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Best Tracy Chapman Songs: 20 Audacious Explorations Of Love And Life
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
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Best Tracy Chapman Songs: 20 Audacious Explorations Of Love And Life

Looking for answers to all the big questions, the best Tracy Chapman songs form the basis of a formidable musical legacy.

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“In my high-school yearbook, it was noted that I would grow up and marry my acoustic guitar,” Tracy Chapman said in 2005. “I started playing guitar, acoustic guitar when I was about eight or nine years old, and writing songs at that time.” In musical terms, the best Tracy Chapman songs often feel primeval, almost of the earth; but lyrically, they frequently deal with very modern and very urban issues. Chapman’s genius lies in how she fuses together two approaches that should be so contradictory.

Although many of her songs cry out at society’s injustices, Chapman has “never accepted” the label of protest singer. “I don’t even think that ‘folk singer’ is really relevant either,” she has said. “All those people were trying to tie me to the 60s and 70s folk singers. I like a lot of that music, but I didn’t grow up listening to it, it’s not where I started.”

“Music is just so fluid, and culture is so fluid, that a lot of the categories that people come up with I think are really irrelevant, because there are no strict boundaries,” she has explained elsewhere. Chapman’s endearing yet audacious approach to her music has resulted in an influential body of work that spans three decades and eight albums, and the best Tracy Chapman songs have brought explorations of change, love and political oppression into the mainstream. These tracks offer a place to start with Chapman’s formidable legacy.

Listen to the best of Tracy Chapman here, and check out our best Tracy Chapman songs, below.

20: Matters Of The Heart (from ‘Matters Of The Heart’, 1992)

At nearly seven minutes long, Matters Of The Heart, the title track to Tracy Chapman’s third album, is a healing experience. Its gentle rhythm, undulating with the beautiful foolishness and necessary vulnerability of love, soothes and echoes as it closes the record. It also features a full sound, Chapman experimenting with soulfulness and jazzier touches alongside her prominent acoustic guitar. “It was an approach I came to independently,” she said of this more rhythmic approach to her songs. “When we recorded the basic tracks for the album we recorded it with two percussionists, with myself and the other musicians. A lot of it is really based on my guitar parts.”

19: Mountains O’ Things (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

Mountains O’ Things is a sad fantasy, where a narrator who lives in poverty dreams of status symbols and luxury items – not to use, or to help others with, but because a lie of endless acquisition has been sold to them. Things will keep them from loneliness, will make them the envy of their neighbourhood, and eventually be buried with them in their grave – just like an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Chapman wrote the song as a response to rampant materialism in society, and in particular about how consumerism was encouraged in order to keep people docile.

18: Smoke And Ashes (from ‘New Beginning’, 1995)

New Beginning, the name of Tracy Chapman’s third album was significant. “For me, the title is representative, both of many aspects of this record and this particular place that I am in my career,” she said in 1995. “In looking at the songs – and this wasn’t really a conscious decision – I found that recurring themes in many of the songs talking about birth and change and redemption and renewal.” Smoke And Ashes, a country-tinged entry among the best Tracy Chapman songs, is one of New Beginnings’ real highlights. It glows with love’s foundation then aches with its ending; a sad, personal-feeling song couched in that gorgeous voice.

17: For You (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

As the B-side to Fast Car, For You was often the second Tracy Chapman song people heard. Lyrically, it was very different to Fast Car: For You is a seemingly clear-cut, even naïve love song. Yet there was a quality of unease about it, revealed with repeated listening: the narrator knows they have “lost control” and are completely vulnerable in the face of their emotions. The hints that this love, despite first impressions, is not straightforward – with circumstance or convention threatening it – are also present in the song.

Asked at the time of her self-titled debut album’s release whether her songs were “confessional”, Chapman was guarded. “They’re not, and they are,” she said. “They’re emotions I’ve felt but not always things I’ve been through.”

16: Cold Feet (from ‘New Beginning’, 1995)

Tracy Chapman once said, “I don’t even care if people think I’m humourless. They don’t know me, so what do they know?” She was referring to the criticism she endured for the subject matter of some of the best Tracy Chapman songs – like Cold Feet – which dealt with issues surrounding poverty and the social isolation that it breeds. Yet Chapman has always done something incredibly important by holding on to her earnestness. It forces people to acknowledge issues they would rather ignore.

What’s especially interesting about Cold Feet is that the song’s subject, beginning his life in “hard times”, works his way out of poverty and then finds his life becoming ever more complicated, surrounded by expectations of friends and lovers, shamed by his own history. It’s a Victorian novel in under six minutes.

15: In The Dark (from ‘Let It Rain’, 2002)

Jointly produced by Tracy Chapman and John Parish (who has also worked with PJ Harvey and Aldous Harding), Let It Rain was a full record, even lush in places. Chapman’s voice, so impassioned on earlier albums, retreats a little from direct expression; and with In The Dark she uses this new veil to particularly spooky effect. Chapman’s voice undulates, while her lyrics creep around her guitar, echoing the song’s theme of secrets and deception.

Famously uncomfortable in interviews, Chapman was asked about the subject matter she explored on Let It Rain. “I’m only just starting to talk about the record and it’s difficult,” she said in 2002. “[But] when I think about it now, there seem to be subjects that do recur, certainly love, death, identity.”

14: Open Arms (from ‘Matters Of The Heart’, 1992)

One of the more frank entries among the best Tracy Chapman songs, Open Arms focuses on comfort and love. With its mellow opening and full-hearted vocals, the song is a beautiful tender spot in Chapman’s catalogue. At the time of the Matters Of The Heart album, Chapman was getting thoroughly fed up with how she was being pigeonholed – as a protest singer – and of how songs such as Open Arms were not part of the narrative. This feeling, combined with her general dislike of press intrusion, fed Chapman’s tiring struggle to keep her personal life away from the media glare.

“I actually felt like I’d had enough of the music business,” she said in 1995, reflecting on how she felt following the release of Matters Of The Heart. “It was wonderful to have the success of the first record, and it created so many opportunities for me and made my life better on a material level, so all of that was really great. But it was also kind of stressful for a person who likes to be kind of private.”

13: Bang Bang Bang (from ‘Matters Of The Heart’, 1992)

In 1992, as her third album was about to be released, Chapman was asked whether she felt the pressure to replicate the success of her debut. “I don’t,” she said. “My approach today is very similar to the approach I took to the first album. I was as surprised as most people by the success of the first album. But I haven’t felt any pressure to try to be more popular or more pop or have more sales.”

Bang Bang Bang, that album’s opener, considers the normalisation of violence in poor communities – even its promotion by society – and cries for the lives scarred by it. “They can’t find a way to make a living, and live productive lives. And when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose,” Chapman said in 1992. “I think that I provide a perspective in the pop music scene that for the most part isn’t provided by anyone else.”

12: Sing For You (from ‘Our Bright Future’, 2008)

Sing For You was the first single from Our Bright Future, Tracy Chapman’s eighth and (to date) most recent studio album. “We recorded most of it live, kind of similar to the first record, lots of live vocals,” Chapman said in 2005. “And then, you know, I was exploring musically in various ways, and playing lots of different instruments on this record. I played clarinet on the record. I played drums, not the drum set, but percussion.” Chapman and her production partner, Larry Klein (who also famously worked with Joni Mitchell), recorded the album in a space built by Chapman herself.

With Chapman looking absolutely radiant in its promo video, Sing For You can feel dark or light, depending on the listener’s mood. While there’s an elegiac quality to Chapman’s lyrics, there’s also a shining nostalgia for past joys.

11: Telling Stories (from ‘Telling Stories’, 2000)

Entering the new millennium on a high, Chapman broke an almost five-year silence with her fifth album, Telling Stories. Highlighting Chapman’s poetic way with lyrics (“There is fiction in the space between/You and everybody/Give us all what we need/Give us one more sad, sordid story/But in the fiction of the space between/Sometimes a lie is the best thing”), the album’s title track is a feel-good classic whose infectious musicality and effortless virtue can’t fail to move the listener.

Chapman has said that the Telling Stories album was a return, of sorts, to her pre-fame days, which perhaps explains the freer mood of this song. “I think I was less self-conscious writing these songs than I have been at other times,” she said in 2000. “Maybe it’s a little closer to the way I was writing songs when I was much younger, when I first started.”

10: For My Lover (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

Juxtaposed with the better-known Baby Can I Hold You, also from the Tracy Chapman album, For My Lover characterises love as a crime, as Chapman sings of being locked in jail and psychoanalysed for her choice of partner. The song’s 80s production blended with Chapman’s folk-flavoured nuances to create the singer’s signature sound, while the lyrics fight against Chapman’s sense of being misunderstood, as she sings of the bold things she would do – climb a mountain, risk her life – for love.

While Chapman is emotional in her lyrics, she has always been discreet about her own personal relationships and sexual identity. It gives her words a versatility and inclusiveness; by not including pronouns, the best Tracy Chapman songs feel modern, untethered. All listeners, no matter how they identify, can find wisdom in her words.

9: Change (from ‘Where You Live’, 2005)

Self-critical and reflective, Change feeds the listener with a series of thought-provoking questions, coming straight off the bat with, “If you knew that you would die today/If you saw the face of God and Love/Would you change?/Would you change?” Though the song’s arrangement keeps it somewhat light-hearted, the lyrical repetition hammers the question home while guitar flourishes accent specific phrases in Chapman’s lyrics. It may raise existential worries, but Change shows that the best Tracy Chapman songs aren’t afraid of tackling the biggest subjects.

“It’s a song that’s asking a question, really, about how do we make the best use of the life that we have, you know,” Chapman said in 2005. “And how do we make changes that we often know we need to make but, you know, for some reason can’t get around to it? And sometimes I think it’s extraordinary circumstances that kind of encourage people to get out of their day-to-day routine and do the thing that they know they need to do.”

8: Across The Lines (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

No stranger to speaking out about social injustice, Chapman explores themes of racial inequality on Across The Lines. This song was specifically about “busing”, the attempt in the US at forced educational integration between different racial groups, as Chapman explained in 2008: “The city [Cleveland, where Chapman grew up] had been forced to integrate the schools so they were bussing Black children into white neighbourhoods, and white children into Black neighbourhoods, and people were upset about it so there were race riots. A lot of kids spent more time out of school than in, but I always loved school and thought it was my way out of Cleveland, and out of poverty.”

7: Crossroads (from ‘Crossroads’, 1989)

Co-producing her second album with Tracy Chapman producer David Kershenbaum, Chapman took even greater control over her work. The perfect opener to the the Crossroads album, the record’s title track features many joyous similarities with Fast Car, though it also finds Chapman expressing misgivings over the attention that came with her almost immediate rise to fame.

“Most of what changed over that period of time was the way that other people responded to me,” she said in 1995, reflecting on the advent of sudden fame. “Before, I often found that when I was doing errands in stores people would follow me around as if they thought I was going to shoplift. After the record came out and my face was all over the place, they’d follow me around wanting an autograph, or actually wanting to give me something, which was very nice. But it always seemed ironic to me that when I really needed someone to give me things, they didn’t. It took the record to make them want to.”

6: Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

A precocious 16-year-old Chapman sings of her difficult transition from Cleveland to boarding school in Danbury, Connecticut. Though she’d received a scholarship to study at Wooster School, an Episcopalian prep, she would later recall that “people at the school didn’t really have that much interest. I was really angry about that, and that’s where the song Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution came from. Meaning that a lot of them thought that… people who didn’t have money or who were working-class, their lives weren’t very significant, and they also somehow couldn’t make a change. But I feel that’s where change comes from, that’s where people are in most need.” An empowering political anthem, Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution remains one of the best Tracy Chapman songs – something her 16-year-old self may even have imagined.

5: Behind The Wall (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

The best Tracy Chapman songs frequently explore the ways in which wider forces affect personal relationships. “As a child I always had a sense of social conditions and political situations,” she said in 1998. “I think it had to do with the fact that my mother was always discussing things with my sister and me – also because I read a lot. A lot of people in similar situations just have a sense that they’re poor or disenfranchised, but they don’t really think about what’s created the situation or what factors don’t allow them to control their lives.”

Behind The Wall is a chilling a cappella song and a perfect example of how Chapman weaves together the societal and the intimate in her songs. The narrator recounts overhearing domestic violence next door. But if the police even bother to turn up to intervene, it is always too late; and they will dismiss it as an argument between a couple, rather than as assault or abuse. Poor women, she implies, are without the help they need. The song is bleak but brilliant, with no relief or hope of change.

4: The Promise (from ‘New Beginning’, 1995)

Tracy Chapman’s love songs always feel completely authentic. Her words are heartfelt but always literate (understandable; as she said in 1995, “I was writing poetry before I was writing songs… I think in some ways I’ve been influenced more by writers than musicians”). The Promise is one of her greatest romance songs, and specifically a song of longing. Its title (which is never sung in the lyrics) explains it all: over a simple arrangement of guitar, bass and strings, Chapman expresses how she will always love and care for the person she sings of, if they do the same in return. It’s a promise of reciprocated love without question – and is made all the more effective by Chapman’s less-is-more approach.

3: Give Me One Reason (from ‘New Beginning’, 1995)

“We need to consider new methods, new ways, new ideas, a new direction in many aspects of the way we live, in the way that this world works,” Chapman said in 1995, talking about her stylistic changes and lyrical concerns on the album she was then promoting, New Beginning. Give Me One Reason, the album’s lead single, is one of Chapman’s bluesier efforts and showcases the livelier side of her work.

Fleshed out with backing singers, organ, guitar solos and more, the song went platinum on its way to receiving three Grammy nominations and winning a fourth (for Best Rock Song). A defiant number in which Chapman seeks to provoke a lover into convincing her to stay, Give Me One Reason has flair, grit and charisma, and reveals that the best Tracy Chapman songs can also take a confrontational look at love.

2: Baby Can I Hold You (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

A classic love song, Baby Can I Hold You is Tracy Chapman’s most covered composition, and has been tackled by wildly different artists. Neil Diamond recognised its brilliance early on, and covered it in 1989; it became a wild crowd-pleaser in the hands of Boyzone, some nine years after the original was released. Chapman herself revisited the song in 2000, in duet alongside Luciano Pavarotti. An interpolation of Baby Can I Hold You has also been used by Nicki Minaj – proving just how versatile the song is.

Chapman’s original has self-possession at its heart. Its strength is in the conversational lyrics, and how they conjure a universal relatability. Everyone’s relationship with love is different, and here Chapman expresses a desire to be looked after and treated well, told the things she wishes to hear, and to maintain an intimacy and deep connection with her partner. It’s a tale as old as time – which is what makes Baby Can I Hold You so beloved among the best Tracy Chapman songs.

1: Fast Car (from ‘Tracy Chapman’, 1988)

Topping this list of the best Tracy Chapman songs, Fast Car is undoubtedly her signature tune, pulling into view with an instantly recognisable guitar riff and Chapman’s natural way with a hook. Released as the lead single from her self-titled debut album, Fast Car made Chapman a household name following a solo acoustic performance at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, which was broadcast to 600 million people live from London’s Wembley Stadium.

At its heart lies a tale of how cycles of poverty continue, but the courage of the narrator and the possibility of a better life is never extinguished. The song isn’t depressing, but rather something that accurately reflects the hope and experience of people growing up in poverty. “At the time that I wrote the song, I actually didn’t really know who I was writing about,” Chapman later reflected. “Looking back at it… I think that it was a song about my parents… And about how when they met each other they were very young, and they wanted to start a new life together and my mother was anxious to leave home. My parents got married and went out into the world to try to make a place for themselves and it was very difficult going.”

In 2023, country-music artist Luke Combs covered the song and brought it to a whole new audience, which both touched and amused Chapman. “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honoured to be there,” she said in 2023. “I’m happy for Luke and his success, and grateful that new fans have found and embraced Fast Car.” It also won Song Of The Year at the 2023 Country Music Association Awards, making Chapman the first Black songwriter ever to win that award. Fast Car is an enduring classic, and an indelible portrait of a survivor’s dignity.

You’ve heard the best Tracy Chapman songs, now discover her formidable legacy.

Original article: 28 June 2021

Updated: 30 March 2024. Words: Jeanette Leech

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