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4 Feb 2014

"We Must Do", Jim Turano's Top 30 Elton John Songs List. Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of AllSongsList

When I was asked to participate in this special anniversary feature and choose my 30 favorite Elton John songs, my first reaction was…fear.  How could I possibly choose just 30 songs from Elton John’s unparalleled catalog of music that stretches over more than 45 years and more than 40 albums?  As I began this daunting task, my fears were realized.  After searching through all his music, my initial, random list topped almost 200 songs, and I had to whittle this list down to just 30?  Impossible. I did my best.

As I scan the songs I will list and describe, I find they make fine testament to the high standard of quality and longevity of Elton’s music.  Naturally, a majority of the songs I’ve chosen to highlight are from the 1970s, when Elton was at the height of his creative powers.  However, not by design, this list molded itself organically to include a varied mix of many of his biggest hits, album tracks, a cover version, and even an outtake.  It includes songs from the every decade of Elton’s career, spanning from 1969 to 2010, and features songs written not only with the masterful Bernie Taupin, but with other key co-writers in Elton’s career, including Gary Osbourne, and Tom Robinson.

I know I left many great songs on the table.  I know there will be disagreements with my choices.  And I know this list is not and never can be my truly ultimate “favorite” list.  No such list can exist.  This list, rather, is my “favorite list” of the moment.  This moment.  Because for me, and I suspect for most serious and longtime Elton John admirers, Elton’s music is a living, evolving entity that continues to reveal, emote, and excite.  So this list can and will change tomorrow, next week, next year, next decade, and perhaps in the next five minutes. 

For the time being at least, this is a list of the Elton John songs that are among my 30 best friends.

1. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” from the album, “Caribou,” 1974

This song encompasses all the helpless heartache of Roy Orbison, melded with Taupin’s images of melancholy, and Elton’s melody of mood and dramatic crescendo (and even a little honky piano).  This was an immediate hit and instant classic when originally released, but it wasn’t until Elton’s duet with George Michael in 1991 that it began to elevate in appreciation.  This new version introduced the song to a young audience but more importantly, helped Elton re-discover the song’s nuances and passionate power.  Moreover, since Nigel Olsson’s return to Elton’s band in 2000, his inimitable drumming on this song has moved this former big ballad into a nightly concert highlight and transformed it into an exhilarating anthem.  Its lovelorn plea stirs the emotions to a near- religious frenzy.   It’s aged the best of Elton’s best.

Best lyric: “But these cuts I have, they need love to help them heal.”

2. “Live Like Horses” from the concert film, “Music for Montserrat,” 1997

One of the best songs Elton and Taupin have ever written, period.  Taupin’s lyrics are taut, filled with vivid imagery conveying a message of personal freedom. And Elton’s simple melody imbues a sense of longing grace.  The best available recording is from an inspired solo performance of the song Elton gave at a 1997 benefit concert. Unfortunately, the song’s official release, on “The Big Picture,” is bloated and over-produced, draining and drowning the song’s subtle power.  A duet rendition with Luciano Pavarotti (again, best live) did tap into the song’s operatic qualities, but it’s most compelling when it’s just Elton and his piano (although there is a rumored version features a Paul Buckmaster arrangement that alludes to Aaron Copeland). The “Montserrat” version of “Horses” remains the best of this awe-inspiring John-Taupin synergy.  I saw Elton perform this song solo for the first time in 1994 at The Royal Albert Hall, and it’s stayed with me ever since.

Best lyric:  “Free rein from your old iron fences”

3. “Harmony” from the album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” 1973

The best single Elton never released.  If released, this complex, soaring dirge of lost love and sentimental optimism would easily be one of Elton most beloved hit songs of his career.  Instead, it is relegated to a universal favorite of the diehard fans.  The song’s conflicted lyric of spite, regret, and hope is perfectly personified in Elton’s vocal that reverts from biting to elation and matched by the glorious backing harmonies that heighten the song’s impact and lasting impression.  Clocking in at just 2:45, the song immediately bursts with stark pronouncements of anger and then seamlessly floats on an emotional, surreal swirl toward a naive nirvana.  There is so much going on – musically, lyrically, emotionally, and production-wise -- in this little song that it exudes the jolt of a full-blown opera.   The one that got away.

Best lyric: “Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea”

4. “High Flying Bird” from the album, “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player,” 1973

From the first introductory bass note, it immediately transports the listener.  There is an ethereal quality to the song on every level.  Elton’s tender, expressive vocal is invested from the start, and his phrasing imparts the depth of anguished frailty in Taupin’s lovesick lyrics.  Producer Gus Dudgeon delivers perhaps, his greatest single-song production work on an Elton John song, creating a complete sound experience where every instrument, every sound makes a lasting statement.  Another example of a potentially major hit song that never had its chance to enchant the masses.  Drummer Nigel Olsson excels here, with his unique drum sound and style punctuating the song’s emotional turmoil.  The harmonies here, featuring Olsson, Davey Johnstone, and Dee Murray are otherworldly, and afterward became a staple of the classic “Elton John sound.”  Pretty close to perfect.

Best lyric: “You never closed your eyes at night and learned to love daylight, instead you moved away.”

5. “Come Down In Time” from the album, “Tumbleweed Connection,” 1970

This quiet, candlelit love song dazzles in its gauze-like, abstract sojourn.  Floating on the wings of an enthralling Paul Buckmaster arrangement driven by the gentle plucks of a harp, it soars and entices thanks to Elton’s yearning vocal.  It’s Taupin at his oblique best, with lyrics like “I came down to meet you in the half light the moon left” and “while a cluster of night jars sang some songs out of tune” that create indelible moods and word pictures with beautifully turned phrases that conjure exact feelings and emotions without strict meanings or intentions.  Amid all the detailed story songs on “Tumbleweed Connection,” this song’s innocent, sweet simplicity enables it to charm.  At two in the morning, start a fire, turn off the light switch, and let this do its magic.

Best lyric: “There are women, women and some hold you tight, while some leave you counting the stars in the night.” 

6.  “You Gotta Love Someone” from the album, “To Be Continued…,” 1990

The best Elton John song that practically no one knows.  This moving, gospel-tinged love song deserves a much better standing in the Elton-Taupin musical canon.  Produced with an organic touch by Don Was, it begins with a pounding piano introduction and is followed by an echoed Elton vocal proclaiming Taupin’s definitive reasons for love.  As the song progresses, it slowly gains strength and soul, culminating with an invigorating gospel choir raising the roof and Elton testifying to the song’s directive.  By song’s end, Elton is swept away and he sells the refrain with grit and gusto.  The song was released during a self-imposed quiet period during Elton’s sobriety, so it never enjoyed a true showcase.  Give a listen, and I dare you not to raise your hands to the heavens.  Can I get an “Amen!”

Best lyric:  “Burn up the highway, but before you run, you gotta love someone.”

7. “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” from the album, “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” 1975

This poetic tale of “The Captain and The Kid, stepping in the ring,” is revealing in its love and nostalgia.  Taupin carefully chronicles how two divergent personalities fatefully come together to form a personal bond and become one of the greatest creative partnerships in music history.  Musically, the song shifts from an innocent, acoustic opening to a hard-driving rock foundation, perfectly matching its reminiscing passages and ensuing adventures.  It’s all there, Elton and Taupin’s differing upbringings (“Captain Fantastic, raised and regimented,” “While little brown dirt cowboys turned brown in their saddles”), their star-crossed pairing, their professional struggles and frustrations, and the anxieties of following your dreams and the realities of those ambitions.  The song is both wistful and dark, coyly foreshadowing the album’s overall cautionary themes of fame and success.  Elton sings with conviction, affection and zest.  A well-spun yarn one never tires of re-living. 

Best lyric: “From the end of the world to your town”

8. “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” from the album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” 1973

Confused and astounded.  That’s how I remember feeling, as a nine-year-old, after listening to this song the first time through.  What the heck was that?  It certainly was nothing like three-minute, the Top 40 pop songs I was used to hearing on my favorite AM radio station.  How I listened to music, how I bought music, how I felt about music, and how music would inform my life from that point on, all changed after listening to this 11-minute epic. The ghostly, howling whistling wind, the bellowing bell strikes, the sinister, imposing organ, followed by a swirling synthesizer casting a brightness to this dark mood.  And then, the simple chords of Elton’s piano are heard.  The pace gradually quickens, becomes fuller and more complex, until it evolves into a raging rock ‘n’ roll jam, led by Davey Johnstone’s signature frantic guitar riffs and it’s as if we’re on a runaway train.  And without missing a beat, this exciting instrumental of farewell shifts gears and melds into a new song of similar loss.   From the moment Elton’s hyper vocal defiantly declares, “The roses in your window box have tilted to one side,” we are riveted. It’s pure Elton.

Best lyric:  “I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and you were just a fan, but my guitar couldn’t hold you so I split the band.”

9. “Tonight” from the album, “Blue Moves,” 1976

Coming off the light-hearted smash single “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” few expected the sorrowful tone of 1976’s album, “Blue Moves.”  This centerpiece song is a sprawling, elegant elegy of a crumbing love hanging on its final hinges of hope.  Grounded by a turbulent instrumental introduction guided by Elton’s plaintive piano passages, it deftly segues into an affecting, sweeping orchestral arrangement by James Newton Howard.  Elton’s mournful vocal is among his best on record, as his heartfelt phrasing and octave-bending pleas for forgiveness and redemption enliven Taupin’s pain and remorse.  Elton’s voice sounds connected to the tone, as perhaps he was now more personally experienced to the emotions he was conveying through his voice and his music.  Both Elton and Taupin strip themselves to their emotional cores, and it’s unforgettably raw and revealing.

Best lyric: “Nine times out of ten, I see the storm approaching long before the rain starts falling.”

10. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” released as a single, 1974

Few could take one of The Beatles classics and not only have a number one hit with it, but arguably make it his own.  But that’s exactly what Elton did with his robust and reggae-infused cover.  With a little help from his friend, and the song’s main composer – John Lennon – Elton’s “Lucy” ascends sky-high due to his vocals and its shifting tempos.  Elton’s extravagant version pays homage Lennon’s trippy lyrics and surrealism, while taking it to new soundscapes.  The entire Elton John Band is in fine form throughout, with all of them making their contributions count, and Lennon (appearing on guitar as Dr. Winston O’ Boogie) adds some funky guitar licks.  Elton’s sings with a giddy wonder and abandon.  This should be a concert staple to remind everyone of the greatness of the song itself, and Elton’s lively, aggressive version.

Best lyric: “Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she’s gone”

11. “Ticking” from the album, “Caribou,” 1974

This stark story about a deranged mass murder remains one of the most stunning, memorable moments in the Elton-Taupin catalog.  The song’s pointed, psychological telling of a young man whose upbringing makes him a ticking time bomb and a vessel of carnage remains as relevant – if not more – today than it was 40 years ago.  Taupin throws caution to the wind, tackling a subject far removed from most pop songwriters’ usual tableau.   Accompanied by Elton’s charged, forceful, ebbing piano playing that matches the story’s actions and reveals and a crisp, assured vocal, it’s the type of mature, unnerving, edgy songwriting the duo does regularly yet rarely gets any recognition for writing.  When it’s just Elton and his piano on parade, attention must be paid, and this song gloriously presents the unvarnished depth of both Elton and Taupin’s talents and bravery.

Best lyric:  “Oh you danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law”

12. “Burn Down The Mission” from the album, “Tumbleweed Connection,” 1970

This desperate, Band-influenced slice of musical Americana ignites with vivid Taupin word pictures evoking Civil War allusions, social inequality, and a gospel-inflected foundation. It alternately erupts with hyperactive musical bursts, featuring Elton pounding out maniacal piano flurries awash with equally animated Paul Buckmaster orchestral arrangements.  Like so many of Elton’s best songs, it’s the melodic surprises and changes in tempos that make this an exciting listen.  Starting out with a lumbering ballad pace, it brightens in its chorus, and then completely alters course to an all-out jamming flame-out before again reverting back to its slower, soulful pace.  It keeps you on edge musically, striking on all cylinders from beginning to end, and lyrically, Taupin expertly transports the listener to another age and time.  Elton’s rustic vocal briskly enhances this staggering, sepia-toned classic.  A great one to play air-piano.

Best lyric: “Watch the black smoke fly to heaven see the red flame light the sky”

13. “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” from the album, “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” 1975

From the first gentle notes of the touching ballad, it’s clear it’s something special.  The most daring love song they’ve ever written, it expresses a love between two people, but not a romantic one.  Rather, an innate bond developed through a shared journey.  This poignant song about the rare relationship between Elton and Taupin is unique in its purpose, but universal in its sentiments.  In the best of the Taupin tradition, its meaning is clear and hidden.  The lyrics drip with sensitivity, and a longing and awareness of their precious yet unlikely link.  Taupin shares insights into their rapport, their fears, their ambitions, their insecurities, their special songwriting process, their failures, their successes, and ultimately, their hopes and dreams.  Elton’s vocal is among his most natural and exposed, connecting to each word and remembrance.  Timeless.

Best lyric: “We wrote it and I played it, something happened, it’s so strange this feeling”

14. “Crazy Water,” from the album, “Blue Moves,” 1976

 “Crazy Water” is a raucous, rocking standout from “Blue Moves” that features Elton’s 1975-76 band at its bombastic best.  Beginning with an immediate, infectious hook and Elton’s urgent vocal, which builds in intensity, this song filled nautical metaphors quickly moves from sedate pop to ballsy rocker.  The highlight is one Paul Buckmaster’s best orchestral arrangements, which, with its charging surge, takes the lead in a swell of a sonic tidal wave.  This also is drummer Roger’s Pope’s finest moment on the album, as he bashes with a spirited recklessness.  Yet another gem that should have been a single, because with its hint of disco to appeal to the day’s growing trend, it could have catapulted the song, the album, and perhaps staved off Elton’s career slow-down that began after this album.   One of the best and sadly, overlooked.

Best lyric: “Endless nights on an endless sea, where nothing lives between us, just the breakers on the ocean, separating you and me.”

15. “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters,” from the album, “Honky Chateau, 1972

Both a caustic and endearing ode to New York City, Elton’s soft, swaying melody driven by his piano and tenderly colored by Davey Johnstone’s soothing mandolin, makes this one of Elton’s most charismatic songs.  Taupin’s lyrics are filled with cleverly-crafted backhanded compliments and heartfelt observations, but his fascination and connection to this “trash can dream come true” is genuine.   Expertly turned phrases such as “And now I know Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say,” and “This Broadways got, it’s got a lot of songs to sing,” offer some of Taupin’s best, and Elton’s direct vocal defines the song’s dual personality.  When the song turns to acknowledge the narrator’s own circle of friends, it takes on an affectionate tone that raises the stakes and aspirations.  New York never sounded so good.

Best lyric: “Subway’s no way for a good man to go down”

16. “The One” from the album, “The One,” 1992

Elton can rock with the best of them, but it’s the ballad that’s his greatest strength.  And in terms of dramatic, soaring Elton John ballads, there are few as strong, illuminating and truly honest as this confessional.  Sprinkled with religious references and self-examination, Taupin subtly confronts Elton’s new sobriety and rejuvenated outlook on life while exorcising his own personal demons to cleanse his soul and spirit.  Elton’s singing and piano-playing is strong and assured, giving the song a transcending power and peace.  Taupin documents many recent tumultuous episodes (“drunken nights in dark hotels,” “where sex and love no longer gel,”) as well as life-affirming moments (“in the instant that you love someone,” “when stars collide like  you and I”), which makes this one of their most personal and poetic statements.  It’s all I ever needed.

Best lyric: “For each man in his time is Cain, until he walks along the beach, and sees his future in the water, a long lost heart within his reach.”

17. “Blue Avenue” from the album, “Sleeping With The Past,” 1989

Though considered a veiled view of the break-up of Elton’s marriage to Renate Blauel, Taupin’s tale of a relationship traveling down an inevitable, dead end road is filled with sad truths and honest admissions.  This song courageously attempts to apply rational reason and acceptance of a dying love (“Looks like we’ve got a wreck babe, up on Blue Avenue”), a goal that few achieve no matter how they try.  Perhaps an illusion or an impossible dream, but Elton vocally delivers these realities with a warmth, solace, and honest admission. One of Chris Thomas’ best production efforts, with Elton’s vocal and piano is high in the mix, a stylish keyboard passage augments, and Davey Johnstone’s intricate acoustic solo providing the perfect coda.  A mourning ballad that exudes pure emotion with its pathos in check.   Alluring in its grace.

Best lyric:   “You’ve been my sweet, sweet addict, I’ve been your little white boy blue”

18. “Indian Sunset” from the album, “Madman Across The Water,” 1971

This expansive musical landscape is an inspiring composition, with Taupin’s cinematic and introspective telling of the Native American nation’s struggles and defeats – personally and communally – at the hands of its merciless, invading settlers.  Moved by their plight, Taupin encapsulates their toil in great poetic detail, enabling the listener to know and understand this forgotten and misunderstood race of people.  Elton masterfully matches Taupin’s sympathetic treatment with an imposing Paul Buckmaster score that rises and falls in force and serenity when the action demands it.  This is a musical movie epic , with Elton serving as its narrator, director, and lead actor – and he plays all with roles with great effect and ease.  Beginning with a stark, cold open, rising to a crashing crescendo, and ending on a tragic, sad and abrupt note. Impressive and engrossing.  White man, danger. 

Best lyric:  “And the red sun sinks at last into the hills of gold, and peace to this young warrior comes with a bullet hole”

19. “Tiny Dancer” from the album, “Madman Across The Water,” 1971

Decades before this song experienced its mainstream renaissance in 2000 after an engaging, sequence in the ‘70s rock document, “Almost Famous,” this was already one of Elton and Taupin’s best works.  An adoring tribute to his first wife, Maxine, (though in a case of re-writing history, he now claims it’s dedicated to the bevy of young L.A. dream girls of 1970) Taupin expands its scope into a whimsical, romanticized rock travelogue.   Elton’s delicate piano intro, and overtly English accent, the sweet slide guitar, Paul Buckmaster’s rollicking orchestral arrangement, and Taupin’s inimitable talent bring us into his inner thoughts, with phrases like “count the headlights on the highway, lay me down in sheets on linen,” and “lying here with no one near, only you and you can hear me,” enables the song to become a memorizing classic.  Hold it closer.

Best lyric:  “Now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand”

20. “Empty  Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” from the album, “Jump Up!,” 1982

The senseless murder of John Lennon in New York in December, 1980, shocked the world and left a musical and artistic void in the world that remains to this day.  As a cathartic exercise to fully digest this piercing reality, Taupin penned a tasteful tribute to Lennon, likening him to a attentive, concerned gardener working to seed the word with peace and love.  As a fan of Lennon, this song touched me back in 1982 when the wound was still fresh, and 32 years later, it still retains its power and comfort.  The cold open of Elton solemnly asking, “What happened here, as the New York sunset disappeared?” remains a chilling reminder of the actual event and all the feelings of outrage, sadness, and communal grief. Thankfully, Elton has resurrected this impassioned homage in his latest Las Vegas show to remind people of this neglected treasure, celebrate their friendship, and honor this irreplaceable force.  It’s impossible to imagine the world without him.

Best lyric: “And I’ve been calling, ‘Oh, hey, hey Johnny, can’t you come out to play?’”

21. “Elton’s Song” from the album, “The Fox,” 1981

I recall first hearing this graceful, unknown song performed in 1979 during Elton’s “Back In The USSA” tour with Ray Cooper and being excited that Elton was re-focused after a few years of unsure creative footing.  This pretty, pensive ballad about yearning, youthful love and self-discovery speaks from a veiled gay perspective, but it can apply anyone’s frustration and elation of their first love.  Composer and gay activist Tom Robinson perfectly cites universal touchstone moments of adolescent love from afar – all the anxiety, the embarrassment, the fear, the mystery, and the true feelings of the moment.  Telling lines including “Sitting in my room, I’ve got it bad,” “They say it isn’t real, but I know what I feel,” and “If you only knew what I’m going through, time and again and I get ashamed to say your name” cut straight to the heart.  Youthful innocence and angst in all its confusing glory.

Best lyric: “It’s hard to grin and bear, when you’re standing here, my lips are dry I catch your eye and look away.”

22. “Original Sin” from the album, “Songs From The West Coast,” 2001

Perhaps the sexiest ballad Elton and Taupin have ever written, filled with smoldering desire and lovesick imagery that delves to the deepest feelings of love and lust with no hesitation, restraint, or need for absolution.  Taupin creates a dream-like scenario of seduction, baring his soul and emotions with willing abandon, and throwing caution and consequences to the wind.  Elton applies the perfect, ethereal melody to Taupin’s hunger, and his deep, soulful vocal evokes the song’s carnal cravings. With lyrics such as “the furnace wind is a flickering of wings about your face,” “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, still I hunger for you when you look at me,” and “all the sinful pleasures deep inside,” and Paul Buckmaster’s hovering string arrangement that guides the song and sets the tone, this is a magnetic, impassioned declaration of eternal indulgence.  Thou shalt not covet be damned.

Best lyric: “Tell me how, you know now, the ways and means of getting in, underneath my skin”

23. “The North” from the album, “The One,” 1992

Bernie Taupin continually writes about his northern Lincolnshire roots, sometimes with fondness, sometimes with admonishment.  But whatever his true feelings for his past, it are never far from his conscience.  I saw Elton first perform this song in March, 1992, a few months before its release on “The One,” and I was mesmerized by its brutal honesty, its unabashed directness, and its sincere call for letting go. “The One” album was Elton’s first after his sobriety, and many of the songs refer to new beginnings and fresh starts.  Here, Taupin recognizes his birthplace, but brashly sheds its pull (“The North was my mother, but I no longer need her”).   It’s a classic Elton-Taupin ballad in every sense, and Elton sings and plays with a deep personal investment. A chilling, frank, proclamation of moving forward.

Best lyric:  “There’s a North in us all, but my North can’t hold me anymore”

24. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” released as a single, 1976

In the summer of 1976, Elton was at the apex of his popularity.  He was conquering the U.S., playing to huge crowds with his wildly energetic, and campy “Louder Than Concorde” tour, and he simultaneously topped the charts with this ultimate hook-filled song-along.  An ode to the Motown duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Elton and Kiki Dee playfully plead and tease, answering each other’s claims of love with a hint of possible hurt in the background.  This is pure pop on every level, and it basks in its sugar and spice.  Taupin’s lyrics are fun, sassy and breezy,  James Newton Howard ‘s string arrangement is bright and bouncy, and the natural chemistry between Elton and Kiki makes this an irresistible guilty pleasure.  Sadly, Elton rarely performs this crowd-pleaser live…maybe invite Kiki to Vegas? 

Best lyric:  “Oh, honey when you knocked on my door, ooh I gave you my key”

25. “Your Song” from the album, “Elton John,” 1970

Innocent, naïve, heartfelt, awkward, tender, hopeful, bare, and yes, even a bit trite – everything a classic love song should be.  Though it seems clichéd, “Your Song” must be included because, it remains the epitome of the Elton-Taupin partnership.  Perfect music applied to perfect lyric.  Elton’s caressing melody and sincere, natural vocal captures the moment and the feeling, while Taupin’s poetic, complex structure elevates it from ordinary into an endearing, everlasting love decree for the ages.  For instance, when Taupin writes “it seems I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue,” he leaves us wondering and even makes us wait another line or two, until the reveal:  the color of her eyes.  Genius.  It’s that kind of writing talent that sets this seemingly simple song apart from all the other love songs.  And few could ever match, “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”  My favorite version is from the “Live In Australia” album, when Elton takes the final line an octave higher and gushes with pure emotion.

Best lyric: “It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside”

26. “Pinky” from the album, “Caribou,” 1974

Written with an almost puppy love innocence, this beautiful love song flows with an undeniable charisma in its music, vocal, lyric, musicianship, and production.  There isn’t a wasted moment.  Elton’s vocal is earnest and joyous, and you can almost hear him smiling as he sings here.  Taupin’s giddy sentiments (“Pinky’s as perfect as the Fourth of July”) convey a cuddled warmth (“Oh it’s ten below zero and we’re about to abandon our plans for the day”), and the glorious harmonies of Davey Johnstone, Nigel Olsson, and Dee Murray set the mood and sustain the feeling of pure delight.  This song may feel unassuming, and may not have the heft or deep messages of some of Elton’s more well-known ballads, but there is something intangible about its power and pull.  What can I say, I just love it.

Best lyric: “The trial and the error of my master plan, now she rolls like a dice in a poor gambler’s hand”

27. “Little Jeannie” from the album, “21 At 33,” 1980

Another song that seems light and ordinary, but pulls you in and won’t let go.  With a touching lyric by Gary Osbourne, who deserves more credit for the work he did with Elton in the late ‘70s through the mid-‘80s, it’s the caring production by Clive Franks that makes this something special – most notably, bringing back formerly exiled drummer Nigel Olsson.  Olsson has an intrinsic ability to give any Elton John song that “something extra” that no one else can.  This song was also important bringing Elton back creatively and professionally.  Radio embraced it, fans loved it, and by climbing to # 3 on the charts in the U.S. in 1980, it made a statement that Elton would a continuing force in the coming decade.  The “little” song that could...Elton, please play it in concert again!

Best lyric:  “I want you to be my acrobat, I want you to be my lover, oh, there are others, and I’ve known quite a few”

28. “So Sad The Renegade” outtake from the album, “Peachtree Road,” 2004

The best song on “Peachtree Road” that wasn’t on “Peachtree Road.”  This dusty, country-fried tale of a restless lover and the woman who loves him, would have been a perfect fit for the album’s Southern, rustic theme, and yet it was kept in stable.  What a shame, because this lamenting story of a loving woman willing to wait for her straying man to come back home deserved to break out the stalls.   Musically, it immediately grabs you with its pedal steel wail and acoustic strum, and Elton’s pleading vocal and hook-filled chorus makes it addictive.  Voicing the role of a woman, Taupin confronts his flaws while sprinkling the song with double-edged cowboy references.  So sad this renegade missed the cut.

Best lyric:  “So go ahead, and chase the wind, and if someday you fold your wings, I’ll be the next you never made, if not, so sad the renegade.”
29. “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” from the album, “The Union,” 2010

Another song I heard Elton sing live before it was released on “The Union” album with rock legend Leon Russell, and immediately connected to.  This hopeful narrative finds Taupin boldly facing the inevitable aging process, but confronting it with a healthy defiance.   Similar in tone to the excellent, “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” but here Taupin states there’s still worthy fire in the furnace. It’s an optimistic view that describes all the major players in “The Union” project – Elton, Russell, and Taupin – who continue to flourish creatively despite the years adding up.  Russell – with his weathered voice -- sings from the heart, and Elton brings his “A game” to match his idol.  T Bone Burnett’s sparse production enhances the message and puts Elton and Russell on center stage.  Grow old with me.

Best lyric: “But you’re harder than nails, no skinny old tack, you’re still sharp as a razor, and I like you like that”

30. “It’s Me That You Need” released as a single, 1969

This relatively obscure, early track may seem like an add choice to fill out a “favorites” list, but it delivers.  More importantly, it’s an example of the music and talent yet to come from both Elton and Taupin.  Yes, the lyrics may be a bit pretentious (“Watching the swallows fly”), but they’re also insightful for a young writer (“Pride is an ugly word girl, and you still know my name”).   Elton’s vocal might feel tentative, raw, and over-pronounced (“a-GAIN”) but there remains a poise and conviction in his delivery.  Plus, its chorus stays with you.  Musically, there are foreshadows of the future – including the intriguing mix of rock and a bold, swirling orchestration, which just a year later became more refined and the signature sound of the landmark “Elton John” album.  Though I don’t hear this song too often, when I do, I play it several times in a row, so that must mean something.

Best lyric: “Hey there, look in the mirror, are you afraid you might see me looking at you”

I couldn’t finish without including a list of some of the songs that didn’t make the list, but easily could replace several of them.  So, here are some VERY honorable mentions:
“Rocket Man,” “Border Song,” “Grey Seal,” “Circle Of Life” “Friends,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Carla/Etude,” “Where To Now, St. Peter?,” “Chameleon,” “I Need You Turn To” (“Live In Australia” version), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Idol” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Seasons (Reprise),” “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” “Sugar On The Floor,” “Enchantment Passing Through,” “One Horse Town”“Voyeur,” “Levon,” “Planes,” “Ego,” “Talking Old Soldiers,” “Mansfield,” “Madman Across The Water,” “Burning Buildings,” “Not Me,” “Electricity,” “In Neon,” “5th Avenue,” “The Bridge,” “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,”“Elderberry Wine,” “The Greatest Discovery,” “A Woman’s Needs,” “The North Star,” “Mandalay Again,” “Sacrifice,”“Skyline Pigeon” (1973 version), “When Love Is Dying,” “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34),” “Home Again,” “Gone To Shiloh,” “Blues For Baby And Me,” “Empty Sky,” “Love Song” (“Here And There” version), “Freaks In Love,” “Club At The End Of The Street,” “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford),” “House,” “The Last Song,” “My Heart Dances,” “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” “Healing Hands,” “Shine On Through,” “Chloe,” “One More Arrow,” “Into The Old Man’s Shoes,” and oh so many, many more….

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