On Feb. 23, 2010, Joanna Newsom outdid herself. She released a triple album follow-up to 2006’s formalist Ys that was somehow more digestible. Moving from neoclassical poetry and flawless orchestral arrangements to pastoral imagery and jazz-folk Appalachian leanings inspired by the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, Have One On Me symbolized the apex of the Joanna Newsom conversation—decried by some as a cad, and displayed by others as a hipster dinner party oddity, Newsom’s artistry was in a unique place. Most critics recognized her ambition, but audiences weren’t convinced. And even if they were, interactions with Newsom’s art were, at best, confused and, at worst, unfortunately misogynistic.
I hate comparing Joanna Newsom to fairies. I hate comparing her to elves, or goddesses, or children, or anything magical and otherworldly, as I hate comparing Björk to aliens—it robs Newsom of her agency as an artist, and displays female artists as prodigies only because of, what, insanity? “Quirkiness?” This bizarre othering was common in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, both from benevolent sources and from Newsom’s most scathing critics.
These comparisons obfuscate from a musician so in control of the art she produces. While her first studio album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, is often cited as a spiritual successor to the freak folk (another troubling term) pioneered by Vashti Bunyan, her later works defy categorization—what other artist is compared to Karen Dalton, Kate Bush, and Bach, sometimes in the same sentence? But still, as many critics have put it, Newsom is a “singular” artist, a musician so concerned with personal vision that these influences are, at times, superfluous, hidden or inaccurate appraisals.
In these 15 songs, you will find romance, heartache, and power, each track a surprising narrative of its own with an infinite potential of comments, observations, and annotations. But we aren’t interested in presenting them like an English 101 class—we’re more concerned with the feelings these songs elicit. In that way, an exhaustive ranking of Newsom’s catalogue is nearly impossible. So here, dear readers: Have some on us. Here are our favorite songs from Newsom’s 16-year long career.
Joanna Newsom has made a career out of mastering baroque instruments. While we most readily associate her with the harp, here she wields a harpsichord to glittering effect. One of the most enigmatic songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender, “Peach, Plum, Pear” is fruit basket’s worth of mini anecdotes, from “shy” encounters to a queasy dash out the door. The choir and harpsichord make it one of the brightest and most memorable tunes in Newsom’s discography. —Ellen Johnson
As a lifelong obsessor of Grecian myth and literature, Newsom was a natural fit for me. Somehow, I never realized how these two interests related until I heard “Divers,” the title track from her 2015 album. In the beautifully simple music video, Newsom, backed by the lush art of Kim Keever, evokes the same feelings that tragic leads like Medea or Clytemnestra might. She sings of a love so woeful and epic, yet defined by unavoidable natural truths. Simultaneously, “Divers” sparkles with the Hans Christian Andersen’s cynical wit—whether it’s literal or not, she must hold her breath forever to be the diver’s wife. She uses literary tradition to highlight the role of women in stories such as this one. Known simply as “the diver’s wife,” she insists “A woman is alive, a woman is alive / You do not take her for a sign.” She isn’t content with being a Derridan structure, a highway for emotion. No, she has earnest feelings, and her desires, like time, possess an unwavering motion. —Austin Jones
The underrated opening track on Divers is somehow both a personal story and a methodical examination. It’s a set-up for many of the later themes in the album, and reads, interestingly, like a thesis statement—Newsom’s writ of intent on her exploration of time, death, and love. It feels caught in time immemorial, pulsing with low synth and scenic woodwinds. Later in the album, Newsom struggles with time being a perpetual three-dimensional constant, moving in every direction at once. “Anecdotes” functions as a hub, a home-world for these constant thoughts untethered and swimming in an epoch’s-worth of consciousness. In its scattershot landscape, “Anecdotes” is the center of Divers, war-torn while also verdant and sublime. —Austin Jones
Joanna Newsom frequently poses as an ecologist throughout Milk-Eyed Mender, observing the minutiae of nature. That operation feels most urgent on the delicate yet persistent “Sprout and the Bean,” a token Joanna Newsom track. Lyrically, it works like a parable. But, musically, it’s just a charming ramble, never really content to slow down and give you time to think about the lessons hidden within the lyrics. —Ellen Johnson
The opening track on Ys immediately brings the listener into the intimate details of Joanna Newsom’s life, including some of her most cherished memories with her sister, Emily, an astrophysicist who has long shared Newsom’s adoration for the stars. Newsom is adept at detailing the small yet significant moments that sisters share growing up: “Anyhow, I sat by your side, by the water / You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger / Though all I knew of the rote universe were those pleiades loosed in December / I promised you I’d set them to verse so I’d always remember.” “Emily” is also a loving portrait of a supportive family, one who encouraged Newsom’s longtime interest in music. It appears the Newsom family also had a hand in encouraging Emily to look to the sky: “Pa pointed out to me, for the hundredth time tonight / The way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light / Squint skyward and listen / Loving him, we move within his borders.” —Natalia Keogan
It would be wrong to mention “In California”—Have One On Me’s exact centerpiece—without mentioning opening track “Easy” and closer “Does Not Suffice,” which interpolates the melody of “In California” and then lyrically calls back to “Easy.” These three songs are the album’s most easily identifiable thoroughfare, the closest to a streamlined plot you’ll get on Newsom’s baroque-folk masterwork. These three tracks, then, signal the album’s beginning, middle, and end. “In California” remains the most interesting of the three, as well as the most timidly beautiful. Throughout the song, Newsom flirts with internal rhythms and acute use of consonance, a clever set-up for “the order” she fears her lover could upset. The song’s innocence and its hard lessons, in turn, are brilliant and aching, with Newsom’s voice lilting like Joni Mitchell’s, who similarly pines on her classic Californian ode. Here’s the difference, though: Mitchell misses The Golden State while Newsom is held captive by it. —Austin Jones
Joanna Newsom is enamored with movement. Whether it’s literal—like riding on your dog’s back all the way home—or figurative, like our persistent march towards death, Newsom’s music is marked by change and the ensuing disquiet. Per a 2006 interview with Tiny Mix Tapes (which reminds us that Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, and Devendra Banhart were all garnering national attention simultaneously), there’s “actually three stories” told in the track, including that of her childhood dog Sadie. Starting with her beloved companion, Newsom provides one of the first songs in her repertoire about the multifaceted nature of death and unreliability of time, which, at this point, are natural expectations when going into any Newsom album. “This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use,” she admits—she has no claim over these themes as they are. They belong to the collective world, and she’s merely appropriating them to reflect on her life. In a lot of ways, “Sadie” is one of Newsom’s most humbling pieces. —Austin Jones
“Go Long” is easily Newsom’s most gut-wrenching song. It’s about abuse, told through the lens of the French folktale “Bluebeard,” in which the eponymous nobleman forcefully takes a girl’s hand in marriage and forbids her from entering a room that, when his new wife ventures to explore it, is full of the corpses of myriad past wives. It ends with her murder. Newsom centers on the woman in this story—her suffering, her curiosity and the sympathy she feels for a man poisoned by his own masculinity—using some of her most lurid imagery: “I was brought / In on a palanquin / Made of the many bodies / Of beautiful women,” she sings with a deadpan tone. At the song’s climax, she chooses to venture in that forbidden room, dropping her most direct metaphor to date: “What a woman does is open doors / And it is not a question of locking / Or unlocking.” It asks the question a lot of us might have of our abusers: Am I the fool for trying to fix this person? To try to make loving them work? Even Newsom doesn’t have an answer for that one. —Austin Jones
Ys is all about grief, and “Cosmia” is perhaps the album’s most direct manifestation of it. In a rare moment of confession, Newsom revealed the song is about the death of a friend. “Cosmia” may be one of Newsom’s most formalist poems paired with some of her most bare, precise harp-work: “Can you hear me? Will you listen? / Don’t come near me. Don’t go missing,” she sings. Once the tempo shifts indelibly, lurching to the next phase of mourning, Newsom holds onto hope she’ll hear from her friend again (“Well, if you’ve seen true light / Then this is my prayer / Will you call me when you get there?”). Then, feverishly plucking, she pleas to the heavens for the release of her friend’s heart into a community of glorified souls. Newsom would rather petition the divine than wallow without end. —Austin Jones
This song is widely considered to detail how Joanna Newsom fell for comedian Andy Samberg, but it also finds her lamenting the inevitable decline of the relationship. While that breakup hasn’t happened yet (the couple has been married since 2013), the song details Newsom’s creeping anxieties about the relationship, including a misunderstanding that erupted while driving: “And I did not mean to shout, just drive / Just get us out, dead or alive / A road too long to mention, lord, it’s something to see! / Laid down by the good intentions paving company,” she sings. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the road they’re driving on—while at first fueled by love and adoration—could very well lead to the rocky end of a relationship. More specifically, the phrase “Good Intentions Paving Company” can be attributed to novelist Saul Bellow, who in a letter to fellow novelist Phllip Roth complained that while the intentions of literary journalists were good, their work managed to otherwise misfire when it came to capturing the full scope of a novelist’s ideas. The same could be true for an artist such as Newsom, whose infinitely cunning and smart music might get misinterpreted by someone outside of her world. —Natalia Keogan
With each passing year, “Sapokanikan” becomes more and more relevant. Somehow it’s one of Newsom’s poppiest offerings and most uncomfortable. The song possesses a preternatural fascination with history’s erasure, playing off Divers’ global theme of time and its insensate flow. What’s so terrifying about the song are the stakes at hand—New York City, today, is built upon lost civilizations and usurped land. Will there be anyone to remember us a hundred years from now, or is today the only day in which the city is anything more than a mound of sand, billowing in the wind and ready to be settled yet again? The song shivers with that exact feeling of powerlessness. After all, what can an artist do but look on and despair as time turns in on itself? Even if our best scholars manage to interpret the unknowable artifacts (or “tributes,” as Newsom calls them) of societal collapse we’re constantly surrounded by, they’re no use if we’re ruled by proud and irresponsible kings. Once the song reaches its apex, Newsom may as well be having a panic attack, comforted by a tender celesta and the fatherly embrace of tenor recorder. “Sapokanikan’’ never really resolves. Instead, Newsom is left, teary-eyed, to contend with a devastating truth: She has no idea what will remain of us. —Austin Jones
While most of the songs on Ys hover over the 10-minute mark, “Only Skin” really needs the extra time to find out exactly what the album’s culmination is. In a 2006 interview with Arthur Magazine, Newsom confessed that the only way to really end the album was to look to fiction instead of her lived experiences: “I reached for this fiction, because I didn’t know how to end the song in full truth. Otherwise, it would go on forever.” In the end, the long-suffering woman at the center of Ys vows to stand by her lover, despite his history of discontent. A duet with her (now ex) lover Bill Callahan literally brings them together, both attesting that their shared adoration will only grow as they in turn grow into each other, proudly avowing they cannot exist without the other: “All my bones, they are gone, gone, gone / Take my bones, I don’t need none / Cold, cold cupboard, lord, nothing to chew on! / Suck all day on a cherry stone / Dig a little hole not three inches round — / Spit your pit in a hole in the ground / Weep upon the spot for the starving of me! / Till up grows a fine young cherry tree.” —Natalia Keogan
Have One on Me is, at its core, a breakup album. It’s also so much more than that. To eschew critics and listeners alike who may pigeonhole her opus into a sexist, tabloid-ready corner, Newsom, on “Have One on Me,” embodies the role of Lola Montez, a Dancer-turned-Courtesan-turned-revolutionary-countess who was chased from her newfound home to California in exile. “Have One on Me” is perhaps Newsom’s most epic, sweeping tale, rendered as a tavern song—she walks between lines of Jesuits, who are surrounded by toxic men, with a silencing whip in hand, and ends her fantasy with a biting toast to the man who wronged her. Unfortunately, this bardic femme fatale dream has to come to the end—the song ends as it begins, helplessly floating, unsure how to feel proper sympathy for her estranged lover. She’s no swashbuckling female lead—she’s a human, helpless in the face of self-destruction. —Austin Jones
Joanna Newsom has a reputation for making even the strongest, most guarded individuals turn to little more than puddles of tears after being exposed to her music, and perhaps the ultimate litmus test of this phenomena is a first-listen of the heart-wrenching “Baby Birch.” Equal parts disturbing and aching, “Baby Birch” is a uniquely sparse song for Newsom, devoid of the exhilarating harp that usually distinguishes her. But the entire point of “Baby Birch” is feeling void—it’s speculated to be about an abortion that Newsom had—and the weight of absence. While the song also characterizes the abortion provider as a “barber cutting away at my only joy,” the narrator does take the responsibility for terminating the pregnancy into her own hands, which seems to be overtly hinting at the fact that this was her choice, her action, and she isn’t necessarily condeming it. While the decision was eventually met with pain and a state of mourning, it’s what she had to do—she ultimately finds comfort knowing that this baby will always be a part of her life, even if on a different plane. —Natalia Keogan
What makes a Joanna Newsom song so uniquely “Joanna”? Well, to start, nearly all of her songs have a certain code, allusions that, like neoclassical poetry, relate modernity and trials from the course of history. There’s also, of course, virtuosic harp. Lastly, if we’re to break her aesthetic down to its bare essentials, we have an easily understandable theme, such as loneliness or love or anxiety, that is either so zoomed in it feels darkly voyeuristic, so zoomed out that it becomes heroic or maybe even both. You can find it all on “Sawdust and Diamonds,” Ys’s centerpiece. What makes it standout among what many fans consider to be Newsom’s opus (four of the album’s five tracks made it on this list) is in how the track discards, temporarily, the bucolic orchestral work of Van Dyke Parks, instead featuring little more than Newsom’s sonorous voice and a coating of harp arpeggios. Thematically, the song is about bone-deep loss, an overflowing goblet of sorrow corrupted by impermanence. Her voice quivers out this assurance: “And darling, we will be fine; but what was yours and mine / Appears to me a sandcastle / that the gibbering wave takes.” She isn’t as content as she might present—she begs her lover to wake her once the wave breaks, to stir her once it’s all over.
“Sawdust and Diamonds” is the most exemplary work in Newsom’s extensive body of work. She’s strewn on the rack, toiling to reclaim her sanity, and, in her stubbornness, finds an overwhelming desire, an unspeakable want. So by the end, like any good refrain, the meaning is just slightly changed, because the speaker has changed indelibly. So she asks once again: “From the top of the flight / Of the wide, white stairs / Through the rest of my life / Do you wait for me there?” —Austin Jones