For my money, it’s always been tough to beat Elton John. I like his hits as much as the next guy, but I have always been the sort who prefers the deep tracks of my favorite artists. This is especially true of Elton. I have always spent more time listening to those songs in his catalog that don’t get much, if any, air play. The decade of the 70s were when Elton and his partner/lyricist, Bernie Taupin were at their creative peak. I am continually amazed at the quality (and quantity) of their early body of work. I am going to attempt to make a case for my top 10 Elton John tunes. I’ll wager that, unless you are a big fan, there are several here that you haven’t heard for a very long time if , indeed, you’ve heard them at all. I have made the song title for each selection a hot link that you can click to play a video of the song. Do yourself a favor and spend some time listening to these gems. Please leave a comment to let me know what you think? Do you agree with my list? Would yours be different? Let me know.
(Song title in quotations…click song title to play song…Year of release and album name in parenthesis)
10. “Amy” (1972 Honky Chateau)
I have always loved this song with Elton’s funky piano licks jabbing back and forth with Davey Johnstone’s electric guitar work. I love the tempo changes. Taupin’s lyrics are dripping with teenage angst over forbidden love with a sort of West Side Story feel to them.
9. “Ballad of Danny Bailey” (1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road)
Obviously, being part of the monster Yellow Brick Road album, this song was heard by millions, but it wasn’t a big hit and you just never hear it on the radio. This song is the perfect marriage of lyric and music, (something John and Taupin achieved often). I am always a sucker for a good story song and that is what this one is. Taupin’s lyrics here are pretty straight forward (as opposed to his often ambiguous imagery). This song is about a 30s era gangster who gets his comeuppance, told from the perspective of an admirer (not an uncommon phenomenon in the 30s). The narrator seems to be lamenting the demise of his hero, “Now it’s all over, Danny Bailey, and the harvest is in. Dillinger’s dead…I guess the cops won again.” The music starts slow and sparse but keeps picking up in intensity with a rich orchestral background pounding away to support the story by the end.
8. ” The Fox ” (1981 The Fox)
This may be the most obscure song on my list. It is also the only one not from the decade of the 70s, having been released in 1981. I lust love the feel of this song. It is very much a country influenced song (as is the case with much of Elton and Bernie’s work). I also love Elton’s vocal delivery on this song. To me, this is the bridge between his early vocal period, with the much higher register, and his later period with much lower, richer tones. Just a beautiful song.
7. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (1972 Honky Chateau)
This song about New York City is the second selection on this list from the Honky Chateau album. Beautiful lyrics by Taupin and a lovely melody from Elton make this, to my mind, one off their prettiest songs. I also love the use of the mandolin. It is a really gorgeous song.
6. “All the Girls Love Alice” (1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road)
Another deep cut from Yellow Brick Road. This one captured my attention from the moment I first heard it. It might be the edgiest of all the John/Taupin collaboration with it’s theme and content. It is also proof positive that, when he wanted to, Elton could turn out some really good hard driving rock and roll. This song will kick your tail. Crank it up!
5. “Ticking” (1974 Caribou)
This song, extremely powerful in it’s raw and sparse composition, is another story tune. This tale is a very dark and disturbing one. It tells the story of the life of a deranged individual who snaps and carries out a mass shooting before being mowed down by police bullets. The main focus of the story is how the kid grew up and everyone ignored the warning signs of his “ticking” time bomb. Incredibly powerful song.
4. “Where To Now, St. Peter” (1970 Tumbleweed Connection)
This is another example of a perfect marriage of music and lyric. There is an ethereal feel musically and it is a perfect vehicle for a very young Elton’s vocal delivery of Taupin’s lyric which seems to be about an agnostic man coming to the end of his life and questioning what comes next…”I may not be a Christian, but I’ve done all one man can. I understand I’m on the road where all that was is gone, so where to now, St. Peter? Show me which road I’m on.”
3. “Ballad of a Well Known Gun” (1970 Tumbleweed Connection)
This is perhaps the quintessential example of the early collaborative work between Elton and Bernie. This song is, first and foremost, a great blueprint for the early 70s rock sound with tasty guitar licks from Caleb Quaye providing the funky opening notes of this very underrated album. The lyrics are classic Taupin, revealing his lifelong love affair with the themes of the old American West.
2. “Indian Sunset” (1971 Madman Across the Water)
This song moves me every time I hear it. This could be the apex example of how well these two men worked together to blend words and music. Then throw in the incredible orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster and you have musical perfection. This epic song tells of the sad plight of the American Indian through the eyes of a fictional warrior coming to grips with the decision to look for peace farther west (yet again) or stay and fight for it. Taupin takes some poetic license with history content here, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s just a powerful and stirring piece.
1. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” (1975 Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy)
This will forever be my favorite Elton John song. It just does it for me and always has. First of all, it’s a heck of a lot of fun to sing along with. I love the mixture of acoustic guitars and mandolins with the hard driving electric rock as the song winds in and out of different tempos and volume levels. The lyrics are richly symbolic and highly autobiographical, telling of the early days of Elton and Bernie’s collaborative partnership. I will never tire of listening to this song!