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Nina Simone: 10 essential tracks

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David Redfern/Getty Images

No one sang like Nina Simone. So why did filmmaker Cynthia Mort let the star of her critically-derided new biopic on the legend, Zoe Saldana, sing every lyric? While Saldana does possess a passable croon, it communicates none of the character, hurt or mystery that made Nina so stellar. Would it have killed her to lip-synch?

The decision not to do so in the movie Nina, which opened Friday, turns out to be an even bigger problem than the already much-talked-about fact that Saldana bears no physical resemblance to the woman she’s supposed to be playing. Instead of flinching through the film, then, you should spend that time basking in Simone’s most peerless recordings.

Between 1958 and 1993, the singer (who died in 2003) captured scores of amazing performances. Though they mostly found her covering other people’s material, Simone’s arrangements, informed by her classical training, and her phrasings, drawn from jazz, re-cast the compositions entirely. A few pieces she did write became classics, including “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” But paramount was Simone’s performance, a mix of fierce inflections and edgy enunciations that eliminated any line between what she felt and what she conveyed:

1. “I Loves You Porgy”

In 1958, Simone scored her sole Top 20 hit with a take on the George Gershwin classic. Her amber vibrato communicates equal parts eros and need.

2. “Suzanne”

Simone performed a total tear-down on Leonard Cohen’s touchstone. She re-structured his melody as a series of ascending, prickly piano chords, lending each line the urgency of a question that can’t be answered.

3. “Mississippi Goddam”

In her roiling civil rights anthem, Simone plunked the piano with a righteous power that threatened to pummel injustice into dust.

4. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

While artists from The Animals to Joe Cocker have cut superb versions of this song, Simone’s take isolates the narrator’s sense of regret. Her sense of remorse puts redemption crushingly out of reach.

5. “Strange Fruit”

No one captured moral outrage more convincingly than Simone, making her the ideal communicator of Billie Holiday’s chilling lyric about a lynching. No wonder, when Kanye West wanted a sample for his rap “Blood on the Leaves,” he drew from her take.

6. “In Love In Vain”

On this recording, Simone shows off the erudition of her piano work as well as the widest arc of her vocals. Her final trills have an Olympic grandeur.

7. “To Love Somebody”

The most soulful song The Bee Gees ever wrote brings out Simone’s deepest ache. The way she delivers the refrain “you don’t know what it’s like,” dares anyone to know the depths of her loneliness.

8. “The Other Woman”

Simone’s version inspired Jeff Buckley’s divine take. But while his emphasized rejection, her wry reading stresses the delicious revenge delivered in the final verse.

9. “Feeling Good”

No one nailed the sassiness of this song with more confidence than Simone. She seemed to be singing not just of sexual openness but of personal liberation.

10. “Who Knows Where The Times Goes”

Judy Collins cut the best known version of the Sandy Denny classic. But Simone’s slowed-down take captures both the pain of morality and the enigma of eternity. It could well serve as her sonic eulogy.

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