In honor of the Elvis Costello concert I'm going to tomorrow, I thought I'd offer a list of his most underrated songs. Many of his tunes like "Beyond Belief" are required listening in my book but there are some gems out there that often get lost in his ample discography. Here are a few that are worth the extra effort to check out:
"Less Than Zero" (My Aim is True, 1977) This was the song that never got played on Saturday Night Live. A few bars in, Elvis stopped the music and played "Radio, Radio" instead. But any song with a line about "trading in your baby for a Chevrolet" is good in my book.
"Running Out of Angels" (This Year's Model, 1978) "Running Out of Angels" is actually a bonus track included on the 1993 reissue of this album so you can't go to the original for this one. It's a funny studio outtake that features Elvis and an acoustic guitar. After singing half of the first verse, he blows a high note, apologizes and starts the whole song again. I love demos that provide a stripped down version of a song, and the restart makes this one especially endearing.
"New Lace Sleeves" (Trust, 1981) Trust was a commercial bomb in 1981 but today it's one of my favorite Costello albums. "New Lace Sleeves" is filled with witty lyrics sung longingly which means I automatically love it: "Oh I know they've got their problems, I wish I was one of them."
"Human Hands" (Imperial Bedroom, 1982) Imperial Bedroom is filled with layers of music that seemed to go everywhere at once and "Human Hands" is no different. The syncopated piano holds everything together and instruments seem to fly in from every direction. Once again, though, the great lyrics are not be missed.
"Sleep of the Just" (King of America, 1986) A sentimental ballad with an angry edge closes out what is perhaps the most underrated of Costello's albums. The whole thing feels loose and sparse and a little bit country. This song is no exception.
"Poor Napoleon" (Blood & Chocolate, 1986) Elvis described the album this way: "This is us truthfully, we're thirty-two, a couple of us have got divorced, we're pissed off, and we've taken all the drugs and we've done all that stuff and we're still alive, and this is what we sound like. And you know what? We're much better at it now." That about sums it up. This album also credited Costello as Napoleon Dynamite, years before Mormons made it cool. "Poor Napoleon" is a bass-driven, mid-tempo ballad about a relationship falling apart. It's filled with that bitterness I love so much.
"God's Comic" (Spike, 1989) Perhaps the strangest song on Spike, this jazzy tune shows us man from god's point of view: "I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys." The multiple vocal tracks on the chorus blew my twelve-year-old mind when I bought this album and it's still worth a listen.
"Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" (Mighty Like a Rose, 1991) As a rule I like any song that has a banjo in it. I'm not sure why, but I just do. If you listen hard to "Couldn't Call it Unexpected" you'll hear a banjo among the piano and drums. This one is a concert favorite of mine because he often sings it without a microphone — just getting all operatic on your ass.
"All The Rage" (Brutal Youth, 1994) With a jangly '60s guitar this song starts out sounding like it might be the feel good song of the summer. But then the lyrics kick in. Oh, the lyrics! The music may sound happy but Elvis is oh so angry and by now you know I love it when Elvis is angry.
"My Little Blue Window" (When I Was Cruel, 2002) Here's a note to future wives of Elvis Costello: When he starts writing songs about how much he loves you or how only you could save him, it's time to find a good divorce lawyer because he's gonna leave you. When I Was Cruel is filled with such songs and poof! We're on to wife number 3 (see also, Imperial Bedroom). Anyway, "Blue Window" is a sweet little song about maybe not being so gloomy or angry and I love it anyway.
And now I have to mention two songs that I don't care if I ever hear again. I've been to enough sporting events to have gotten my lifetime fill of hearing "Pump It Up." Enough already! The same goes for "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Something compels Elvis to play this tune every time he's on national TV and I'm just really tired of hearing it. He'll probably play it tomorrow night, too. I know, it's catchy and people like it but not me and that should count for something!