There’s no other singer quite like Nat King Cole. With a voice that speaks across generations, Cole’s songs are still revered more than 50 years after his death in 1965. Built on a foundation of romance and love, Cole has the power to capture one’s heart with any one of his standards, which have earned him placement in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Below, we look at 10 of Cole’s best songs.
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1. “When I Fall in Love”
In a catalog of powerful songs, “When I Fall in Love” strikes a chord. Cole paints a picture of pure love in this heartfelt song and he just might make you fall in love as he sings of kisses under the moonlight and vows that he’ll only give his heart away to a person he knows deserves it. Between the gentle orchestra and Cole’s soaring voice, he tells a magical tale of the kind of love we all dream of finding.
When I give my heart
It will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart
And the moment I can feel that
You feel that way too
Is when I fall in love with you
2. “The Very Thought of You”
Cole takes his time with “The Very Thought of You,” letting each word simmer alongside the enchanting sea of violins. Here, he’s intoxicated by true love, living in a daydream he doesn’t want to be woken up from while seeing her eyes in the flowers below and stars above. The band glows as much as the singer, with the dancing violins elevating the song’s beauty. Cole masterfully evokes the feeling of romantic love he sings about, making it one of his best.
The mere idea of you, the longing here for you
You’ll never know how slow the moments go till I’m near to you
I see your face in every flower
Your eyes in stars above
It’s just the thought of you
The very thought of you, my love
This visual-heavy song is determined to tug at the heartstrings. With visions of the purple dusk of twilight time and meadows of my heart, Cole paints a vivid picture of love gone by as swiftly as a shooting star across the night sky he sings of. He really lets the lyrics do the talking, his tender voice comparing this lost love to a melody that won’t stop haunting him, leaving him only with the stardust of a song. Though Cole initially had no desire to record it, “Stardust” turned out to be one of his brightest gems.
You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by
Though Cole is singing about a woman as he opens the song with Unforgettable / That’s what you are, those words could as naturally apply to himself. Described by Cole as a “wonderful oldie,” the song was written by Irving Gordon and recorded in 1951 for Cole’s album of the same name. He later re-cut the song with an orchestra that took it to new heights, hitting No. 14 on the Billboard Best-Selling Pop Singles chart.
While the studio version is beautiful, there’s nothing like hearing him sing it live, where he adds even more personality to it. Like “The Christmas Song,” “Unforgettable” is quintessential Cole. His recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000.
Unforgettable that’s what you are
Unforgettable though near or far
Like a song of love that clings to me
How the thought of you does things to me
Never before has someone been more
Unforgettable in every way
Cole could uplift even the saddest soul with the way he sings “Smile.” His voice is simply stunning, shining alongside lyrics that encourage you to find hope even if your heart is breaking or light up your face with gladness to dissipate the sorrow.
Written by Charlie Chaplin, “Smile” was first penned as an instrumental track in 1936. Chaplin later added lyrics to the song in 1954, which Cole took to the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year. It’s easily one of his most memorable and beloved.
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by
If you smile
6. “The Christmas Song”
It doesn’t have to be the holiday season to appreciate this song. It’s likely that “The Christmas Song” is many listeners’ entryway into the rest of Cole’s catalog. It immediately feels like Christmas when his voice comes pouring through the speakers singing chestnuts roasting on an open fire, wrapping listeners up in a warm embrace filled with nostalgia. It’s a classic for a reason and his name will always be associated with “The Christmas Song.”
And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to 92
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you
7. “A Blossom Fell”
Cole typically deals with romance and true love, but this time, he turns the table on a lover who proves to be untrue. Heading warning from gypsies who say that a falling blossom only touches lips that lie, Cole spies his love kissing another man under the moonlight, leaving him to collect his broken heart and dreams. He proves he can do heartache just as successfully as love songs, as “A Blossom Fell” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1955.
A blossom fell and very soon
I saw you kissing someone new beneath the moon
I thought you loved me; you said you loved me
We planned together to dream forever
The dream has ended, for true love died
The night a blossom fell and touched two lips that lied
8. “Nature Boy”
“Nature Boy” stands out in Cole’s catalog for how the lyrical content differs from his many love ballads. In this short, but sweet story song, Cole encounters a mysterious boy who’s traveled over land and sea to deliver a meaningful lesson: The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return,” Cole delightfully sings. “Nature Boy” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”
The king of romance delivers yet again with “L-O-V-E.” Typically one to lean into piano ballads, Cole adds a little pep with a big band on this standard. Many people have remade this song, but there’s a timelessness to Cole’s version that sounds like it was made for his voice. It fittingly lent itself as the title track of his final studio album just before his death in 1965.
L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore
“Pretend” feels like “Smile” part two. Released in 1953, a year before “Smile,” “Pretend” has the same spirit of finding light in the darkness and smiling through the pain. Cole acts almost as a mentor in this light-hearted tune, encouraging one to keep dreaming and that life is not always as bad as it seems. With a twinkling flute, violins, and piano supporting him, “Pretend” is a lovely addition to Cole’s bevy of classic songs.
Pretend you’re happy when you’re blue
It isn’t very hard to do
And you’ll find happiness without an end
Whenever you pretend
Remember anyone can dream
And nothing’s as bad as it may seem
The little things you haven’t got could be a lot if you pretend
Photo by JP Jazz Archive /Redferns