This list will introduce you to the most iconic and famous bossa nova songs that have come to define the genre.
Bursting from the Brazilian jazz scene in the late 50s and early 60s, bossa nova’s heyday lasted a couple of decades. From Brazil, it spread to North America and the rest of the world, with artists including João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Stan Getz at the forefront of the movement.
The genre was a true “artist’s” genre, with musicians often drawing on the poetry of Vinícius de Moraes, and the images of jazz photographer Pete Turner, and artists like Olga Albizu. Lyrically, the music taps into themes of longing and nostalgia, with soft samba and jazz-infused instrumentals creating a sophisticated and suave sound.
Let’s dive straight in and discover some of the essential bossa nova songs that came to define the genre.
1. ‘Chega De Saudade’ – João Gilberto (1959)
‘Chega De Saudade’ is widely regarded as the first bossa nova song to ever be recorded.
It is the title track from singer and guitarist João Gilberto’s album of the same name, which is widely regarded as the most seminal bossa nova album of all time.
The song was written by the prolific bossa nova composer Antônio Carlos Jobim, and the lyrics were written by the poet Vinícius de Moraes.
Themes of nostalgia and longing are common in bossa nova lyrics. The song’s title chega de saudade translates roughly as “no more longing” taps into that quintessential bossa theme that has come to define the genre.
Written by one of the great bossa songwriters, and performed by one of the genre’s most-loved singers,‘Chega De Saudade’ is one of the great bossa nova songs.
2. ‘Mas, Que Nada!’ – Jorge Ben Jor (1963)
You may not know the name, but you will certainly recognise the song when you hear it. Jorge Ben Jor’s ‘Mas, Que Nada!’ is one of the most instantly recognisable bossa nova classics, thanks in part to featuring on Nike’s famous Brazil 1998 ad campaign.
Mas, que nada! translates roughly as “yeah, right!,” or “whatever!” – a sarcastic statement of disbelief.
Although the song was originally recorded by Jorge Ben Jor, it reached much greater levels of fame when it was covered by Sérgio Mendes in 1966.
The song is one of the few bossa nova songs to be inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame, entering the prestigious list in 2013.
3. ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – Astrud Gilberto (1964)
‘The Girl from Ipanema’ (in Portuguese, ‘Garota de Ipanema’) is almost certainly the most famous bossa nova song of all time. The song is allegedly the second most-recorded song ever.
Written in 1962 by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Portuguese poet Vinícius de Moraes, the song was famously sung by Astrud Gilberto.
The song epitomises the classic bossa nova theme of saudade or longing, with lines like, “oh, but I watch her so sadly/how do I tell her I love her?” and “each time she passes I smile, but she doesn’t see.”
The Portuguese version was first released by Pery Ribeiro in 1962, with later, and more commercially successful releases coming from Stan Getz and João Gilberto in 1964, and Astrud Gilberto in 1964.
The iconic song was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
4. ‘Samba De Uma Nota So’ – João Gilberto (1960)
Bossa nova is closely linked to samba music, and the bossa nova standard ‘One Note Samba’ (Portuguese: Samba De Uma Nota So) is a great example of that relationship.
Written by Antônio Carlos Jobim, with lyrics by Newton Mendonça, the song was first recorded by João Gilberto for his album O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (1960).
The song’s name derives from its melody, which stays on a single note for several bars before changing. Don’t worry – the melody does eventually add in a few extra notes – but it gets a lot out of just one!
The song became a popular jazz standard and has been recorded variously by jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sérgio Mendes, Charlie Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington.
5. ‘Wave’ – Antônio Carlos Jobim (1967)
The opening song to Jobim’s iconic 1967 album of the same name, ‘Wave’ is the pinnacle of the suave and sophisticated sounds of 60s Brazilian jazz music.
With its subtle chromatic melody, lush string and brass layers, and the ticking triangle interwoven with a classic bossa beat, ‘Wave’ is amongst the most recognisable bossa nova classics.
The track opens one of the all-time great bossa nova albums from one of the true geniuses of the genre. It doesn’t get much more iconic than this – truly one of the all-time essential bossa nova songs.
6. ‘Insensatiz’ – Antônio Carlos Jobim (1963)
Written and first released by Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1963, ‘Insensatiz’ is best-known in English as ‘How Insensitive,’ although the Portuguese translates better as “foolishness.”
The track, which has similarities to Frédéric Chopin prelude in E minor went on to become a jazz standard, and has also been covered by numerous popular singers.
Some famous recordings include those by Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra, Olivia Newton-John, and Sinéad O’Connor.
The song featured on Jobim’s 1963 album, The Composer of Desafinado Plays.
7. ‘O Morro Não Tem Vez’ – Antônio Carlos Jobim (1963)
Yet another product of the prolific partnership between Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes, ‘O Morro Não Tem Vez’ translates roughly as “The Slums aren’t Given a Chance,” with the English version of the song sometimes referred to as ‘Somewhere in the Hills.’ The English lyrics were penned by Ray Gilbert.
Initially released on Jobim’s album The Composer of Desafinado Plays, the song went on to be covered by numerous artists, cementing its recognition as a jazz standard.
Aside from Jobim’s recording, popular renditions have been released by Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá, and Astrud Gilberto.
8. ‘Corcovado’ – Antônio Carlos Jobim (1960)
‘Corcovado,’ also known in English as ‘Quiet Night of Quiet Stars’ was written by Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1960.
The song went onto international fame, thanks in part to being covered by Andy Williams. Buddy Kaye wrote the English lyrics in 1963, and Williams’ 1965 release charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at ninety-two.
The song is now widely considered a jazz standard, having been recorded extensively by jazz greats, including the likes of Oscar Peterson, Cannonball Adderley, and, of course, Miles Davis on his 1962 album Quiet Nights.
9. ‘Desafinado’ – Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)
One of Jobim’s best-known and best-loved songs, ‘Desafinido’ is an all-time essential bossa nova song.
Translating to English as “out of tune” Jobim first wrote the song in 1959, with Newton Mendonça penning the lyrics. The title represents a humorous response to a critic who claimed that bossa nova was a genre of music for people who couldn’t sing. How wrong that critic proved to be!
Importantly, the song was the opening track on American saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd’s 1962 album Jazz Samba. The record was vitally important in popularising bossa nova in the United States, with the album topping the Billboard 200 album chart in 1962.
The song was so famous at the time that a Jobim album was named after it – The Composer of Desafinado Plays (1963).
10. ‘Só Danço Samba’ – Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá (1963)’
Composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes in 1962, ‘Só Danço Samba’ translates to English as “I only dance samba.”
The song has been recorded by numerous bossa nova artists, but the best-known version is probably Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá’s recording from their 1963 album Jazz Samba Encore!.
Ironically, the song was allegedly intended by Jobim as a way to introduce bossa nova dance. However, Jobim was not a dancer himself, and a distinct style of bossa nova dance never developed.
Needless to say, samba dancing has prevailed, and the invention of bossa nova dancing remains to be seen!
11. ‘Água de Beber’ – Astrud Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim (1965)
‘Água de Beber,’ or, in English, ‘Water to Drink’ is another Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes composition, with the most popular recording performed by Astrud Gilberto along with Jobim. The English lyrics were penned by Norman Gimbel.
The song features one of bossa nova’s most distinctive vocal melodies, unmistakably delivered by Astrud Gilberto’s gentle, floating voice. The lyrics to the hook that opens the song are scat lyrics – wordless syllables.
The song first appeared on Jobim’s The Composer of Desafinado Plays album in 1963. It was allegedly written at the newly constructed Brazilian presidential palace in Brasilia following a conversation with a guard. Written at a historic moment, the context affords the song a feeling of stability, prosperity, and optimism.
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