This is the 17th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
When The Time broke up in 1984, Morris Day pursued a solo career and Jesse Johnson began producing albums. The three remaining members — percussionist Jerome Benton, drummer Jellybean Johnson, singer and keyboardist St. Paul Peterson — formed a band called The Family. Rounding out the band was singer Susannah Melvoin and saxophonist Eric Leeds. The band signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, which seemed fitting, given that Prince was the one who assembled The Time in the first place.
The Family’s self-titled album came out in 1985. Nearly all of the songs on the album were written by Prince, the exception being “River Runs Dry,” which was written by Bobby Z., drummer for The Revolution. But the only track that actually had Prince’s name in a writing credit was a slow, broken-hearted ballad called “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Despite the single for “The Screams of Passion” being a modest hit, the album received lukewarm reaction, and thus ended up being The Family’s only album. Peterson left the band, Jellybean Johnson began producing, and the remaining three members — Benton, Melvoin, and Leeds — joined The Revolution.
Five years later, The Family’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was covered by Irish singer Sinead O’Connor on her second album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” Her 1987 LP, “The Lion and the Cobra,” had been critically and commercially successful, but it was her raw version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that was her international breakthrough hit. It was ubiquitous in 1990, spending four weeks at Number One on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1990, and topping other charts in Ireland, Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
O’Connor’s rendition scaled back the instrumental track such that her vocals were the main attraction. The Family’s version had been fine, but O’Connor sang Prince’s lyrics in a way that sounded as if she were suffering in inconsolable agony. Her slow pace and paused phrasing fit perfectly with the conceit of the song, in which a narrator spectacularly fails at trying to get over a recently ex-lover.
O’Connor’s poignant vocals were equally matched by her performance in the iconic video. Much of the video featured a closeup of O’Connor’s face against a black background. Her face emoted the anguish as much as her voice did, giving the impression she was in as much pain as the narrator. At one point, she even shed a tear.
In the book “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, O’Connor said, “The close-up of me singing ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was supposed to be only one part of the video. But the song reminded me of my mother, who had died three years previously … I made an emotional connection, which I was not expecting—it didn’t hit me when I was recording the song. It only kicked in when I was being filmed. So I was sitting there, thinking about me mother, and trying hard not to bawl my eyes out.”
In a Rolling Stone story that same year, Prince praised O’Connor’s version, saying, “I love it, it’s great!” On whether he regretted not recording his own version before O’Connor, he said, “Nah… I look for cosmic meaning in everything. I think we just took that song as far as we could, then someone else was supposed to come along and pick it up.”
Though Prince may have liked O’Connor’s version, she said the two did not get along. In a 2014 interview with Norwegian station NRK, she said, “I did meet him a couple of times. We didn’t get on at all. In fact we had a punch-up… He summoned me to his house after ‘Nothing Compares.’ I made it without him. I’d never met him. He summoned me to his house — and it’s foolish to do this to an Irish woman — he said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. So I told him to fuck off… He got quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at 5 in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine.”
The same year that O’Connor’s version came out, German Eurodance group Chyp-Notic recorded “Nothing Compares 2 U” as a dance song. In the vein of slow songs and ballads recast as synthy jams, Chyp-notic’s version fell somewhere between The Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind” and Electro Spectre’s “Suspicious Minds.” The keyboards and faster tempo would suggest this could be a happier tale, but the vocals clearly emulated O’Connor’s phrasing. In a way, the peppy dance track masked the pathos of the song in the same way that Stevie Wonder’s circus-like arrangement had masked Smokey Robinson’s regretful lyrics in “Tears of a Clown.”
A year later, comedy pop group Big Daddy covered “Nothing Compares 2 U” for its album “Cutting Their Own Groove.” Much like Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox does now, Big Daddy covered modern songs in a ’50s style. But unlike Bradlee, who rearranges a song, Big Daddy would often pair the words of one song with the instrumental of another track, forming a mashup cover of sorts. On Big Daddy’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the first five seconds sampled a Benny Hill-esque horn version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, as that faded out, a faux Little Richard pontificated on his own greatness before singing “Nothing Compares 2 U” over the instrumental track of Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It.” The rockabilly attitude in the vocals belied the sadness of the lyrics until the backup singers appeared, singing both “Nothing compares to you” and “The girl can’t help it.” At the point, it became apparent that the narrator was too full of himself to be distraught. “I can do whatever I want” and “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant” are sung as if these are great consequences of a break-up that should have happened sooner.
Prince’s 1993 collection, “The Hits/The B-Sides,” featured a live duet with Rosie Gaines. Before either of them even sang a note, the song sounded hopeful, with its Gospel-flavored piano and bluesy guitar. The way that they sang to each other turned the song on its head, as they volleyed their declarations of love back and forth. In the hands of its writer, “Nothing Compares 2 U” was not O’Connor’s lonely, life-or-death plea to reconnect with a lost love, but an over-the-top-but-self-aware campy love song. Prince’s ad-libs make it that much more of a send-up.
For Prince’s 2000 direct-to-video concert film, “Rave Un2 the Year 2000,” Prince and Gaines performed “Nothing Compares 2 U” again. The song began with Prince on piano, but halfway through, he jumped in the front row to crowd-surf, allowing the saxophonist to play a mean solo. When Prince returned to the stage, he and Gaines repeated the main chorus a handful of times before inviting the audience to sing along.
German electronic band Dune, normally purveyors of trance and electronica, recorded a classical album with the London Session Orchestra at the Abbey Road Studios in London. Verena von Strenge, the band’s lead singer at the time, did not try to mimic O’Connor. For starters, O’Connor’s Gaelic lilt is hard to pull off. But von Strenge also didn’t have as deep or heavy a voice as O’Connor’s. That said, the song did not suffer, as von Strenge’s unassuming voice matched the feel of the lush, serious strings. Where O’Connor’s version had anger, bitterness, confusion, and a whole host of emotions O’Connor might not have known she was feeling, this Dune version felt too innocent to have any of that. Whatever von Strenge’s narrator might have done to lead to a breakup can’t be too unforgivable, because her voice sounded too sweet.
With nothing but Kelly Jones’ voice and an acoustic guitar, Stereophonics recorded a somber version for the compilation, “NME Presents: 1 Love.” The “guy with a guitar” gimmick has been done, again and again and again, but this earnest version didn’t sound like a mismatched acoustic cover. Jones’ raspy, cracking voice, while perhaps just a vocal style, worked well with the plaintive plea of Prince’s lyrics.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir, also known as Die Wiener Sängerknaben, released an album of pop covers in 2002. Of all the songs on “Vienna Boys’ Choir Goes Pop,” “Nothing Compares to You” might seem the most noteworthy, simply because it can be jarring when young children sing songs written about adult situations. “I go out every night and sleep all day/Since you took your love away” sounds weird when it comes from boys who should be in school. But when they get to “I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard,” it’s hard not to notice. And yet of all the eyebrow-raising, WTF-able cover songs sung by children, this comes nowhere close to the Kidz Bop version of “Hotline Bling” or this version of Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” sung by a child named Flavio.
Punk cover collective Me First And The Gimme Gimmes included “Nothing Compares 2 U” on its 2003 album, “Take A Break.” The band’s ever-changing lineup has been a Voltron of members of other punk bands, including members of NOFX, Lagwagon, and No Use for a Name. The formula is straight-forward: take well-known songs and apply the ’90s pop-punk sound. With some songs, that can sound like an overreach or a tired gimmick. But Me First’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” didn’t sound like anyone was phoning it in. In just 2 minutes and 40 seconds, Me First went from Sublime-like reggae-tinged guitars to an assault of drum and guitars reminiscent of Shades Apart’s “Tainted Love.” The exuberance of the vocals indicate these guys clearly love the song, which is why this version sounded more emotional that most pop-punk remakes.
Shiny Toy Guns recorded a version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” for the 2005 compilation, “Goth Electro Tribute to Prince.” Combining elements of electroclash and industrial, the track’s first 2 minutes and 40 seconds were a choppy reinterpretation, with stops and starts and beeps and boops inserted at such random times that it sounded like listening to an MP3 that wasn’t finished downloading. By the end of the third minute, though, the familiar arrangement surfaced, albeit one accompanied by crunchy guitars, pounding drums, and alternations between screaming and whispering.
The German country band Texas Lightning transformed the song into a country folk duet on its 2006 album “Meanwhile, Back At The Golden Ranch.” The song had the pace of commercial country, but the sweet melancholy of alt-country. Jane Comerford’s voice had none of the affectations of country singers on the radio, instead sounding like “I Kissed A Girl”-era Jill Sobule. Unlike Prince’s campy “Nothing Compares 2 U” duet with Gaines, this version didn’t sound like a love song, despite the fact that it featured both halves of the couple. Like the couple portrayed in Waylon Jennings’ and Jessi Colter’s version of “Suspicious Minds,” it’s hard to tell if this couple will make it after the song ends.
Under the pseudonym The Coconutz, Hawaiian singer-songwriter Daniel Ho recorded three Hawaiian-language covers for the soundtrack of the 2008 Jason Segel movie, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”: “Everybody Hurts,” “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The airy synth backing track on “Nothing Compares 2 U” was almost identical to O’Connor’s, but The Coconutz version added a subtle drumbeat. Ho’s rendition sounded natural and effortless, as if the song had been written and intended to be sung in Hawaiian. Even if you don’t know any Hawaiian (and I don’t), you don’t need to in order to understand the song. Even if you had never heard any version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” before hearing this one, you would instantly feel the nostalgia, regret, and lost chances.
Capital Cities, which had a hit single with “Safe and Sound,” included a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” on the deluxe edition of its 2013 album, “In A Tidal Wave Of Mystery.” The synth-heavy track had a beat similar to Sam Sparro’s “Black and Gold” but a vocal style reminiscent of ELO. The song will remind you of O’Connor’s version simply for its title and lyrics, but rather than make you bawl, it will make you bob your head.
On her 2014 album, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” Aretha Franklin recorded a jazzy “Nothing Compares 2 U” that sounded not so much like something she’d sing to a ex-partner, but to a dinner theatre crowd in the lounge of a cruise ship. As the song progressed and the arrangement got bigger, Franklin’s voice took on a soulful vulnerability that more closely matched the lyrics. By the end of the André 3000-produced song, which by this point has transformed from jazz ditty to big band opus, Franklin had summoned her full finger-wagging swagger, listing off all the things that do not compare: ham hocks, greens, garlic toast, her roller skates.
Now that you’ve listened to it, you’re thinking of her with the toast on the roller skates, aren’t you?
In the same “guy with a guitar” vein as the Stereophonics version, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave performed a stripped-down version for SiriusXM. Backed by strings and another another guitar, the version had no percussion. Though not as polished as the booming orchestral strings in the Dune versions, the strings in this version offset the acoustic guitar and Cornell’s gritty vocals, which made Jones’ rasp in the Stereophonics version sound like crooner Michael Buble by comparison.
After Prince’s death last week, Cornell released a slightly more polished version, which played up the soaring strings. In a tribute, Cornell wrote, “Prince’s music is the soundtrack to the soulful and beautiful universe he created, and we have all been privileged to be part of that amazing world… I performed his song ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ for the first time a couple months ago. It has a timeless relevance for me and practically everyone I know… Sadly, now his own lyrics in this song could not be more relevant than at this moment, and I sing them now in reverence as I pay tribute to this unequaled artist who has given all of our lives so much inspiration and made the world so much more interesting… We will miss you Prince!!!”
It’s a foregone conclusion among many that O’Connor’s version is the definitive version, and I can’t argue with that. As far as covers go, it is up there with Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and Soft Cell’s cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love.” In the eyes of pop culture, those artists spiritually own those respective songs, much like Sarah Michelle Gellar is Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter, even if Kristy Swanson and Brian Cox did technically play the characters first.
And yet, just like those iconic cover versions, O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” owed as much to the song’s writing as it did to O’Connor’s performance. Even the opening line — “It’s been seven hours and [15 or 13, depending on the version] days since you took your love away” — is brilliant. That line right there sets the scene for us that we are listening to someone who is so not over this relationship that she can tell you how many hours it has been since the break-up. Most of us would round it to two weeks, or maybe 15 days. If we were counting the hours, we’d probably say “15 days, seven hours.” But that inversion, putting the hours first, indicates a person who has been such a mess that she’s had to not take it one day at a time, but one hour. It’s a subtle move on Prince’s part, but it perfectly summed the psychology of break-ups.
As we continue to listen to each of Prince’s songs for the first time after his passing, we will find more of these lyrics that we’ve listened to hundreds of times without stopping to dissect just how precisely and exactly his words captured the tone of the story he was telling. But to appreciate all the nuances and intricacies of his songs could take a lifetime.
If not longer.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.