Whether it's his sharp-tongued, witty wordplay, his emotive singing or his knack for penning unforgettable melodies — and often all three — its clear that Elvis Costello has built up a body of work that proves he is one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Here are 20 of his must-hear tracks.
As co-producers of the upcoming tribute collection Beyond Belief: A Tribute to Elvis Costello, (Futureman Records), we are obviously dyed-in-the-wool Costello fanatics. Many a day has been spent burning up the phone lines, discussing and spinning Elvis discs, with each of us interjecting "Listen to this lyric!" or "How does he DO that?" as we discuss his extensive, varied and always entertaining catalog. Arriving at our Elvis fandom from two very different points — Frain dipping her toe into the water with 1994's stellar Brutal Youth and working backward; Borack being a follower since the late '70s — it makes sense that these choices of must-hear Costello songs are all over the map. What follows is not a "greatest hits" list but a collection of 20 of our personal favorites.
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" (My Aim is True, 1977)
A clarion call that helped open the floodgates for what would become known as New Wave, the poppy "Red Shoes" was one of the dear highlights from Costello's debut record and has endured as one of his signature songs. The opening line, "Oh, I used to be disgusted / and now I try to be amused" could serve as Costello's epitaph, and it assisted in establishing his early persona as a nerdy smart aleck. Of course, "I said 'I'm so happy, I could die.' She said 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy" is just as pointed and even more identifiable as a Costello lament. A true classic.
"Beaten to the Punch" (Get Happy!!, 1980)
This is 1:47 of pure, soulful, sonic fury, led by Bruce Thomas hyper-melodic bass runs and Steve Nieve's roller rink organ, which sit comfortably alongside Costello's chew 'em up and spit 'em out vocals. Like most of the other tunes on the '60s soul pastiche Get Happy!!, "Beaten to the Punch" was obviously inspired by, as Costello has claimed, "... a few drinks, a handful of old Stax singles and our copies of Motown Chartbusters, Vol. 3." There's more than a bit of punkish energy at play here, too; listen for Costello's frenzied screaming toward the end of the tune.
"New Amsterdam" (Get Happy!!, 1980)
The Attractions instrumental backing is missing from this number on Get Happy!! Costello recorded this charming ditty all by his lonesome in a London demo studio. The pretty melody attempts to mask some devastating lyrical couplets — "You're sending me tulips mistaken for lilies / you give me your lip after punching me silly" and "Twice shy and dog tired because you've been bitten / everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written" among them — but the overall vibe ends up being both nostalgic and sad.
"From A Whisper to a Scream" (Trust, 1981)
This maddeningly catchy power-pop number finds Costello dueling with Squeeze's Glenn Tllbrook, with fantastic results. Costello's vocal is passionate, The Attractions' backing is rock solid as usual, and the honey-voiced Tilbrook provides the perfect vocal counterpoint. Released as a single, it inexplicably failed to chart in the U.K., although it did receive a fair bit of radio airplay in the US.
"Human Hands" (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
Only Elvis Costello would write something resembling a love song that includes the lines, "Oh darling, how I miss you / I'm just the mere shadow of my former selfishness" and "You know I love you more than slightly" "Human Hands" is highlighted by outstanding keyboard work from Nieve, as well as Pete Thomas' stylish drumming and Bruce Thomas' inventive bass work (check out his work on the third verse and prepare for your mind to be blown). Geoff Emerick's spacious production gives each instrument room to breathe.
"The Greatest Thing" (Punch the Clock, 1983)
A funky, horn-infused tribute to the (lack of) sanctity of marriage, this song is filled with harsh wit, and, conversely, an incredibly poppy melody. The TKO Horns were all over Punch the Clock giving it a distinctive sound that may have turned some fans away, but this song more than holds its own with Pete Thomas' Bo Diddley-ish drum beat and Bruce Thomas' quirky bass line. If it doesn't make you move at least a little, you just might be a zombie.
"Really Mystified" (Sometimes a Great Notion, 1984)
This cover from Costello (backed by The Attractions) first saw release on 1984's Sometimes A Great Notion benefit LP for the British Deaf Association; it eventually showed up on the 1994 and 2002 reissues of Imperial Bedroom on Rykodisc and Rhino, respectively. Costello's take on "Really Mystified" is a straightforward reading of the Merseybeats' 1965 beat music nugget. Costello and the gang sound as if they're having a ball here, and "Really Mystified" showcases Costello as an ace interpreter. Interesting note: Costello and The Attractions covered another tune The Merseybeats recorded in 1965. "I Stand Accused" was released on Get Happy!!
"Tokyo Storm Warning" (Blood and Chocolate, 1986)
This is one of the most distinctive songs in Costello's catalog. It's a long (6:21), winding, almost Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness tune that happens to rock like mad. Leading off with Pete Thomas' pounding tom-toms and running through such obscure lyrical touchstones as dead Italian tourists' bodies, a waitress named Teresa now known as Juanita, and "Japanese Jesus robots telling teenage fortunes," it's not unlike the musical equivalent of a crazy funhouse ride. As a bonus, said funhouse ride includes a nice little Costello guitar solo that sounds like it leapt straight off the Beatles' Revolver. Why a song this, well, strange was released as a single remains a relative mystery, but it managed to scrape its way to No. 73 on the U.K charts.
"Poor Napoleon" (Blood and Chocolate, 1986)
"I can't lie on this bed anymore, it burns my skin / you can take the truthful things you've said to me / and fit them on the head of a pin." That lyrical left hook leads off "Poor Napoleon," but the tune itself is a different animal. It's a slightly psychedelic-swirled, Phil Spector-ish confection with tons of echo, some white noise-like weirdness going on after the bridge, and Costello's then-wife Cait O'Riordan randomly intoning the song's title a few times. Still, it's hypnotically catchy and is also notable for a top-notch vocal performance from Costello. And then there's this: "Bare wires from the socket to the bed where you embrace that girl / did you ever think there's far too many people in the world?" Wow ...
"Crimes of Paris" (Blood & Chocolate, 1986)
Blood & Chocolate brought the music world a reunion of The Attractions, and what a reunion it was. The album as a whole is incredibly diverse and overflowing with musical genius. "Crimes of Paris" has another stick-in-your-head-all-day chorus with sing-song vocals, a McCartney-esque melody, and a sweetness rarely found on Costello's albums courtesy of O'Riordan's background vocals. Lyrical gems are scattered throughout the album, including a favorite from this song: "She's so convenient / he's always stiff as hair lacquer."
"Let Him Dangle" (Spike, 1989)
Based on the tragic story of Derek Bentley, a teen wrongly hanged for the murder of an English police officer, this is one of Costello's few "protest" songs. The minor key of the song and Benmont Tench's plodding piano progressions combine with Costello's hauntingly enraged vocals to invoke passion and justice-fueled emotion. Marc Ribot's jagged guitar solo comes at an instant when it matches the fiery passion that has built over the course of the song. The musical credits denote that an Oldsmobile hubcap was played; as usual, Elvis' creativity goes unmatched.
"The Other Side of Summer" (Mighty Like a Rose, 1991)
If anyone can make a song about drugs, poverty and madness sound like musical sunshine, it's Elvis Costello. The catchy chorus and sweet, infectious background vocals belie the fact that the song is about all those nasty things in the city that are best left unspoken when you're having summertime fun. Nieve's carousel-like organ work is hypnotic, while Costello's vocal melody is an instant pop earworm. It's a toe-tapping, head-bobbing good time, but the lyrics reiterate that "there's malice and there's magic in every season."
"Kinder Murder" (Brutal Youth, 1994)
A sinister tale of rape with some typically vivid lyrical imagery ("Jimmy took her down to the perimeter fence / he was back in half an hour, he said he left her senseless"), sung over a relatively sparse backing of a double-tracked electric guitar, bass and drums (with Pete Thomas on drums, Costello on everything else). The biting guitar sound and the snapping snare drum are both very in your face and help to put across chilling lyrics such as, "She could have kept her knees together / should have kept her mouth shut."
"Rocking Horse Road" (Brutal Youth, 1994)
If Brutal Youth can be seen as a musical theme park, with each song a nonstop roller coaster of hooks and melodies, then "Rocking Horse Road" masquerades as a relatively calm, smooth ride, with an unexpected 65-foot drop toward the end. Initially, the quiet drums and sensitive vocals coax the listener into a feeling of comfort and security, but gradually the song picks up speed as added vocal layers are stacked upon more intense guitar riffs until the whole thing bursts into a musical climax of exploding drums and a wailing organ that makes your heart race and stomach fly into your chest. Such an adrenaline rush should come with a warning label.
"My Mood Swings" (The Big Lebowski Soundtrack, 1998)
It seems a shame that this rough-edged rocker wasn't released on an Elvis album proper until last year's In Motion Pictures collection; it's one of the catchiest, hookiest songs he's ever recorded In just over two minutes, the song punches you with Ribot's jaunty guitar work, Costello's skillful, sultry, tenor and bass slides that'd fit perfectly in a '60s surf song. What's not to love?
"God Give Me Strength" (Painted From Memory, 1998)
For lack of a better description, "God Give Me Strength" is like listening to someone cry. Re-released in 2012 on the In Motion Pictures compilation, Costello co-wrote this song with fellow musical genius Burt Bacharach. The stylings of Bacharach can be heard in the flowing, '60s-like horn and string arrangements, while the lyrics are clearly Costello's: "Maybe I was washed out like a lip print on a shirt / See I'm only human, I want him to hurt." To drive home the intensely personal lyrics, Elvis delivers heart-melting whispers of falsetto as well as intense cries of pain. Side note: We were both nearly moved to tears when we saw him perform a version of this one live in Los Angeles in 2010; Costello strolled through the audience as he sang, giving everyone a front row seat to his incredible raw talent.
"She" (Notting Hill Soundtrack, 1999)
A glorious version of the Charles Aznavour ballad, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring former Humble Pie member Clem Clempson on guitar), "She" is no doubt the loveliest cover tune Costello has ever committed to tape. His lead vocal exudes just the proper amount of passion, longing and regret without ever turning into schmaltz. It's certainly a long way from the angry young man of "Radio Radio:" but it proves yet again that Costello can succeed in a variety of genres. Others have attempted this tune — most recently Jeff Lynne on Long Wave in 2012 — but Costello's heartfelt rendition is the definitive reading.
"The Delivery Man" (The Delivery Man, 2004)
I've always been a sucker for "story songs" such as this one; they demand attention and have a way of drawing me in closer to the music. This title track from the Elvis Costello and The Imposters' 2004 release is an intriguing tale of two women in small-town America who are captivated by the local delivery man who "looks like Elvis" and "seems like Jesus." An unexpected liaison catches the scandalmongers by surprise in this five-minute musical soap opera. You'll come for the bluest' guitar hooks and sharp-tongued melody, but you'll stay for the lyrical drama and titillation.
"American Gangster Time" (Momofuku, 2008)
Costello has explained that the Momofuku album took such little time to slap together that it's named after the guy who created Ramen noodles. (Just add water!) One listen to "American Gangster Time," and it's evident that he and The Imposters wanted to revert to straightforward rock 'n' roll; the track sounds like a guitar-heavy cut from the early Attractions days, laden with Nieve's Vox organ and a disregard for any sort of proper vocal technique on Costello's part. The lyrics might offend the more patriotic listener, but when has Elvis not been at least slightly controversial?
"Five Small Words" (National Ransom, 2010)
This song sounds like riding down a country road with the windows down on a summer day. The driving drum beat and echoing, guttural guitar sound give this song a country-rock feel that this Englishman pulls off surprisingly effortlessly. Mike Compton (the Nashville Bluegrass Band) provides intricate harmonies on lyrics about a forgotten lover confusedly crying five-word phrases: "Don't you love me anymore?" "Baby, please don't leave me." "Why don't you believe me?" "Why did you deceive me?"