When considering material from over five decades, in as varying sonic categories as punk, bluegrass, New Wave, country, electronic, hip-hop (as fiddled with on Wise Up Ghost with the Roots), narrowing down a top 20 Best Songs list for Elvis Costello is more than a tall order. There are simply too many albums, collaborators, artistic phases, evolutions and bouts of fancy to contend with to approach anything more than a highly subjective opinion from someone (me) who has dedicated a huge portion of his listening regimen to dissecting the innards of The Bespectacled One. What follows is but a sliver of the foam of the cream of the Costello catalog, as broken down by someone (again, me) who decided to get the man’s pose on the cover of My Aim Is True tattooed on his forearm some time ago.
20. “Cheap Reward”
My Aim Is True (reissue)
This mostly unknown tune was released in demo version on the bonus disc of the My Aim Is True reissues, providing a bit of a honky-tonk bedrock to the calling of the early days of Costello’s songwriting parameters. Operating within a simple chord progression, the folk-y vocals immediately impress why Costello is one of the most formidable lyricists in rock music history. “Well I feel so loose tonight I might fall to pieces / So be prepared to sweep me out the door / And I might be horizontal by the time the music ceases / So I think I’ll get acquainted with the floor.” Enough said.
19. “Beyond Belief”
On his second album not to be produced by Nick Lowe?following the all-country covers LP Almost Blue?Costello and the Attractions had no preconceived production blueprints or direction for 1982’s Imperial Bedroom as a whole, which made the sequential pairing of tunes like “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Shabby Doll” intriguing, if not head-scratching. But the album’s opener, “Beyond Belief,” so threw a spiraling, gin-drawled curve into the aural library that it’s a staple of Costello’s live set to this day. Few songs set out so confusingly sprawling, and this introduction to the Attractions’ abilities to adapt to Costello’s increasingly diverse muses was hugely impressive.
18. “Still Too Soon To Know”
A deeper cut from 1994’s totally underrated Brutal Youth, the protagonist in this love tug-o-war is left in the lurch asking questions that his recently split partner has confessed she cannot answer yet. “Do you love him? Or is it still to soon to know?” Fast forward to the second verse, “Are you sorry? Or is it still too soon to know?” It’s the kind of gut-wrenching lyricism that fits right in as breakup artillery, even if Costello’s operatic vocals take the sentiment to another level here.
17. “I Hope You’re Happy Now”
Blood And Chocolate
By the mid-’80s, Costello and the Attractions had weathered through stylistic shapeshifting and traveled full-circle out of country and western and deep New Wave experimentations back toward the bread and butter of This Year’s Model-style pop. On 1986’s excellent Blood and Chocolate, Costello returned to the vitriol-disguised-as-peppy-pop recipe for “I Hope You’re Happy Now”?a song so instantly gratifying and anthemic I’m surprised it’s impossible to put it at #1 on this list. Costello’s ability to talk shit about people with eloquence is second to none, and put into striking, reverential spotlight here.
16. “You Tripped At Every Step”
Seemingly a snapshot of a father recalling the antics of his child while she puts on her mother’s shoes and draws lipstick crookedly upon her face, singing along to pop songs, “You Tripped At Every Step” is a good example of a Costello composition that meanders lyrically through a lifetime. By the end of the song, it seems that the father and daughter may not be as keen on each other anymore. Regardless, the sweeping crescendo of piano and voice?Costello’s lilting melodies here can draw tears if you’re not careful?represents one of the more perfect arrangements of Costello’s ’90s catalog.
My Aim Is True
As the de facto Costello ballad, “Alison” is undoubtedly a great song, benefitted all the more by the often uncredited accompaniment by California country-rock crew, Clover. The subtle instrumentation pulls from Detroit soul, while the song’s famous subject matter is open-ended, the narrator bemoaning his shortcomings, and insisting “my aim is true.” The song’s easily digestible melody, and Costello’s impressively mature, gravely baritone are timeless evidence of a young artist just beginning a long journey lead as much by his heels as his heart.
14. “Accidents Will Happen”
There are live versions popping around of “Accidents Will Happen” that bring down the quick strides of the studio version from 1979’s Armed Forces, relegating the tune to more of a solo piano number, with Costello’s husky vox anchoring the hull of the shell of the song. But in most cases, the definitive drive behind this classic is found in the first second of the studio version, Costello crooning “Oh I…” before the band joins in for the fulcrum “...just don’t know where to begin,” providing a clever actual beginning to not only the song, but the entire album.
13. “My Little Blue Window”
When I Was Cruel
The hue of Costello’s famous specs take center stage in this call for help in a world gone blue. According to reports, Costello’s interchanging of different colored lenses settled on blue for a while, unknowingly triggering a psychological depression. As he described to Esquire in 2003, “I used to wear these blue lenses all the time. You really do get depressed if you wear blue lenses. When people say, ‘You’re looking at the world through rose-colored glasses,’ well, I have no idea what rose ones do, but I know what blue ones do. They make you sad.” This song is but one audible result of that fact.
12. “Pump It Up”
This Year’s Model
Easily Costello’s most recognizable song, “Pump It Up” is one of the few he’s written whose core lovability can be boiled down to the fact that it’s just a great, peppy punk dance rocker. Double entendres abound dealing with the rigors of sexual frustration, appealing to both teenagers and musical connoisseurs alike. The song’s descending chords at the capable fingers of Steve Nieve are like a carnival train headed off the rails; and Bruce Thomas’ deft bass playing is solid goddamn gold. You can’t not want to pump something up after listening to this song.
11. “Wave a White Flag”
My Aim Is True (reissue)
A testy alcoholic thrums a ragtime ditty about getting in an enormous throwdown with his significant other after he gets drunk, in some kind of cold, dark homage to the perils of domestic violence. In this twisted yet buoyant folk number, Costello’s gee-golly delivery tempers the flames of the song’s controversial imagery, ultimately striking a sadistic kind of balance that’s become one of Costello’s sharpest tools.
10. “Stranger in the House”
Part of a quiver of honky-tonk tunes Costello had penned for country singers like George Jones, this self-deprecating country-western slow-burner details the decline of a beau’s vitality in a relationship he desperately wants to maintain, complaining that when he goes home he’s taken to “look down for a number on my keychain, because it feels more like a hotel everyday.”
9. “Oliver’s Army”
Purported to have been inspired by Costello’s observances of young boys in battle gear during a trip to Belfast in the late ’70s, “Oliver’s Army” remains one of the catchiest songs written to date that manages to also infuse the rancor of anti-occupation themes. The song’s satirical message of signing up to occupy far-reaching regions of the world if you’re out of work is the type of counter-culture fuck-you that probably went over the heads of ex-hippies and punks alike. This, like a lot of Costello’s songs, somehow suffers on a larger scale due to its advanced cleverness. Luckily, the song is great no matter how thinly you spread its political agendas.
8. “The Other End of the Telescope”
All This Useless Beauty
As opener to 1996’s subdued classic All This Useless Beauty, “The Other End of the Telescope” ushered in yet another chapter of Costello and the Attractions’ oeuvre, pitting heavy piano ballads and psychedelic guitar runs to accompany a lover’s longing at arm’s length. Co-written with Aimee Mann as it was, it wasn’t long after this recording that Costello ventured into collaborations with Burt Bacharach, as well as releasing North in 2003, an album consisting of almost entirely piano ballads. This track, though, stands as one of the purest bridges between his brief sojourn from bouncier, snottier pop toward the vestige of the soft serenader.
Written along with Paul McCartney, who by the mid-’80s had shared a producer with Costello in Geoff Emerick, “Veronica” purposed all the major melodic strengths of Costello’s previous couple of albums (the semi-listenable LPs Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock) without all the superfluous electronic crutches. The song centers around a woman who has experienced traumatic memory loss, the torture of which is given exclamation in the deeply satisfying chorus run-up of “Do you suppose that waiting hands on eyes Veronica has gone to hide?” The fact that McCartney’s famous Hofner bass is all over the track is just icing on the cake of yet another disturbing, though intelligent piece of pop songwriting.
6. “I Want You”
Blood And Chocolate
Accompanied by Nick Lowe on acoustic guitar, Costello drops perhaps his eeriest lovelorn tune, counting down a litany of transgressions to a former lover, interspersed with the agony-inducing refrain of “I want you” despite the increasing severity of the crimes against his heart. The repetition of the line in light of the bleak, looping guitar-bass-drums arrangement mirrors the cyclical bull-headedness of lust in the narrator’s voice, making for a painful listen.
5. “Watching the Detectives”
My Aim Is True
From the moment the low-end wriggles around that reggae beat, that tense minor chord maelstrom of perhaps Costello’s most famous song taunts you into a strange realm where a girl files her nails and admires policemen while they drag a lake looking for a dead body. The song’s classic use of crime drama swing gives Costello’s fanciful vocal take a queasy sort of thrust, morphing the noir-ish bubble of the subject matter into that of a sidebar to an article in Teen Beat.
4. “Sulky Girl”
1994’s Brutal Youth unveiled the even heavier melodic dedication Costello had given his focus to, and was essentially an Attractions album?featuring Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve along with Nick Lowe. However, unfettered by the creative hurdles of total collaboration, Costello was free to let his ravaged vocals tatter in and around soaring power-pop ballads, the best of which is “Sulky Girl,” a song comparing the narrator’s current partner with another, less sure but still desirable woman who ran away from home, dyed her hair and adopted a new name. All’s well with the potential infidelity by the end of the song though. Sample lyric burn: “Sulky girl, I saw you practicing your blackmail faces/ Suddenly, you’re talking like a Duchess but you’re still a waitress.”
3. “The Scarlet Tide”
The Delivery Man
Co-written by T Bone Burnett and made famous by Allison Krauss’ performance of it in the 2003 film Cold Mountain, “The Scarlet Tide” is the sound of the bridging of the gap between Costello’s early ’00s bluegrass leanings and the abstract lyrical depth that’s made him famous. Described as an “anti-fear” song by Burnett, the gentle sonata invokes a sad desolation and an optimism for overcoming hardships. It’s probably the most beautiful song Costello’s ever written, and that’s saying something.
2. “Mystery Dance”
My Aim Is True
In one of the first indications of his ability to pump out lyrical scorchers sans innuendo, Costello’s pleading ode to awkward sex is flanked within a super-charged blues-rock hybrid that to late ’70s audiences was probably one of the fastest songs they’d ever heard; a progenitor to the breakneck pace that many punk and new wave bands would adopt in a few short years. But Costello’s fearlessness in singing the sorrows of an inexperienced lover showed his storytelling depth early on.
1. “Radio Radio”
This Year’s Model
Costello didn’t waste much time waggling his middle finger to the powers that be on This Year’s Model, his first album with the Attractions and second album overall. “Radio Radio” takes on the commercialization of radio airplay, the bureaucracy of cigar-chomping music industry moguls and Costello’s own spite of those who played the game. He famously cut off the intro of “Less Than Zero” during a live performance on Saturday Night Live in 1977 to perform “Radio Radio,” despite the producers’ strict forbiddance, earning him a lifetime ban from the show. It was eventually lifted, but Costello’s punk-as-fuck dissertation on corporate radio still seethes as red-faced to this day.