“I’ve always had an obligation to creation, above all.” ― Nick Cave
If there’s one word to describe Australian rock giant Nick Cave, it is ‘unique’. There is simply no other person on the planet who could match the same energy, effort, output and artistic integrity that Cave can emit. The singer has carved himself out a murderous niche with his glinting butcher’s knife and has never seen fit to relinquish his control over the 40 years he’s been active.
For those reading this article that are not perhaps familiar with the work of Nick Cave, The Birthday Party, Grinderman or The Bad Seeds, we’ve managed to break down his entire career into 20 iconic tracks. It’s a celebration of the ferocious, the unrelenting and the quite often gentle world of everybody’s favourite Australian musician.
With such a vast discography, it is incredibly hard to choose just 20 songs that make Cave’s career one of the most pioneering in the industry, but we thought we owed it to the sweetest demon you’ll ever meet to give it a try.
Below, we’ve got our 20 favourite Nick Cave songs of all time.
Nick Cave’s 20 best songs:
20. ‘The Carny’
Finding a spot on 1986’s Your Funeral… My Trial, one of Cave’s extended pieces has a lot of space to meander through some murderous moments. A simply terrifying episode of music it may be but the real winner here is Cave’s scything lyrics.
Known for an unflinching ability to describe heinous scenes with the flourish of a poet, Cave doesn’t disappoint and makes this carnival song feel like a nightmare ride. This is typical Nick Cave at his best.
19. ‘Love Bomb’
When Nick Cave’s band Grinderman brought out their self-titled debut LP in 2007, the world suddenly had to pay attention to the musician once more. With the band, he was given license to be as visceral and biting as absolutely possible—and Cave didn’t disappoint.
A swaggering lead line cuts through the entire arrangement as Warren Ellis and Cave get the shakedown on. If you’re a Nick Cave fan then chances are you’ll love everything Grinderman ever did, such a distillation of his ultimate appeal as it was. ‘Love Bomb’ is another example of it.
Without doubt, one of Cave’s most personal albums to date alongside The Bad Seeds was the 2019 effort Ghosteen. The album, intrinsically linked with the tragic death of Cave’s own son Arthur, is an exploration in human connection and there’s no stronger advert than ‘Ghosteen’, the title track.
While there isn’t much room for the album in regards to a top 20 songs list, the LP is much better devoured as a single piece, the record is certainly one of Cave’s finest. This 12-minute number offers a taste of the wild and moving sonic landscapes Cave and his band can create.
17. ‘Henry Lee’
1996’s Murder Ballads is often considered one of Cave’s finest albums throughout his career and it’s difficult to argue with when you consider it has duets like ‘Henry Lee’ tucked away on the LP. Featuring the gorgeous performance of PJ Harvey, this song became one of the few commercial hits of Cave’s long career.
Harvey and Cave are naturally aligned and their performance reeks of intoxicating chemistry. It’s all here: a gorgeous melody, unforgettable lyrics and a duet built on genuine connection. Bliss.
16. ‘Release The Bats’
Of course, Nick Cave may well have cemented his name with his band The Bad Seeds, but he was leading the line first of all with his group The Birthday Party. The band were certainly on the darker side of punk and represented a post-punk sound, imbued with serious menace.
‘Release The Bats’ is their ultimate contribution to this list and is certainly one of Cave’s better songs. The singer is full of effervescent energy and malicious intent and the song is packed with everything that made Cave a star in waiting.
15. ‘The Curse of Millhaven’
Another one of the Murder Ballads, this song ‘The Curse of Millhaven’ was originally written for PJ Harvey to sing but never quite made it to the creative star. Instead, it is Cave who has the dried blood of an entire town under his fingernails.
As Cave narrates the moving menace of ‘Loretta’—a bonafide killing machine—it’s very difficult to think of any other artist being able to pull this off. As such, Cave’s work is unique and singular.
14. ‘Honey Bee’
Another song from the Grinderman canon and this one is full-blooded and ready to launch into the atmosphere. ‘Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)’ shows Nick Cave and the band aren’t afraid to let the pulse of rock flow through them.
The track is a full-on raging bull of a song. Out of the gates like a greyhound, Cave’s slobbering vocal is delivered through gritted teeth and with the knowledge that the rest of Grinderman are providing a scintillating sonic backdrop.
13. ‘Palaces of Montezuma’
The follow-up to 2007’s Grinderman was always going to be a difficult act to follow. The album had arrived with such a buzzsaw heartbeat that it was difficult to imagine kicking things up another notch. So they didn’t.
Instead, Cave helped to create and cultivate some much more balanced songs, less focused on the riotous riff and more intent on letting Cave’s lyrics win out. The best example of that on the 2010 follow-up is ‘Palaces of Montezuma’, a joyful moment of connection on the LP.
12. ‘Do You Love Me?’
Taken from 1994 album Let Love In, we’ve decided to bend the rules a little and included both parts 1 and 2 on this list because they compliment each other so well. To bookend your album with two versions of the same song is a canny trick, one that acts like Neil Young have employed on occasion.
Those songs, as with Cave’s ‘Do You Love Me?’, when done differently enough offer a moment of reflection in regards to the album—a moment to think ‘how far have we come? On this song, Cave’s ballad version of the track could easily have you reaching for the tissues but his rock version is pure terror.
Nick Cave in a nutshell.
11. ‘Stagger Lee’
Taking on an American blues standard is a daunting affair. For one, the idea of authenticity will naturally be highlighted whenever a non-American picks up the song. But honestly, if there was one act to be a murderous, gunslinging man, we’d have our money on 1990s Nick Cave.
While other acts have included carbon copies of the original song as part of their arsenal, Cave decided to do things a little differently and instead riffed an entirely new song from the basis of the original. Cave’s version is naturally more violent, visceral and with every note, he is vindicated in his choice.
Featuring on 1988’s Tender Prey, this track is a little less about Nick Cave and a little more about the power of The Bad Seeds. Cave is still a snarling, growling beast of a performer but the band are the real victors in this scenario.
As Cave splutters through the somewhat bloodthirsty song about lust, the band kick it up a notch and raise enough hell to make the devil himself feel at home. The group have never been a traditional rock act by any means but on this one, they sure do kick into gear.
9. ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’
Arguably the most famous of Cave’s songs, when the black-clad man matched up with Australia’s pop sensation Kylie Minogue in the mid-90s nobody could have predicted their duet. However, the duo proved everybody wrong with this timeless classic from Cave’s canon.
The pair, however unlikely a pairing they may seem, have often leaned on each other during trying times and often cite the other as a huge source of inspiration. This track from The Best of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds shows that despite his image, Cave is capable of becoming a crooner whenever he damn well pleases.
8. ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’
As part of Cave’s iconic album Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, which arrived in 2004, ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’ will undoubtedly be one of Cave’s most romantic songs. But while it may seem like Cave is writing to his lover, he’s actually penning an ode to inspiration—or the need for his muse to give him it.
The track slowly builds before crescendoing and powering back down, allowing a choral repetition to be the final words you hear. The song is turbulent and tender, it feels like a winning combination in Cave’s writer’s hands.
7. ‘The Ship Song’
If every album needs to have one triumphant and massive song to make it into a great album, then 1990’s The Good Son had this track, ‘The Ship Song’ as its winner. The track is one of the fullest pieces in Cave’s canon and acts as one giant chorus, with notes vying for attention and Cave commanding it all.
While there are a few verses chucked in here or there, it is the huge chorus which grabs your attention and never lets you go. Cave’s vocal melody is at its finest here and for that reason alone the song deserves to break the top 10.
Never one to feel scared of repercussions, to name one’s 1985 album The Firstborn Is Dead, shows just how fearless Cave truly is. The singer may well be one of the genre’s forward-thinkers but that doesn’t mean he can’t pay respect to the past. With ‘Tupelo’ he doffs his cap to Elvis.
Many artists and musicians have written songs about Elvis but nobody has ever done it quite like this. Cave puts Presley on a pedestal so tall that his quiff clips the clouds and he does it all through an apocalyptic blues sound. A thunderous bassline and Cave’s unique vocals make the song a winner.
5. ‘Red Right Hand’
Released back in 1994 as part of Let Love In, ‘Red Right Hand’ has seen a resurgence of late thanks to its inclusion as the title music for BBC drama Peaky Blinders. It means the song has now had a series of incredible covers attributed to it, including Iggy Pop, Arctic Monkeys and even Snoop Dogg.
As such, the song has become a popular track once more and it deserves re-visiting. With a swaggering sentiment of undue danger, Cave’s performance as the voice of the gunslinger in question, at least to his audience, is magnificent. Added to the new imagery attached to it and this track will soon be topping lists as Cave’s greatest.
4. ‘Mercy Seat’
An ode to the electric chair, a simple concept expertly delivered by a ferocious Nick Cave, ready to stomp out the heads and minds of anyone in his way. Lyrically poignant and performed with his iconic drawl, the song fills every crevice you allow it to.
“Before I was able to write things like, ‘I’m not afraid to die’. And kids come up to me and say, ‘Hey, that line means so much to me’,” Cave once explained about the development of his songwriting ability around the time of this release. “And I have to sort of say I don’t feel that way any more,” he added. “I don’t feel as cocky about death as I used to. I wake up in mad panics about death approaching.”
Five minutes of impending fear and dread is what Nick does best and on ‘The Mercy Seat’ he does it better than ever. Imagine a poem from the Romantic era then imagine it being devoted not to the sublimity of nature but the beauty of execution… and you’re there.
3. ‘Into My Arms’
Taken from the 1997 album The Boatman’s Call the lead single ‘Into My Arms’ has gone on to typify the duality of Nick Cave. While, as you can tell, he is more than capable of delivering a filthy blues number written about the murder of a syphilitic 18th-century sex-worker—he was also very capable of tender moments.
Often attributed to Cave’s break-up with girlfriend Viviane Carneiro as well as his relationship with PJ Harvey, the song is achingly beautiful in every moment. It’s one of the tracks that Cave has admitted he’s most proud of. The song was also performed by Cave at the funeral of INXS singer Michael Hutchence.
We imagine this is the one song of Cave’s canon that is often pulled out for special occasions, such is the intensity of Cave’s sentiment and his performance, which for this track, is always simply stunning.
2. ‘No Pussy Blues’
Another song to sum up Nick Cave, or at least his time with Grinderman, is ‘No Pussy Blues’. Another moment of fearless abandon, Cave is more than happy to put the idea of shocking an audience to the back of his mind and simply making it a part of the process. This track is raw and unadulterated.
The second single from Grinderman’s debut LP, ‘No Pussy Blues’ proved that Nick Cave was still a fire-breathing beast when he needed to be. Lyrically, the song revolves around our protagonist trying and failing to get women to sleep with him but perhaps there’s a deeper meaning. When asked, Cave flatly replied: “No, it’s just about not getting any pussy when I grew my moustache.”
Strangely, it’s another song that Snoop Dogg is a fan of, once telling Conan O’Brien that he loved a Grinderman song but couldn’t say the name on air. We don’t blame Snoop Doggy Dogg as this is one of Cave’s most full-blooded and visceral moments on tape. It’s a powerhouse.
1994’s Let Love In is undoubtedly one of Cave’s most complete works. Filled with songs that were complex but cohesive, Cave and The Bad Seeds were hitting a niche groove with this album. Arguably the best moment on the album comes with ‘Loverman’, quite possibly Cave’s most disturbing song.
Lust descends over our protagonist and something akin to a red mist prevents him from making human decisions. He howls and snarls like the beast he’s becoming throughout the song as the music around him swells and quietness with his breath before finally crescendoing with a crash.
Cave is at his most virile on this song, muttering the verses like a sex-mad demon, his lyrics bubble out of his mouth like a swirling cauldron, as if the final moments of a rock and roll exorcism are in effect. While Metallica took on the song in ’98, their heavy riffs and raucous drums could never match the sincere and sinister snarl of one Nick Cave.