Improbably, Chan Marshall — who records as Cat Power, who was once the face of Chanel, who has never made a bad album — is still something of a cult figure. It’s tempting to say she shouldn’t be: How can someone with that many great songs not already be canonized into the pantheon of music’s greats? Shouldn’t we be talking about her back catalogue constantly from every possible angle? Shouldn’t Rolling Stone produce one of those commemorative specials that you can always find at the airport bookstore? Maybe not quite yet. She’s canonized within the musical world she operates in, but has yet to be recognized universally. Marshall’s music will one day be spoken about the way we talk about Bob Dylan’s music, or Neil Young’s music, but until then, she exists in the sweet spot between cult favorite and widely accepted genius.
The great appeal of the Cat Power back catalogue is that Marshall is aggressively unflinching. Willing to stare at her demons, progress, grow, regress, and create music that tackles the complexities of human life, no matter what that might mean, or who she might alienate. Implicit in every Cat Power album is the promise of power and reckoning — personal or otherwise. She makes music for people who have lived life, who are worn down, or for those who keep grasping at something that is forever just out of reach — in other words, pretty much all of us.
In an interview around the release of Sun, her last album before today’s Wanderer, Marshall described a tumultuous period in her life. After the release of 1996’s What Would the Community Think she moved to South Carolina, and her experience would end up as the genesis for 1998’s all-time great Moon Pix: “And one night, I don’t even know what the fuck happened, but hell came to get me again. It was in a dream. I wrote these songs [that became Moon Pix] that night, waiting for the sun to rise, because my house was surrounded by 150 trillion spirits pressing against my glass, trying to get in. It was fucked up and really horrifying. The songs were just like evidence.”
You can hear it in the music on Moon Pix. Marshall is restless, uneasy, existing in a dream state. The whole album sounds like impending doom. It’s beautiful. Marshall would continue making music in this vein — at times she has sounded more comfortable, even content with her lot in life — but you always got a sense that she was making songs as a way of getting to the core of human flaw. Not so much to fix or eradicate it from herself, but to understand it.
There is no bad place to start with Cat Power. Everyone has their favorite Cat Power album, and no one is wrong about their choice. The songs below are just ten highlights (one from each studio album, presented in chronological order) from a career that has hundreds (and counting!). This is as good a place to start as any.
“Headlights” Dear Sir
Though Dear Sir is the first Cat Power album, it doesn’t really sound like it, especially on the album closer “Headlights,” which is actually a rerecording of a pre–Cat Power Marshall jam. It makes sense that this one was carried over — you’ll catch a whiff of Sonic Youth here (SY drummer Steve Shelley was a frequent collaborator of Marshall’s and plays drums on this entire record), but the showcase is Marshall’s voice, which oscillates between dead-eyed exhaustion and at the end a kind of frantic fear that gives way to acceptance in the space of a few lines.
“Ice Water” Myra Lee
So much of Dear Sir is cloaked in distortion that it feels shocking to listen to “Ice Water,” one of the standards from Marshall’s overlooked, but very accomplished second album, Myra Lee. Notably, “Ice Water” sounds warm, despite its lyrical content (“I will swim / and I will drink myself to death”), and its this push and pull that would inform much of Marshall’s music in the years to come.
“Nude As the News” What Would the Community Think?
It is not surprising that “Nude As the News” was a single — complete with a music video — because the song is great. It’s one of the Cat Power songs you can hold up to someone unfamiliar to explain her appeal: It’s propulsive, eerie, and it rolls like a long snarl. It is also about an abortion Marshall had when she was 20, but knowing that is not remotely essential to understanding the power of the song.
“Say” Moon Pix
I briefly thought about breaking the rules of this list, and just recommending that you listen to Moon Pix in its entirety. It is a powerful document of uneasiness and unhappiness and the spirits that haunt us when the unfinished business of life piles up. Buoyed by Dirty Three members Mick Turner and Jim White (who is one of the all-time great drummers alive today), Moon Pix sounds at once like the logical next step from What Would the Community Think? and an album that stands entirely on its own. “Say” features these indelible lyrics: “What defeats people is a double confession,” which feels like it’s skirting the edge of nonsense. Marshall understands this, and goes on to define it: “One time they will confess one thing and the next they will confess … something else.” Behind her, thunder rolls and cracks. When the song ends, she sings “learn to say the same thing … let us hold fast to saying the same thing.” It starts to feel like “Say” is about uneasy compromise, but we can never be quite sure.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” The Covers Record
Marshall has a long history of covering songs. They pop up at least once on most of her albums, and eight years after the release of The Covers Record, she’d go back to the well for Jukebox. Generally, covers are a tricky prospect for any artist. How can you put your own stamp on one in a way that doesn’t just prompt the listener to turn it off midway through so they can revisit the original? Marshall’s method is to subsume the entire history of music and spit each track back out as a reverent, but still original take on an established classic. It’s why she can nail a daunting cover like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” She’s so accomplished that her version might as well be its own song. Is it better than the original? I don’t even know how to answer that, but I do know that I listen to Marshall’s version more often.
“Werewolf” You Are Free
You Are Free is probably the second most accessible non-covers album in the entire Cat Power catalogue (the first is The Greatest — we’ll come to that in a minute); as such, it’s something of a good-bye to the strain of brittle folk that Marshall was working with for the first half of her career. “Werewolf,” one of many standouts, is lush, orchestral, and subdued. There’s no anger there, but there doesn’t need to be. Marshall’s early records hit their highest highs when her voice strained and became thin and frustrated. The calm on “Werewolf” is full of quiet power.
“Love & Communication” The Greatest
Much of Marshall’s music can be described in terms of temperature: She can be cold and she can make icy songs, or she can go for warmth, her voice a rasp that lands heavily, like it’s the anchor for every bit of instrumentation around it. The Greatest, recorded with The Memphis Rhythm Band, is her actual warmest album. It’s also her most adult. Previous Cat Power albums sounded very of a moment, like she was singing her way through pain or happiness or frustration, and The Greatest is what happens when she’s come out the side. Much of the album is perfectly suited for late, humid evenings (“Lived in Bars,” the title track, “The Moon”), but it’s the closer that I always come back to. After an entire album of acceptance, Marshall brings in the restlessness that characterized what came before. She sings, “Can you tell me that there’s something better? Because you know there always is,” her voice cracking on the “always is,” like she’s not sure. Then she repeats it again more forcefully.
“Don’t Explain” Jukebox
If it was risky for Marshall to cover “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” I cannot imagine how it must have felt to record a take of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” which was written after Holiday found lipstick on her husband’s collar. Rather than do a straight take of the original (when has Marshall ever done that anyway?), she inhabits the mind of Holiday, or maybe draws on her own experiences. Whatever the case, “Don’t Explain” is the most powerful moment on a powerful covers album.
Recorded mostly alone, Sun’s skeleton is constructed from drum machines, but it loses none of the relatability and humanness of Marshall’s earlier records. “Manhattan,” one of many standouts, is great if it comes at the right time in your life. It’s about loving the world you’ve built for yourself for so long, and how, eventually, inevitably you look around and realize that the friends you used to know are gone and the place you used to recognize has become something else entirely.
It’s worth saying up front: Yes, Lana Del Rey is featured on “Woman.” The pair toured together and bonded over long talks about life. It is, upon hearing the song, an obvious collaboration, which is why it’s so great. The two artists both have an ability to write songs that are wise, but not emotionless. Together, they do exactly that. It’d be easy to say that this is a passing of the torch of sorts, but it couldn’t be. Marshall still has so much music left to give.