The story of Jeff Buckley’s Grace is as old-fashioned as it gets: Get really good at playing live shows, get a residency at a local coffee shop and hope to God people actually show up. With a voice like his, one that’s essentially unrivalled throughout music history, it’s no wonder why those initial shows drew such a big audience, completely through a word-of-mouth campaign. Limos from major labels in Midtown started showing up in Lower Manhattan, as their executives wanted to just get a glimpse of the stunning talent they’d heard whispers about from their cooler friends and employees. Jeff Buckley was a star, plain and simple, one who seemed completely different from his own era of post-grunge contemporaries.
But his story was as tragic as any. After a grueling album cycle and corresponding world tour that stretched almost two years, Buckley retreated to Memphis, frustrated by the lack of progress on his sophomore record. The night his band flew there to join him in the studio, he went swimming in the Mississippi River and drowned. Scores of previously released posthumous materials have arrived since, but they still don’t live up to the promise of the 30-year-old artist finally becoming more than just a cult favorite. It’s one of the biggest losses in the history of music.
This past Friday (August 23), Columbia/Legacy Recordings reissued Grace for its 25th anniversary, highlighting a timeless album for a new generation of listeners. It comes with unreleased songs and four live sets, providing a snapshot in time as Buckley was en route towards becoming one of the best artists of his generation, more confident with each live show. In honor of the reissue celebrations, we decided to take a stab at choosing his 10 best songs, an introduction of sorts to one of the most prodigious talents of the ’90s.
Jeff Buckley is perhaps best known for his covers—a couple of which will appear later on this list—and his ability to strip them down to the bare minimum, adorned only by his own voice and a clean electric guitar, is genuinely unmatched. Just hand him a guitar, an amp and a microphone and he’ll blow the original song out of the water. Buckley did just that with “I Know It’s Over,” somehow one-upping one of the best Smiths songs ever written. Recorded at Sony Studios in New York in April 1995, Buckley somehow injects the dour track with even more longing, especially as his voice hits an operatic fever pitch at the very end.
About halfway through “So Real,” the track collapses into total chaos. What should be a solo sounds like Buckley threw his guitars in a blender and recorded the result. But then everything cuts out and Buckley returns to break the silence: “I love you, but I’m afraid to love you,” he nearly whispers. It’s one of the most chilling and dramatic moments in his entire back catalogue—not bad for a song that was never supposed to make Grace.
While Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk was released a year after Buckley’s tragic death, “You And I” sounds like he’s singing from beyond the grave. Entirely a capella minus a handful of atmospheric backing sounds, “You & I” sounds like a horror movie, and it’s quite surprising that it never appeared in one. Here, Buckley puts on a vocal clinic, showcasing for the millionth time why he was such an amazing singer, this time proving he can elicit goosebumps without anything other than his isolated voice.
For one of the more straightforward (and shorter) songs on Grace, “Last Goodbye” goes through a lot of different movements. It’s Buckley’s grandest pop song, one that with its massive strings instantly feels like it should be on some movie soundtrack (it later made Vanilla Sky in 2001). “Last Goodbye” was also Buckley’s biggest Stateside hit while alive, hitting number 19 on the Alternative Songs chart, but it became legendary abroad, particularly in Australia where in 2009 Triple J named it the #7 song of all time, just beating out “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Imagine.” We’re not saying it’s that great of a song, but it’s pretty damn good in its own right.
Jeff Buckley became a star at Sin-é, a small café on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, while performing a residency there each week in the early ’90s. News of the shows spread like wildfire around New York City, and soon, record executives’ limos lined the streets of the gritty Lower Manhattan neighborhood (prompting other musicians, including Ben Folds, to attempt—and fail—to recreate that same energy on other nights). Upon signing with Columbia, the label actually wanted Buckley’s debut record to reflect the nature of the Sin-é gigs, which were performed completely solo. He refused, opting instead for a full-band album instead, prompting Columbia to instead record one of the shows and release it as an EP in 1993. That show was chock full of originals and covers from legends like Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and more. Instead of releasing any of those covers right away—the full gig was finally released in 2003—they opted for an old French cut (alongside “Sweet Thing” originally by Van Morrison), a pitch-perfect cover of Marguerite Monnot’s “Je n’en connais pas la fin,” a song that sounds like a carnival in the heart of Paris. It’s perhaps the most beautiful thing Buckley ever recorded.
Buckley’s best known for his delicate, melancholic ballads, but he also sure knew how to rock out when he wanted to. “The Sky Is a Landfill,” the lead song on the posthumous Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, is one of his loudest and angriest songs that gets him as close to mid-90s alternative rock as ever. On an album filled to the brim with incomplete songs and demo recordings, “The Sky Is a Landfill” is perhaps its most fully realized, one that sounds, unlike most of the album, ready for release. With its screams and heavy guitars, it’s a shame Buckley only got to perform “The Sky Is a Landfill” a handful of times. It could have been his best live song.
Like so many of his posthumously released songs, “Satisfied Mind” is Buckley doing what Buckley did best: just singing and noodling around on his guitar. Here he channels the spirit of his Sin-é shows for a 1992 radio session, a recording so good that it couldn’t be left off Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, despite in no way being connected to those recording sessions. The track is a stunning take on an old Jack Rhodes song from the ’50s, and there’s a reason why this was the song played at Buckley’s funeral in 1997: It sums up basically every core part of why hewas such a legend, from his impeccable taste in covers to his singular vocals.
On the Live at Sin-é version of “Hallelujah,” Buckley holds the penultimate “hallelujah” for 23 seconds. It’s a jaw-dropping display of what his voice, one that’s unrivaled by basically anyone not named Freddie Mercury, could do. At the very end of the gig, the note is a mic drop for the ages: How could Buckley even follow it up with another song? The album version is his best-known song by a huge margin, but this is the recording that started it all, the version that initially blew away all the A&R executives from every major label. You know the song—it was likely the most overplayed cover in the mid-2000s, routinely sung by every lousy American Idol contestant for over a decade—but there’s something truly special about the Sin-é recording, a nine-plus minute song that feels like it can truly stop time. And for those lucky few who happened to be there on July 19 and August 17, 1993, it surely did. It’s so quiet you can almost hear the audience breathing in the background.
If Buckley became a cult legend for his solo live shows, “Mojo Pin” was how he introduced himself as a rock artist, one who could write bruising, massive songs that transcended the folk ballads he was initially known for. But it starts out inconspicuously, like a supercharged take on his Sin-é gigs, as his angelic voice hovers over his fingerpicked electric guitar. But then something happens about a minute-and-a-half in: Drums show up and you get the sense the track is about to absolutely explode. It’s a false crescendo that finally hits another two minutes later as the song continues its slow build. Then, suddenly, it hits you like a ton of bricks, knocking you on your ass as a wall of heavy guitars are built up and torn down by a single scream, which somehow seamlessly transitions from an angry yelp to a beautiful and delicate falsetto all at once. No one in music history has ever had the sort of range Buckley displays in that single scream, let alone on the full song, which is simultaneously full of rage and gentle subtlety.
Few songwriters have ever fully embodied the heartbreaking feeling of holding out hope that a failed relationship can be mended, all while knowing that it won’t be, quite like Jeff Buckely on “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” The whole thing is lyrical perfection, but its bridge is an all-timer: “It’s never over, my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder / It’s never over, all my riches for her smiles when I slept so soft against her / It’s never over, all my blood for the sweetness of her laughter / It’s never over, she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever.” It’s over-dramatic, sure, but that’s what it feels like when you’re still reeling from a breakup, when all you want is a return to the comfort that was ripped out from under you. “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” embodies that idea throughout, from its melancholic organ intro through Buckley’s pleading “oohs” leading into the final chorus. It’s almost seven minutes long, but you don’t feel its length whatsoever—it could go on forever as far as we’re concerned.
Check out a full live solo Jeff Buckley set at Gleneagles from September 3, 1994.