Elvis Costello: Celebrate 60 with my top 10!
Yesterday was Elvis Costello’s 60th birthday. Kind of hard to believe, despite the fact that he’s been cranky for most of his years. He’s also been my absolute favorite recording artist since I got ahold of a copy of his “Girls Girls Girls” compilation about 25 years ago. When I shared an article in which somebody else named his 10 biggest songs yesterday, two people (one of my best friends and my brother) challenged me to proclaim my own 10 favorite songs of Mr. Costello’s. So here I am.
I will be including only songs which he had a hand in writing, so his fantastic covers of songs like “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” “She,” and “I’m Your Toy” will not show up here. You will see and hear a nice variety of recordings from throughout his career, not just the early stuff.
I expect this to be very difficult, not in finding 10 worthy songs, but in the pain of cutting the list down to that small number. Let’s get started!
10: Lipstick Vogue from This Year’s Model (1978)
The work of Costello’s best known backing band, The Attractions, positively pulses with vigor in this recording, with each member seeming to challenge the others to step up and swing hard. There’s not much melody here, but the fantastic drama, lyric phrasing, and energy vault this song over other greats from the same album such as “Radio Radio,” “Pump it Up,” and “Chelsea.”
9: Let Me Tell You About Her from North (2003)
Costello’s disintegrating marriage and subsequent romance with his current wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, is retold on North through a series of simple piano, voice, and strings recordings. While the overall album is uneven, this track is lovely and charming in a natural and unpretentious way that truly endears itself to me.
8: Sulphur to Sugarcane from Secret Profane & Sugarcane (2009)
This is one of Costello’s most lively and naughty songs, joyfully flaunting the horns on its main character’s head as he travels the country drumming up votes. The sudden Def Lepard reference is one of the most unexpected moments in Costello’s recording career, but only heightens the devilish fun at play.
7: My Thief from Painted From Memory (1998)
The album-long collaboration Costello joined with songwriting great Burt Bacharach yielded wonderfully beautiful results, with this story of lost love among its best. There are several other songs from the record which I could have included instead, but this is the one that effects me emotionally every time.
6: Let Him Dangle from SPIKE (1989)
This capital punishment story of Bentley and Craig, a notoriously controversial real life occurrence in Britain, pulls a hair-raising performance from Costello here. The album version, featuring Marc Ribot’s great electric guitar work, is thrilling as well, but I prefer this stripped down version.
5: All This Useless Beauty from All This Useless Beauty (1996)
This is where people started to realize that Elvis had his sights set on writing songs that could sit along the great standards. While his impulse for cynicism and intellectualism may put off the audience this style is aimed at, these are qualities I value and are natural for Costello. He says a lot here.
4: The Crooked Line from Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane (2009)
I was lucky to find a decent live recording of this wonderful 2009 song, with one of Costello’s most unaffected lyrics and melodies. The warmth and sentimentality are so seamless and appealing that I repeatedly went back to the liner notes when I first got the album to be sure he had written this himself. Indeed he had, and it is one of his very best.
3: Alison from My Aim is True (1977)
This is perhaps Costello’s signature song, and it is so strong all around that he dares you to deny its classic status by working in lines from Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” when he plays it live. Not once have I thought he was over-reaching. “Alison” belongs in that pantheon.
2: Oliver’s Army from Armed Forces (1979)
One of Costello’s most poppy and catchy songs was undercut with aggressively controversial lyrics, criticizing colonialism, and the racial fears of the middle class, while dubbing some British soldiers as “white Ni**er”s. It’s a combative move intended to make a point that drowns in its boldness and leads some listeners to overlook the humor present in the song. Costello would spend a lot of time over the following years attempting to correct misconceptions about himself. Try to focus on the rest of this infectious song instead.
1: Watching the Detectives from My Aim is True (1977)
“Watching the Detectives” sat in a strange place on its release. British audiences bought it in droves as a single, separate from any of Costello’s albums, but Americans ended up getting it tacked onto his debut record My Aim is True, where it doesn’t really fit. The backing instrumentation has much more in common with his follow-up record This Year’s Model, with its angular guitar work and screeching organ. His seething young man act got established with this single, and it still stands as the most iconic and bracing example of the nervy and cinematic work he was routinely doing.
Well, there you have it. If I re-wrote this same article tomorrow, I’d probably replace half of these songs for something else. How the heck did I leave out tracks from King of America and The Delivery Man entirely? “Pills & Soap” was a very painful last cut from the list and “Sneaky Feelings” and “Almost Blue” could easily have landed spots ahead of lower-ranked tunes. Hopefully Costello’s versatile discography found something for most everyone to enjoy.