If Sade didn’t exist, no one could have invented her. Over a career spanning six albums and 33 years, the art of the singer, backed by her band, has never been anything less than inimitable. Yet given that her delivery is instantly recognizable and impossible to replicate, it’s something of a marvel that she almost missed out on singing altogether. The daughter of a Nigerian father and English mother, Sade (full name Helen Folasade Adu) was born in her father’s country and raised, after the divorce, by her mother and her family in Essex, where she absorbed much of her grandparents’ Christian socialist beliefs. Moving to London to study fashion, her fledgling career as a designer and model, as well as any nascent literary aspirations, were put on hold after she found work as a backup singer with the soul band Pride. Sade soon became the main attraction at concerts, her voice drawing sold-out crowds; together with three Pride members, she formed a self-titled band and signed with a major label.
Her first album, 1984’s Diamond Life, met with a rapturous reception across continents, going four times platinum in both the United Kingdom and the United States; following up on its success, Promise (1985) and Stronger Than Pride (1988) witnessed the band slowly deepening and refining a sound of its own, eventually drawing from jazz, funk, soul, pop, and rock in shifting but roughly equal measures. Their best album, though, was yet to come. Released 25 years ago today, Love Deluxe is the most consistent display of Sade’s unique mode of R&B: an underwater ambience conjured by keyboards, tastefully unobtrusive piano and drums, and thick, driving bass lines framing the singer’s evocations of love lost, maintained, and fallen into. No one sings about love like Sade. Though still related in tone to the American soul singers she was originally influenced by, the poise in Sade finds few parallels in other artists. Her voice is impeccably cool, yet somehow still conveys great passion and resolve; she seems utterly convinced that to do justice to something is to love it fully, with a wisdom inseparable from responsibility. Love Deluxe was followed, eight years later, by the mellow guitars of Lovers Rock; after a ten-year hiatus to raise her child, there came Soldier of Love.
No one has successfully copied her, but everyone in music adores her. Rappers like Rick Ross and Drake, producers like Kanye West, singers like Beyoncé, metal bands like the Deftones; all converge in their respect for Sade’s unquestionable integrity. The passing of time and the infrequency of releases only magnify her legend the more. Troubled, like many great British artists, by the onset of fame and tabloid attention in particular, she chooses to lead a life away from the spotlight, and takes interviews only rarely. Her songs, it’s implied, are more than capable of representing her clearly.
Quality, for her, takes precedence over quantity: Not counting live albums, there are only 73 songs of hers, but none of them is bad. All the same, there are definitely better songs and worse songs, and we’ve taken the time to rank them — not out of frivolity, but out of necessity. For more than with nearly any other artist, Sade’s music is an antidote to the pervasive fear, mistrust, insanity, and hatred of 21st-century life, and of the current moment especially. She is the exact and total opposite of everything ignorant, bigoted, intolerant, and cruel in the present. Her best songs hold out the possibility of a better world without concealing the grief that defines the present one. If anyone’s voice can keep its listeners from falling apart under personal and systemic stress, it’s hers. So here are the 73 Sade songs, arranged from least best to best — or from minor pain relief to complete catharsis.
73. “Sally,” Diamond Life (1984): This allegory for the Salvation Army displays an artist determined from the start to be socially engaged, but also one who hasn’t yet found out how to do it without being a bit preachy.
72. “Love Affair With Life,” “Your Love Is King” (1984): Spare vague lyrics mated to an all but rhythmless arrangement of horns and piano make for a listening experience that feels longer than it should be.
71. “War of the Hearts,” Promise (1985): A strong three- or four-minute song loses its savor after being stretched out to nearly seven minutes by an endless outro.
70. “Maureen,” Promise (1985): Based on a real-life friend of Sade whom she fell out with, the title figure of “Maureen” never really comes into focus, nor do we ever discover why they parted ways. “It’s hard to explain,” she sings, and so it’s even harder for listeners to learn how to care.
69. “Frankie’s First Affair,” Diamond Life (1984): Early on, Sade had a tendency to revert to third-person narration — which is not surprising considering that she had thoughts of becoming a fiction writer. This tale of a seducer who finds himself unhappily in love isn’t bad in terms of plot, but the slightly gloating tone stacks the deck in an unnecessary way, telling the listener how he sucks instead of showing it.
68. “Killer Blow,” Absolute Beginners: Songs From the Original Motion Picture (1986): Aside from the first introduction of the phrase “kiss of life,” this exercise in style from a forgettable film is itself too light to be memorable.
67. “Jezebel,” Promise (1985): “Sally” is often mistaken for a song about a sex worker; “Jezebel” actually is that. There’s a tension between social realism and poetic presentation that doesn’t get resolved, and the plodding pace keeps the listener from being able to ignore the fact, though two lines (“Every winter was a war, she said / I want to get what’s mine”) are pretty much perfect.
66. “I Will Be Your Friend,” Diamond Life (1984): Is it possible to be too good of a friend? The sentiment is sincere and the bass line is a delight, but you worry whether some of the excessive attention paid to a companion might be better spent on oneself.
65. “I Would Have Never Guessed,” The Ultimate Collection (2011): There’s always something occasional about new songs tacked onto greatest-hits collections, and this song, with its ensnared emotion set against a lone piano, is no exception.
64. “Morning Bird,” Soldier of Love (2010): If early Sade can be too emotionally removed, late Sade can be exceedingly solemn.
63. “Why Can’t We Live Together,” Diamond Life (1984): This cover of Timmy Thomas’s 1972 chill R&B classic is faithful, but it’s so faithful that it can’t make any impression of its own.
62. “Long Hard Road,” Soldier of Love (2010): The lyrics talk of how things are going to be all right, but their delivery tells a rather different story.
61. “Cherry Pie,” Diamond Life (1984): Jazzy and funky, the arrangement slaps hard, and Sade’s voice soars and dips like a lovestruck bird. It’s just that “wild as Friday night” isn’t the greatest simile.
60. “Soldier of Love,” Soldier of Love (2010): The title track from Sade’s sixth album lives up to its martial allusions: The guitar punches more than it licks, and the drums rattle like a military march. Love used to be stronger than pride; now loss is stronger than love.
59. “Mr. Wrong,” Promise (1985): This brief song about an unfaithful man and his besotted girlfriend is narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective that leaves one wishing the story’s characters had the depth and body of the song’s bass line.
58. “Slave Song,” Lovers Rock (2000): Sade’s rendition of the experience of slavery struggles to distinguish itself from her typical mode of personal self-empowerment and self-encouragement, and nearly succeeds.
57. “Bring Me Home,” Soldier of Love (2010): Generic guitar lines and a standardized beat keep this Soldier song from being all it can be.
56. “Every Word,” Lovers Rock (2000): Warm guitars and a rich voice almost cover up the sting of betrayal.
55. “Room 55,” “Kiss of Life” (1993): This, among the least best of Sade’s instrumental tracks, sounds like an average smooth-jazz session, which is neither a bad nor an exceptional thing.
54. “Punch Drunk,” Promise (1985): See above.
53. “Keep Hanging On,” “Never As Good As the First Time” (1986): This sweet, three-minute groove showcases the crispness of the band’s live performance.
52. “Make Some Room,” “Nothing Can Come Between Us” (1988): As close to techno as Sade ever got, this instrumental zeroes in on a synthetic bass line at the cost of all else. Great music to work to.
51. “Red Eye,” “Smooth Operator” (1984): Also known as the tail end of the extended mix of “Smooth Operator,” this Latin-inflected boogie works well enough on its own terms. Most Sade songs are danceable, but this is the rare one where the dancing it calls for isn’t slow.
50. “Super Bien Total,” “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” (1988): The platonic ideal of a video-game groove. Whichever RPG maker fits it into its score deserves a prize.
49. “Mermaid,” Love Deluxe (1992): Given its title, it’s no surprise that this instrumental sounds like sunlight rapturously viewed through deep water.
48. “Give It Up,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): Light, coolly seductive, and a groove like a water slide. What’s not to like?
47. “Siempre Hay Esperanza,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): A late-breaking horn solo lifts this jazz groove above the rest of the instrumental tracks.
46. “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through,” Lovers Rock (2000): Love leads to suffering, suffering to understanding, understanding to forgiveness, and she doesn’t need a lot of musical accompaniment to deliver the lesson.
45. “Love Is Found,” The Ultimate Collection (2011): “High-octane” isn’t an adjective commonly associated with Sade songs, but this greatest-hits extra, featuring Sade gliding above a churning bed of heavy bass, piano, and guitar, definitely qualifies.
44. “Clean Heart,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): Story time again — now it’s the tale of a poor young man driven to crime. This time, Sade manages to strike the proper narrative tone — like her voice itself, it’s engaged without being imbalanced.
43. “Tar Baby,” Promise (1985): Four years after the publication of Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name, Sade traces a love story of her affair; not surprisingly, the line that sticks out (“You could turn the wind into a song”) defines her own voice perfectly.
42. “The Sweetest Gift,” Lovers Rock (2000): A brief, tender acoustic ballad for her child. Like the moon in the lyrics, it’s all the brighter for being framed by darkness.
41. “The Moon and the Sky,” Soldier of Love (2010): Not even Sade can make the most of every opportunity, as this lofty song proves. Paired with a sad, introverted guitar line, her regret is impossible to mistake.
40. “Turn My Back on You,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): Complicated lyrics would only get in the way of that massive bass line. Sade sticks to plain professions of fidelity and leaves it to Paul Denman to carry the day.
39. “I Never Thought I’d See the Day,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): There aren’t a lot of Sade songs about betrayal, but each one sticks firmly in the memory. The spare arrangement and crawling pace work to the artist’s advantage — after all, any real betrayal is going to take a lot of time and silence to brood over.
38. “Haunt Me,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): Piano, guitar, longing, capped off by a sax solo. Take some time to realize how incredible it is that half of Sade’s catalogue exceeds a song of this quality.
37. “All About Our Love,” Lovers Rock (2000): The warm, welcoming sounds typical of Lovers Rock match well with Sade’s reminiscence of a partnership that’s stood the test of time.
36. “King of Sorrow,” Lovers Rock (2000): The second single from Lovers Rock witnesses Sade anointing herself a monarch. Whether it’s to memorialize romantic pain or to recover from it, the act of aggrandizement is easily forgiven.
35. “Pearls,” Love Deluxe (1992): Sade’s harrowing legend of a Somali mother searching for pearls to pay to feed her daughter turns on a line so weird and exact you could mistake it for bad; only once you’ve painfully broken in a pair of new sneakers does “It hurts like brand-new shoes” fully emerge as the genius metaphor it is.
34. “Babyfather,” Soldier of Love (2010): The sunnier side of Soldier of Love is on glorious display here, as Sade describes to a child how its parents first met. Some dads are good dads.
33. “Fear,” Promise (1985): An excursion into the Spanish language yields “Fear,” a grievous little gem that reflects the feelings of anyone waiting for an endangered lover to return.
32. “The Safest Place,” Soldier of Love (2010): Safe spaces are a good and necessary thing, to hear Sade sing: If they added up to a country, this would be a national anthem.
31. “Be That Easy,” Soldier of Love (2010): It’s no easy task to be poised and grateful in the wake of a recently departed love, but with her gorgeous, lifting chorus, Sade makes it look easy.
30. “Should I Love You,” “When Am I Going to Make a Living” (1984): This early B-side shows off Sade as she figures out how to sing about romantic pain in the first-person. There’s an interesting contrast between the light sounds and tone of voice and the lyrical promises and grief that leaves one coming back for more: As the lyrics say, “I’d like to leave but I’m unable to.”
29. “Like a Tattoo,” Love Deluxe (1992): Based on a real bar conversation (in New York, no less!) between Sade and a former soldier, this tale makes trauma and longing in the wake of slaughter feel at once poetic and relatable.
28. “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” Philadelphia: Music From the Motion Picture (1993): Sade’s cover of Percy Mayfield’s 1950 blues hit adds a rare element of wit to her catalog. While usually she’s too concerned to be wry, Mayfield’s lyrics, with their clever contrast between a desire for peace and love globally and a desire for a love of one’s own, make for an ideal opportunity for Sade not just to smile, but to laugh.
27. “Immigrant,” Lovers Rock (2000): Low tones and a mournful bassline complement Sade’s story about the burdens endured by a black man in a foreign land. There’s no need to preach when a line like “To even the toughest among us, that would be too much” does all the work of a sermon.
26. “Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): There’s a bit of an in-joke in the title track of Sade’s third album: prior to renaming itself after, and reorganizing itself around its lead singer, the band had played under the name of Pride. Complete the equation and you’ll discover that Sade is, in fact, Love, a fact amply borne out by the song itself.
25. “In Another Time,” Soldier of Love (2010): Consoling a girl recently wounded, Sade advises her to let time and karma take care of her offenders; imagining that one day you won’t hurt so badly is the best way to hasten that day’s arrival.
24. “Nothing Can Come Between Us,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): Truer words have never been sung than “In the middle of the madness, hold on.” Stuart Matthewman’s best impression of funk guitar adds just the right amount of spice to the duet.
23. “You’re Not the Man,” Promise (1985): When someone (a man) builds you up just to let you down, it’s time for this patient postmortem, which deftly builds momentum from a slow start to a crescendo matching tenderness to maturity.
22. “Your Love Is King,” Diamond Life (1984): There’s a special charm to certain early Sade songs where poise and lightness prove compatible with profound commitment, and this song, with its blend of spiritual and physical love, is definitely one of them.
21. “Skin,” Soldier of Love (2010): When Sade says good-bye, man, she really means it.
20. “Spirit,” “Smooth Operator” (1984): This little-known B-side from “Smooth Operator” is juiced with more funk and electricity than half the songs on Diamond Life. It doesn’t match the tone of the album (and hence was left off) but this is a keeper by any standard.
19. “Hang On to Your Love,” Diamond Life (1984): Sade’s first introduction to an American audience came with this song: powered by a heavy, driving bassline and some of Sade’s best advice-centered lyrics, “Hang On” ensured that her stateside fans would do just that.
18. “Still in Love with You,” The Ultimate Collection (2011): Sade’s take on the Thin Lizzy classic from 1970 lacks the yowling guitar solos of the original, but she effortlessly translates the pain in Phil Lynott’s voice into her own register of grief.
17. “By Your Side,” Lovers Rock (2000): How does it feel to know there’s someone who will never abandon you? A plain but thoroughly gripping hook anchors her pledge to be there in the worst of times.
16. “Is It a Crime,” Promise (1985): The alternation between low/slow verse and high/loud chorus is so effective here you wonder if the Pixies hadn’t learned a thing or two from this track. There’s a kind of subtle but forceful politics in her assertion of the scale of her love: it exceeds all imperial figures.
15. “Kiss of Life,” Love Deluxe (1992): Her love songs typically split between the ones where love is flawless and the ones where love is threatened, and this falls clearly in the former category. A rich funk bassline laced with jazz piano provides the perfect backdrop for this ode to the best of feelings.
14. “Feel No Pain,” Love Deluxe (1992): All Sade songs are socially engaged at some level, but of the ones that directly reference politics, this is one of the best. Instead of telling the story of a black family trapped by layoffs, poverty, unemployment, and hatred from the third-person, Sade locates herself within its daughter as a first-person narrator. Her intimation that a society that refuses to support its least fortunate members will end in ruin for all doesn’t come off as a sermon, but an experience deeply lived. The supporting cast turns in one of its best performances, evoking a spirit at once buoyant, concerned, and trapped.
13. “Smooth Operator,” Diamond Life (1984): Along with an ace lead saxophone and winding bassline, the secret to success for Sade’s biggest early hit is hiding in plain sight: the heartless playboy traversing cities and continents in search of pleasure that she narrates serves as an allegory for Global Capitalism, but also for herself: her international range and her voice — every time she croons “smooth operator,” there’s a measure of self-reference. Her amoral protagonist’s villainy is rendered in such lovely phrases that the listener can’t help but be seduced.
12. “Flow,” Lovers Rock (2000): Few songs capture the tension of a romantic who is sad to find themselves in love. “Is it possible I could feel this good? / I could really love you the way I do?” she wonders. There’s a war between mistrust and delight that’s all the more forceful for its subtle presentation; what’s not hidden, though, is the churn and torsion of Denman’s bassline.
11. “Cherish the Day,” Love Deluxe (1992): Her minimalist lyrics — “If you were mine / If you were mine / I wouldn’t want to go / To Heaven” — say all that needs to be said, and once a ten-note bassline jumps in to underscore her depth of feeling over the misty synths, the song is perfect and complete.
10. “I Couldn’t Love You More,” Love Deluxe (1992): Liquid keyboards, plain piano chords, and a loose but urgent bassline frame declarations of everlasting loyalty: being told you’re loved will never get old, especially not when it’s her voice doing the telling.
9. “When Am I Going To Make a Living,” Diamond Life (1984): Few songs capture the sense of living amidst dealers and liars in a precarious economy better than this early single, nor better express the cheeky optimism that things will get better once we both take individual responsibility and see ourselves collectively. Written during the Thatcher years, it’s only gained in relevance in the three decades since.
8. “Lovers Rock,” Lovers Rock (2000): The title track from Lovers Rock displays the artist in full bloom: It’s hard to get more emotionally mature than a line like “Somewhere in my sadness, I know I won’t fall apart completely,” and the subdued but sensitive guitar line keeps faith with a faith that’s quietly troubled.
7. “Paradise,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): Any song titled “Paradise” had better sound like it, and her version doesn’t disappoint — in fact, no song better expresses the phase of love where disappointment is impossible.
6. “Keep Looking,” Stronger Than Pride (1988): The ultimate antidepressant, especially once that high chorus hits. It’s cheaper and faster than therapy, not to mention therapy never heard such a bassline.
5. “Never As Good As the First Time,” Promise (1985): Nearly all Sade songs are about commitment and security, but this, an ode to hooking up and living purely in the present, is the exception. The reckless pace matches the lyrical abandon. It’s no accident that the music video is mostly just Sade racing a horse across open country, which is so great that it’s tempting to replace the Internet entirely with GIFs of Sade racing a horse across open country.
4. “Bullet Proof Soul,” Love Deluxe (1992): Whether it comes from society or nature or original sin or all of the above, the tendency is common, especially but not exclusively among men, to ruin love by viewing it as a zero-sum game maintained by threats. If many of her songs remind listeners of the generosity and tenderness of love, “Bullet Proof Soul” faces that cold, loveless impulse directly. It will never be easy to face up to cruelty from a loved one, but this song, with its mournfully catchy bass note and wistful horns, makes it a little less hard.
3. “The Sweetest Taboo,” Promise (1985): There may be better songs of hers, but none are nearly as rich in sheer color as her sophomore album’s lead single. Global warming may well abolish autumn, but if it does, there’s no better simulation of walking through waves of falling leaves while falling in love. A bonus is the chromatic richness of the music video, which reminds us that there’s never been anyone, in all of history, who’s lucked out more than white guys who play the love interests in Sade music videos.
2. “No Ordinary Love,” Love Deluxe (1992): “There’s nothing like you and I,” she sings; the emphasis falls on “nothing” no less than on “you” or “I.” Sade songs, at their very best, ignore the distinction between songs about flawless love and love betrayed; the promise of the first and the inevitability of the other are contained in one another. The softly puncturing bass, the deep-sea synths, the chugging, almost accusatory guitar that kicks in during the pre-chorus — even among other perfect songs, this one stands out. It’s the longest song on any of her albums; it’s also one you wish would last forever, but can’t, just like the love in the title.
1. “Somebody Already Broke My Heart,” Lovers Rock (2000): If there’s anything harder than falling in love, it’s falling in love again after being betrayed many times over. There’s a vulnerability in this song that goes beyond even the high standard set by the rest of the Sade catalog, a sense that, faced with a love affair that hasn’t even really yet begun, she’s skipping past the rapture of infatuation straight to the painful end; and that she somehow has the strength of character to do this knowingly and willingly. “If someone has to lose, I don’t want to play,” she sings, but there she goes, diving into the future disaster; “I can’t go there again,” she decides, but she actually can. There really is such a thing as a genius of feeling, and Sade has it in abundance. Among all of her songs none are stronger or wiser than this. “Here I am, so don’t leave me stranded.”