And now, the continuation of the Top 100 Elton John songs!
75. “Amoreena” (Tumbleweed Connection)- Heather is not the biggest fan of this song, but I see it as a highlight of one of Elton John’s best albums. It is a delightful honky-tonk romp about a youthful love affair somewhere in the rural South. Unpretentious and fun, the track also has some of the best piano fills from Elton’s early albums.
74. “Madman Across the Water” (Madman Across the Water)- I was pretty critical of lyricist Bernie Taupin in the last batch of songs, but this song is a lovely testament to how well he and Elton work together and how their abilities draw out the best in one another. Bernie’s lyrics are delightfully cryptic and suggestive of a degenerative mental state- “there’s a board on a reef with a broken back, and I can see it very well”, complemented by Elton John’s intentionally disjointed piano playing, and swooping, disorienting orchestration by Paul Buckmaster. This track is one of the best early signs of just how good Elton John was going to be.
73. “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” (Songs from the West Coast)- An exhausting and world-weary conclusion to the very fine Songs from the West Coast, Elton sounds tired and demoralized– and somehow, it makes for a beautiful track. It takes some cheek to repudiate his reputation as a balladeer- “all the purple prose you bought from me….the sentimental things I write never meant that much to me.”
72. “Are You Ready for Love?” (Thom Bell Sessions, lyrics and music by L. Bell and C. James)- Although he was happy with any chart success he has, Elton was always most pleased when he did well outside the Top 40, considering it a great accomplishment when something like “Bennie and the Jets” topped the R&B charts, demonstrating its popularity with black audiences. Similarly, Elton always wanted to have a big dance hit, and it finally happened in 2003 with a remix and re-release of “Are You Ready for Love?” The track was first recorded in the late 70s with the help of Thom Bell, the producer of the Spinners and many of the other great Philly soul groups from that era. The result is delightful, and yes, danceable.
71. “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” (Honky Cat)- The theme of this song is morbid and wicked and hilarious at the same time. Taupin writes a set of lyrics about teenage angst and overblown threats if they don’t get their way, to “hear what the papers say on the state of teenage blues.” While such a song probably couldn’t be released today with heightened awareness of teen suicide, in its 1972 context, the song works just fine. Its black humor is enhanced on the track by “Legs” Larry Smith’s tap-dancing, but like “Crazy Water” on the last list, this song is best heard live, with Ray Cooper providing the percussion.
70. “Elaborate Lives” (Aida, lyrics by Tim Rice)- With AIDA, Rice and Elton John tried to revive their Lion King magic with this re-imagining of the famous Verdi opera. “Elaborate Lives” is probably the best song from the project, a piece that works well in the musical’s context, but touches on the universal theme of two people leading demanding public lives with too many outstanding commitments to make love work. John, to his credit, writes the vocal parts for Broadway voices, with plenty of room for acting and plenty of room for belting.
69. “Too Many Tears” (Peachtree Road)- I am not the biggest fan of 2004’s Peachtree Road, filled as it is with lyrics praising the unreconstructed South a bit too uncritically for my taste. I want to make an exception, though, for this fine track, tackling the subject of overcoming grief. Lyrically, there is a strong connection to the tragedies of the 60s, with allusions to JFK’s death (“did you go to Dallas on that day?”), and Martin Luther King’s assassination (“a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee”). I suppose out of all of Elton’s songs, this one is dearest to me, since this song was very appropriately playing in my room when I heard about my grandfather’s death.
68. “Sacrifice” (Sleeping with the Past)- Unbelievably, Elton John did not have a #1 hit on his own in the U.K. until “Sacrifice” came along (#67 on this list was also a #1 hit, but it was credited as a duet.) Another love song with a twist, this song takes the perspective of love going through a mid-life crisis, and accordingly, the song drips maturity and remains a standard on adult contemporary radio. Even its very late-80s production does nothing to detract from it, and the song has become a classic, second only to “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” as his most well-loved song from the 1980s.
67. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (single release)- Throughout the 1970s, Elton John tried in vain to promote the career of his young protege, Kiki Dee, hoping she would be the next Dusty Springfield, when at best, she was the next Leslie Gore (and I am being generous here.) This upbeat duet is delightfully, hypnotically stupid, complete with the paint-by-numbers string section on the instrumental break and lyrics like “nobody told us, ’cause nobody showed us.” This song wasn’t going to outsmart anybody, but it outdumbed the entire record buying public, became a karaoke mainstay, and turned Kiki Dee into the eternal Trivial Pursuit answer.
66. “This Song Has No Title” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road)- This is perhaps the most frustrating track in the entire Elton John corpus. It begins well enough, with lyrics and a simple earnest melody about wanting to discover more of life. It had the makings of a really good song- until it is ruined by a chorus awash in sound effects and throwaway lyrics- “this song has no title, just words and a tune.” Bernie does naivity well in his lyrics, but Bernie’s lyrics, Elton John’s melody, and Gus Dudgeon’s production, all lay eggs simultaneously, ruining what could have been one of the best hidden gems in the Elton John discography. But maybe that is the point– the song’s content and title is unfinished and still in progress, much like the wide-eyed young narrator’s life.
65. “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)- A great narrative piece from Captain Fantastic, and driven by an excellent string section, conveying the unfulfilling workaday labour Bernie performed before striking it big in show business.
64. “Hey, Ahab” (The Union)- A lot of us in Elton Land were apprehensive when we heard he had agreed to record an entire album with Leon Russell. Our trepidation was in vain; for the result was one of Elton John’s (and certainly one of Leon Russell’s) greatest artistic and commercial successes in decades. Awash in literary allusions to Moby Dick, this is the album’s finest track with a simple but effective piano riff. It was wonderful to see Elton and Leon play this song on Saturday Night Live and other venues, the first time in what seemed like decades that a ballad hadn’t been the first song promoted on an album. (As an aside, look up Leon Russell’s life story sometime on wikipedia. He has had a truly insane career as a sideman, playing piano on everything from “Strangers in the Night” to “Monster Mash.”)
63. “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” (The Big Picture)- Technically, this is the best-selling single of Elton’s career, although that honor is due to its more famous B-side, the “Candle in the Wind, 1997” written as a memorial for Princess Diana. Nevertheless, this is one of the classiest love songs in the canon, and Heather and I gave it serious consideration as the first-dance song for our wedding.
62. “The Bitch is Back” (Caribou)- For all the misogyny that Bernie Taupin got away with in the mid-70s (go ahead- listen to “Dirty Little Girl” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I’ll wait.) “The Bitch is Back” is actually about Elton John himself, and his infamous temper tantrums. While the recording has some great Stax-style horn parts, the song works even better live, when John breaks out the barrel-house piano riffs, preens on top of the piano, and Davey Johnston’s guitar lead is set loose. This song uses the word “bitch” more often than any other top 40 hit, a feat even Rick James could not surpass.
61. “Look Ma, No Hands” (Songs from the West Coast)- Elton’s career made an artistic, though not quite commercial, comeback in 2001 with the release of Songs from the West Coast, abandoning the heavy production style of Chris Thomas, in favor of more acoustic piano and stripped-down recording as in the days of old. “Look Ma, No Hands” is a great example of its success, with the piano at the front of the mix, and some of Bernie’s better lyrics: “I’ll take a rainy day/and make a champagne shower/poach some horn and tusk/to build an ivory tower.” Great stuff.
60. “The Trail We Blaze” (The Road to El Dorado soundtrack, lyrics by Tim Rice)- I would argue that this is the finest traveling song that Elton John wrote. He and Tim Rice reunited for the Dreamworks picture The Road to El Dorado, and in keeping with its homage to the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel films of the 40s, the two songwriters produce an evocative song about the open road, “turning myth into truth” along the way. The track was used to great effect in the film as a travel montage.
59. “Made in England” (Made in England)- One of the best rock songs in Elton John’s catalog, and far more biographical than nationalist. I love, especially, its defiant final verse: (“You can still say ‘homo’, and every laughs/But the joke’s on you/you never read the song/they all think they know, but they all got it wrong.”) To what could Bernie and Elton be referring?
58. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)- This opening song on this autobiographical concept album introduces us to our two heroes. Elton, our Captain Fantastic, is growing up a well-mannered boy in the London exurbs, while the rustic Bernie Taupin, the Brown Dirty Cowboy, is romping in the fields learning his craft of songwriting. The verses drag on, and the chorus isn’t quite great enough to reward the wait, but nonetheless, “Captain Fantastic” lays all the necessary groundwork for the rest of album, which I consider to be the finest of Elton’s career.
57. “My Father’s Gun” (Tumbleweed Connection)- I have already made it clear how unhappy I am with Bernie’s rose-coloured Gone with the Wind view of the South, which has been thoroughly discredited by serious historians for generations now. But I can’t help but give a pass to this lovely, epochal song that closes the first half of Tumbleweed Connection about a son’s loyalty to his father’s cause.
56. “Holiday Inn” (Madman Across the Water)- One of the only Madman tracks clocking in under 5 minutes, Holiday Inn takes us on the road with Elton and Bernie, through the ennui and repetition of going from one indistinguishable city to another. They wisely took off the third verse of the song, which took rock star self-pitying to an unseemly extreme: “The tv won’t work, and the french fries are cold/And room service ended ’bout an hour ago.” Davey Johnston’s mandolin part is his first substantive contribution to a recording, and he is still part of Elton John’s band 40 years later.
55. “Tinderbox” (Captain and the Kid)- A great opening lyric- “Nostradamus said ‘I predict that the world will end at half past six’, what he didn’t say was exactly when.” One of the hallmarks of the Captain and the Kid is Elton’s use of subtle pieces of earlier songs, and this one hearkens back to “Rocket Man”, particularly the spacey guitar part that leads into the final chorus.
54. “Tower of Babel” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)- Never has mid-70s depravity been portrayed so elegantly and tragically. And it has maybe the most thought-provoking line Bernie ever wrote: “Jesus don’t save the guys in the Tower of Babel,” an ingenious mixing of biblical metaphors, suggesting salvation does not come in time to the people who need it most.
53. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (Caribou)- As a track that nearly didn’t make it onto the Caribou album, it went on to becoming one of Elton John’s most famous songs. (Incidentally, the live version with George Michael is the only #1 hit to be recorded outdoors, at a concert in Wembley Stadium.) I don’t care for it as much as others do- “but losing everything” is a dumb way to lead into the song’s title, and the verses, like “Captain Fantastic”‘s, drag on too long. But there is no denying the song’s power, and its opportunities it provides the singer with its expressive chorus– for no small reason has it become de rigueur on American Idol.
52. “Philadelphia Freedom” (single release)- Like “Big Dipper,” this song is a triple, and possibly a quadruple entendre. It is, all at once, a tribute to the Philadelphia soul sound, an homage to Billie Jean King’s tennis club, and a cash-in for the bicentennial. (The presumed fourth meaning is this- I am not sure if the song was written as a gay anthem or not. Some of the lyrics can be read suggestively, and the city is, of course, one of “brotherly love.”) At any rate, the song is a triumph, a completely justified #1 hit, with some great electric piano parts and some of the best falsetto singing of Elton’s career.
51. “One Horse Town” (Blue Moves)- “One Horse Town” is an obscure track with multiple movements, and it should be more widely known. Lyrically, this is vintage Bernie, betraying affection for and frustration with his rural origins, and at the same time, and imagining a life beyond in the big city. The allure and disorientation of the metropolis is reflected in Elton’s musical choices, with swooping string sections and a psychedelic middle-eight.