Sinéad O’Connor’s 10 most important songs: From Mandinka to The Skye Boat Song

The one constant in Sinéad O’Connor’s musical journey was her refusal to be pinned down

Sinéad O’Connor was more than just a singer. But, as the country mourns an artist who came to be regarded as an embodiment of Irishness on the world stage, it is important not to lose sight of her achievement as a musician.

She conquered the United States with Nothing Compares 2 U and refused to be bullied into silence when the US turned on her after she ripped up the a portrait of Pope John Paul II on the influential Saturday Night Live TV show. In the following decades, the one constant in her musical journey was a refusal to be pinned down. She collaborated with trip-hop artists such as Bomb the Bass and Massive Attack – who, in 2003, essentially constructed an entire LP around her voice.

But if entirely in the present, she also had a foot in music’s past, whether revisiting traditional staples such as Oró, Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile on her Sean-Nós Nua album or going to Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica to record a collection of reggae staples with Sly and Robby in 2005.

O’Connor was not a shape-shifter: regardless of the context, she always sounded like herself, always sang from the bottom of her heart and the depths of her soul. What was remarkable was how that voice – both vulnerable and keening, beautiful and raw – made sense in so many settings.


She was, of course, aware of the power of her voice. O’Connor saw it as her great gift. She described herself as a “method acting” vocalist – her way of getting inside a track was to take on the full weight of its meaning. “I’m a singer as much as a songwriter,” she said once. “In a way it’s harder to sing someone else’s songs. Singing your own songs is a piece of p***.”

The curse that followed her was the perception that she was a one-hit wonder. It is true that Nothing Compares 2 U is the hit for which she will be remembered – a Prince dirge upon which she sprinkled tragic fairy dust so that the ballad became far more striking than the original and ineffably sadder.

That, though, was just the beginning. She was always willing to try something different in the studio, and her catalogue contains a multitude. O’Connor was a molten mix of punk and siren on her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra. Further into her career, she inhabited a variety of guises – always making them her own. She was a singer for all seasons – one more reason (and there are a lot) why her loss is so deeply felt.

Mandinka at the Grammys, 1989

In February 1989 and Sinéad O’Connor was still a relatively obscure vocalist from Dublin – a musical backwater despite the best efforts of U2 to put it on the map. Nonetheless, O’Connor created waves with the Lion and the Cobra and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance.

Up against her were Tina Turner, Toni Childs, Pat Benatar and Melissa Etheridge. O’Connor was introduced by Billy Crystal: “With her very first album, The Lion and the Cobra, she has served notice that this is no ordinary talent.”

He was right. She walked out and blew the audience away. But she did more than that. She wore a onesie belonging to her son Jake – two fingers to the record executives who told her she couldn’t be a star and a mother.

“I thought it was a little odd that they asked me to perform, because of the way I look,” she said afterwards. “But I find it encouraging that they asked, because it’s an acknowledgment that they are prepared not to be so safe about the music and push forward with people slightly off the wall.”

Nothing Compares 2 You, Top of the Pops, 1990

O’Connor was on her way to a global number one with Nothing Compares 2 U – co-produced by Soul II Soul/Bjork collaborator Nellee Hooper – when she went on Top of the Pops and performed her Prince ballad. What’s striking is how completely she owns the moment. O’Connor never wanted to be a pop icon – fame and its trappings ultimately filled her with revulsion. But, for a heartbeat, under the Top of the Pop spotlights, she looks at peace with stardom.

I Am Stretched On Your Grave, 1990

The 17th-century poem Táim Sínte ar do Thuama was reworked by Philip King of Scullion from an English translation by Frank O’Connor. To Sinéad O’Connor, it captured her complicated feelings about her mother, who passed away in 1985 in a road traffic incident and whom the singer accused of physical and emotional abuse. I Am Stretched On Your Grave is built upon a loop sampled from James Brown’s Funky Drummer – for which O’Connor had to pay $50,000, while the keening violin is courtesy of Steve Wickham of The Waterboys.

War, Saturday Night Live, 1992

The performance that pulled the rug from under O’Connor in the US. Saturday Night Live was a national institution in the US – and O’Connor was heavily criticised for ripping up a portrait of John Paul II after a flensing cover of Bob Marley’s War.

“I sing War a cappella. No one suspects a thing,” O’Connor recalled in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings. “But in the end, I don’t hold up the child’s picture. I hold up John Paul II’s photo and then rip it into pieces. I yell, ‘Fight the real enemy!’”

The reaction was one of shock that quickly turned to hostility. “Total stunned silence in the audience,” she said of the response. “And when I walk backstage, literally not a human being is in sight. All doors have closed. Everyone has vanished. Including my manager, who locks himself in his room for three days and unplugs his phone.”

Ship Ahoy with Marxman, 1993

The Irish-Caribbean hip-hop quartet were on the same frequency as O’Connor, with songs about standing up to power and challenging the status quo. Impressed by their single Sad Affair, she jumped at the chance to sing on Ship Ahoy, a searing hip-hop number that connected the sin of slavery to the crimes of modern capitalism.

“She was hugely supportive from day one, and our momentum at the time owes a lot to her soul and her generosity,” recalled Oisín Lunny, son of traditional musician Donal.

Thank You For Hearing Me, 1994

O’Connor’s voice blended perfectly with the light trip-hop grooves of the lead single from her fourth LP, Universal Mother. “Ethereal hip hop ... [for] those who prefer their pop with vigilant melodies and a smart passion,” said Billboard. The song is widely interpreted as directed at Peter Gabriel, with whom she’d been in a relationship – a point later confirmed by O’Connor.

“Once I got fed up with being weekend pu – y, I wrote this sort of split-up song,” she wrote in her biography, Rememberings. “But it became, over the years, my favourite song to perform live because it just could take you, like a mantra, to these stratospheres of almost hypnosis.”

Empire with Bomb The Bass, 1995

O’Connor’s love affair with 1990s trip-hop is one of the unspoken themes of her career. She was never better as a vocalist than on this collaboration with producer Tim Simenon, for which she duetted with writers and poet Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s an excoriating attack on colonialism at a time when the sins of empire were not something with which anyone in Britain was prepared to reckon.

“Vampire, you feed on the life of a pure heart,” sang O’Connor with chilling directness. “Vampire, you suck the life of goodness.”

She Moved Through The Fair, 1996

Being both Irish and able to hold a tune meant O’Connor was doomed to be condescended to as a singing faerie figure throughout her career. In its review of her debut LP, The Lion and Cobra, Rolling Stone heralded it as a “banshee wailing across the bogs”. She refused to be defined by this idiotic idea of what it meant to be an Irish singer. That said, nobody could breathe new life into an old song like O’Connor and her reading of She Moved Through the Fair from Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins quickly came to be regarded as definitive.

A Prayer For England, Massive Attack, 2003

Massive Attack’s underrated fourth album, 100th Window, doubled as an early 21st-century reminder of O’Connor’s talents. She guests on three songs, of which the most striking is A Prayer For England – a quiet diatribe against violence against young people. “Let not another child be slain,” she declaims. “Let not another search be made in vain.”

The Skye Boat Song, 2023

The weight of years and difficult life is burned into O’Connor’s voice in her take on the William Ross traditional Scottish tune, The Skye Boat Song, which graces the opening titles of the latest season of highlands time-travel melodrama Outlander. “Her rendition is, for me, a reminder of all that’s beautiful about Outlander,” said series producer Matthew B Roberts. “She is talented beyond measure. Hers is a voice of the ages – one which pierces heart and soul.”