Norah Jones' 15 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Norah Jones
Wesley Mann

Norah Jones photographed on Aug. 29 at 501 Union in Brooklyn, NY.

Norah Jones is known worldwide for her soothing, earthy music -- but she didn’t initially handle success with quite as much ease. When her 2002 debut album Come Away With Me shot to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and won the Grammy Award for album of the year, she wasn’t ready for it. “When it happened, it was nice, but scary,” she told The Independent. “In fact, it was overwhelming.”

As her profile only grew for her preternaturally calming jazz-pop, she toyed with the idea of leaving it all behind. “Okay, how do I have fun doing this, because I’m this close to saying: fuck all this, goodbye,” she told her former manager on the Come Away With Me tour.

For all the fully formed beauty in her debut, she made jazz purists run faint -- and she took their criticism to heart. “They call me ‘Snorah,’” she protested to Mojo’s Will Hodgkinson. “But Jesus, that slow music touches people!”

That resonance with her adult-contemporary audience won out. She hasn’t just stayed the course as a torch singer: she’s swerved in and out of the genre with both hands skillfully on the wheel. Her rootsier 2005 follow-up, Feels Like Home, was no sophomore slump, but just as good as the debut. On excellent later albums like 2009’s The Fall and 2012’s Little Broken Hearts, she broke beyond the old formula, working with outside-the-box producers like Danger Mouse and Jacquire King to bring new dimensions to her sound.

She eventually returned to the style of Come Away With Me with 2016’s Day Breaks. Instead of retreading the old sound, Jones emerged as twice the artist, trading solos with cats like Wayne Shorter and Dr. Lonnie Smith with personality and poise. It hit No. 1 on the Top Jazz Albums Chart and No. 2 on the Billboard 200.

In honor of Jones’ 40th birthday (March 30) and the impending release of her seventh studio album, Begin Again (April 12), here are her 15 best songs, ranked.

"A new direction" is how The Fall, her first effort at breaking out of her early coffeehouse vibe, was marketed. New flavors are everywhere; bolder production flourishes from veteran Jacquire King, guitar tantrums from Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel. Its highlight, “Young Blood,” must have challenged the caramel-macchiato crowd, as it's nearly impossible to imagine Jones referencing werewolves, spectres and funeral pyres in the Come Away With Me days.

Not a lot of lyrical meat on this one, with references to being “on fire” and “finding your bliss.” But this advance single from her 2019 album Begin Again offers a feeling almost never found in Jones’ songs: liberation. No genuflection to jazz tropes, just a lovely sub-bass groove and some fluttering trumpet. Perhaps Begin Again will do just that.

Part of Come Away With Me’s brilliance is that it refuses to be a slog. Just when the homey sound threatens to tip into cabin fever, Jones changes it up; a new instrumental palette, a revved-up rhythm, a cover of Hank Williams or Hoagy Carmichael. The uptempo “Feelin’ the Same Way,” written by Jones’ collaborator and then-boyfriend Lee Alexander, gently kicks up the album’s energy without killing the chocolate-and-Merlot vibe.

Day Breaks begins with Jones dimming the lights. “In a dark-lit room / Your cigarette cuts through / I wear it like perfume,” she sings on “Burn.” Wayne Shorter blows his soprano sax in a low, keening warble, like he’s rubbing the edge of a wine glass. It could be her version of Paul Simon’s “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns,” which describes almost nothing but a flickering TV and some passing headlights; Jones also understands how to write with a sense of ambience and empty space. “The plot begins with you,” croons Jones in a low whisper. Let’s hear the rest.

On The Fall, Jones wasn’t just interested in expanding beyond brushed drums and lovers’ beckons; she updated her lyric bank to include new perspectives. “Stuck,” co-written by Will Sheff of Okkervil River, isn’t about pitching woo, but being pestered by a suitor while out drinking. Instead of absconding with the stranger, she “thinks up a reason to leave,” feeling like a “sinking stone” and a “switched-off telephone.” Sam Cohen’s electric guitar mumbles and protests like a friend who’s had enough.

The Danger Mouse collaboration Little Broken Hearts took Jones’ sound and imbued it with an edgy, noir-ish quality. Its best song, “She’s 22,” sees her as a jilted lover watching a new silhouette in her ex’s window. It speaks to one of Jones’ more undersung abilities; she can blueprint a convincing landscape of grief with no ten-dollar words. “You make me happy / Does she make you happy?”

Sold as a “country” move but barely country at all, Feels Like Home didn’t make hay of Come Away With Me as much as open its windows and let in some natural light: put earth-tones on the cover, keep the bass on the 1 and the 4, invite Dolly Parton for a duet. It was a shrewd marketing move, and the tunes hold up. “Carnival Town” finds Jones traipsing a sawdusted fairground and ruminating on the Tunnel of Love.

If Jones sometimes sounded conflict-free on the debut, check out this gem from Feels Like Home. “What Am I to You?” is an assertive plea to a wishy-washy lover to get his priorities straight; the hustling music gets prodding and urgent without exposing any actual raw edges. If this all sounds mincing and mousy, give it a chance: Jones’ rich contralto makes convoluted relationship dynamics sound easy-peasy.

After spending three albums attempting to wash off the connotations of Come Away With Me, Jones returned to the album’s approach with Day Breaks -- but with years of craft under her belt. The before-and-after was striking. The title track, in which she guides studio pros Brian Blade, Vicente Archer and Peter Remm through a strange, flowing progression, is something to behold: the sometimes-girlish 22-year-old who sang “Don’t Know Why” recast as an unflinching veteran.

Prior to her solo career, Jones played in Wax Poetic, a trip-hop band that slogged it out at the now-defunct East Village club Save The Robots. For her third album, she unearthed a track she co-wrote with that band’s ?lhan Er?ahin, “Thinking About You.” “That song has always been in the back of my mind,” she told Songwriter Universe. Her re-do was released as a single and reached No. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even if it breaks no new ground for Jones, it's a summation of what she does best.

“I think I was getting grumpy waiting for lunch,” remembered Jones of the writing session for “Happy Pills.” Her collaborator, Danger Mouse, absentmindedly mumbled a jaunty four-note hook; it caught Jones’ ear enough to workshop it into an arrangement. That lightning in a bottle resulted in Jones’ sharpest, simplest pop song; “Happy Pills” peaked at No. 13 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was a risk that paid off.

The lone solo writing credit on Come Away With Me is one of its most simple, sweet and luminous, not much more than the feathery strains of Adam Levy's Travis-picked acoustic guitar. If any critics pegged Jones as an interpreter rather than a writer, “Nightingale” showed she could inhabit the DNA of a jazz standard in her own right.

The opening track to Feels Like Home doesn't exactly play -- it wafts in through a cracked window. The rhythm section is a rickety creak of a porch, while Jones’ sparse piano notes peek through like a sunbeam on a shag carpet. “Sunrise” suggests a flood of light, an easy chair, pleasant discombobulation; any other artist would turn this into a snooze, but Jones lands at hypnosis. “The clock’s held 9:15 for hours,” she croons; it’s always first light and first coffee in this tranquil song.

Jones’ calling-card wasn’t an original, but by singer-songwriter Jesse Harris, who stepped up to play acoustic guitar on the single. The lyrics are still surprising, with images of empty drums and bags of bones; the vocal fits Jones’ smoky low register almost uncannily. It’s a smooth center with bitter edges, a blur of piano plinks and sizzler beads. “Don’t Know Why” shows Jones sprung up fully-formed, and it remains the best entryway into her work.

No Jones song is as languorous, as beatlessly mesmeric, as the title track to Come Away With Me. Any other artist would have taken this lover’s invitation and made it embarrassing: add strings, a choir of angels, bad poetry. Instead, “Come Away With Me” is classy, timeless and full of aplomb. It’s lush without making a big deal of it, indebted to soul’s past without a bad Billie Holiday impression, and jazz through and through. On her finest song, Jones blows away the adult-contemporary haters with a simple fact: nobody else can quite make this music.