recited sad music and admired the artful fall of my tears. The “Nothing Compares 2 U,” video and song, showed me that I wasn’t the only one who benefited from this aesthetic.

But here’s the other thing: “Nothing Compares 2 U” is written by Prince. Which isn’t bad—Prince is the best. But he’s just Wonderful, but not mortal. So it was disappointing for Teenage Me to discover that he wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I wanted bald, odd, pale, sad Sinead O’Connor to have written it. It hurt me that the song wasn’t autobiographical.

And as has already been discussed, “Three Babies” is closely, painfully autobiographical / confessional: it’s a song that’s close to un-coverable. It’s all Sinead.

Arguably, autobiographical connection shouldn’t matter, not when the cover is glorious, but Sinead’s epically messy life—in all its Pope-protesting, musician-feuding, public suicidal breakdown glory and squalor—is an important part of her legacy, and difficult to disentangle from her music. It’s not hard to imagine Sinead staring into the mirror and crying, not because of her famous video but because her entire career is based on that kind of embarrassing, beautiful sincerity, a willingness to blab secrets, commit to extreme positions and then retract them, to be always, uncomfortably, inconveniently, annoyingly, tragically honest, even when being honest requires that you be histrionic and contradictory.

In a way, “Three Babies” is about celebrating those inconvenient, tragic bits of ourselves. “Each of these, my three babies, I will carry with me, for myself,” Sinead sings, “There’s no other way I could be.” The song is sad, but peaceful. Loss is with us always, Sinead says, part our blood and bones, but that is something to be celebrated as well as mourned. Instead of reveling defiantly in the dysfunction of loss, it admits the necessity of loss to informing who we become: "No longer mad like a horse / I'm still wild but not lost / From the thing that I've chosen to be / And it's ‘cause you've thrilled me / Silenced me / Stilled me / Proved things I never believed"

Loss lives on within us; we carry Russian-nesting-doll versions of ourselves inside us at all times: the sad teenager, the defiant daughter, the grieving mother. Within us, the dead still live. No one else can carry them.

Laura C. J. Owen is a writer and teacher in Tucson, Arizona. You can see more of her writing here.


(2) Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”

Analysis by Elena Passarello

Jeff Buckley covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—one of those covers that’s so powerful, it endangers the original— in 1994. I was an un-blossomed sixteen, and such an easy target for Buckley’s special trick of rewashing songs in beautiful sadness. The love that he promised me in his perfect vox was full of bodies and moonlight and urban melancholy. His was the first version of the song I ever heard, and sweet Lord, it stuck on me.

I’d be in last period Bio, five miles away from my bedroom and my boom-box, and just aching for the chance to go home and play it. I’d tell myself I was one fetal pig dissection and one school bus ride away from its first note, which isn’t a sung note at all, but a feathery expulsion of breath: hhhhuhh. Breath on a neck, a lover’s last breath, or a dejected sigh—no matter what it signifies, that breath is like a reset button, blowing away all the sinister horniness of Cohen’s original take and replacing it with high, earnest emotion.

This bracket might not be the place for (probably poor) musical analysis, but doing so makes the best case for why this song is super sad, so bear with me. “Hallelujah” is technically sad, and that schematic sadness begins with the two-string intro of Buckley’s guitar. He plays Cohen’s C-major melody line, slowed to a crawl, on the high E-string, and then adds the wrong part of a C-minor chord—a D-sharp—on the string beneath it. A major tune with a minor underbelly. That wonky minor shift, paired with that opening sigh, tells us that the wry “Hallelujah” of Leonard Cohen is about to crumble. And then Jeff Buckley starts to sing.

One of my favorite things about “Hallelujah” is that first verse tells you how the song will manufacture its sadness: “well it goes like this, the fourth the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift...” That chord progression is the see-saw that builds an uneasy foundation under the melody. And the melody itself allows for sadness, too. Not so much in Cohen’s version, because he tunelessly drawls through his cheeky verses and chorus, but definitely in Buckley’s more articulate melody line (which Buckley lifted from John Cale’s 1991 cover; we really should give Cale the credit for finding the sadness in this song).

The back half of each verse climbs up the C-scale, note by note, over three measures. It rises all the way into the next octave, to which Buckley ascends in his oily and perfect head voice:

The fourth, the fifth/ the mi-nor fall the ma-jor lift/ the ba-ffled king com-po-sing…
  G     A        A    B     B   C  C    C   C   C   C   D    D   D   D      D    D     E    E

What progress! What a heavenly unburdening! Those rising tones are like a water bucket down a deep well that’s being slowly pulled toward the light.

But then, right at the title word, the melody drops. The four syllables in “Ha-le-lu-jah” tumble downward from E to D to C. Back into the dark. And how brilliant that the lyric on which the melody falls is the go-to word of Judeo-Christian worship, roughly translated as “lifting up praise” to God. “God” is the “jah” of “hallelujah,” and so God is the lowest note of the descent.

The chorus is a dirge-ier version of the same concept, up three notes and then back down, all on that ironic “hallelujah” until the chorus plummets to the low root tone. And that’s it for the song— it just repeats that structure; there are no bridges or codas. In a sense, all that lovely melody work gets Buckley nowhere, and it’s sad for a melody to try so hard— to make such beautiful progress—and ultimately fail.

Technics aside, I must admit there are sadder Jeff Buckley tunes. Look no further than the songs on either side of this track on Grace: the banshee-wail of “So Real” and the murderous breakdown that is “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.” I confess, too, that twenty years past Buckley (and two decades into my actual love life), I relate more to Cohen’s dark take on the song. He seems savvier to that long-distance marathon called love. And now that I actually know what sex is, I think Cohen’s version is sexier, too.

I’m still voting for Buckley in the match-up versus Sinead O’Connor’s song, which sports less technical sadness and really is more morose than anything. And I’d bet on the youthful, pristine sadness of “Hallelujah” over “Under the Milky Way” or  “Mad World” or “Fake Plastic Trees” any day. What might give “Hallelujah” a run for its money is “Joey,” which I was flat-out afraid to listen to at sixteen. Holy shit, that song is sad.

Anyway, Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is saddest to me because, on top of the great writing, it is so beautifully performed, and that beauty is now gone in more ways than one. And to put it more selfishly, it’s sad because it reminds me that I once believed in Buckley’s high-earnestness. In 1994, I thought life was this constant, pure, Byronic thing. I felt the same way about pop music. So when I hear Buckley sing, I’m sad to know I might never be as openly wooed by life than I was back then, when I’d experienced none of it.

Elena Passarello wrote a book about pop-culture voices, Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande, 2012). She personally thinks the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” should’ve swept this whole dang tourney. Tweet your dissent @elenavox



  1. I would've voted for Nothing Compares 2 U for days and days, because yes, crying in the mirror, because yes, my high school heartbreak KNEW that song to its fluttery bones, because yes, it gave me a to-do list for dealing with breakups which I may or may not still follow involuntarily to this day. Even when I learned Prince wrote it. Even when I couldn't imagine anyone EVER making Prince that sad--not even Apollonia? Well, maybe her. But I already knew how he dealt with her darling, daring ways to ease his hurt.

    But Three Babies is different. For all the ways Owen lists: uncoverable, confessional, autobiographical. I never had a way in to that song when I was a teenager. (In my twenties and again in my thirties, I did have a way, but it was a way I was determined never to mourn.) This is a song about Sinead's pain, and I respect that and am moved by it--but it has never done to me what the best sad songs do: give me a harmony for my own despair's melody. That's totally cheesy, but it's true.

    Now. Hallelujah on the other hand is full of so much weird symbolism that I have found ways to barnacle my melancholy to it's minor chords and major shifts time and time again. This song came to me late in the college years. Just before I gave up all the terrible love affairs with musicians and junkies and artists and married (dumbly, briefly) a preacher's son. Love is not a victory march, indeed but a cold and broken hallelujah.

    1. I hear that. Rings true to me: "give me a harmony for my own despair's melody." It also occurs to me that both of these are songs that have a breaking point in them, where the voice surges in an unmelodic way. And one of the things perhaps in Buckley's favor, as Elena points out, is that--because this is not a song that a 28-year-old could likely write; in fact a 50-year old wrote it--Buckley's version of the song contains and conveys two different and obviously distinct sadnesses. Perhaps that's an argument in favor of the spectacular cover over the hyperintense autobiography. Especially since Cohen's own entry into is dancing now only in its dreams.

      Also for those of you wondering why "Nothing Compares 2 U" isn't in the bracket in its stead, you might click through to the early-round coverage of this song (linked helpfully above in Laura's essay).

    2. Buckley would have turned 50 this year. I wonder what his cover would've sounded like when he was as old as Cohen.

    3. I am glad I am not the only one cannot imagine anyone making Prince sad enough to write "Nothing Compares 2 U." Just can't do it. Just as I'm fairly certain Prince has never had a "Manic Monday" despite writing that song, too.

      I see that the personal-ness of "Three Babies" almost doesn't allow a way in; I think for me, the notion of loss become a inevitable tutor and presence resonates for me. But then, it also feels weird to find someone else's miscarriages metaphorical.

  2. Buckley wins, no contest. His barefoot ghost floats above the floor while a present-day O'Connor smashes up the locker room.

    I'd read the first lines of Owens' essay before I realized she'd written it, and not Ander. My first thought was that there isn't a bedroom door lock strong enough.

  3. One of the tougher match-ups at this stage. I go with Sinead, if only because it was a genuine surprise to hear it again and being startled by its power.

    1. I agree that I was really startled upon listening to it again. It's a change to find something more powerful than I remembered it.

  4. I made my vote (likely on the losing side), but this is one of the first match-ups where I almost don't care who wins. Not because I'm not invested in the songs, but the opposite - since they are each so beautiful and so sad to me. They have such a lasting affect. It might even matter which one I listen to first, but now I'll not know. This is a great and dismal battle of music beauty.

  5. Funny about the inversion of rationales - Nothing Compares 2 U (which I would've voted for in a heartbeat) gets excluded because it's a cover of a Prince song, but Buckley's stab at Leonard Cohen makes it in. Makes me want to vote for Sinead just for the sake of coherence, but what actually tips me in her direction is that I've always found Buckley's take on Hallelujah to be a bit too... hysterical? All of the vocal flourishes and emotional straining wouldn't be out of place in the worst of Mariah Carey. I know I'm an outlier on this one, but it's essentially the same reason I'll always take Dolly over Whitney.

    1. It's worth noting that the Committee did not exclude "Nothing Compares to U" simply because it was a cover (there were I think 4 covers in the tournament overall), but because we felt that "Three Babies" offered a sadness that differed more (and more interestingly) from other sadnesses in the tournament. What we didn't want was 64 songs of romantic/breakup lament. That would be an entirely boring listen and conversation. (See the previous coverage of the Sinead games.) It's true, though, that Laura did find it necessary to gloss that in her essay, because it's a question that keeps coming up. And the cover question is a complicated one that voters react to in their own way. I do generally speaking feel that singing your own original song is an advantage (especially in America where we value "authenticity"), but sometimes a cover version can be transcendent and revelatory. Those instances are rarer than we expect. I actually voted "Three Babies" in this matchup because it felt to me more intense and less fettered with some of the "hysterical" vocal flourishes you mention. Though I like both songs here a lot and don't on the balance find Hallelujah to be melodramatic. I also really Hate Mariah Carey for that same kind of virtuoso maneuvering at the expense of the song. (But I value those kinds of flourishes in prose, which is an interesting contrast.)

    2. I really need to find a better identifier than "unknown." Interesting point about covers versus authenticity - I'd be very interested to see a tournament (though the bracket structure would be less immediately applicable) of very good covers versus their originals. Jose Gonzales and The Knife could really go to war over Heartbeats, for example, and one of my greatest moments of pure musical incredulity came about when I realized that I prefer the odd, cast-off Stone Temple Pilots cover of Led Zeppelin's "Dancing Days" more than the original. There are many more examples out there, I'm sure.

      Never, ever, ever would've guessed.

      None of this forgives Mariah, of course.