Diamonds have long been one of music’s most potent images. This playlist examines the diverse ways that songwriters have put them to use in their lyrics through track-by-track commentary. Produced by Pitchfork for Real is a Diamond.
For thousands of years artists, poets, and musicians from around the globe have valued the diamond not only for its brilliance but for its power as a symbol of beauty, purity, and enduring commitment. Modern pop artists are no different. Since the birth of rock and roll, artists across the stylistic spectrum, from folk singers to rappers, have used diamonds to represent everything from devotion to their lovers to symbols of their success, in songs that seem destined to endure the test of time in diamond-like fashion.
Prince: “Diamonds and Pearls”
Diamonds are rare, and so is true love—that’s what makes them both so valuable. While Prince certainly earned his reputation as one of the most lascivious songwriters in pop history, he also excelled at swooning declarations of romantic devotion. The title song to the first album with his ’90s backing band, the New Power Generation, is one of his greatest accomplishments in the field, with one of the most aching melodies he ever wrote and a delicate, sparkling arrangement that lives up to its subject matter.
The Black Heart Procession: “It’s a Crime I Never Told You About the Diamonds in Your Eyes”
San Diego’s Black Heart Procession had its roots in the noise-loving emo-adjacent indie group Three Mile Pilot and would eventually go on to adopt a jazzy, lounge-exotica sound on their 2002 album, Amore del Tropico. In between they perfected a smoky, shadowy take on chamber pop tinged with equal amounts of Nick Cave and Raymond Chandler, including this noirish roadhouse ballad about a lover who got away with the protagonist’s heart—and maybe more.
Johnny Cash: “Field of Diamonds”
Countless poems and songs have compared stars to diamonds (and vice versa), but few have done it with the sublime beauty of “Field of Diamonds,” which Johnny Cash cowrote alongside Nashville veteran Jack Routh. Cash actually recorded the song twice. In 1986 he released a version with Waylon Jennings that continued the outlaw country vibe of their work together in the Highwaymen. Nearly a decade and a half later he revisited it for his landmark album American III: Solitary Man with a radically stripped-down recording that revealed the composition’s delicate and deceptively simple beauty.
Chaka Khan: “Diamonds Are Forever”
Diamonds Are Forever is frequently ranked one of the worst entries in the James Bond film franchise. Its theme song has held up much better. The Shirley Bassey–fronted original has been sampled by everyone from Kanye West to EDM producer Paper Diamond, and the John Barry composition has been covered dozens of times, including this recording by Chaka Khan that injects the original’s jazzy arrangement with a dose of her trademark funk.
Gary Lewis & the Playboys: “This Diamond Ring”
Diamond engagement rings have been around since the Renaissance, and by the time Gary Lewis & the Playboys recorded their first and only chart-topping hit they’d become synonymous with lifelong romantic commitments. Of course, with its debt to sad-sack British Invasion boppers like the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser,” the song’s protagonist gets dumped and the titular jewelry takes on a tinge of O. Henry–esque dramatic irony. The backing track’s balance between garage-rock rawness and pop polish is provided by members of legendary studio session group the Wrecking Crew.
Seals and Crofts “Diamond Girl”
Jim Seals and Dash Crofts got their starts soon after the dawn of rock and roll playing alongside rockabilly legends like Eddie Cochran; by the time they found commercial success as a singer-songwriter duo with their 1972 album, Summer Breeze, they’d hit their groove with the super-smooth sound that would decades later be called “yacht rock.” “Diamond Girl,” released in 1973, remains one of the genre’s high points thanks to Seals and Crofts’ gentle vocal harmonies and lyrics that embody a very ’70s type of soft-focus opulence.
From “Unfaithful” to “BBHMM,” Rihanna loves a good anthem, and with its soaring choruses and we-are-all-stars message, “Diamonds” might be the most anthemic entry in her prodigious catalog of songs. Written by eccentric pop genius Sia, “Diamonds” gives off an uplifting mood that has resonated with audiences around the world. The track topped charts globally and has gone on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Paul Simon: “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
One fan favorite from Paul Simon’s African-inflected masterpiece, Graceland, wouldn’t have happened if the album had come out on time. After his label delayed the record’s release, Simon went ahead and performed music from it on Saturday Night Live with the South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The TV gig turned into a recording session alongside Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, during which they cut what would become one of Graceland’s standout songs.
The Flaming Lips: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” [ft. Miley Cyrus & Moby]
Nothing sums up the Summer of Love and the Sgt. Pepper’s era of early psychedelic rock like the baroque arrangement and kaleidoscopic lyrics of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” When the Flaming Lips decided to record a track-for-track cover of the album, they recruited neo-bohemian pop icon Miley Cyrus and, weirdly, Moby to help out on a version of the classic that explodes the original and reassembles it into something even more far-out.
Neil Diamond “I’m A Believer”
No diamond-themed playlist is complete without a little Neil. Before he was one of the most successful pop performers of the 20th century, he was a hustling songwriter cranking out tunes for other artists from his space in New York’s famed Brill Building. One of his earliest successes came with a string of hits he wrote for the Monkees, including “I’m a Believer,” which the TV band released just ahead of Diamond’s own recorded version.