Essentials: The Top 10 Willie Nile Albums

Willie Nile is such an accomplished musician it’s a crime he’s not been more successful. Over the course of 20 albums since his 1980 debut, he’s consistently written songs that are his trademark – ringing guitars, rousing pop hooks, subtle elements of existentialism and a genuine populist feel. His songs are also some of the catchiest ever. His hometown of New York is never far away from the inspiration of most of his songs. On many of his albums he’s augmented by the wonderful co-writing and performing of Frankie Lee and multi instrumentation from former Eagle Steuart Smith.

Listening back to these albums put me in such a good, almost celebratory mood – listening to song after song which had me singing along and making me realise what a vitally important musician Nile is. No wonder he has the likes of Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townsend, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Jim Jarmusch and Little Steven as fans. He should be a mega star and it’s sad to realise he had such a difficult time getting his career off the ground. But he more than made up for this in a selection of albums spanning 40 years that are really special. As one critic said – “A man who embodies the true spirit of rock’n’roll” – never was a truer phrase said.

Here are then ten albums I feel best encapsulate the true spirit of this utterly dependable artist –  and what a mighty fine cannon of work this is.

Number 10: ‘Willie Nile’ (1980)
Nile’s career started back in 1980 with a debut that shows his love of words and a knack for memorable tunes with 11 hooky and muscular songs and it showed he was going places. ‘Vagabond Moon’ is a particularly strong opener. Other highlights include the witty ‘She’s So Cold’, the piano lilt of ‘They’ll Build A Statue Of You’ and, even though it’s a pretty basic song, ‘That’s The Reason’ showcases Nile’s ability to write incredibly catchy songs. I defy you not to sing along with the chorus on this one.

Number 9: ‘Beautiful Wreck Of The World’ (1999)
In 1999 Nile was signed to his own River House Records for this album and it includes yet another collection of sublime tracks. The opener ‘You Gotta Be A Buddah (In A Place Like This)’ is a guitar drenched blaster – a satirical piece that really hits the mark; ‘Black Magic and White Lies’ has a classic guitar riff and a wonderful singalong chorus; pounding drums and another cracking tune fill ‘Every Time The World Turns Around’; and album highlight ‘On The Road To Calvary’ – a truly spiritual, majestic ballad, dedicated to Jeff Buckley and of which Lucinda Williams said it’s “One of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard”. It’s no surprise this album was chosen as one of the Top Ten Albums of the Year by Billboard Magazine, The Village Voice and Stereo Review.

Number 8: ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (2021) 
Nile’s 2021 album was inspired by the sight of deserted streets and boarded up stores of New York City, because of Covid 19. Nile was reminded of scenes from the 1951 sci fi film The Day The Earth Stood Still and he began writing songs for this album from this inspiration. Steve Earle joins him on the political diatribe ‘Blood On Your Hands’ and the piano ballad ‘The Justice Bell’ is dedicated to Civil Rights activist John Lewis, who passed away in July 2020 and they recorded the track, coincidentally, on January 6th 2021, the day of the Washington insurrection. The emotionally charged feel to the album is exemplified by the acoustic gem ‘I Will Stand’.

Number 7: ‘World War Willie’ (2016)
This 2016 album continued the solid notices he’d been getting in these later years, with another really strong collection. Opener ‘Forever Wild’ shows why Springsteen is such a fan with a power chorus, singalong, anthemic feel – classic Nile. There’s a typically varied selection here including the acoustic strummer ‘Runaway Girl;’ the singalong drum pounding rocker ‘Hell Yeah’, the lilting ‘Beautiful You’ and the rockabilly tribute ‘Levon Sings’.

Number 6: ‘American Ride’ (2013)
In 2013, Nile was forced to independently finance this album, but the power and strength of the songs are as strong as ever. Opener ‘This Is Our Time’ is classic Nile, an incredibly catchy tune with some infectious ‘ooh ooh’s’ and a singalong chorus to die for. ‘Life On Bleeker Street’ has a spirit of The Clash in it’s wonderful ode to Niles’ New York lifestyle. ‘God Laughs’ is a hilarious tale of a day in the life of The Almighty (“God drinks. God smokes. God plans to quit before he croaks and why? Because he’s God!”) Words, wit and hooks shine in the folky ‘There’s No Place Like Home’.

Number 5: ‘The Innocent Ones’ (2010) 
In 2010 Nile was back on River House Records again and his goal here was to make an album about the downtrodden, the forgotten, the hopeless, in his words, “The Innocent Ones”. This is an album that puts a smile on your face and makes you feel it’s worth keeping going. Album highlight, ‘One Guitar’,  starts with some reassuring ‘na na na na’s’, before a gloriously catchy tune builds – again another example of a quality, hook laden tune. Nile celebrates ‘The Innocent Ones’ on the title track –  a magnificent mix of a serious message juxtaposed with a wonderfully brighter chorus. There’s also a simple but incredibly effective rocker ‘Can’t Stay Home’ with another inviting singalong feel. Album closer ‘Far Green Hills’  is an acoustic celebration of love and a gem of a song.

Number 4: ‘Places I Have Never Been’ (1991) 
After a ten year record label forced hiatus, Nile returned with album number three. Here he’s aided by a cavalcade of fellow musicians/admirers including Roger McGuinn, Richard Thompson, Terry and Suzzy Roche and Loudon Wainwright III. This album contains two of his finest songs – the title track and ‘Heaven Help the Lonely’, both of which are classic Nile tunes – punchy, hook laden and instantly memorable rockers. Then there’s the edgy ‘Café Memphis’; the deeply passionate ‘Children Of Paradise‘ and an acoustic singalong on ‘Everybody Needs A Hammer’. Sadly, after the lack of success of his previous album ‘Golden Down’, this album was released by Columbia, but sadly was not a success. A crime.

Number 3: ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ (2009)
This sixth studio album from Nile from 2009 was dedicated to his late brother John. Another cracking collection of piano led ballads and guitar rockers, it opens with some familiar pounding drums and singalong vocals on the title track. With his unerring knack for writing superb songs, ‘Run’, a superb up tempo classic, is so good you’ll swear it’s a cover, But it’s not and as so often happens with Nile songs, you’ll be singing along on your first listen, thinking you’ve heard it dozens of times before. Gorgeous piano hooks open ‘Love Is A Train’ before another pounding tune takes over. ‘Give Me Tomorrow’ feels incredibly familiar again, with some welcome ‘na, na na’s’ just adding to the memorable feel.

Number 2: ‘New York At Night’ (2020)
In 2020, Nile released another solid album, which he described as “throwing another log on the fire”, defining his passion for music. The title came to him one night in the summer of 2018 when he was walking alone near Times Square to catch a subway train. When he got on the train he saw a man covered in thick whipped cream. After he exited the train, he saw all sorts of characters on the street in Greenwich Village. As he continued his walk home, he thought “New York At Night – wow, what a name for a song”. Astutely, Hal Horowitz wrote of Nile – “His rugged outside shell is just a leather jacket over the soul of a sensitive and honest musician with an enthusiasm for rock and roll that beats like the jackhammers punctuating the air of the city he loves” The album opens with one of his strongest rockers ever – ‘New York Is Rockin’ – a truly magnificent barnstormer of a track which Nile co-wrote with Curtis Stigers for Stigers’ 1995 album ‘Time Was’. Further gems include the pounding rhythms of ‘Doors of Paradise’ with a lovely ‘na na na na’ vocal running through it; the fantastic ‘A Little Bit Of Love’ with a killer chorus; another singalong rocker ‘New York At Night’; and the gloriously anthemic ‘Run Free’. This album got me through lockdown and is one of his strongest albums to date, for sure.

Number 1: ‘Streets Of New York’ (2006)
Niles’ masterpiece hails from 2006 and is simply magnificent. Writer Jay Cocks said at the time – “The tunes he writes and plays with such blowtorch vibrancy get the myth and magic and danger and sadness and love in this town – of this town – truer, and righter than anything I’ve heard since Dion. This record is a head-twister and heart wrencher. It’s rock and roll at it’s best. And there’s nothing better than that.

Nile had had six years of preparation for this album and the opener sets the tone with a lovely fantasy ode to Broadway ‘Welcome to My Head’ ; ‘Asking Annie Out’ is a another guitar drenched classic; ‘Back Home’ is an acoustic shuffle that’s timeless; ‘Whole World With You’ is a pounding drum, guitar corker; and ‘Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead)’ is a chillingly eerie song written after the Madrid train bombings of 2004. This is a powerful, masterful album that exemplifies why Nile is one of the most accomplished songwriters and performers of the last forty years. And live, he really does kick ass.

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