London Telegraph, July 5, 2017

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London Telegraph

UK & Ireland newspapers

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Elvis Costello's 40 best songs


Martin Chilton

Elvis Costello, the first new artist signed to Stiff Records, back in 1977, is one of the UK's finest songwriters. Here Martin Chilton picks his best 40 songs.

40 — Couldn't Call It Unexpected (Mighty Like A Rose, 1991)
"When you're writing, it's all about enjoying it, getting something from it, trying to give something to it," says Elvis Costello, who sometimes sings this song about "believing in something" without a microphone. Costello was born Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, in London on 25 August 1954. His stage name Elvis was borrowed from Presley and his own father's singing name of Costello.

39 — Heart Shaped Bruise (The Delivery Man, 2004)
What more is there to take from me?
There's nothing else to give you, dear
There's nothing more that I can lose
Except this heart shaped bruise
A sad song. Perfect for a duet with Emmylou Harris.

38 — Still Too Soon to Know (Brutal Youth, 1994)
During the Seventies, Elvis Costello was linked with the punk rock movement but told Spin magazine in 2012: "Well, I was marketed by other people, not by me. And 'punk' – what nonsense that was. Or 'new wave' – even bigger nonsense. I'm just a songwriter. I knew older stuff and I knew newer stuff."

37 — Lipstick Vogue (This Year's Model, 1978)
A song by Elvis Costello and The Attractions (Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass guitar and Pete Thomas on drums) and Costello says the song was inspired by "the rhythms of the Metropolitan line (on which it was written) colliding with a song by The Byrds called "I See You." "There are things you can't cover up with lipstick and powder," Costello once said.

36 — Poor Fractured Atlas (All This Useless Beauty, 1996)
Elvis Costello said that "Poor Fractured Atlas" was written for a woman to sing. It was supposedly Aimee Mann, but she never recorded it.

35 — I Want You (Blood & Chocolate, 1986)
One of Elvis Costello's more disturbing songs (he called the song "the aural equivalent of a blurred polaroid"), which was produced by Nick Lowe. In later years he would sing the song with The Roots.

34 — This Year's Girl (This Year's Model, 1978)
Elvis Costello said once: "Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere."

33 — You Little Fool (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
From the album that inspired the title of Bret Easton Ellis' novel.

32 — All These Strangers (National Ransom, 2010)
Late Elvis Costello, the track was from an album produced by frequent collaborator T Bone Burnett. Burnett has described Costello as "one of the great songwriters." Costello's father, Ronald Patrick Ross MacManus, was an English musician and trumpet player of Irish descent. He performed with Joe Loss and his Orchestra. Ronan and Ruairi MacManus are also musicians, performing as The MacManus Brothers.

31 — Watch Your Step (Trust, 1981)
"The only two things that motivate me and that matter to me are revenge and guilt," said Elvis Costello. "Watch Your Step" came at a time when Costello was drinking heavily.

30 — Pump It Up (This Year's Model, 1978)
"Pump It Up" mocks some of the excesses of rock bands in the Seventies. Elvis Costello said of the song: "It was a satire. If you listen to the lyrics, it kind of goes against the grain of hedonism."

29 — Bullets for the Newborn King (National Ransom, 2010)
From an album recorded in Nashville that features guest appearances by Vince Gill, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell. T Bone Burnett was again the producer.

28 — High Fidelity (Get Happy!!, 1980)
"I was always into writing a lot of words. I liked the effect of a lot of images passing by quickly," said Costello.

27 — Good Year for the Roses (Almost Blue, 1981)
Elvis Costello recorded a fine album of country music covers and none was better than his version of Jerry Chesnut's "Good Year for the Roses." Chesnut also wrote hits for Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Costello has done some great covers in his time, including a slow and maudlin version of Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" and a haunting take on Richard Thompson's "End of the Rainbow."

26 — Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (King of America, 1980)
"I've been lucky to listen to lots of different types of music," says Elvis Costello, who is capable of singing so many different styles, including soul. The song was originally written for Nina Simone by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus. Costello sings it really well. Talking about other musicians who have covered his songs, Costello said: "The ones that are most intriguing to me are things like Roy Orbison doing 'The Comedians,' because I completely rewrote it to make it more suitable for him, and then to hear him actually sing it that way was thrilling. Or to hear Johnny Cash sing 'Hidden Shame' was really great. Chet Baker singing 'Almost Blue' was a realisation of a dream I had for the song, even though his actual performance is incredibly fragile, because he wasn't in the best of shape when he did it."

25 — This Is Hell (Brutal Youth, 1994)
Elvis Costello is a witty writer, too. On "This Is Hell," he sings 'My Favourite Things' are playing again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane

24 — Little Palaces (King of America, 1986)
Elvis Costello songs sometimes hark back to the Merseyside he knew as a child and a young man. "Little Palaces," with its bleak picture of "chocolate town" evokes the terraced houses of Birkenhead and the nearby Cadbury's factory in Moreton where his father worked. "This concerns the town where my family ended up, and the things that have happened to it ever since," he said.

23 — Stranger in the House (This Year's Model)
There is a wonderful video of Elvis Costello performing this song in a duet with George Jones. A great weepy song that shows Costello can write authentic country music. "This never was one of the great romances, But I thought you'd always have those young girl's eyes. But now they look in tired and bitter glances, At the ghost of a man who walks 'round in my disguise.

22 — Less Than Zero (My Aim is True, 1977)
Elvis Costello said: "'Less Than Zero' was a song I had written after seeing the despicable Oswald Mosley being interviewed on BBC television. The former leader of the British Union of Fascists seemed unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930s. The song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument."

21 — (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes (My Aim is True, 1977)
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was part of My Aim Is True, which was recorded over 24 hours in Pathway Studios in Holloway, London. It was the first of five consecutive Costello albums produced by Nick Lowe. In the Seventies, Costello used a Jazzmaster guitar but told Fender.com: "I began the recording of the first record with a CBS-era Telecaster. A friend of mine who was the drummer in my previous band, when I was a semi-professional, actually worked for Fender, and he could get a company discount. And he got me a Telecaster — brand-new, straight up from the factory, out of the box — and the strings were so far from the neck; it was set up like a Dobro. I knew so little about guitars; I thought that I was just unlucky and you couldn't change them. I basically played it like that for a couple of years, including when I finally got a break and started making a record. So on the first sessions for My Aim Is True, I was playing this Telecaster — maple neck, blonde finish Telecaster; really hard to play."

20 — (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? (Armed Forces, 1979)
Nick Lowe's song is still a staple of Elvis Costello concerts. Lowe was once asked how his career have been different if he had never heard of Costello. He replied: "I knew him a long time before he became Elvis Costello. The one major way it would be different is that he was a big fan of this band I was in called Brinsley Schwarz. We had a song called, '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding.' When we broke up, that song would have gone into the dustbin along with the rest of our repertoire. When I became Costello's producer, he told me he wanted to record that song. Of course, he did, and he's the guy who really got the song all of the attention. In that respect, my career would be quite different."

19 — Radio, Radio (This Year's Model, 1978)
Elvis Costello told the Hollywood Reporter: "When I was sitting at home in England in 1975, in the thrall of Bruce Springsteen, he sort of made it feel like a big dream in America where a radio was playing and it was always the perfect song. And even though there's sadness in the song, I wanted to believe that somewhere it was like that and it wasn't like it was in the suburbs, where you couldn't hear any music you liked half the time. So that was a wishful song. Then, of course, you get into the business of making records and you realise what it's really about is some guy going off with a big sack of money to give it to somebody with some hookers and cocaine so that they play your record enough times that people get batted to death with it and that makes it a hit." The outcome was "Radio, Radio."

18 — I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down (Get Happy!!, 1979)
Elvis Costello has fun with a classic Sam & Dave Sixties song, which was written by Homer Banks and Allen Jones. "Obviously the people that I admired, like the Beatles were really into rock 'n' roll, but it was already a little past rock 'n' roll when I started listening and making my own choices about music. I've been lucky to listen to lots of different types of music," Costello said in 2004.

17 — Brilliant Mistake (King of America, 1986)
Elvis Costello received an honorary doctor of music title from Liverpool University for his songwriting. He said once: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it's really a stupid thing to want to do."

16 — Kinder Murder (Brutal Youth, 1994)
Elvis Costello can't read music but he can write memorably dark lyrics, as on "Kinder Murder" from the aptly-named Brutal Youth album.

15 — (I Don't Want To) Go To Chelsea (This Year's Model)
Still a favourite at concerts.

14 — Sleep of the Just (King of America, 1986)
Elvis Costello can be a harrowing writer, as "Sleep of the Just" shows.

13 — American Without Tears (King of America, 1986)
This song features the wonderful Jo-El Sonnier on French accordion. Costello has described King of America as "inherently contradictory" (hence the title). Costello has made many appearances on television, incidentally, including in a 2003 episode of Frasier. He played Ben, a folk singer whose renditions of "The Wild Rover" and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" ruin the atmosphere at Frasier and Niles's favourite coffee house. He has also appeared in sitcom Two and a Half Men, and has been on The Larry Sanders Show. In 2010 he appeared as himself on the excellent HBO series Tremé.

12 — Human Hands (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
A cleverly arranged song (keyboard player Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas's stylish drumming and Bruce Thomas's inventive bass work are given breathing space) for a wry Costello love song that includes the lines:
Oh darling, how I miss you/ I'm just the mere shadow of my former selfishness

11 — Our Little Angel (King of America, 1986)
A classy song. Elvis Costello has said that what pushed him on in music is "the curiosity, a passion for new ideas."

10 — New Amsterdam (Get Happy!!, 1979)
Elvis Costello does wordplay so well in this track from Get Happy!!

9 — Watching the Detectives (My Aim is True, 1977)
Elvis Costello had his first chart success with "Watching the Detectives," which went to No. 15 in the UK charts in 1977. "I think there's some great songs on My Aim Is True," Costello told Stereogum magazine, "but I believe a lot of folks overrate it. There's a couple of good performances on that album, don't get me wrong — I think "Watching The Detectives" is my first real record."

8 — Everyday I Write The Book (Punch the Clock, 1983)
Elvis Costello said of "Everyday I Write The Book": "There have been times when I've rearranged songs and people have been bewildered, and then there have been times when I've done it and people have found it illuminating in some way. 'Everyday I Write the Book' is a good example. I mean, it's a throwaway song that I wrote in 10 minutes that became a hit. And in latter years, I've sung it more often the way Ron Sexsmith sang it to me, as a ballad, when I suddenly found something beautiful in it that I enjoyed singing much more than I'd ever enjoyed it before. And guess what, when I went back to playing it with a band, I then enjoyed it with a band again. "

7 — Indoor Fireworks (King of America, 1986)
A simple, bleak and powerful song about love gone bad from Elvis Costello.
Indoor fireworks / Can still burn your fingers

6 — Veronica (Spike, 1989)
"Veronica" is a poignant tribute to Elvis Costello's grandmother Mabel, whose middle names were Josephine Veronica. The song recalls her youth, "when the world was the street where she lived" and her husband as a "young man" who "sailed on a ship in the sea," carrying with him Veronica's picture. Costello wrote the song with Sir Paul McCartney.

5. Accidents Will Happen (Armed Forces, 1979)
One of Elvis Costello's simple and effective songs. Quirky fact: In the film ET, a boy called Michael sings this song in the family kitchen after coming home from school. The song came just ahead of the period when Costello adopted the persona of a cheesy nightclub MC named Napoleon Dynamite.

4 — Man Out of Time (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
Elvis Costello told Songwriter.com: "At the time of Imperial Bedroom, I came to terms with the fact that I was sacrificing the power of certain songs to this mad pursuit of tempo. Everything had to be delivered forcefully. I don't know whether it was just a natural process or, literally, cumulative exhaustion of what were very intense years. 'Man Out of Time' is the one time I said, 'No, stop. Let's play this at the right tempo.' And we went for this bigger, more open sound. I think it's a really good record. A lot of songs are about the sort of disgust with your own self. There were a lot of things that I wasn't very happy with during that time. I wanted songs to blow up the world. There was a famous political scandal in England going on then. It all sort of got wrapped up in the song. Sometimes a song will have a personal meaning and a public meaning. 'Man Out of Time' is one of those."

3 — Shipbuilding (1982)
Shipbuilding is a powerful and subtle song written by Elvis Costello (lyrics) and Clive Langer (music) during the Falklands War of 1982. A superb version by Robert Wyatt was a chart hit. "My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant," Costello once said.

2 — Alison (My Aim is True, 1977)
A wonderful song about unrequited love. Elvis Costello rarely discusses the song, but in the liner notes to his Girls Girls Girls compilation album, Elvis Costello wrote that it was "disappointing somebody," adding that "much could be undone by saying more."

1 — Oliver's Army (Armed Forces, 1979)
The closest Elvis Costello came to a No. 1 hit — he may not have cared about that, of course — "Oliver's Army" was at No. 2 for four weeks. It's a catchy tune with powerful lyrics written after a trip to troubled Belfast in 1978. Costello told Q Magazine in 2008: "I don't think its success was because of the lyrics. I always liked the idea of a bright pop tune that you could be singing along to for ages before you realise what it is you're actually singing. Of course, the downside of that is some people only hear the tune and never listen to the words. After a while I got frustrated at that."


Tags: Stiff RecordsCouldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4Mighty Like A RoseHeart Shaped BruiseThe Delivery ManEmmylou HarrisStill Too Soon To KnowBrutal YouthLipstick VogueThis Year's ModelThe AttractionsSteve NieveBruce ThomasPete ThomasThe ByrdsPoor Fractured AtlasAll This Useless BeautyAimee MannI Want YouBlood & ChocolateNick LoweThe RootsThis Year's GirlYou Little FoolAll These StrangersNational RansomT Bone BurnettRoss MacManusRonan MacManusRuairi MacManusMacManus BrothersJoe Loss Orchestra Watch Your StepTrustPump It UpDiana KrallBullets For The New-Born KingVince GillMarc RibotBuddy MillerLeon RussellHigh FidelityGet Happy!!Willie NelsonGood Year For The RosesAlmost BlueJerry ChesnutElvis PresleyJohnny CashBruce SpringsteenBrilliant DisguiseRichard ThompsonEnd Of The RainbowDon't Let Me Be MisunderstoodKing Of AmericaBurt BacharachNina SimoneRoy OrbisonThe ComediansHidden ShameChet BakerAlmost BlueThis Is HellCornbury Music FestivalLittle PalacesStranger In The HouseGeorge JonesLess Than ZeroOswald MosleyTony BennettBono(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesPathway Studios(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?Allen ToussaintBrinsley SchwarzRadio, RadioBruce SpringsteenI Can't Stand Up For Falling DownSam & DaveHomer BanksBrilliant MistakeDancing about architectureKinder Murder(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaSleep Of The JustAmerican Without TearsJo-El SonnierFrasierThe Wild RoverTie Me Kangaroo Down SportTwo And A Half MenHuman HandsOur Little AngelBrian EnoNew AmsterdamWatching The DetectivesBonnaroo Music & Arts FestivalEveryday I Write The BookPunch The ClockRon SexsmithIndoor FireworksVeronicaSpikePaul McCartneyRoyal Albert HallAccidents Will HappenDave GrohlNapoleon DynamiteMan Out Of TimeSpectacular Spinning SongbookTom WaitsShipbuildingClive LangerRobert WyattMumford & SonsAlisonGirls Girls GirlsOliver's Army

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The Daily Telegraph, July 5, 2017


Martin Chilton picks Elvis Costello's 40 best songs.

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Photo credit: Mary McCartney.

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