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Best Tim Buckley Songs: 20 Happy Sad Singer-Songwriter Classics
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List & Guides

Best Tim Buckley Songs: 20 Happy Sad Singer-Songwriter Classics

Showing a range of emotions and musical styles, the best Tim Buckley songs mark him out as a unique songwriter that has never been matched.

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Tim Buckley, who was only 28 when he died of an accidental heroin overdose in 1975, first won acclaim in the late 60s as a sensitive teenage singer-songwriter. Over the course of nine studio albums he gained a reputation as a musical innovator, known for his stylistic leaps into jazz, avant-garde folk and psychedelia, where he explored the boundaries of music. Buckley’s son Jeff, of Grace fame, also died tragically young, in 1997. The subject of tribute albums and concerts, Tim Buckley influenced lots of musicians and left a rich legacy of music behind. Here are the 20 best Tim Buckley Songs.

Listen to the best of Tim Buckley here, and check out our 20 best Tim Buckley songs, below.

20: Wings (1966)

Timothy Charles Buckley III, who was born on 14 February 1947, in Washington, DC, surrounded himself with talented musicians for his self-titled debut album, and his prodigious talent was already clear. “I was only 19 and going into the studio was like Disneyland. I’d do anything anybody said,” Buckley recalled. The pick of his first album, released on Elektra, is the fragile Wings, which Buckley had written while in high school. The lush string arrangements were by Oscar-winning songwriter Jack Nitzsche, who worked with The Rolling Stones and Neil Young, and the album featured pianist Van Dyke Parks, who was living in the same Los Angeles apartment building as Buckley at the time.

19: Sing A Song For You (1968)

Though Buckley cut some six-minute outtake versions of Sing A Song for You, the closing track on his third album, Happy Sad, the final two-and-half minute version is a small gem of sensitive, romantic songwriting that showed off his rich, soaring tenor voice. “He was one of the great ballad singers of all time, up there with Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra,” said Buckley’s longtime guitarist, Lee Underwood. Happy Sad, released in 1969 on David Geffen’s Asylum label, is generally agreed to be Buckley’s most “accessible” work, and it contains many other tracks worthy of inclusion among the Tim Buckley’s best songs, among them Dream Letter.

18: Come Here Woman (1970)

Buckley’s 1970 album, Starsailor, was full of challenging arrangements for music that was fragmented and dissonant, and placed in unusual time signatures. Buckley also went for a bolder brass sound on some of the tracks, especially the Mexican-infused Down By The Borderline, bringing in the Garden brothers, Bunk (tenor saxophone and alto flute) and Buzz (trumpet, flugelhorn), who had worked with Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention. Come Here Woman is perhaps the pick of an album that is definitely on the weird side, especially with tracks such as I Woke Up and Jungle Fire. Buckley was the sole composer on Come Here Woman, which is full of imaginative lyrics such as, “Like an old window/I need a little shade/Like an old tomcat/Lord, I love to parade/Like a broken old man/Lord, I need sun.”

17: Dolphins (1973)

There was enormous mutual respect between Buckley and folk singer Fred Neil (of Everbody’s Talkin’ fame). Neil said that Buckley “was completely immersed in the music 24 hours a day… he ate, drank and breathed music”, while Buckley told BBC Radio One in 1974 that he had been singing Neil’s song Dolphins since his early teenage years – effectively turning it into one of the best Tim Buckley songs in the process. “It’s a very good song. It took me a long time to learn how to sing it,” said Buckley. The haunting track first appeared on the 1973 studio album Sefronia, but several excellent live versions came out posthumously, including the extended one on Dream Letter: Live In London 1968, which was finally released in 1990. Buckley’s band for that gig included Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on upright bass, improvising behind the singer and guitarist.

16: Hallucinations (1967)

One of the most important figures in Buckley’s career was poet and literary critic Larry Beckett, who co-wrote the haunting Hallucinations for the Goodbye And Hello album. “All the books about Tim and articles about him, they don’t really talk about him in what I think was one of his greatest abilities and that is: composing melodies,” said Beckett, a former school friend of Buckley’s, in 2004. “Some of his melodies are still, and will always be, evocative and beautiful. Among his generation of folk-rock singer-songwriters, I think they stand out.”

15: Phantasmagoria In Two (1967)

Buckley was a talented guitarist and played acoustic and bottle-neck guitar on Phantasmagoria In Two, a delightfully maudlin love song recorded at Western Recorders Studio in Los Angeles. His songwriting and playing were already attracting influential fans: Beatle George Harrison was advocating the 21-year-old’s talent, and when Buckley visited London, shortly after the album was finished, he went and jammed privately with Eric Clapton. Though his lyrics were widely praised, Buckley denied that songs such as Phantasmagoria In Two made him a poet. “Poetry is poetry and songs are songs. I know poets who write things I could never write,” he told Melody Maker in an interview about Goodbye And Hello, an album that contains many of Tim Buckley’s best songs.

14: Gypsy Woman (1969)

Buckley was a born innovator, and few songs show off his experimental nature as well as the 12-minute Gypsy Woman, which was part of the Happy Sad album. A bewitching experience, the song is a masterclass in vocal gymnastics, and also includes Carter Collins’ mesmerising bongo work. The singer performed Gypsy Woman regularly in concert, and, as one of the best Tim Buckley songs of the 60s, it is one of the many reasons Buckley influenced so many bands to come. U2’s Bono said that when he was starting out listening to music he went “through Phil Spectorland and turned right at Tim Buckley”. Buckley always defended his desire to explore new sounds: “Most people write for a business purpose, to milk a certain sound. That’s all right, but I never felt that I had that much time to mess around with that sort of thing. So I tried to develop as quickly as possible to get into different moods, different ways of playing, because music is what I’m all about, not business,” he said.

13: Blue Melody (1969)

Lee Underwood’s gentle piano playing sets the tone for Blue Melody, one of Buckley’s most expressive tunes. Buckley claimed that the “blue melody” was something his mother used to sing to him as a child. The melancholy tune, a track on Buckley’s poignant album Blue Afternoon, was the result of painstaking planning, according to Underwood. “A great deal of effort was put into that album,” Underwood said in 2000. “We gave it everything we had and performed as well as we could. And, no question about it, some of Tim’s very best songs appear on that album, including Blue Melody, which he sang in nearly all of his live performances until the end.” Blue Afternoon explored a range of emotions and included other contenders for a place among the best Tim Buckley songs, among them the upbeat, catchy Happy Time (“Ah, it’s a happy time inside my mind/When a melody does find a rhyme”).

12: Because Of You (1973)

Though Because Of You, which was cut at Paramount Recording Studios in Los Angeles for the Sefronia album, may not be one of his best-known tracks, it earns its place among Tim Buckley’s greatest songs – not least because Buckley himself thought that, along with Sweet Surrender, it was one of his most accomplished. “I think, soulfully, it’s my best for that type of song,” said Buckley in 1974. “And, let’s see, Joe Falsia is on it playing guitar, and Bernie Mysior on bass, Buddy Helms on drums, myself on 12-string. And I kinda like it. It has that good African-Latin feel… Plus, it has a good pattern, good melody.”

11: Morning Glory (1969)

Buckley often referred to Morning Glory, the final song on Goodbye And Hello, as simply The Hobo. Though the song was co-written with Beckett, it was about a wandering tramp who inspires “the ancient fear” when he approaches a suburban home and is met with patronising disdain. The song was inspired by Buckley’s early childhood, when he lived in a small southern California community adjacent to a “hobo camp”. This exquisite aching ballad features Wrecking Crew veteran Don Randi on keyboards, and was rated by Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde’s as one of the best Tim Buckley songs, inspiring her to record it for the 1999 compilation Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60’s.

10: Lorca (1970)

“I can see where I’m heading, and it will probably be further and further from what people expected of me,” Buckley said before making Lorca, his fifth studio album. The singer was true to his word. He moved away from traditional pop-music forms towards an ambitious free-form mix of jazz, avant-garde folk and rock as he paid tribute to the inspiration of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, murdered by Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War. There is an unsettling, languid grace to the album’s title track, which blends electric piano and pipe organ with Buckley’s sensuous, intimate lyrics (“Let your woman’s voice run through your veins”). Buckley was steeped in music. His influences included Johnny Cash and Eric Dolphy, and he had been brought up listening to jazz singers Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. Buckley also taught himself to play banjo as a child. He plays 12-string guitar on Lorca, and even adds some impressive whistling to the song I Had To Talk With My Woman.

9: I Must Have Been Blind (1969)

I Must Have Been Blind appeared on Blue Afternoon, Buckley’s first self-produced record and his debut album for Herb Cohen and Frank Zappa’s Straight Records label. Cohen, who looked after comedian Lenny Bruce’s career, had been managing Buckley since 1966 and believed the youngster was “uniquely gifted”. One of Tim Buckley’s best songs to focus on longing, I Must Have Been Blind is also one of his most melancholy, affecting works. Its parent album is a favourite of Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt, who said: “This is the first album Buckley produced himself, and it sounds like it. It’s got the sense of someone reaching for something beyond his capabilities. It doesn’t always work, it’s not always perfect, but it’s all about human ambition, in its feel and its execution.”

8: Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway) (1969)

Buckley said he was a fan of the complex orchestration of jazz master Duke Ellington. One of his own most ambitious songs, epic in size and storytelling, was the 11-minute Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway). Buckley was starting to use his voice more like an instrument, and his phrasing was more sophisticated in this masterful song about the transformative power of love – an apt composition for someone born on Valentine’s Day. David Friedman, who worked with jazz greats Horace Silver and Chet Baker, was responsible for the deft work on marimba and vibraphone, adding to the song’s appeal.

7: Make It Right (1972)

Buckley sings in an energetic, higher register on the pulsating Make It Right, which appeared on the 1972 album Greetings From LA, as he swoops and wails to the accompaniment of Joe Falsia’s driving guitar work. In what could easily have been a precursor to the disco era, Buckley – who co-wrote the song with Beckett, Falsia and the album’s producer, Jerry Goldstein – explores his more lurid sexual desires, asking to be whipped and spanked to “make it right again”. The emotions ramp up until the memorable, shrieking finale that brings one of the best Tim Buckley songs of the 70s to a close.

6: Sefronia (1973)

A bit of a cheat qualifies Sefronia for its place among Tim Buckley’s best songs, as it is sometimes listed as two songs: Sefronia: After Asklepiades, After Kafka and Sefronia: The King’s Chain, both jointly penned by Beckett and Buckley. The poet said that Buckley had originally wanted to do a song about Africa after they had been discussing slavery and reading James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study In Comparative Religion, and had been intrigued by the whole question of taboos. Taken together, the songs show Buckley and Beckett’s lyrical, imaginative powers as songwriters. “Sefronia, which is in two parts in Europe, is actually all one tune in the release in America,” said Buckley. “It is a transitional musical piece that took me four months to write but it’s done in one take.”

5: Buzzin’ Fly (1969)

The shimmering Buzzin’ Fly, from the Happy Sad album, is one of Buckley’s most touching songs about romance, and one in which he calls on the language and similes of nature – “Just like a buzzin’ fly/I come into your life/Now I float away/Like honey in the sun” – to serenade a lost love. Buckley dominates the melody with his acoustic guitar playing, and his angelic voice swells and soars throughout. Buckley was a perfectionist and often worked on numerous versions of a song. He cut nearly a dozen outtake versions of Buzzin’ Fly, two of which appear on the 1999 compilation Works In Progress, which features alternative versions of many of the best Tim Buckley songs.

4: Sweet Surrender (1972)

Buckley again used his rich, resonant voice like an instrument on Sweet Surrender, one of his most impassioned masterpieces and a standout from his seventh album, Greetings From LA. The album featured the punchy rhythm section of Chuck Rainey and Ed Greene, and Sweet Surrender explored lust, sorrow and dishonesty. After a powerful opening (“Now you want to know the reason/Why I cheated on you”), the song conjures some of the singer’s most potent lyrical imagery (“Well, I had to be a hunter again/This little man had to try to make love feel new again”). The offbeat liner notes to the album included a message to Warner executives Herb Cohen and Mo Ostin: “Dear Herb & Mo, Please send 50 copies – have advanced sale guarantee for the Apollo Massage Parlor – sounds real good to rub downs. Vibrantly yours, Tim Buckley.”

3: Pleasant Street (1969)

The haunting Pleasant Street, from Goodbye And Hello, was produced by Jerry Yester, who first met Buckley when the singer was 18. He later described Buckley as “the shyest kid you ever want to meet”. The lyrics to Pleasant Street, which reference “stony people walking ’round in Christian liquorice clothes”, were thought by fans to be about drug use. When Yester was interviewed by The Tim Buckley Archives, he confirmed this interpretation: “The song was about heroin. They told me it was.” On 28 June 1975, Buckley rounded off his US tour with a sell-out concert at the 1,800-seater Electric Ballroom in Dallas, Texas. The following evening, he died in California’s Santa Monica Hospital emergency room from a heroin overdose.

2: Once I Was (1969)

Despite their stylistic range, the best Tim Buckley songs all have one thing in common: they pack a real emotional punch. The sparkling Once I Was is a moving meditation on lost love, and the studio version, recorded for the album Goodbye And Hello, is notable for the wonderful harmonica playing by Henry Diltz, a photographer who worked with The Monkees. In April 1991, Buckley’s son, Jeff, then starting to make his way as a musician, was asked to perform at a tribute concert at St Anne’s Church in New York, honouring a father he had barely known. Jeff was four when his father left his mother, Mary Guibert, and their one brief meeting, when Jeff was eight, was reportedly a “joyless experience”. He ended his set with Once I Was, a wistful remembrance of the sad affair between his parents. Author David Browne, who wrote the biography Dream Brother: The Lives And Music Of Jeff And Tim Buckley, described what happened next: “Suddenly, before the last chorus, a string broke on his acoustic guitar, and Jeff sang the lines, ‘Sometimes, I wonder for a while/Do you ever remember me?’ unaccompanied. If that weren’t dramatic enough, his voice spiralled up on the last word – ‘me’ – like a thin plume of smoke, holding on for a moment before drifting up to the ceiling. He took a quick bow, said ‘thanks’, and trotted offstage, and the concert ended. It would not have been a more perfect finale if he had planned it.”

1: Song To The Siren (1970)

“Song to the Siren is beautifully simple, with fantastic metaphorical lyrics and an exquisite sadness that makes you shiver,” said Irish singer David Gray, one of numerous musicians to have covered Buckley’s masterful song, co-written with Beckett, from Starsailor. Other notable cover versions of the song include those by This Mortal Coil, Robert Plant, George Michael, Bryan Ferry and Sinéad O’Connor. Topping our list of Tim Buckley songs, it is a brilliant dissection of yearning, Buckley’s vocal power matched by some effects-drenched guitar.

The best Tim Buckley songs have a transporting quality, and Song To The Siren is a breathtaking example of his emotional force as a performer. The compilation album Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology concludes with the brilliant acoustic solo version of Song To The Siren that Buckley performed on the final episode of The Monkees television show, which aired on 25 March 1968.

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