The first time I heard Nothing Compares 2 U was on a bus during my freshman year of high school. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend because I liked another girl – adolescence turns even the nicest guys into jerks. I got a dose of my own medicine, as the girl I liked did not like me back. Although I deserved this heartbreak, I was still heartbroken nonetheless. Sinéad O’Conner’s emotional rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U fed my (deservedly) heartbroken soul. I had no idea that Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, nor did I care. Looking back, I see that moment of adolescent longing as the day a debate started. Who did Nothing Compares 2 U best: Prince or Sinéad O’Connor?
Of course, we won’t get a definitive answer to this question, as we did with Dylan vs Hendrix. The results of the Prince vs Sinéad O’Connor debate will be purely subjective. With that said, I promise to look at the various Prince’s versions, Sinead’s version, and a few other versions objectively. This is for musical science after all! So read along, this is cover vs original, special edition – Nothing Compares 2 U: Prince or Sinéad O’Connor.
The Family Version (1985)
Before the Prince or Sinéad O’Connor argument started, there was The Family version. The Family existed in part because Prince had more songs than he could record on his own. This fact alone tells us a lot about what a prolific songwriter Prince was! He produced a band to record songs he just didn’t have time to release. Because of this, The Family had the honor of releasing the first complete version of Nothing Compares 2 U.
Of course, Prince’s fingerprints were all over The Family version. We hear a distinct spacey sounding synthesizer throughout the song. Singer St. Paul has a very similar voice to Prince, both in tone and style. The song sounds very stripped down, and yet somehow highly produced as well – another hallmark of Prince’s music.
The Family’s version of Nothing compares 2 U boasts an almost choral sound from the background vocalists. Was this the Family’s addition? Was it Prince’s? I don’t know, but it is certainly the best feature of this version of the song.
Sinéad O’Connor Version (1990)
Sinéad O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U made the song famous. Almost a power ballad, O’Connor keeps the stripped-down, yet highly produced aesthetic found in The Family’s version. O’Connor, however, adds a lot of herself to the song. Firstly, gone are the Spacey synths. Instead, we hear a dirge sounding keyboard part. The sax interlude gets scrapped, instead, we have a short string section. O’Connor changes a few lyrics. The gender changes, of course. O’Connor also changes the opening line from “It’s been seven hours and 13 days” to “seven hours and 15 days.” Surprisingly, she keeps the word “Mother” in the line about the dead flowers. While “father” would sound weird, she could have used any other number of affectionate words. Still, Sinéad uses mother.
The biggest thing O’Connor brings to Nothing Compares 2 U is emotion. The way Sinéad O’Connor sings makes us believe she went through a break-up. We believe this Sinéad wrote the song herself out of personal experience. This emotion makes us want to call Sinád and comfort her. Even now, as I listen to this song 30 years later, I want to tweet at Sinéad O’Conner and ask her if she’s doing alright. That level of emotion is what makes Sinéad O’Connor’s version of the song great!
Prince & The New Power Generation Version (1993)
The first version of Nothing Compares 2 U by Prince (released to the public) is a duet with singer Rosie Gaines. The duet adds a different dynamic to the song – we see two sides of a bad break up, and both people hurt. The gender-specific lines are mostly all female (and sung by Gaines). Prince does change the word “Mother” to “Honey, which just sounds better than mother. I wish O’Connor made this change in her version.
One quirky feature of this version – Prince’s vocals are all over the place. At times Prince sings tenor, at times he sings his deepest bass. The latter feels comical and distracts from the emotion of the song. Gaines, however, belts out her parts like a pro!
As far as instrumentation goes, the keyboards sound fairly basic. There’s a little guitar – this is Prince after all. Surprisingly, there’s a saxophone, though a different tone than the Sax found in The Family version. I expected a guitar solo to replace the sax solo. Again, this is Prince, and the man knew how to play the guitar!
Vienna Boys Choir Version (2002)
The Vienna Boys Choir might be the first third-wave cover of Nothing Compares 2 U. Their cover is both quirky and unexpected. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Before we look at the quirks, let’s look at a few features of this version. The Vienna Boys Choir sing male words in the gender-specific lines. They also use the O’Connor version “15 days,” as well as the word “mother” instead of “honey.” The instrumentation is trippy! A reggae sounding guitar and keyboard makes a rather head-bopping beat. As far as the bridge, we finally get a guitar solo!
As far as the vocals, they’re just weird. Firstly, for a choir, there is very little orchestration. Most of the parts are similar, if not the same. There needs to be more of a deviation and range in the singing. Even with better orchestration, however, this might not make a difference. The combined voice sound does not seem to work for Nothing Compares 2 U.
The Vienna Boys Choir gives us a rendition of O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U that just does not work. The experiment, while noble, fails miserably.
Aretha Franklin Version (2014)
My first listen through of Aretha Franklin’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U had me laughing. My second listen, well, I’m still laughing, but I want to hear what the queen of soul has to say.
The features of Aretha Franklin’s version: Franklin transforms Nothing Compares 2 U into a jazz song. Franklin and band perform the song at a much faster tempo than previous versions. This tempo change throws the listener for a loop – we do not expect to hear the song played so fast! As far as instrumentation we hear a jazz piano, drums, and a few horns at the end. Oh, and Aretha even scats during an interlude.
As far as the lyrics, Franklin sings the 15 days version, which does not surprise as the album is called “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.” O’Connor’s version is obviously the base for Aretha’s Nothing Compare’s 2 U. The best lyrical quirk comes in the line about the doctor; The doctor says “Aretha, you better have fun.” Unexpected!
Aretha Franklin’s version is fun and does not take itself too seriously. During the first listen, we find the song comical and even distracting. By the third and fourth listen, we’re having too much fun to care.
Chris Cornell Version (2015)
Chris Cornell’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U melts me in so many ways. There’s nothing but a beautiful machine under the hood of this cover. Cornell does an acoustic version with a cello and a couple of guitars. Cornell’s vocals, while sometimes harsh, fit the song well. In fact, Cornel’s blues like vocals add a lot to his version of the song.
While released before his death, the Cornell version gained popularity after his suicide. Cornell’s death makes the song even more heart-wrenching. While Nothing Compares 2 U is a breakup song, with a little stretching of the imagination, and ignoring a couple of lyrics, the song could easily be about someone we miss. Someone who is no longer with us.
We miss you Chris.
Dixie Chicks Live Version (2017)
The Dixie Chicks version of Nothing Compares 2 U pays tribute to Prince, yet the performance sounds mostly based on O’Connor’s version. The vocals (and even the expressions of Natalie Maines) imitate O’Connor. Every lyric sang by Maines is a carbon copy of O’Connor (including 15 days). Even the opening keyboards emulate O’Conner’s version.
With that said, the slide guitar and fiddle, while a Dixie Chick addition to the song, do pay tribute to Prince. After all, Prince was a creative musician. He loved the beauty of sound. Throughout his career, he showed us this time and time again. The slide guitar and fiddle, while not Prince’s style, honor the beauty of sound Prince so desired.
Prince Version (1984 Practice Demo – Posthuomously released)
Technically, the posthumously released Prince version is as close to an original as we can find. Unsurprisingly, We hear a lot of the same elements of The Family’s version. The two versions sound so much alike, The Family’s version sounds like something done by a cheap cover band.
Something that separates almost every version of Nothing Compares 2 U is the beginning instrumentation. Most use an electric piano or a synth. With Prince’s 1984 version, we hear a key sound unlike anything else we’ve heard thus far – a surreal sounding mellotron. Reminiscent of The Beatles’ Strawberry Feilds Forever, we’re instantly thrown into a dreamlike state. Unlike Strawberry Feilds Forever, this dream is actually a waking nightmare. We wish the pain of the song would go away as we escape from sleep, but the reality stays with us through our waking hours.
Prince or Sinéad – can we really decide?
Most cover versions I’ve reviewed pay heavy tribute to Sinéad O’Connor’s version. This includes the versions that acknowledge Prince as the author. Rolling Stone even rates O’Conner’s version as one of the 500 Greatest Song Of All Time. Prince’s versions do not make the list.
With the exception of the 1984 version, Prince’s versions of Nothing Compares 2 U feel lackluster in comparison to O’Connor’s. While the 1984 version is something beautiful, we were never meant to hear this version. It was a demo recorded while rehearsing for a tour.
We also must look at the emotional output in the Prince or Sinéad argument. O’Connor spills emotion. We clutch our hearts in pain when we hear Sinéad’s version. Again, I want to tweet “are you ok?” at O’Connor every time I hear the song. That’s just the amount of emotional impact her version gives.
So, while this is subjective, in the case of Prince or Sinéad, O’Connor, Sinéad wins. We miss Prince, but Sinéad’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U is just superior.