Last month as a very late Valentine’s Day present (since I was away in London for Fashion Week), my husband fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams: to see Elton John live in concert playing some of my all-time favorite songs. Needless to say, he played everyone of my favorites except for one, but something tells me that I’ll be able to gone on without it like that ;) It really was everything and more, nothing really compares to his magnetism on stage. Why do I love this artist so much? Well, what’s central to the brilliance of Elton John’s art are the contradictions within the man. (We also almost have the same birthday, mine’s the 24th of March and his the day after.) He can kill you with the beauty of a tender ballad, then switch over with an intense blast of filthy rock and roll. He can dedicate decades of work to defeating AIDS, then engage in a public catfights with other celebrities through the gossip columns. So without further ado, here are (in no particular order) my top 10 favorite Elton John songs!
1. THE BITCH IS BACK!
One of Elton John's best hard rock cuts, this song was banned on several radio stations, in the United States and elsewhere, due to the use of the word "bitch". “The Bitch Is Back” is a rousing rocker from John that doesn’t pull any punches with its feisty lyrics. The high-energy horns, female backup vocals and the clanging guitars are some of the best parts of the song. “The Bitch Is Back” (also from Caribou) was banned by some U.S. radio stations, but that didn’t stop the song from becoming a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. CROCODILE ROCK
Sometimes it’s an artist’s slightest work that maintains the greatest staying power. Which is not to say "Crocodile Rock" isn’t a terrific tune; just that its aspirations are small. It’s a song from the '70s that’s a pastiche and homage to all the '50s rock, pop, and doo wop that Elton John and his peers grew up on. From that perspective, it’s a rung or two above Sha Na Na. Here the devil’s in the details, like the whirligig organ that floats above Elton’s central piano riff, or the ascending guitar lines that underpin the chorus. Roger Ebert said that great parody becomes that which it parodies, which is a high-falutin’ way of saying that on 'Crocodile Rock,' Elton didn’t just imitate his idols; he equaled them.
3. I’M STILL STANDING
Although it’s not quite fair, the eighties seem to be regarded as a “lost decade” for Elton John, at least when it comes to critical appreciation. Outside of his 1989 Sleeping With The Past album (the first produced after his recovery from drug addiction) and 1983’s Too Low For Zero, the decade yielded plenty of hits for Elton, but few of them memorable. (The less said about "Wrap Her Up," his campy duet with George Michael, the better.) Too Low, yielded our No. 9 Elton John song selection and this propulsive rocker, a staple of Elton’s live shows and another iconic song that has come to define the singer’s public persona. Weaving effortlessly between genres, "I’m Still Standing" is somehow both a full-out rocker and completely danceable, the wailing electric guitar and searing synth meshing with a bouncing bass line that’s almost disco-esque.
4. TINY DANCER
It may have been immortalized by writer/director Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous, but for Elton John fans, "Tiny Dancer" has always been an undisputed classic. It starts with that simple, beautiful opening piano riff, like the tinkling tune of a music box, and builds effortlessly into a full, warm sound – a chorus of voices, a relaxed acoustic guitar, Elton’s piano weaving its way around every note. Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics for his girlfriend at the time, and surely her face is lost to the mists of history; it’s the unforgettable images in his words, her dancing in the sand and those Jesus freaks "handing tickets out for God" that will endure.
5. GOODBYE, YELLOW BRICK ROAD
You could write an entire separate piece ranking Elton John’s '70s albums, but one looms large above the others, if only by size and the weight of its many iconic songs: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." If Elton John and Bernie Taupin have created a magnum opus, this may very well be it. While Elton and his band hopscotch through the entire history of American popular music, Bernie crafts evocative words that look ever backward with nostalgia, wit, and occasional anger. This title cut captures those themes perfectly with the tale of a green young farmboy who finds himself trapped in the orbit of a world weary, powerful figure. There’s something almost Spector-esque about the sound Elton and his band achieve on this track, adding an extra halo of wistful yearning to the song.
6. YOUR SONG
“Your Song” (from John’s 1970 self-titled second album) was his first breakthrough hit around the world, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Your Song” is a simple, beautiful ballad that can apply to all kinds of love. It’s no wonder that it’s still one of the most-covered Elton John songs of all-time. And yes, I get teary-eyed every time I listen to it! A true gem.
Harry Nilsson did it with "Spaceman," David Bowie did it with "Space Oddity," and Elton John did it with "Rocket Man." Each song as about the new-at-the-time phenomenon of men actually climbing aboard giant machines and soaring upward beyond the veil. But while the other songs zero in on the strangeness of space travel, only Elton John and Bernie Taupin manage to capture the underlying sadness of drifting alone above Earth, so far from family and friends, looking back at a massive turquoise orb that just grows smaller as you float away. It’s that emotional undercurrent, that human element, that Elton and Bernie so often discover, and that makes their greatest songs so great.
8. DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON ME
It's mushy and a little maudlin -- but it's great, too, a dynamic gem that unfolds and builds to epic, horn-drenched proportions over its five and a half minutes. And it's hard to beat a backing vocal choir that includes Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille and Billy Hinsche.
9. I GUESS THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT THE BLUES
Featuring guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder, "I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues" finds Elton John delivering a warm slice of '80s mid-tempo pop, aided and abetted by his own down and dirty piano skills. The man’s one of music’s greatest balladeers, but this is something different; this may be the closest he’s ever come to the straightforward soul music that’s one of his many influences.
10. I DON’T WANNA GO ON WITH YOU LIKE THAT
The lead single from 1988's Reg Strikes Back is taut, spare and propulsive, with some of the most inspired piano playing we'd heard from John in quite some time. The song describes someone ending a relationship due to not feeling exclusive and important to their partner. The song was regularly played by John in concert during the 1990s, before he retired it in 2000… which is why this is the only song I did not hear play at his concert! A great break-up song, all about remaining strong!