25. “Teacher I Need You” (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player)- An obscure track that hasn’t been played live in decades, it fits neatly into the 50s nostalgia of the Don’t Shoot Me album. In this track, Elton John sends up the Bobby Sherman/Frankie Avalon teen idol style in the form of a lovesick teenagers’ unrequited love for his teacher (thus making it much more innocent than its raunchy cousin, Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.”) Elton’s vocal delivery flawlessly mimics the teen idols, and it has one of my favorite Bernie Taupin lyrics: “I’ve got John Wayne stances, I’ve got Errol Flynn advances, and it doesn’t mean a doggone thing.” Rarely has any song, not just by Elton but by any artist, toed the line so carefully between homage and parody.
24. ”The Emperor’s New Clothes” (Songs from the West Coast)- When I first started listening to Elton John as a contemporary artist (rather than an oldies guy) in the 90s, his material was certainly good, but tried to fit in a bit too much with whatever else was on the radio. During the Clinton years, that meant lots of synthesizers, heavy production, and minimal acoustic piano. So, I cannot stress enough what a breath of fresh air it was to be listen to this song for the first time in the fall of 2001. You can hear an audible phonograph needle in the opening seconds, and this establishes the tone of the song, and indeed the album, as a return to Elton the singer-songwriter, very much in the keeping of his first 5 or so albums. There are a couple defiantly stupid lines (the title is made to rhyme with “every inch of us growing like Pinnochio’s nose”), but there are plenty of engaging images (“a state of illusion in a nation of chance”, “the dashboard Madonna smiled back at us kindly”), to redeem the song many times over.
23. “Postcards from Richard Nixon” (Captain and the Kid)- Another terrific opening track from another “return to roots” album. This track continues the narrative of the Captain Fantastic LP, and becomes a neat travelogue of Elton and Bernie’s first trip through the United States. As a McGovern guy, the song’s Nixon-bashing kicks it up several notches in this ranking (“A little camouflage and glue to mask the evil that men do…”)
22. “I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)” (Rock of the Westies) Rock of the Westies is a dire album, filled with uninspired uptempo rock numbers tossed off by a coked-up Elton and his obliging backup band. One beautiful track in this pile of rubbish is “I Feel Like a Bullet,” playing to Elton’s strengths (ballads) and Bernie Taupin’s strengths (western motifs), complete with an allusion to Ford, who shot John Wilkes Booth in the back. A great metaphor for initiating a painful breakup.
21. “Blessed” (Made in England) This track takes an earnest look at a topic rarely addressed in Elton’s music: parenthood. A beautiful expression of wishing for, and indeed loving, a child who does not yet exist.
20. “Take Me to the Pilot” (Elton John) One of the greatest uptempo numbers of Elton John’s entire career, its rollicking piano part grounds it to earth while Paul Buckmaster’s orchestration takes it to the atmosphere, as its name implies. Best of all, its cryptic lyrics have driven rock fans batty over the last 4 decades, trying in vain to interpret Taupin’s feckless verses.
19. “Pinball Wizard” (single, music and lyrics by Pete Townsend): Elton outmaneuvered Rod Stewart in order to appear in the Who’s epic rock opera, Tommy as the aforementioned wizard. A hit single in its own right, it improves upon the Who’s version in several ways, from a gospel choir introduction, to some of the most aggressive arpeggios Elton ever put to record, and Davey Johnston’s guitar solo is actually every bit as good as Pete Townsend’s one of rock’s five or six best guitarists. For those of you keeping track, Elton managed to take on both The Beatles and The Who (probably the two best rock bands of all time) and record covers superior to their own efforts.
18. “Breaking Down Barriers” (The Fox, lyrics by Gary Osbourne) I cannot describe this song except in this way: it sounds more like a top 10 hit than any other Elton John song that wasn’t a top ten hit. Listening to its infectious electric piano arpeggios, its soaring falsetto chorus, and its contemporary production, one is incredulous that it was never released as a single in the first place.
17. “Where To Now, St. Peter?” (Tumbleweed Connection) Pop songs about death can be risky territory. Oftentimes, such ventures come across as maudlin, grim, or gothic. This song strikes an intriguing mix of wonder and ambivalence, as its narrator, presumably felled in the Civil War, asks the keeper of the pearly gates about his fate. Caleb Quaye’s distortion-heavy guitar part lends immeasurable effect to this song.
16. “Believe” (Made in England) It is surreal to think that when I first started listening to Top 40 radio in 1995, you could still hear Elton John plugging away, 25 years after “Your Song.” “Believe” would come on the air juxtaposed to something like TLC’s “Red Light Special” or Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It”, which made this weighty song about the perseverance of love over oppression and hatred all the more remarkable.
15. “Wake Up Wendy” (South Park: Chef Aid) Maybe the single greatest lost opportunity of Elton John’s career. The best uptempo number he wrote since the 80s got consigned to a one-off ensemble album promoting a show featuring 4 foul-mouthed cartoon grade-schoolers. What a pity.
14. “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) This is a suitable opening track to a lavish double album. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road thrives on cinematic lore, but “Funeral for a Friend” is raw progressive rock, with a 6 minute synthesizer-driven instrumental followed by an aggressive 4-minute rock and roll piece. The transition is seamless, and it is perhaps the finest essay on versatility from 70s rock in a single track.
13. “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” (Tumbleweed Connection) Caleb Quaye’s countrified guitar intro kicks off The Tumbleweed Connection in high style. Elton at his Leon Russell-channeling, honky-tonk best.
12. “Elton’s Song” (The Fox, lyrics by Tom Robinson) This poignant, and wholly obscure, track from 1981 is a sweet reverie of a schoolboy crush. The twist is the song’s subtle homoerotic subtext, made more clear in its low-budget music video- for the song is addressed to an upperclassman. A bold move, for Elton himself was not fully out of the closet as a gay man in ’81.
11. “Better Off Dead” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy) When a popular music artist wants to branch out, they might resort to a swing dance song, or a country-western number, or an R&B track. It takes an incredible amount of musical chops to attempt a song in the style of the English music hall tradition. “Better Off Dead”‘s staccato delivery (reinforced by Nigel Olsson’s drumming) even channels some Gilbert and Sullivan and Pinafore before the harmonic middle-8 takes us into Beach Boys territory. The best track on Elton John’s best album.
10. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (Lion King soundtrack, lyrics by Tim Rice) There are some who believe that Elton John sold out in the 90s by doing the music for Disney’s The Lion King. I do not– Elton took a huge paycheck, but he also delivered some of the finest music of his career in return, often challenging himself to write music in African idioms. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is anything but the generic love song it is often remembered to be. It has distinct signs of world-weariness (“restless warrior”, “star-crossed voyager”) and maturity that separate it from not only the other love songs in the Disney canon, but the other love songs that dominated the top 40 at the time. By any fair metric, this song is a masterpiece of pop songwriting.
9. “Carla/Etude” (The Fox) A beautiful and stately instrumental from Elton’s most underrated album.
8. “Sixty Years On” (Elton John) It is staggeringly ambitious for a 22-year-old kid to write a song about an old soldier coming to terms with his mortality- but Bernie Taupin did it, and Elton John wrote a haunting melody with some light Spanish touches to bring his words to life.
7. “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” (Too Low for Zero, by Elton John, Bernie Taupin, and Davey Johnston) A staple on adult contemporary radio for 30 years now, this song single-handedly gave Elton John’s career an early-80s shot in the arm. A somewhat nostalgic piece with some musical throwbacks to the 50s, it is an expertly crafted ode to loneliness.
6. “Mona Lisa’s and Mad Hatter’s” (Honky Chateau) Written in a NYC hotel while police sirens told of a violent crime nearby, this song ruminates on America’s most complex city. Elton would go on to write two songs that took a more romantic appraisal of the city (“Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way” and the awful “Mona Lisa’s, Part 2″). This first attempt to weigh in on the paradox of New York is much more ambivalent, focusing on the alienation and the callousness of its denizens (“they don’t know if its dark outside or light”), while finding room for hope (“I thank the Lord for people out there like you.”)
5. “Latitude” (Made in England) Maybe after two years of a long-term (think different continents!) relationship, “Latitude”‘s significance is very much etched on my mind. With some evocative portraits of London life (“old posters reading ‘give us your sons’”), this mid-90s track reflects on the illusory nature of physical distance. Latitude is, after all, just “a cold stretch of black across blue” on any globe. The hero of this track is former Beatles producer George Martin, who creates a jaunty and distinctly English string section to set the song’s atmosphere.
4. “Come Down in Time” (Tumbleweed Connection) As sweet and as vulnerable as “Your Song”, this track off of Tumbleweed has only a small fraction of its fame. If “Your Song” addresses the speaker’s love interest directly, “Come Down in Time” wonders if she will show up in the first place. With very little piano, an acoustic guitar and orchestration bear the load on this song, with a remarkably moving effect. I daresay it is the best Elton John song you won’t hear on the radio.
3. “Your Song” (Elton John) One of the great love songs written within living memory, its simple accompaniment and Bernie’s youthful lyrics complement one another perfectly. I love how the narrator stops to clarify his thoughts mid-song (“If I were a sculptor, but then again, no…”) into a fanciful remonstrance of affection. Elton John rarely writes standard love songs; there is almost always some twist of storytelling involved, and this is a master essay in that craft.
2. “Rocket Man” (Honky Chateau) This song surpasses its inspiration, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with its simpatico and its approachability– Bowie’s Major Tom is a cult hero, but Elton’s Rocket Man is an everyman enduring the drudgery of exploring the cosmos. Lots of lyrics fans and experts are still untangling- “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid”- and some of the most memorable and ingenious hooks as the song transitions from its minor verses to its major chorus. A risky, risky song that could have been an overblown mess but instead became one of the 1970s most memorable songs.
1. “Tiny Dancer” (Madman Across the Water) It took a movie to remind us how good a piece of music can be. If you watch 2000′s Almost Famous, at a key point in the film, a weary band and its entourage are re-energized when “Tiny Dancer” comes on the radio, and its Haight-and-Asbury travelogue transcends into an anthemic chorus. The song’s genius lies in its build-up, progressing from a delicate melody based on a ballerina music-box until it climaxes with “hold me closer, Tiny Dancer”, Elton’s falsetto elevating the tune, punctuated by the violins and cellos of Paul Buckmaster’s orchestration. Living in its own dimension, it faithfully records the atmosphere of the early 70s counterculture, while also somehow being so timeless and universal that it defies the generations, even in 2013. If Thucydides had been able to channel Nixon-era FM radio, he might have called it “a possession for all time.”