With the release of The Studio Collection, Sting is the latest artist to receive the career-spanning boxset treatment. Though he recently dropped a new studio album, nearly all of Sting’s best songs come from his first four solo LPs (The Dream of the Blue Turtles, …Nothing Like the Sun, The Soul Cages and Ten Summoner’s Tales). Though it’s true Gordon Sumner will likely be remembered more for his work with the Police than his solo material, there are more than enough classic songs in his discography that make the set worth a purchase for fans. Here are Sting’s 15 best solo tracks.

“All This Time“ (The Soul Cages)

Levity was not exactly Sting’s strong suit at the beginning of his solo career. This is fairly understandable given that his early solo albums are responses to the death of his parents. The Soul Cages fares slightly better in terms of songwriting, with what is arguably one of Sting’s most buoyant singles in “All This Time.” While its exuberance is largely a mask for darker lyrical undertones–a trick he’s used since his Police days—this is a brilliant breath of fresh air. By this point in his career, Sting had dabbled in everything from jazz to world music, but this is pure, unadulterated pop. At the time, it was surprising: post-Police Sting had largely treated pop as a waste of time. But with the subject matter he was struggling with, it’s fitting that Sting returned to a comfort zone he had long forgotten. This is perfectly structured, fine-tuned pop right down to the key change before the final verse. At his best, Sting writes pop music that cuts deep into the listener, and nowhere is that more true than here. – Kevin Korber

“Desert Rose” (Brand New Day)

By the late ‘90s, Sting’s allure as a pop star had waned. The man slid quite comfortably into the adult contemporary mold and seemed happy to do so. Of course, Sting’s solo career has never been easy to track, and “Desert Rose” is yet another curve ball in a career full of them. A collaboration with Algerian singer Cheb Mami, the song is not all that different from most of Sting’s solo work. Yet it became a cultural phenomenon and made Sting into a suave car spokesperson. The strength of “Desert Rose” lies beyond the curiosity of Cheb Mami’s contributions. The song is killer hook after killer hook: each verse and chorus is an earworm that burrows its way in and takes up permanent residence in your brain. It’s catchy in the way that all great pop music should be, and the flourishes of North African pop that permeate it rise above mere cultural appropriation. Improbably, Sting took Algerian disco into the mainstream, if only for a brief second. More improbably, Sting made himself culturally hip on a level that didn’t seem likely to happen ever again. — Kevin Korber

“Fields of Gold” (Ten Summoner’s Tales)

One of Sting’s most ubiquitous and best-loved songs, Eva Cassidy’s cover adds another level of popularity to what has become a new standard. A love song about time and age, it resonates with many in no small part due to the idyllic scenes it conjures in the “fields of gold,” the west wind “moving like a lover” over fields of barley, summer days and children playing in the sunset. Lyrics like, “So she took her love for to gaze a while” provide a self-conscious link to old English folk songs, as do Northumbrian pipes played by Kathryn Tickell, but it’s all done so well that it works. Tasteful and comforting synthesizer underlies it all like, well, like the wind on golden waves of barley. The promise of eternal, undying love is enough to pacify the “sun in its jealous sky.” Ever the romantic, Sting is often best when he isn’t trying so hard, and relatively simple songs such as this ground his work and give it staying power. – Rob Caldwell

“Fortress Around Your Heart” (The Dream of the Blue Turtles)

There’s a lot about Dream of the Blue Turtles that Sting would likely find embarrassing now. The album’s jazzy textures and po-faced lyrics about love as a concept reek of an artist trying way too hard for his own good. However, some bright spots break through the self-serious mire, and this is arguably the brightest. On an album obsessed with approaching its ideas in the most cerebral way, “Fortress Around Your Heart” is a literary take on a simple concept that remembers that love is a thing that happens to people. What hadn’t changed in his transition from pop star to jazz troubadour was his interest in the fucked-up relationship. “Fortress” approaches the subject from a more general perspective, eschewing the storytelling of “Roxanne” for a more abstract concept. Here, love has become a siege, and the speaker emerges only just realizing what a power-mad tyrant he used to be. He’s surprised at just what he’s done to the object of his affection, worrying about “walking on the mines [he’s] laid” and pleading with his beloved to make things right (“Help me build a bridge/ For I cannot fill the chasm/ And help me set the battlements on fire”). There’s no preaching, no hypothesizing about what love really means; it’s a human story told in a way that only Sting can. — Kevin Korber

“Fragile” (…Nothing Like the Sun)

Inspired by the murder of a young American Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua in 1987, it’s a testament to Sting’s writing skill that a song so specific resonates to other tragic events. “Fragile” has been used in tribute to the victims of war and the 9/11 attacks and has been adopted for ecological concerns. This is a song of mourning, but it’s also a salve. Anchored by one of Sting’s starkest and yet most beautiful melodies, which he plays on acoustic guitar, it sounds both somber and graceful. “Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could,” he sings. While we may be caught in an endless, pointless cycle of tragedy, “On and on the rain will fall/ Like tears from a star.” Despite its sadness, the song tells us to treasure life all the more for its fragility. – Rob Caldwell

“If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” (Ten Summoner’s Tales)

Sting may be a great musician, but this proves he’s not great at relationships. While its apparent message of optimism in a vital personal relationship seems inviting, the chorus, If I ever lose my faith in you/ There’ll be nothing left for me to do” sounds a bit too much like “If you leave me I’ll kill myself.” In some ways a bookend to stalker ballad, “Every Breath You Take,” its questionable lyrics are masked by a fantastic drum beat. While “Breath” never masks its ominousness, Sting’s harmonica and Vinnie Colaiuta’s drums open the track so enticingly that your ear is infected before you know what you’re doing. This track won Sting the Grammy for Best Male Pop Performance in 1994, and indeed there is nothing like his voice in pop music. There’s a huskiness to his otherwise melodic instrument, hinting at a past indulgence in tequila shots and cigarettes before the tantric yoga and aspirations to physical perfection. It is an arresting and riveting imperfection that enhances Sting’s magnetism, adding gravitas to even his lightest pop musing. — Don Kelly

“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” (The Dream of the Blue Turtles)

After The Police, whose breakup Rolling Stone called one of the messiest of all time, Sting launched his new career with this raucous ode to freedom, the first track on his debut solo album. Here Sting channels his angst about love and commitment in a jazz infused power ballad that was typical of the times. Such freedom–from commitment and love– is a sentiment as ‘80s as the shoulder padded overcoat he wears in the song’s music video. The increasing fear of commitment fueled the nascent self-help industry at the time. But it was cool, man. The refrain of “Free, free, set them free,” powered by Omar Hakim’s drums, Kenny Kirkland’s keyboards and Branford Marsalis’ sax, lay down a rich, multilayered sound that distanced Sting from The Police. But one thing he did take from his former band was his investment in the video. When the song was released in 1985, MTV was defining a generation and an art form. The video was an important factor in selling Sting the solo artist; MTV made us all want to be rock stars, and no one knew that more than Sting. – Don Kelly

“It’s Probably Me” (Ten Summoner’s Tales)

In sports or at the movies, everyone likes a good team. This musical pairing came thanks to Lethal Weapon 3, the Mel Gibson franchise that perfected the buddy cop genre—and then proceeded to kill it. In need of a musical duo on par with its crime-fighting pair, the film’s producers combined the forces of Sting and guitar god Eric Clapton. The song invokes the series’ variety of male bonding and neatly summarizes the films. Clapton’s blues riffs are as unique as Sting’s voice. A languid tempo captures the Los Angeles neo noir atmosphere successfully established in the film’s score, and Sting’s lyrics give it a sense of nocturnal wandering. For fans of the franchise, it will sound like Gibson’s character searching for Danny Glover’s. For the uninitiated, it’s a song about that lonely hour when your need your best friend. Like any good team, the individuals have to shine, and make their teammate shine as well. Every time the song seems to be reaching for a crescendo – through Sting’s voice, Clapton’s guitar or David Sanborn’s saxophone– it pulls back for subtler tones. The collaboration makes Sting more lyrically ambitious and happy to make his voice more atmospheric and bluesy. Movie tie-ins are rarely memorable, as Sting would soon prove with his collaboration with Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams for The Three Musketeers remake. The pairing of Clapton and Sting may have been a corporate product, but it transcends its source material; sometimes magic works that way. – Don Kelly

“The Lazarus Heart” (…Nothing Like the Sun)

On his second solo album, Sting finally got biblical. It was only a matter of time before the former literature teacher would look to one of the oldest written works for inspiration. Lazarus was a disciple resurrected by Jesus days after his death. In the same way, Sting’s character and his “lazarus heart” are reborn after receiving a wound. He finds power and beauty from the wound, and in his ability to transcend it is made stronger. A metaphor for sacrifice and rebirth, the track is a natural musical progression from The Dream of the Blue Turtles and continues the jazz textures he first explored in his pre-Police days. He bridges the worlds of jazz and pop with Branford Marsalis’ saxophone carrying the sprightly melody and his old Police bandmate Andy Summers joining in on subtle guitar. With “The Lazarus Heart,” Sting continued to seat weighty concepts in sophisticated but catchy pop arrangements – few do it better. – Rob Caldwell

“Mad About You” (The Soul Cages)

Sting dabbled in Middle Eastern sounds with the Police on “Tea in the Sahara” and would do so again on Brand New Day, but this occupies a unique spot on its concept album because it stands apart from the concept, as if it was too good to cut from an album it didn’t really fit. He deftly takes the perennial theme of obsessive, unfulfilled love and injects a fresh exotic drama. Its setting is “a stone’s throw from Jerusalem,” its narrator a king who “claims dominion over all.” He has everything except the object of his affections. In other words, one can have all the material wealth in the world, but without love one really has nothing. The driving and relentless music mirrors the lyrics’ obsessive nature. Steeped in grandeur and tragedy, it’s a Lawrence of Arabia for the lovelorn. – Rob Caldwell

“Seven Days” (Ten Summoner’s Tales)

When Sting gets too serious, it can be too much. While this is another in the pop star’s canon of troubled relationship songs, he plays it with more of a wink and a smile. Here he’s faced with an ultimatum: He has seven days to commit or his significant other will find another man. Young Sting would have been handled this with a heavier touch, but by Ten Summoner’s Tales he has become more confident with his easy-going jazz-infused pop. He steps back from the obsession of his best-known tough love songs: “My rival is Neanderthal/ It makes me think/ Perhaps I need a drink.” This is Sting’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” a tale of potential heartache told with the lighthearted humor of a maturing artist. – Don Kelly

“Shape of my Heart” (Ten Summoner’s Tales)

A dive into Sting’s discography gives one a deeper appreciation for Ten Summoner’s Tales, and this track may be the finest hour on one of his finest albums. Written with guitarist Dominic Miller, it tells the story of a poker player on a philosophical quest to understand his success. He wants to know if chance has some guiding force or logic behind it. He wonders if he can express love or any emotion when he’s trained himself to reveal nothing. This is where Sting reaches the songwriting heights of Dylan, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. He captures the universal search for meaning in the character of his gambler, as well as the fear of expressing love. Its somber instrumental mood and downtempo beat gives the song a noir feel similar to “It’s Probably Me,” which may be why it found its way into Luc Besson’s assassin saga Leon: The Professional. While “If I Ever Lose my Faith” and “Fields of Gold” remain radio favorites, “Shape of my Heart” is Sting at his most potent, stripped down and seeking answers. — Don Kelly

“They Dance Alone” (…Nothing Like the Sun)

It took a little while for Sting to get his Concerned Worldly Singer act right. A few of his earliest attempts were so heavy-handed that even Bono would find them too preachy. “They Dance Alone” is likely the first moment this aspect of Sting’s art really came together into something worthy of his talents. Despite the presence of a number of big-name guests (including Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler), the song remains solidly Sting’s, and his story and measured vocal performance take precedence over any showy displays of technique.

Too often, Sting’s message songs made that message too broad. A song like “Russians,” for example, is just too obvious: The Cold War is bad, guys! “They Dance Alone,” however, tells a story to convey its message. To convey the horrors of the regime of Augusto Pinochet, he describes women dancing the Cueca with the photos of their loved ones, men and boys cut down by a ruthless dictator. This metaphor is made all the more impactful by the stately, restrained arrangement that pays homage to Chilean music without egregiously co-opting it. Few could pull off such a delicate balancing act. — Kevin Korber

“When We Dance” (All This Time)

Written in part to justify the existence of a greatest hits collection coming after Sting had released a paltry four solo albums, this should have been a complete throwaway, and it sure doesn’t exemplify Sting’s lofty songwriting ambition. Sting has admitted that this simple love song was largely an exercise to craft something for radio with his solo sound. It’s hard to begrudge cynical intentions when the result is something as beautiful as this. It’s one of Sting’s most gorgeous melodies, matching perfectly with the elegant love story in the lyrics. It’s no surprise, then, that the song became a hit (even if the video continues Sting’s impressive streak of poorly-conceived music video concepts). Furthermore, it displays an impressive amount of range for the guy responsible for some of the creepiest not-really-love-songs in existence to write something so honestly sweet. — Kevin Korber

“Why Should I Cry For You” (The Soul Cages)

The Soul Cages was primarily about the death of Sting’s father, coming to terms with and understanding his father’s life and their relationship. The elder Sumner worked in the shipyards of Newcastle, England in a bleak industrial environment. Yet, the ships he built sailed to exotic places. Here, Sting is adrift on “empty seas” and followed by “dark angels,” yet, he’s conflicted: “Why should I cry for you?” By the time the song ends, he realizes his father wouldn’t want his pity. The heavy theme comes off with a smooth elegance on this key track in the album’s narrative, whose ideas were developed further on The Last Ship but cheapened by affected accents and cuts that sounded like novelty songs. Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone – especially when it worked so well the first time. – Rob Caldwell

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  1. Gary

    January 10, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    GREAT article. Did you not list the songs chronologically because your order indicated your ratings? Just curious.


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