Sinéad O’Connor: Eight Essential Songs

Here are highlights from throughout her career that showcase her brilliance, her steely resolve, and her capacity for softness.

Sinéad O’Connor in the Netherlands, 1989. Michel Linssen/Redferns

In the outpouring of grief since the death of Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor—who died at 56 on July 26th—we may find ourselves mourning what wasn’t afforded her: a flourishing career as a pop singer, where her successes, gift for interpretation and iconoclastic choices were celebrated instead of greeted with confusion or condemnation. 

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But one need only read the title of her highest-charting album to understand who she really was: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. “People say, ‘Oh, you fucked up your career,’ but they’re talking about the career they had in mind for me,” she told The Guardian in 2021. “I fucked up the house in Antigua that the record company dudes wanted to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine.” 

She carved out a distinct sound — a blend of the ethereal and crystalline power — even as she ranged wide in her 10 studio albums. And to appreciate her voice, her work, her unapologetic stances is to acknowledge despite selling millions of records worldwide her career was always going to play out this way: on her terms. Even if she might’ve deserved a little more she did not seek what she didn’t have. Here are highlights that showcase her brilliance.

“Mandinka” (1987)

Sinéad O’Connor’s 1987 debut The Lion and The Cobra stood out from the start, helping refit the sleek sheen of ‘80s pop toward an edgier sound canonized as “modern rock.” “Mandinka,” her first European hit and a heavy college radio recurrent, set the stage for her signature sound: raw but filled with hooks and a vocal fire that could not be contained.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)

If The Lion and The Cobra galvanized audiences, follow-up I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got knocked them sideways. The album dialed the urgency of its predecessor tenfold, and gave America one of its unlikeliest No. 1 hits: an aching cover of a forgotten Prince song, written for side project The Family five years earlier. (O’Connor, it should be noted, remained steadfast in her allegations that her sole interactions with the late singer were violent.)

“War (Live on Saturday Night Live)” (1992)

O’Connor won a Grammy for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got but refused to accept the award. She then followed her breakthrough album with a collection of covers, Am I Not Your Girl?, which brought her to Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992. The lengths to which O’Connor was willing to reject the trappings of a pop star’s life were made shockingly plain during her second performance that night. Following an impassioned, a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” meant as a condemnation of abuses in the Catholic Church, the singer ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on camera, declaring “Fight the real enemy!” Almost overnight, she became a pariah, threatened by celebrities and booed offstage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. Her career as we knew it never quite recovered, but investigations, lawsuits, and revelations across the years showed one thing: she was right.

“Thank You for Hearing Me” (1994)

George Michael, who knew a thing or two about trawling the depths of pain in pop to an audience’s misunderstanding, reportedly had high praise for Universal Mother, the first LP O’Connor released after the SNL controversy. “[He] told me he loved that record, but could only listen to it once because it was so painful,” she told Mojo. Mother’s closing track began with floating vocals and featured a circular melody over a trance rhythm. After thanks for being heard, seen, and loved, the lyrics shift: “Thank you for tearing me apart,” O’Connor sings. “Now I’ve a strong, strong heart.”  She displays a steely resolve and capacity for softness at a time when many were clamoring for her head.

“This is to Mother You” (1997)

One of O’Connor’s most underrated efforts, the gentle Gospel Oak EP led with a gorgeous track ostensibly dedicated to a newborn daughter, her second of O’Connor’s four children. The singer detailed a childhood of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, who died in a car accident shortly after O’Connor dropped out of school. Sadly, her own familial bonds were laced with tragedy: in 2022, her third son died by suicide, and she would be hospitalized after publicly threatening to do the same in her grief.

“Chiquitita” (1999)

“Nothing Compares 2 U” subtly established Sinéad O’Connor as a master interpreter of songs. One of her best covers was a straightforward but trip-hop-influenced take on a favorite by ABBA, recorded for an album to offer relief in the wake of a bombing in the Northern Irish town of Omagh a year prior.

“Queen of Denmark” (2012)

O’Connor’s ninth album How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? was less a “return to form” than, perhaps, the world starting to catch up with her unapologetic point of view. While cuts like “4th and Vine” and “Old Lady” find O’Connor in a significantly more playful, even romantic mood than usual, a cover of Czars frontman John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark” proved some things never change. The refrain of “I don’t know what to want from this world” is as clear a mission statement for her work as anything she wrote herself.

“8 Good Reasons” (2014)

Toward the end of her life and career, O’Connor’s experiences ran the gamut of human emotion: open struggles with mental health, a conversion to Islam in 2016, and belated adulation (and tentative understanding) through her memoir Rememberings and the documentary Nothing Compares. This track from her final album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, serves as biography and epitaph at once — and makes you wish you were celebrating her for being here, instead of mourning her absence on Earth.

Sinéad O’Connor: Eight Essential Songs