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The Essential Nina Simone

A totally biased, non-exhaustive list of Nina Simone’s must-listen tracks, in chronological order

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Little Girl Blue (Little Girl Blue, 1958)

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Nina Simone / Bethlehem Records / Via youtube.com

"Little Girl Blue" is kind of an odd song - Simone's version combines an existing arrangement of the song with the piano part of the Christmas song "Good King Wenceslas." What results is a unique and haunting composition, showcasing Simone's singing chops and her ability to infuse raw emotion in her work.

My Baby Just Cares For Me (Little Girl Blue, 1958)

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Nina Simone / Bethlehem Records / Via youtube.com

Perhaps one of Nina Simone's most famous recordings, and largely considered one of her best. This song was notably featured in a Chanel No. 5 commercial in 1987 - 29 years after it was originally recorded - resulting in a resurgence in the charts for Simone.

I Loves You Porgy (Little Girl Blue, 1958)

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Nina Simone / Bethlehem Records / Via youtube.com

"I Loves You Porgy", originally of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, was the song that launched Simone's career. It has a quality of sheer romantic longing that would become something of a trademark of Simone's (see "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair", "Lilac Wine", "Ne Me Quitte Pas" etc).

Mississippi Goddam (Nina Simone in Concert, 1964)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

Written by Simone and full of her passion, rage, pain and fear - but also her power - "Mississippi Goddam" is one of the greatest protest songs ever written. Period.

This track was never recorded in studio and I'm grateful for it! That the only enduring version of this song includes Simone's exchanges with a mostly white audience, seems absolutely appropriate. I live to hear her say "You thought I was kidding, didn't ya?"

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Broadway-Blues-Ballads, 1964)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was written specifically for Simone and it is so perfectly her - full of raw emotion, vulnerability and power. While the lyrics are easily related to the personal, it's impossible to ignore the Civil Rights subtext at play here. For Simone, the personal is political, and that's a prominent theme in many of her greatest works.

I Put a Spell on You (I Put a Spell on You, 1965)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

Simone's take on the Screamin' Jay Hawkins original (which is totally different, but just as awesome). "I Put a Spell on You" is classic Nina Simone and for good reason. It's grand and powerful and completely iconic. While the lyrics tell the story of an aggressive and overpowering admirer, it becomes pure romance in the hands of Simone.

Ne Me Quitte Pas (I Put a Spell on You, 1965)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

"Ne Me Quitte Pas" - in English, "don't leave me" - is another excellent cover choice by Simone. While the picky French speaker (like myself) might be a bit bothered by some of her clumsy pronunciation, the emotion Simone delivers easily eclipses those moments. Each time she sings out the titular line, it's as if she's pulling it out from some deep, infinite sonic well of feeling.

Feeling Good (I Put a Spell on You, 1965)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

While "Feeling Good" is not a Nina Simone original (it comes from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd), it was Simone who put it on the map and made it a standard. Few Simone songs focus on the brilliance and beauty of life and instead ruminate on the way the world has of screwing us, out of love or out of freedom. But that just makes her work on songs like "Feeling Good" all the more exultant and joyous. Simone is not just feeling good, she is a conquerer of the bad.

Strange Fruit (Pastel Blues, 1965)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

Billie Holiday brought us "Strange Fruit" but Nina Simone did not let us forget. Simply one of the most powerful and essential songs ever performed. Its awful beauty only serves to highlight the brutal, unforgivable violence the song describes. What else can I say? "Strange Fruit" speaks for itself.

Sinnerman (Pastel Blues, 1965)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

This traditional spiritual is one of Simone's most iconic works, and for good reason. Her definitive 10 minute arrangement is pure genius. Every hand clap, every grunt and "oh yeah" seem perfectly placed. Even the non-believer will want to stomp their feet and raise their hands and confess their sins by the conclusion of this epic track.

Lilac Wine (Wild is the Wind, 1966)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

We can all sympathize with the pain of heartache and wanting to obliterate that pain. In "Lilac Wine" it's not clear whether Simone wants to be closer to her lost love, or to leave them behind, but then perhaps that's exactly the problem. The line near the end where Simone questions "Isn't that he or am I going crazy, dear?" is so utterly defeated, it breaks my heart every time.

Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair (Wild is the Wind, 1966)

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Nina Simone / Philips Records / Via youtube.com

Haunting beauty. Simone takes this traditional folk song and gives it the full treatment. This is one of those songs a person can absolutely weep to. The lyrics and Simone's impassioned vocals make clear that this is a lost love, one that lives on only in memories and dreams. "And still I hope / That the time will come / When he and I will be as one / When he and I will be as one"

I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl (Nina Simone Sings the Blues, 1967)

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Nina Simone / RCA Records / Via youtube.com

There's something so beautiful and simple about the metaphor at work here. Who in the world can't relate to wanting a little sugar in their bowl - some little burst of joy to brighten up the daily miseries and trials of life? "I feel so funny, I feel so sad," she sings. Yes, me too, Nina.

I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free (Silk & Soul, 1967)

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Nina Simone / RCA Records / Via youtube.com

Like many of Simone's songs, this one can be quite painful to listen to. In particular, it's the seeming lack of hope in this song that gets to me. As if being free is only a distant dream. The last verse is especially poetic and relatable, regardless of the color of your skin.

"Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky /

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly /

Oh I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea /

And I'd sing cos I'd know that /

I'd know how it feels to be free"

Ain't Got No, I Got Life ('Nuff Said, 1968)

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Nina Simone / RCA Records / Via youtube.com

"Ain't Got No, I Got Life" is a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, which Simone was apparently quite taken by. As is typical of her cover work, Simone takes the tracks and makes them her own. While the lyrical content here has clear parallels with the Civil Rights Movement, the tone is more triumphant than many of her other offerings on the topic (see above). There's something absolutely glorious about Simone belting "I've got life and nobody's gonna take it away!"

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