Top 10 Nilsson Songs
Harry Nilsson was kicking around New York’s pop scene, writing songs with Phil Spector and others, before “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which he didn’t write, became a Top 10 hit, thanks to its appearance in the Academy Award-winning movie Midnight Cowboy. It was slow going, even after that 1969 brush with success. But within a couple of years, he started making records with casual disregard for how things were done. He made albums that jumped from style to style, and from era to era, within a 40-minute time span. He made an album of ’40s standards long before anyone else thought of it. And he was a hard-drinking artist who rarely played live. His career took several turns before he died at the age of 52 in 1994, but it was always interesting and it rarely repeated itself, as you’ll see in our list of the Top 10 Nilsson Songs.
‘Me and My Arrow’
In early 1971, a little more than a year after “Everybody’s Talkin'” reached the Top 10 thanks to its inclusion in Midnight Cowboy (see No. 2 on our list of the Top 10 Nilsson Songs), Nilsson wrote and recorded a soundtrack album for an animated TV special about a land where everything has a point. The gently rolling “Me and My Arrow” was pulled as a single and hit the Top 40.
‘As Time Goes By’
Think Rod Stewart was the first rock ‘n’ roll guy to release an album of ’40s standards? In 1973, Nilsson recorded a dozen songs by Great American Songbook composers like Irving Berlin and Gordon Jenkins. The album’s closing track was made famous in the 1942 movie Casablanca, even though it was written more than a decade before. Nilsson’s subtle, lovely take on “As Time Goes By” is simple and elegant.
Nilsson’s haunting, nostalgic “Remember (Christmas)” takes the spare piano chords of his hit “Without You” (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Nilsson Songs) and adds a bit of old-school melody and melancholy that hints at his next project, 1973’s Great American Songbook collection A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.
The first single from the follow-up to Nilsson’s only Top 10 album takes a similar approach to Nilsson Schmilsson‘s hitmaking formula, starting with the horns that punctuate “Spaceman”‘s big and busy arrangement. Neither the single nor album were as successful as their predecessor, with “Spaceman” just missing the Top 20 and Son of Schmilsson stopping at No. 12.
‘You’re Breakin’ My Heart’
Nilsson followed up 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, his only Top 10 album, with a sequel of sorts. But under pressure from his record company to use the same template, Nilsson rebelled and turned in a more diverse collection instead. The gutsy rocker “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” is best known for its kiss-off chorus — “You’re breakin’ my heart, you’re tearin’ it apart / So f— you” — which couldn’t have made execs happy.
‘Many Rivers to Cross’
After 1973’s standard collection A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, Nilsson got back in a rock ‘n’ roll mood on the following year’s Pussy Cats. Working with pal John Lennon, during his drunken “lost weekend” phase, the pair cut a boozy record filled with Nilsson originals and a handful of covers, like reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s great “Many Rivers to Cross,” which kicks off the album.
After five years and seven albums, Nilsson finally had a genuine hit. Midnight Cowboy helped make his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” a Top 10 smash more than a year after its initial release, but Nilsson Schmilsson earned its Top 5 showing. The playful “Coconut” was the third single released from the album and Nilsson’s third (and final) Top 10 hit.
‘Jump Into the Fire’
Before Nilsson Schmilsson, Nilsson’s albums were all over the place — ranging from a soundtrack for a kids’ TV special to an LP of all Randy Newman songs. His seventh album was no less focused — that’s just the way Nilsson worked — but it’s consistently great, moving from plaintive piano ballads to playful oldies to tough rockers, like the seven-minute volcano “Jump Into the Fire,” with ease.
“Everybody’s Talkin'” was originally released on Nilsson’s second album, Aerial Ballet, from 1968. The song, written by folksinger Fred Neil, was released as a single and stalled at No. 113 on the chart. A year or so later, the song became the theme to the Oscar-winning movie Midnight Cowboy, was reissued and climbed to No. 6, becoming Nilsson’s first Top 10 hit.
Like “Everybody’s Talkin'” (see No. 2 on our list of the Top 10 Nilsson Songs), “Without You” wasn’t written by Nilsson. And like his 1969 Top 10, “Without You” was a hit — but this time he went to No. 1 for four weeks. “Without You” first appeared on Badfinger‘s 1970 album No Dice. But Nilsson’s soaring, sensitive reading of the song is the definitive version. Not even Mariah Carey can take that away.