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Elvis Costello: Celebrate 60 with my top 10!

elvis-costello

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.

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Posted on August 26, 2014, in Music, Top Ten and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. jeffthewildman

    Speaking as a Costello fan, I must say good choices.

    My top 10:

    10: No Action
    9: Watching The Detectives
    8: Complicated Shadows
    7: Less Than Zero
    6: The Other Side Of Summer
    5: Radio Radio
    4: Brilliant Mistake
    3: The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes
    2: Pump It Up
    1: High Fidelity

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    • I considered each of these when writing my article. It’s pretty stunning how strong Costello’s discography is. It becomes obvious when two fans can make top 10 lists and only match a single song!

      Lots of fans jumped ship when he started mixing up his rock ‘n’ roll offerings with other musical styles, but I contend that’s a mistake. To my ear, projects like his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet reward repeat listening. But of course I was brought up with classical, jazz standards, and early rock ‘n’ roll all playing in my parents’ house in roughly equal measures, so maybe that made me open to this sort of genre skipping.

      Thanks for offering your great list! Folks should go to Youtube and also check out the songs you recommend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Apparently RB isn’t too old to appreciate something different musically. Never paid Costello much attention in the past but now am understanding why he has such a devoted fan base. I am a huge Burt Bacharach fan and found this collaboration fascinating. There was another post on Leblog where you might have mentioned this already, Anyway, good selection of eclectic and diverse selections, I will always go for the melodic songwriters, EC has a surprising representation there.

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    • Check out the whole album “Painted From Memory.” It is a fantastic collection of songs, all of which were co-written by Costello and Bacharach.

      Costello has recorded in such a wide variety of styles that most any music fan can find something he’s done that they can appreciate. His first record was a blues/pub rock album recorded with Huey Lewis’ old backing band Clover. He quickly then got lumped in with the punk/new wave movement for a few years, and some of his records made that a legitimate association, but he quickly crossed over to other styles, recording an entire album of covers of country songs and a country/blues album of mostly originals. In 1993 he teamed with the Brodsky Quartet for a string song cycle. He has also written songs with Paul McCartney, Bacharach, T-Bone Burnett and others. His jazz standards work produced some really fine songs too.

      I could go on forever, but I have to go to work 🙂

      thanks for reading!

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    • I haven’t gone through this article yet. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I have always viewed Costello like the musical equivalent of broccoli. I understand that he is supposed to be good for me, but I have never been able to force myself to try to appreciate him. Every now and then, I will be exposed to his work. But it’s never inspired me to listen to him on my own. I figure when I am in the right frame of mind, I will dig into this article like a big steaming plate of veggies. Maybe I’m not too old to appreciate something different.

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      • You may be interested to know that I like broccoli. 🙂
        If you’re looking for Costello songs with a little more froth, check out “Monkey to Man,” “The Loved Ones,” “Veronica,” “Blue Chair,” “Every Day i Write the Book,” “Red Shoes,” “Sneaky Feelings,” “Just About Glad,” “The Only Flame in Town,” “Starting to Come to Me,” “The World and His Wife,” “Georgie and Her Rival,” “Radio Sweetheart,” and “Lovable.” Once you’ve gone through the stuff in the article, of course.

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  3. The 80ish new wave association has a lot to do with why I didn’t listen to Elvis Costello early on. Friends who scorned my taste in music informed me that the only cool thing to listen to was new wave, and none of those bands did anything for me other than the Cars, who were more mainstream after the first album. First album certainly good, but all their stuff was good. The same people who went nuts for lines like “Take off that party dress” also hailed the creativity of the Cars saying they needed “someone to bleed”. To me it’s music you either liked or didn’t like, never mind this battle of what was coolest. Besides, most new wave, and all punk rock, was unlistenable to those of us who prefer a melody you can whistle. I’m typing this looking out at the lights of highrises shining over the Florida intracoastal, and all of a sudden I have Ric Ocasek in my head, singing “All I want is you tonight…”

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first Cars album is one of the great power pop records of all time. One of these days I will own an ice cream truck that plays “Let the Good Times Roll” instead of the music box style tunes they usually feature.

      I’ve never really had any trouble in singing along to my favorite punk records. The Ramones are very easy to sing, and if you give a listen to London Calling by The Clash, songs like “Train in Vain,” “The Card Cheat,” and “Lost in the Supermarket” have very distinct melodies. Punk definitely emphasized attitude over musicianship, but that is part of what I found appealing. As Tom Petty once said, “Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t supposed to be really good.”

      Of course, obviously, I also love overtly melodic music, because I was brought up in part on jazz standards and musical theatre. This is part of why Costello is so perfect for me, he dabbles in different styles and emphasizes just enough melody and musicianship without giving up the rough edges that make him unique and interesting.

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  4. The Cars are pretty well amazing. Sadly, there will be no more tunes from Benjamin Orr who died so young. He was the creative force behind the Cars’ melodic offerings. There isn’t anything remarkable about lyrics like “Can I take you out for a while” it’s the music leading up to them that elicits a visceral reaction.
    The Clash, oh ugh, cannot pretend to appreciate “Should I Stay or Should I Go” or “Rock the Casbah.” Double ugh. I give you credit Daffy, you have an appreciation for a wide variety of musical styles.
    One of these days I’m going to write a music post for Leblog. I just have to think of something that would fit into the existing formats. Lebeau and Daffy both might hate it. 🙂
    And, BTW vegetables should not be cooked… better raw 🙂

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