It has been a while since I have come up with a new list for you. Going back through the archives, I was surprised to see that I never a list of Top 100 Elton John songs, so this is my ideal chance to do so. Elton is my second-favorite artist after The Beatles, and his career is one of the longest in the pantheon of pop music. For nearly thirty years, from 1970 to 1999, he had at least one top 40 hit each year, a feat unmatched by any other pop musician. While his chart success is impressive, what amazes me most is Elton’s almost unparalleled ability to hop between genres so easily that even many of his closest listeners do not notice. Consider how he moved from prog rock (“Funeral for a Friend”), 50s sock-hop music (“Crocodile Rock”), soul (“Philadelphia Freedom”), and singer-songwriter (“Rocket Man”, “Your Song”, etc.) so effortlessly within the span of a few years. Over his career, he racked up over two dozen studio albums, and more Top 40 singles than all but a small handful of his rivals. He has created some of rock’s most memorable moments (Diana’s funeral, the Central Park concert, Lennon’s last live performance at a show in Madison Square Garden), to say nothing of his outrageous fashion statements.
Here, then, are my own very subjective choices for the best 100 Elton John songs during an unusually long and productive career. Several of the songs, including many higher-ranking choices, are album tracks that were never hits, and never entered the public consciousness, but deserve a listen. Conversely, since I am opposed to celebrating bad music in any of its forms, several hits do not appear on this list on grounds of mawkishness (“Empty Garden”), cluelessness (“Nikita”…it is a bloody boy’s name in Russia, Bernie!), or giving shocking levels of offense (“Island Girl”).
I include here the album from which the song came, and a link to a noteworthy performance of the song. Music is by Elton John, and lyrics are by Bernie Taupin, unless otherwise noted. I do apologize for oftentimes being difficult toward Bernie Taupin. He is capable of poignancy, and while often baffling, is almost never boring– but as a historian, and as a conscientious listener of music, I do need to take him to task sometimes for his absurd caricaturizations of other cultures, strange turns of phrase, and misogyny in the 70s. (And to be fair, these were not uncommon among 1970s songwriters.)
100. “Bad Side of the Moon” (B-side): Released in 1970 as the flip side of “Border Song”, this is a track not familiar to many Elton fans, although it was a staple of his early live shows. With a bombastic chorus common to many songs of John-Taupin’s early years, this song deserves far better than its current obscurity.
99. “Heavy Traffic” (Reg Strikes Back): The only song in the top 100 appearing from the tepid 1988 release Reg Strikes Back, it features some of the best piano fills that Elton has played on record, while the lyrics convey an intriguing ambiguity as to whether this song is about a traffic jam or drug smuggling. A quirky bright spot during one of Elton’s longest dry periods.
98. “Step into Christmas” (single): A perennial favorite on Christmastime radio, this seasonal hit succeeds at creating a festive sonic landscape, thanks in part to the redoubtable Ray Cooper’s ability to rock the sleigh-bells. With its multi-layered and echo-drenched atmosphere, it is an effective pastiche of Phil Spector’s Christmas tracks from the early 60s. Perhaps the most bizarre element of this song is its long-forgotten B-side, titled “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d be a Turkey at Christmas).”
97. “The Heart of Every Girl” (Mona Lisa Smile soundtrack): Elton goes vintage in this track from the early 2000s. Never released on a true Elton John album, he evokes a 1950s Tony Bennett style with smooth vocals and halcyon lyrics, apropos of the setting for the film Mona Lisa Smile.
96. “Blue Eyes” (Jump Up!, lyrics by Gary Osbourne) Let me rephrase my earlier comment- the entire 1980s was fallow decade for Elton artistically, with only a few brief glimpses of the old magic. But 1982’s Jump Up album contained this beautifully simple track, a love song without some twist or other. While a song like this could not sustain an entire career, it is a delightful tonic to the ambitious, cryptic, or bet-hedging love songs that make up the bulk of Elton’s catalog, memorable though they are.
95. “Harmony” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): This is the closing track to what many (though not I) consider to be Elton John’s finest album. The boyish buoyancy Elton provides to lift the chorus is an intriguing counterpoint to the song’s harsh and critical verses, tinged with the smug condescension directed toward its female subject, an unfortunate hallmark of many Bernie Taupin lyrics. (“Have you quit doing time for me, or are you still the same spoilt child?”)
94. “Legal Boys” (Jump Up!, lyrics by Tim Rice): I am shocked that I put two songs on this list from such an uneven album. Yet this song merits inclusion in the top 100– if only because Elton’s partnership with Tim Rice anticipates their fruitful collaborations for the Lion King, El Dorado, and Aida. The effect is striking– a dramatic, and appropriately theatrical, account of separation and divorce that succeeds where Elton’s earlier effort, 1981’s “Nobody Wins” fails in the most Europop fashion imaginable.
93. “Right Before My Eyes” (Lestat soundtrack): I probably would not have found this track had I not been directed to it by another list of Top 100 Elton songs. Alas, it hails from one of Elton’s most ill-fated and critically panned projects, a musical on Anne Rice’s vampire saga designed to cash in on both the Wicked phenomenon and the Twilight phenomenon at the same time. A shame, really, because this song, as performed by Elton when promoting his musical, is an affecting song about longful desire and the consequences of self-interest. And it is made all the more poignant by the fact that this is one of the only love songs in John’s catalog narrated by a male character to another male character. (For the most famous gay celebrity on the planet, the lyrical content of Elton’s material rarely ventures explicitly into that world.)
92. “High Flying Bird” (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player): The closing track to an album released at Elton John’s commercial zenith, this continues Bernie Taupin’s aviary thematics (see also “Cage the Songbird” and “Skyline Pigeon”). A great analogy for seeing someone you love leave you for greener pastures without regret, it makes use of Elton’s penchant for writing soaring, swooping and anthemic choruses. Sir Elton wisely revived this track for his 60th Birthday concert about five years ago at Madison Square Garden, giving it some well-deserved exposure.
91. “The Captain and the Kid” (The Captain and the Kid): Another closing number from a fine album. This sequel to Captain Fantastic takes their autobiographical journey up to the present day, and this is the very image that the song evokes– with the glamorous and sartorial Elton traversing the planet on a world tour, while Taupin seeks solace in the Mountain West. “You can’t go back,” it reminds us, “and if you try it fails.” Other hardcore Elton fans regard this track more highly, but for me, it is too self-referential to generate much interest outside of its immediate context. There isn’t anything in it for someone who isn’t already a fan.
90. “Sad Songs (Say so Much)” (Breaking Hearts): One of my favorite stories in the Elton John legendarium is when Bernie dropped off a sheaf of lyrics to Elton’s home in the mid-80s, and walked back to his own flat, a process that took about 20 minutes. By the time Taupin got home, Elton had composed the melody for this song, and left a short demo on his answering machine.
89. “I Need You to Turn To” (Elton John)- Soft, understated, and sincere, this track is barely two minutes long, and is decorated with some harpsichord parts that give the song a distinct baroque air. The piece is charmingly straightforward, and 1970’s Elton John album, filled to the brim with heavy orchestration and ambitious themes, could very well have collapsed of its own weight if not for this song’s counterbalance.
88. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)- This is the first part of the closing suite on the album, and perhaps the best song that Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote about their musical partnership. The song’s feel is distinctly European, with a minor chord sequence and the use of synthesizers typical of continental music at the time. It complements Bernie’s tale about two people learning their craft together, stumbling at first (“writing notions that were childish/simple tunes that tried to hide it.”)
87. “Border Song” (Elton John)- This was Elton’s first true exercise in the gospel medium and is in many respects a success. Covered by Aretha just before Elton’s version was released, it utilizes soulful vocals and some biblical allusions (“Holy Moses”) to carry across its message of universal bonhomie. From all accounts, John wrote the third verse himself (“He’s my brother, let us live in peace.”), a rare contribution from a man terrified of writing his own lyrics. Despite not being an especially big hit, this track found its way to Elton’s best-selling first greatest hits album in 1974.
86. “I Never Knew Her Name” (Sleeping with the Past)- Speaking of impressive gospel-tinged tracks, this number adds a great deal to Elton’s Motown and soul homage, 1989’s Sleeping with the Past album. Lyrically and musically, this song about watching an unrequited love tie the knot is far, far superior to his similar top 20 hit from 1983, “Kiss the Bride.”
85. “Tonight” (Blue Moves)- Blue Moves has something of a mixed record among critics. There are a number of undeniable high spots, but written as it was during a painful breakup for Bernie Taupin, the lyrics are consistently morose and dreary. The burden was on Elton to come up with some engaging melodies and instrumental parts for this depressing material, and “Tonight” is one of the best results. Creating a mini opus, Elton starts off the track with a quasi-classical introduction, bolstered by some orchestration by James Newton Howard. (By the way, between Howard, Paul Buckmaster, Del Newman, and George Martin, Elton John has had uncanny luck getting good help to write the orchestral pieces so critical to his music.)
84. “Blues Never Fade Away” (Captain and the Kid)- One of the darker themes within this autobiographical album is the death of dear friends and old colleagues along the way– how did Elton, one of the more reckless 70s pop stars, survive while so many others didn’t? “Blues Never Fade Away” ponders this existential question- “how did we get so lucky? (We’re) targets on a rifle range”, musing on the deaths of a young girl Bernie knew, a restauranteur who died of AIDS, fashion designer Gianni Versace, and John Lennon.
83. “Passengers” (Breaking Hearts)- Elton John’s attempt to weigh in on apartheid, with the metaphor of passengers denied a berth on a train (echos of “freedom train”?) With a mindless, repetitive refrain, and 80s synthetic versions of African instruments, “Passengers” is rather silly and juvenile, and its purpose isn’t very clear. But then, the same could be said of apartheid.
82. “Goodbye” (Madman Across the Water)- Madman is, like the Elton John album, a very good piece of work whose only major flaw is the weight of its orchestration and its onslaught of five or six-minute anthems. “Goodbye” tries to wrap up the album in a quieter fashion, a maudlin (“I’m sorry I took your time/I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme”), but brief and simple, conclusion to an album that had no shortage of heavy, leaden tracks like “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon”.
81. “Big Dipper” (A Single Man, lyrics by Gary Osbourne)- Despite what I wrote about “Right Before My Eyes” this song is, by any fair measure, the “gayest” song in Elton’s catalog. Riddled with innuendo and camp, the song’s title is a triple-entendre, referring to the constellation, the British term for a roller coaster, and phallic imagery at the same time, all performed in the idiom of New Orleans dixieland swing. Unbelievably, Elton got the entire Watford football club to sing the background vocals on this. Must be nice to be the owner.
80. “You Can Make History (Young Again)” (Love Songs)- It drives me batty when musicians greenlight a compilation album with “two new tracks” tacked on, which are of no interest to casual fans buying the compilation, yet compel hardcore fans who need to collect everything to buy an awful lot of redundant tracks in order to get the new material. (My third favorite artist, Chicago, is notorious for this practice.) I’ll give Elton a pass because of this sweet and heartfelt love song that grapples with the aging process. As a historian, I suppose, the concept of making history young rather appeals to me.
79. “Country Comfort” (Tumbleweed Connection)- The first of an amazing 6 songs on Tumbleweed Connection to make this list. Part of Bernie’s idyllic imagery of the undeveloped West, it catalogs the narrator’s return to his rural roots, looking at alarming changes along the way– grandma’s farm is in disrepair, new machines are replacing manual labor. The song has perhaps one more verse than necessary, but it is the only time in Elton’s career that he could have pulled such a song off– for the Elton John of even a few years later, wearing absurd costumes on stage, could not credibly sing about longing for a simpler life away from the public spotlight.
78. “Roy Rogers” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road)- Speaking of westerns, this song is also a nice indicator of Bernie’s love affair with that particular piece of Americana. Elton makes sitting at home, watching old heroes on the television seem cathartic and almost triumphant, no small accomplishment.
77. “On Dark Street” (The One)- This is an obscure album track off of an early 90s album that isn’t very well remembered. The One is overcome with world-weariness, though, between songs about AIDS (“The Last Song”), industrial malaise (“Sweat it Out”), and the closing of factories (“The North”), making this an album whose political commentary is so subtle that it takes several listens to notice. The best example of this, though, is “On Dark Street”, an upbeat track cleverly designed to disguise its sense of hopelessness. A damning indictment of the Thatcher/Major administrations, it catalogs the pay cuts and contracted opportunities in the Manchester region, and has a great line- “I dreamed about an island, but all I got was a bucket of sand.” I included this track in my list of 50 social justice songs, back in the day.
76. “Crazy Water” (Blue Moves)- A rousing upbeat track that cuts against the grain of this depressing album, the hero of the day is percussionist Ray Cooper.