Posted by: Alan | May 10, 2010

Ranking Iron & Wine

Iron and Wine have long been one of my favorite artists of all time, ever since I happened across their sophomore album Our Endless Numbered Days working at a music store. Since then I’ve been obsessed, and it wasn’t until quite some time later when I discovered that Iron & Wine is really Samuel Beam, the lovely bearded man pictured above. Now, throughout his career as a musician he’s released somewhere around 80 songs, and while I’d love to rank them all, I figured I’d just stick with the top 25. So if you’ve never heard of Iron & Wine, consider this a perfect primer to start getting into it. If you have heard him, then I’d love to hear your top songs as well.

25. Gray Stables

Woman King (2005)

While the majority of Sam Beam’s lyrics have an air of romanticism and love about them, this song is almost disturbing in that the speaker seems to be stalking some woman and ultimately breaks into her house and kills her. It’s haunting, beautiful, and you’d never guess the meaning of the song without paying attention to the lyrics.

“Brave lady could see me in the darkness;
Wait, nameless like a stone;
My lady, with her watches by the mattress;
Bathes lately all alone.”

24. Carousel

The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

Throughout his career, Sam Beam has changed radically in terms of sound. From the lo-fi home recordings of his first album and EP comes the heavily produced, very ethereal sound of his later work. But one thing doesn’t change, and that’s his knack for writing beautiful lyrics. This song, which appears to be about war and returning from fighting has a very different sounding Sam throughout. But it’s gorgeous and his voice remains one of the most soothing I’ve ever heard.

“Almost home;
We got lost on our new street;
While your grieving girls all died in their sleep;
So the dogs all went unfed;
A great dream of bones all piled on the bed.”

23. Such Great Heights

Around the Well (2009)

It’s rare that a cover song ends up surpassing the original. This song in particular is debated often on which is the better version, the original Postal Service track or this cover. Personally, I love them both but if forced to choose I’d always side with Sam. The upbeat and almost dance-worthy song by The Postal Service is given the ol’ slow-folk-song treatment here, and it works wonderfully. Just a change in tempo and mood almost changes the meaning of the song from an optimistic love song to a depressing song of loss. I adore it.

“I am thinking it’s a sign;
That the freckles in our eyes
Are mirror images and when we kiss
They’re perfectly aligned.”

22. The Sea and the Rhythm

The Sea and the Rhythm (2003)

Only Iron & Wine can make a song about a night of passionate sex so beautiful and subtle.

“Tonight, we’re the sea and the rhythm there;
The waves and the wind and night is black;
Tonight we’re the scent of your long black hair;
Spread out like your breath across my back.”

21. My Lady’s House

Woman King (2005)

An ode to a woman seems at once incredibly honest and cautiously optimistic. He talks about how he does care for this woman, but ‘love is a fragile word.’ It is, to me, the most perfect description of a relationship I’ve heard.

“No hands are half as gentle;
Or firm as they like to be.
Thank God you see me the way you do;
Strange as you are to me.”

20. Kingdom of the Animals

Around the Well (2009)

I think my favorite aspect of Sam’s songwriting is his recurring theme of nostalgia. So many of his songs reference times that have past, and almost always looks back on those times fondly. This song seems to talk about his relationship with a girl named Jenny, and the times they shared. There’s never a hint of regret, and the way he describes the events so poetically makes it feel all the more real.

“Jenny and me on the hilltop;
And peeking at all their upturned bottles;
Jumping like leopards;
Jaw hearp teasing the brushfire in its rage.”

19. Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car

The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

The opening track to Iron & Wine’s third fantastic full-length album really set the mood for the album for me, and has remained a constant on my playlists since. Again, there are some themes here that seem to touch on war and political ideals, but for me, in the end it’s just an incredibly enjoyable song.

“I was still a beggar shaking out my stolen coat;
Among the angry cemetery leaves;
When they caught the king beneath the borrowed car;
Righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys.”

18. House by the Sea

The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

When I first got into I&W I never would have guessed the direction he’d take with this album, and this track exemplifies that perfectly. The track itself is one you could actually, well, dance to! It’s surprising but still poetic and beautiful.

“There is a house by the sea;
And an ocean between it and me;
And like the shape of a wave;
The jealous sisters will sing on my grave.”

17. Serpent Charmer

Around the Well (2009)

Another wonderful song about nostalgia, however this time it seems more of a look back on your life and how you may have wasted it. Suffice to say this song speaks to me quite well.

“There’s a hopeful hunter with a hapless sense of wonder;
And a million claw marks on the rock he hid his money under;
Strange words and we all roll back into the river;
And made men only want to live again.”

16. Someday the Waves

The Sea and the Rhythm (2003)

Damn you, Sam Beam. This EP is probably the most underrated of his work. This song really gets to me, and perhaps one of my favorite lyrics ever: “You pick a place that’s where I’ll be.”

“Someday the waves will stop;
Every aching old machine will feel no pain;
Someday we both will walk;
Where a baby made tomorrow is a gain.”

15. Woman King

Woman King (2005)

On an album themed entirely towards women and female empowerment, this is the track that holds it all together. Incredibly catchy, but listen to the lyrics. Also, the title alone conveys the idea of women in power, and it’s a oddly fitting juxtaposition of words.

“Hundred years, hundred more
Someday we may see
A woman king
Sword in hand
Swing at some evil and bleed.”

14. Cinder and Smoke

Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

A song that conveys a feeling of loss, but a feeling of hope as well. The repeated line ‘give me your hand’ says to me that it’s someone trying to reassure someone who may have suffered a loss. Is it weird that I like to think he’s singing to me when I listen to it? Of course not. Thanks, Sam, you’re always there for me.

“Give me your hand;
And take what you will tonight, I’ll give it as fast;
And high as the flame will rise.”

13. Dearest Forsaken

Around the Well (2009)

I tend to love darker toned songs like this. Especially with the very low-fi production values. This song gives me chills.

“To my dearest forsaken;
Who the earth now has taken;
Empty, the bottle drains no more.”

12. Lion’s Mane

The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002)

Anyone can write a love song. It’s probably one of the most common themes of songwriting (with good reason). But while most pop artists will write lyrics like ‘oh baby baby baby oh’ Sam wrote this incredibly gorgeous song about love that has some of the most apt lyrics I’ve ever heard.

“And love is a tired symphony
You hum when you’re awake;
And love is a crying baby
Mama warned you not to shake;
And love’s the best sensation
Hiding in the lion’s mane.”

11. He Lays In The Reins

In the Reins (2005)

Iron and Wine teamed up with Calexico for this 2005 EP and it’s a very unique sounding record compared to his other stuff. But it still feels like a I&W album and the lyrics are still wonderful, and Sam’s lovely voice is still the centerpiece. This particular song has some Spanish singing interspersed throughout and it makes such a lovely song.

“One more drink tonight as your gray stallion rests;
Where he lays in the reins;
For all of the speed and the strength he gave.”

10. On Your Wings

Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

This song holds a special place in my heart because it’s the very first Iron & Wine song I ever heard. The plucky guitar playing mixed with the hauntingly beautiful voice of Sam Beam made me an instant fan.

“All these men that you’ve made;
How we wither in the shade;
Of your trees, on your wings;
We are carried to the sea.”

9. Southern Anthem

The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002)

I think this song mostly stood out to me when I happened to stumble across the music video for it. The video, coupled with the lyrics, are just wonderful.

Watch the Music Video

“But when that southern anthem rings;
She will buckle to the sound;
When that southern anthem rings;
It will lay her burdens down.”

8. Boy With a Coin

The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

While there are many religious and spiritual allusions and allegories in Sam’s lyrics, he is a confessed agnostic. I read an interview where he talks about how he uses the religious stories and characters because they’re more recognizable than most other stories, and that helps get his point across. This song talks about how ‘God left the ground to circle the earth’ and it seems to be about the idea of God’s absence, whether it’s because he does not exist or because he left man on earth alone. Whatever way you take it (I personally am in the camp of the former) it’s a lovely song and one of the best off The Shepherd’s Dog.

“A boy with a coin he crammed in his jeans;
Then making a wish he tossed in the sea;
Walked to a town that all of us burn;
When God left the ground to circle the world.”

7. Dead Man’s Will

In the Reins (2005)

For someone like me who is obsessed with mortality and family and keeping memories and making new ones, this song is one of my favorites. It’s essentially, well, a Dead Man’s Will, but filled with incredibly meaningful words that still get me a little choked up just listening to.

“Give this ring to my lover;
I was scared and stupid not to ask;
For her hand long before.”

6. Sodom, South Georgia

Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

I still don’t know what all the metaphors and references in the lyrics mean in this song. But it’s been a longstanding favorite of mine and always will be. The obvious meaning, about a father dying, is surrounded by lines like “Both heads fell like eyes on a crack in the door” and “Slept like a bucket of snow.”

“And Sodom, south Georgia;
Woke like a tree full of bees;
Buried in Christmas bows;
And a blanket of weeds.”

5. Love Vigilantes

Around the Well (2009)

This song is actually a cover of a New Order song, but it’s still a favorite of mine, and like Such Great Heights, I prefer this version. The song is about a soldier returning home and finding his wife crying. It turns out she got a telegram saying he had died. It’s so, so wonderful to listen to, as depressing as it is.

“When I walked through the door my wife she lay upon the floor;
And with tears her eyes did soar, I did not know why;
Then I looked into her hand and I saw the telegram;
Said that I was a brave, brave man, but that I was dead.”

4. Passing Afternoon

Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)

This is the closing track to the album that made me fall in love with Iron and Wine, and it’s the perfect song about mortality and enjoying our time on earth. I can’t put it any better than the song does, so I won’t try.

“There are things that drift away;
Like our endless numbered days;
Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made.”

3. Upward Over the Mountain

The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002)

This is a song all about a son remembering his mother and their relationship. A bit of a momma’s boy myself, this song really speaks to me. It makes me very, very happy.

“So may the sunrise bring hope;
Where it once was forgotten;
Sons are like birds;
Flying upward over the mountain.”

2. Resurrection Fern

The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

This is absolutely my favorite track off the new album, and just recently became one of my favorites ever. So wonderful and enjoyable to listen to, and while I suspect there are more political metaphors in this song (like most of the album) I don’t really care. To me, it’s yet another song about memories and nostalgia. I love it.

“Like stubborn boys with big green eyes;
We’ll see everything:
In the timid shade of the autumn leaves;
And the buzzard’s wing.”

1. The Trapeze Swinger

Around the Well (2009)

Ever since this song was released on the In Good Company soundtrack, of all places, it has become my favorite song, ever. Not just of Iron & Wine. I can’t tell you how much this song means to me, and it truly is the ultimate song about nostalgia and keeping memories alive. It seems to me to be related to one person perhaps, and all the times they’ve had together. It’s beautiful, and saddening, and hopeful, and in my personal opinion, one of the greatest songs ever written. If you can only listen to one song on this list, and shame you if that’s the case, this is the one to get.

“But please, remember me fondly;
I heard from someone you’re still pretty;
And then they went on to say;
That the pearly gates;
Had some eloquent graffiti;
Like “We’ll meet again” and “Fuck the man”;
And “Tell my mother not to worry”;
And angels with their great handshakes;
Were always done in such a hurry.”

-Alan

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this. I agree with all of these songs deserving to be here though I may (out of personal preference) have adjusted the order.

    There’s nothing like Upward, Over the Mountain.

    Your references to making the most of your time and holding on to your memories jealously makes me think than you, Sam, and I are all cut from the same cloth.

    Cheers.


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