A quick jaunt to iTunes reveals that I have 420 files by Elvis Costello in his various guises (solo, with the Attractions, with the Imposters, with the Brodsky Quartet; with Allen Toussaint, and with Flip City). Narrowing such a sprawling selection of songs down to 20 is not easy, especially when so many of them rank among the wittiest, nastiest, and most thrilling ever spat out by a wiry geek fueled on “guilt and revenge.” While no fan of the true king of Rock & Roll will ever agree on what his 20 greatest moments are, I’ve decided that mine are so perfectly selected, so definitive of the man and his immense body of work, that these are, indeed, The 20 Greatest Songs by Elvis Costello! Seriously, these aren’t just my personal favorites. I mean it.
20. “Riot Act” (from the album Get Happy!! 1980)
At the tail end of an amphetamine blast of 19 punk-soul numbers, “Riot Act” is an almost shocking change of pace. Quite unlike the rest of Get Happy!!—and possibly any other song in Costello’s repertoire—“Riot Act” is a slow-burn that could sit quite comfortably on an old Procol Harum album. The song shares Procol’s penchant for funereal pacing and soulful climaxes, but Gary Brooker never sounded as desperate, so unhinged as Elvis does when “Riot Act” reaches its pitch. For sheer drama, it has few peers.
Riot Act - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
19. “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” (from the album Blood and Chocolate 1986)
Pop music is glutted with tales of unrequited love, yet few of them really capture the mania or self-loathing that accompanies the unfortunate situation the way “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” does. What makes this churning white-soul dirge even more authentic is the way it addresses the tedious monotony of romantic obsession. The song is as much about the delirium of “standing in the supermarket, shouting at the customers” as it is about “hanging around and drowning” in dull self-pity. Elvis sings a bit beneath his natural key, lending the track a confidential, breathless quality.
Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head - Elvis Costello
18. “Sneaky Feelings” (from the album My Aim Is True 1977)
Elvis Costello’s worship of The Band ran deep, and the influence of the rootsy Canadian rockers is in full-effect on “Sneaky Feelings”. This is one of his more jovial looks at infidelity, and whereas the later Elvis probably would have sneered these lyrics, the young one drunkenly guffaws them (listen to the way he drawls “I still got a lawng, lawng, lawng way to go” in the fade). The song also features one of his most hilarious forays into egocentricity when he hiccups, “We can sit like lovers, staring in each other’s eyes, but the magic of the moment might become too much for you”. It’s all incredibly catchy and fun and bears more than a passing resemblance to the theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter”.
Sneaky Feelings - Elvis Costello
17. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” (from the album This Year’s Model 1978)
Elvis Costello did not fall under the thrall of reggae as devotedly as Joe Strummer or Sting did, but the few times he pulled it out of his bottomless bag of musical tricks, he composed a classic. The first of these was “Watching the Detectives”, but his most bracing reggae pastiche is “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”. Some have speculated that the lyrics were inspired by Michelangelo Antonionni’s Swinging-London classic Blow Up (released in ’66… a year in which many got their kicks, apparently), but the real allure of this record is in the performance. Both Elvis’s singing and his guitar playing drip with invective as Steve Nieve spins out spidery organ lines and the Thomas boys make their bid for Tightest Rhythm Section in Rock & Roll.
(I Dont Want To Go To) Chelsea - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
16. “Clubland” (from the album Trust 1981)
“Clubland” was an early MTV favorite, so it surely served as a gateway for many future fans such as me. This time out, Elvis aims his poison-pen at the elitism of club-culture and the vacuous dopes who’ve come to “shoot the pony” and “do the jerk” (why do I think he isn’t referring to a couple of groovy ‘60s dance fads here?). He sets his nasty poetry to a snappy, slinky tango rhythm. Is this the only Rock & Roll song ever written in the tango style? Is there a single musical resource Elvis Costello has not used? If “Pump it Up” qualifies as his rap song, then the answer is “no.”
Clubland - Elvis Costello
15. “Daddy Can I Turn This?” (from the album When I Was Cruel 2002)
When I Was Cruel is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. Elvis still hadn’t realized that the fact that a CD allows space for more than an hour of music doesn’t mean you actually have to fill it with more than an hour of music. Toward the end of this unwieldy record is a terse, punchy, slashing rocker called “Daddy Can I Turn This” that lays waste to much of the bloat that followed it. This razor-sharp gem is potent evidence that Elvis could still deliver the goods twenty five years after his debut, and his next album proved that he could still make a concise, masterful album from end to end. Still, nothing on The Delivery Man rages with the ferocity of “Daddy Can I Turn This?”
Daddy Can I Turn This? - Elvis Costello
14. “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (from the album Blood and Chocolate 1986)
Following Elvis’s forays into country (Almost Blue and King of America), light psychedelia (Imperial Bedroom), and slick ‘80s pop (Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World), Blood and Chocolate was a very welcome return to gutsy Rock & Rock. No song on the album balances fury and poppiness as magnificently as “I Hope You’re Happy Now”. The rhythm is restrained, but the band plays fierce and loud, threatening to overwhelm Elvis’s voice in the gale. He puts up an unflagging fight throughout, though, and the way he wails the title kiss-off through the outro is electrifying.
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13. “Pony St.” (from the album Brutal Youth 1994)
Elvis got a lot of jive for using Mitchell Froom to produce a couple of his albums in the early ‘90s. Critics whined that Froom tended to overproduce, and while I personally love the guy’s overproductions (especially on the records he made with ex-wife Suzanne Vega), “Pony St.” sounds as stripped down and raw as Elvis’s early work with the Attractions. Perhaps this is because Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas contribute piano and drums, respectively, to this track. Attraction Bruce Thomas did add his peerless bass work to several numbers on the tremendously underrated Brutal Youth, but this isn’t one of them. That’s Costello’s old crony Nick Lowe bending notes high up on the fret board during the expectant opening of “Pony St.”, and once the song really kicks in, it’s pure exhilaration until Elvis’s crazed shouts of “She lives on, she lives on” bring the whirling mania to its conclusion.
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12. “Battered Old Bird” (from the album Blood and Chocolate 1986)
If any song of Elvis should be adapted into a film, it’s “Battered Old Bird”. The song was inspired by memories of the colorful and desperate tenants of the house in which he grew up. There’s a foul-mouthed French child, a flasher, a pair of old maids, and a pill-popping child killer, and Elvis conveys their oddball melodramas with the same slow-burning whisper-to-a-scream hysteria he displayed in “Riot Act”. An epic in every respect.
Battered Old Bird - Elvis Costello & the Attractions
11. “Man Out of Time” (from the album Imperial Bedroom 1982)
The lengthy “Man Out of Time” is like an encyclopedia of Elvis Costello’s best lines: “‘Cause the high heel he used to be has been ground down”; “There’s a tuppeny hapenny millionaire looking for a fourpenny one”; “He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge, he stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege”; “Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning, you drink yourself insensitive and you hate yourself in the morning”. “Man Out of Time” would rate as a classic if only for its lyrics, but the words are matched step-for-step by the sweeping, majestic melody and climactic chorus. And the primal scream fits that bookend the track (actually snatched from an insane outtake of this song) are pretty boss, too.
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10. “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4” (from the album Mighty Like a Rose 1991)
OK, Elvis Costello is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—lyricists in the history of Rock & Roll. He has written funny, trenchant, lacerating insights on everything from pop mainstays like love and death to more esoteric subjects like the Falkland War and how dumb he thinks his bass player is. Still, some of his lyrics just seem like, well, nonsense. This isn’t necessarily a detriment, though. Take “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4”. It’s hard to suss exactly what Elvis is going on about, but images like “I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace / A shadow of regret across a young mother’s face” still ring out lucidly, and when coupled with his impassioned delivery, they can send shivers up the spine. And anyone who has attended an Elvis Costello concert and been party to one of his bawdy sing-a-longs of this circusy number will surely rank it as a favorite afterward.
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9. “Oliver’s Army” (from the album Armed Forces 1979)
Like many other junior MTV-viewers, I was first introduced to the pop prowess of Elvis Costello and the Attractions via “Oliver’s Army”. I must have been about 8-years old at the time, so I certainly had no idea who Oliver was (Oliver Cromwell) or what his army was doing (luring the unemployed into the New Model Army to kill and be killed), but the effervescent rhythms and absurdly catchy chorus (complete with ABBA-inspired piano runs and pseudo-Ronnie Spector “Woah-oh-oh-ohs”) translated just fine. All these years later, Costello’s blend of sugar-pop and angsty antimilitarism remains as delectably bitter-sweet as ever.
Olivers Army - Elvis Costello
8. “Busy Bodies” (from the album Armed Forces 1979)
Possibly the most underappreciated track on one of Elvis’s most widely appreciated albums, “Busy Bodies” is a dense, pumping powerhouse that portends the soul direction of Get Happy!!. It’s an intense 3:35, with the throbbing verses transmuting into a distraught chorus, which builds to an elliptical guitar riff. Even as “Busy Bodies” shifts through its various sections, the rhythm never lets up, and Elvis’s tale of doomed sexual couplings finds him at his most evocative and dishing out zingers like “You wash and brush up, you want to dress up, you want to kiss her, but she's busy with her makeup.”
Busy Bodies - Elvis Costello & the Attractions
7. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” (from the album My Aim Is True 1977)
Like its album-mate “Sneaky Feelings”, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” couches bitter lyrics in a completely fresh-faced package. As much as Elvis references ‘60s pop, he usually doesn’t get this jangly. A big exception is “You Bowed Down” on All This Useless Beauty, but with Roger McGuinn on the twelve-string Rickenbacker, it couldn’t help but be a jangle-fest. “Red Shoes” also owes a debt to the Byrds, and its shimmering guitars keep lines like “I said, ‘I'm so happy, I could die.’ She said, ‘Drop dead,’ then left with another guy” from raining on this parade of perfect pop.
Elvis Costello: (The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes - Elvis Costello
6. “Suit of Lights” (from the album King of America 1986)
A lot of people rate King of America among Elvis’s best albums, but I’ve never been a big fan. It’s a little too blues and country oriented (I prefer the guy when he’s popping or rocking); the brittle, bass-less, oh-so ‘80s production puts me off; and I cannot stand his slinky, synthy cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. “Suit of Lights”, however, completely transcends whatever problems I (and, apparently, I alone) have with King of America. Elvis has described it as “a song about work and respect” inspired by his father, a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and it is rich with evocative, elegiac imagery. It also sports what may be Costello’s nastiest joke (“You request some song you hate, you sentimental fool / And it’s the force of habit / If it moves then you fuck it, if it doesn’t than you stab it”), and the weary, ornery, insistent refrain is as gut-wrenching as it is infectious.
Suit of Lights - Elvis Costello
5. “20% Amnesia” (from the album Brutal Youth 1994)
“20% Amnesia” is Elvis Costello’s Frankenstein Monster. It’s unwieldy, slightly mechanical, and sounds as if it was stitched together from three different songs. Starting cold with a larynx shredding shriek of “‘What is your destiny?’ the police woman said,” the track detonates into the heaviest thing Elvis ever laid down. Shoved in the middle of all the screaming and thumping are a tick-tocky bridge and a tangy reiteration of the riff from “You Belong to Me” from This Year’s Model. As strident as “20% Amnesia” is, it’s still as hummable as Elvis’s poppiest material, and its combination of melody and monstrous power makes for an addictive cocktail.
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4. “No Action” (from the album This Year’s Model 1978)
“No Action” actually has quite a bit in common with “20 % Amnesia”. Both songs begin with a capella declarations that lurch into assorted mayhem. But if the touchstone of “20% Amnesia” is heavy rock, the spark of “No Action” is punk. What sets it apart from most punk songs of its era is the intricacy of the composition and the performance. The Attractions put in overtime as they sprint through the song’s tricky chord changes, with Pete Thomas rolling through his kit like Keith Moon and Bruce Thomas zipping up and down the fret board like a psychopath. The Ramones surely never wrote anything this complex. Its title is nothing short of false-advertising, because “No Action” is action packed.
No Action - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
3. “Love for Tender” (from the album Get Happy!! 1980)
If there’s one thing Elvis Costello loves, it’s ironic references to his favorite pop songs. “Love for Tender” offers two for the price of one: the bass line was copped from the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the title-refrain from Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” (not the first time he used this particular play on words). Still, “Love for Tender” is pure Elvis and the Attractions: fast, feisty, complex, succinct, witty, and catchy as the best of the Supremes or Presley. Bruce Thomas’s bass drives the performance, but Elvis’s avalanche of puns provides just as much fun. Furthering the irony is the fact that “Love for Tender” was intended as an homage to Motown soul: a genre of music designed primarily for dancing. But can anyone dance fast enough to keep up with “Love for Tender”? To do so, they’d have to gobble as many pills as the Attractions probably did before cutting this classic.
Love For Tender - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
2. “Beyond Belief” (from the album Imperial Bedroom 1982)
Elvis Costello is a master of pop craftsmanship with utter respect for the verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, but he tossed that shit right out the window when he wrote the swirling, psychedelic “Beyond Belief”. The song unfolds gradually, channeling through a couple of taut verses, then hinting at climax with a brief sparkling interlude, before snapping shut like a bear trap for another verse that finally explodes into an exhilarating repeated refrain (and it explodes quite literally… listen for a “bomb” sound effect during the transition!). The genius of the nontraditional structure of “Beyond Belief” is the way it builds suspense; instead of scattering little pay-offs throughout the piece, as most writers use choruses, Elvis saves up the big money shot for the end, and it’s well worth the wait. If Alfred Hitchcock ever wrote a pop song, it would have been “Beyond Belief”.
Beyond Belief - Elvis Costello
1. “Clean Money” (B-side of 1980)
Elvis Costello has written and performed some deathless songs during his thirty-plus-year career— “Oliver’s Army”, “Pump It Up”, “Radio Radio”, Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding”— but what may be his most compelling song is buried on the B-side of the “Clubland” single. “Clean Money” is the hardest, fastest, noisiest thing Elvis and the Attractions ever recorded. So much melody, energy, compositional invention, and lyrical wit (there’s that “love for tender” metaphor in its original context!) is packed into the song’s fleeting two minutes, Elvis should have won the Nobel Prize for Architecture for constructing it. Anyone who wonders how the guy who sang “Veronica” and “Allison” was once considered part of the punk movement needs listen no further than this song.
Clean Money - Elvis Costello