How is Elton John still having hits?
It’s been 52 years since “Your Song” announced the arrival of a major talent in the making.
And here he is, topping the U.S. dance charts twice in two years – first with Dua Lipa and Pnau on a song that also topped the U.K. pop charts (“Cold Heart”) and more recently with Britney Spears on “Hold Me Closer” (essentially a mash-up of three Elton John songs).
Not bad for a man in his 70s taking a victory lap on a farewell tour that wraps up its U.S. leg Sunday night (livestreaming on Disney+) with a final U.S. show at Dodger Stadium.
With Bernie Taupin as his go-to lyricist, he’s written and recorded any number of the greatest records in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, which brings us to this unabashedly subjective countdown of his greatest hits.
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It could be argued that we’re favoring the music he recorded in the 1970s at the expense of some excellent work he did in later years.
That’s fair. But he did so much to define the ’70s, I can’t imagine what that decade would’ve sounded like without the records included here.
And he’s still standing.
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25. ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ (1983)
They’re not calling this the blues, though, right? Because it’s clearly not the blues or Stevie Wonder wouldn’t have brought a chromatic harmonica to work. It’s a soulful pop ballad about a relationship that’s left the other person feeling like they have the blues, with John encouraging that person that this too shall pass. In the opening verse, he promises, “I could honestly say things can only get better.” And he sets up the second chorus with an unabashedly romantic “Cry in the night if it helps/ But more than ever, I simply love you more than I love life itself.” It’s one of John’s biggest hits of the ’80s, hitting No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
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24. ‘I’m Still Standing’ (1983)
This isn’t quite the comeback hit they make it out to be in “Rocketman.” In fact, he happened to be coming off an even bigger hit here in the States, with “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” But there’s a reason people tend to overstate what this song meant in John’s career trajectory. Because it sounds like such a comeback, John asserting his place in the musical firmament with conviction to spare on a track that absolutely swaggers. He’s “lookin’ like a true survivor, feelin’ like a little kid.” He even comes right out and says “Well, look at me, I’m a-comin’ back again.” And that swagger carries over to one of the ’80s’ most iconic videos, directed by Russell Mulcahy.
23. ‘Believe’ (1995)
He was coming off “The Lion King” when he took a left turn and delivered this towering Lennon-esque ballad, sounding shockingly contemporary while setting the tone with “I believe in love/ It’s all we’ve got.” It’s as gritty a record as John had made in years, a refreshing about-face from “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Even the strings have teeth. And the lyrics are great, heading into the chorus with “Churches and dictators, politics and papers/ Everything crumbles sooner or later/ But love/ I believe in love.”
22. ‘I Want Love’ (2001)
“I want love but it’s impossible.” One of Taupin’s best opening lines, it sets the tone for a beautifully Beatles-esque ballad in which a middle-aged man with scars around his heart and too much baggage wants a different kind of love – a love “won’t break me down, won’t brick me up, won’t fence me in.” John’s weary vocal is the perfect vehicle for lines as wounded as “A man like me is dead in places other men feel liberated.” And the musicians do an awe-inspiring job of running with the Beatles vibe. I’m not sure Paul McCartney could’ve sounded more McCartney-esque than the bassline that comes in to greet John’s Lennon-esque piano work (long before the lead guitarist answers “What would George do?”).
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21. ‘Border Song’ (1970)
He was still a one-hit wonder when the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, included an even more gospel-inspired rendition of this classic as the final song on her Grammy-winning “Young, Gifted and Black.” John’s version was released as the lead single from the self-titled album that also featured “Your Song,” giving him his first appearance in the Hot 100 when it peaked at No. 92. Taupin wrote most of the lyrics but the final verse is all John’s doing, bringing the song to a powerful conclusion with a gospel choir at his back as he sings, “Holy Moses, let us live in peace/ Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease/ There’s a man over there. What’s his color?/ I don’t care, he’s my brother, let us live in peace.”
20. ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ (1974)
This is a brilliantly constructed ballad. Opening like many of his greatest ballads of the ’70s with not much more than John on vocals and piano (in this case, there’s a drummer keeping time on hi-hat), it takes on layers as it goes on its way to a widescreen, richly orchestrated climax, underscoring the emotion of his soaring vocal hook. A live recording with George Michael in the early ’90s was an even bigger hit, a trans-Atlantic chart-topper heard round the world. But that was more of an event record. In the case of the original recording? The event is the performance, which is breathtaking on every level. Don’t dizgard me.
19. ‘Your Song’ (1970)
“If I was a sculptor, but then again no” is in no real danger of being mistaken for Taupin’s finest hour as a lyricist. In fact, when John laughs after “sculptor,” it sounds like he’s reading ahead on the lyric sheet. But there’s a reason this became the singer’s breakthrough single on both side of the Atlantic, despite it being relegated to the B-side in the States until taste-making DJs decided they preferred it to the A-side, “Take Me to the Pilot.” For one, it’s unabashedly romantic, especially the final verse, where the singer admits he can’t remember if your eyes are green or blue before awkwardly stammering “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean/ Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen.”
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18. ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ (1973)
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” gets off to an ambitious if bombastic start with this 11-minute suite – an instrumental requiem that flirts with prog and hints at glam before it somehow segues seamlessly into the raucous pop and effervescent harmonies of “Love Lives Bleeding” before fading out on a guitar jam that kind of makes you wish they’d gone on even longer. John has said he wrote the instrumental while reflecting on what sort of music he’d want played at not so much the funeral of a friend but his own funeral. It’s all very much of its era, much of it constructed on ARP synthesizer, by recording engineer David Hentschel. And yet it feels utterly timeless and has become a staple of his live show.
17. ‘Candle in the Wind’ (1973)
Taupin really brought his A-game to the table on this profoundly empathetic portrait of the tragic human being trapped inside the glitz and glamour of life as Marilyn Monroe, referring to the icon by her real name, Norma Jeane, for added impact. “It seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in” is a particularly haunting image. Other lyrics take aim at celebrity culture (“All the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude”). They went back to the well in 1997, rewriting the lyrics for Diana, Princess of Wales. That record sold more copies, but it doesn’t hold a candle, as it were, to the original.
16. ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’ (1982)
There’s so much sadness in this record, a heartbroken, suitably Beatles-esque tribute to the great John Lennon, who’d been murdered by a troubled fan outside his Dakota apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in December 1980, just 15 months prior to this song’s release. The lyrics are by Bernie Taupin. And they’re great. But it’s the raw emotion John invests in his aching, exposed-nerve delivery that ultimately makes this such a powerful recording. He sounds absolutely devastated by the tragic loss of such a cherished friend, from the opening line: “What happened here as the New York sunset disappeared?” I still get chills the first time it hits that crescendo where he sings “And I’ve been callin’, ‘Oh, hey, hey, Johnny. Can’t you come out to play?’ “
15. ‘Grey Seal’ (1973)
Among the many highlights that made “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” one of the era’s most powerful two-record sets, this song was repurposed to brilliant effect from the B-side of 1970’s “Rock and Roll Madonna,” a wholesale reinvention that could scarcely sound – or feel – more different. The original was brilliant in its own way yet barely hinted at the classic it was destined to become. The melody and lyrics were in place, but the arrangement he arrived at on the re-recording took whatever promise the original had shown to a whole other level, from the flurry of piano notes that set the tone to the vocal harmonies that work their magic on the second verse. Once you’ve heard it fully realized, the original feels muted.
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14. ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ (1975)
“Til the Whip-poor-will of freedom zapped me right between the eyes” may be my favorite case of Bernie Taupin sounding like he used a Bernie Taupin lyric generator. Why a whip-poor-will? And how does this compare to Captain Marvel from “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill?” But I digress. It’s kind of weird to think that such a perfect pop song started life as a favor to Billie Jean King, who was a member of the Philadelphia Freedoms in World Team Tennis. What matters more, perhaps, is that the location inspired Gene Page’s orchestral arrangement, a masterful musical tribute to the golden age of Philly soul, when producers as brilliant as Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff were cranking out the classics. This one couldn’t help but top the Hot 100.
13. ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ (1976)
It’s so bizarre to consider the fact that it wasn’t until this Motown-flavored hit duet with Kiki Dee in the summer of ’76 that one of England’s most successful pop sensations since The Beatles had a single top the U.K. pop charts – nearly six years down the road from breaking through with “Your Song”! But it’s easy to hear what made it such a massive cultural phenomenon, hitting No. 1 on countless charts around the globe, including the U.S. John and Taupin have said they originally wanted to record the song with Dusty Springfield – an iconic singer, to be sure. But Dee’s contagious energy is so utterly perfect for the task at hand, as is the chemistry between the two, at times recalling the playful rapport between Marvin and Tammi.
12. ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ (1972)
An emotional highlight of “Honky Chateau,” this was never released as a single. But John introduced it as “one of my all-time favorites” during his 60th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He even cut a sequel, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (Part Two),” 16 years later. The lyrics offer Taupin’s gritty take on New York City, having heard a gun go off outside his hotel window during his first visit. It’s certainly not the most flattering portrait, including lines as striking as “Subway’s no way for a good man to go down/ Rich man can ride, and the hobo, he can drown.” But he follows that line with a heartfelt “And I thank the Lord for the people I have found.”
11. ‘Madman Across the Water’ (1971)
This nearly six-minute epic is practically prog-rock (complete with Rick Wakeman on organ) and certainly ranks among the darker, more dramatic rockers in Sir Elton’s catalog, that chilling string arrangement in particular, which could practically serve as an alternate score to the shower scene in “Psycho.” And that clearly suits the subject matter of a song set on visiting day in a psychiatric hospital, sung in character by John, who reveals at the end of the opening verse, “Take my word, I’m a madman, don’t you know?” He delivers his lines with the intensity required, especially the bit at the end of the second verse where he follows “Get a load of him, he’s so insane” with “You better get your coat, dear, it looks like rain.”
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10. ‘Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word’ (1976)
There’s a writing technique called “Show, don’t tell.” And nine times out 10, that’s sound advice. But John’s delivery on this record makes a solid case for “Why not both?” There’s so much sadness in his world-weary vocal on the chorus here, underscoring the pathos of “It’s sad (so sad)/ So sad/ It’s a sad, sad situation,” a mood James Newton Howard duly reinforces with a string arrangement that could hardly sound more inconsolable. The whole record just wallows in sadness, from the opening line, an unspeakably vulnerable “What do I gotta do to make you love me?/ What have I gotta do to make you care?” And that’s what makes it what it so relatable to anyone who’s ever suffered through the slow dissolve of a dying relationship.
9. ‘Levon’ (1971)
“Levon wears his war wound like a crown” is such an evocative way to set a scene, the first of several brilliant brush strokes in this fully realized portrait of a good man “born a pauper to a pawn on Christmas day” who calls his own son Jesus “’cause he likes the name” and “sends him to the finest school in town.” He’s carving out a better life for Jesus. Or so he tells himself. But Jesus has his own ambitions and they don’t include inheriting the family business. He spends his days dreaming of leaving his father’s world far behind while “Levon slowly dies.” If’s there’s a more heartbreaking song about the pain of letting go, as every parent must, I can’t imagine what that is.
8. ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ (1973)
This could be the most exhilarating rocker John has ever managed, crashing the gate with an opening riff that hits like pure adrenaline, Davey Johnstone channeling the early Who as brilliantly as anything this side of Alice Cooper in their prime and John sliding into the chorus like Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. There’s a reckless abandon at work here that’s practically punkish, which certainly suits the tone of Taupin’s lyrics on the feel-good celebration of a good old-fashioned rumble, sneered and snarled with requisite swagger by John, who wants to “get about as oiled as a diesel train … ’cause Saturday night’s the night I like.” It’s all forward momentum, fading out on an electrifying jam that offsets Johnstone’s best Chuck Berry imitation with John pounding his piano as though he’s trying to make it say “uncle.”
7. ‘Crocodile Rock’ (1972)
Nostalgia rarely hits its target with an aim as true as this rollicking tribute to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, when Susie wore her dresses tight, as seen through the eyes of a guy who’s obsessed with a fictional dance craze, the Crocodile Rock. This song hits all the right nostalgic notes, from the starry-eyed innocence of holding hands and skimming stones to the bittersweet realization that the narrator will never be that young again. “We really thought the Crocodile Rock would last?” Of course you did. It wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the music didn’t rise to the occasion, but that’s not a problem here, from the Farfisa organ and piano introduction to John’s period-perfect falsetto. There’s a reason this became his first chart-topping U.S. hit.
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6. ‘Tiny Dancer’ (1971)
This song wasn’t nearly as popular before that scene in “Almost Famous” – the one where a busload of bad vibes is somehow dispelled by a spirited singalong with smiling faces all around. It petered out at No. 41 on Billboard’s Hot 100 at the time of its release. Now, thanks to Cameron Crowe, it’s not just triple-platinum, it’s part of the cultural fabric. Here’s the thing, though. This has always been among his best recordings, and if people like it better now because it turned up in a movie? There’s no shame in that. The song opens with John on piano, barely hinting at the widescreen grandeur of a chorus that doesn’t even make its first appearance until more than 2½ minutes into Taupin’s ode to then-wife Maxine Feibelman, a “seamstress for the band.”
5. ‘Daniel’ (1973)
Taupin’s lyrics were inspired by an article about a wounded soldier coming home from Vietnam who just wants to get on with his life but the people in his hometown won’t leave him alone so he decides he has to leave the country. Taupin tells the story through the eyes of Daniel’s younger brother, who asks “Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal?” then adds, “Your eyes have died but you see more than I.” In the opening verse, the kid sees Daniel waving goodbye from a plane bound for Spain. “Oh, it looks like Daniel,” he sings. “Must be the clouds in my eyes.” This is one of those textbook examples of John responding to the sadness of the lyrics with a melody that only makes it that much harder not to get caught up in the emotion.
4. ‘Bennie and the Jets’ (1973)
Were John and Taupin responding to glam and more specifically “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” in this fanciful ode to a fictitious band, as sung from the perspective of a super-fan promising Candy and Ronnie “Oh, but they’re weird and they’re wonderful”? What else you got? It’s deceptively funky, grooving at a snail’s pace to delirious effect and led by John’s piano with the sound of an audience dubbed in, as though Candy and Ronnie are finally catching Bennie live with her electric boots and mohair suit. Taupin has said he wrote the lyrics as a satire on the music industry as it stood in the ’70s. But it feels more like a celebration, and it’s all the better for it, especially when Elton lapses into the falsetto just like Bennie would’ve wanted.
3. ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ (1975)
The only single released from an autobiographical concept album called “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” has lyrics inspired by John breaking off his engagement to Linda Woodrow and the suicidal feelings that relationship inspired. Taupin isn’t one for mincing words here, framing John as “just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen” who nearly had him “roped and tied,” “altar-bound” and “hypnotized” until “sweet freedom” whispered in his ear and told him “You’re a butterfly and butterflies are free to fly.” Meanwhile, he has Woodrow “sittin’ like a princess perched in her electric chair.” And yet the end result is oddly life-affirming and quite lovely, celebrating former bandmate Long John Baldry – or Sugar Bear, as he’s known in the lyrics – for giving him the strength to break off the engagement. Once again, John manages to amplify the raw emotion of the lyrics with his melody and phrasing.
2. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (1973)
This could be his finest hour as a vocalist, his soulful delivery making the most of that elastic upper register while underscoring the emotion of the lyrics, in which he reveals that he’s “finally decided my future lies beyond the Yellow Brick Road.” The title track of his two-record masterpiece is a reference, of course, to the Yellow Brick Road in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” but only as a lyrical device. It’s more about escaping John and Taupin’s own personal Emerald City, Hollywood, for a simpler life on the farm, a bit of a recurring theme in Taupin’s lyrics at the time. The stately ballad opens on John alone at his piano, understated strings seeping into the mix as he set the tone with a wistful reading of “When are you gonna come down?/ When are you going to land?” We’ve almost hit the chorus by the time the drums kicks in, followed by dreamy guitar and psychedelic harmonies. The whole arrangement underscores the magic of the melody, as otherworldly as Oz itself.
1. ‘Rocket Man’ (1972)
This was the second major pop hit of the era by a music legend in the making that looked to the cosmos and thought “It must get awful lonely up there.” “Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to be a Long, Long Time)” are very different records, though, despite the fact that John and David Bowie shared a producer in Gus Dudgeon. Taupin’s lyrics were inspired by “The Rocket Man,” a short story in Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” about an astronaut who’s never home. It’s one space mission after another while his child grows up without a dad, a bit like a traveling salesman – at least until he dies in outer space. Taupin’s lyrics and John’s vocal tap into the drudgery of life in space. “And all the science, I don’t understand,” he sighs. “It’s just my job five days a weeks.” There’s no sense that this Rocket Man dies like the one in the Bradbury story, unless you think it happens as the song fades out repeating “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time,” a suitably haunting conclusion to a record that brilliantly captures the essence of alienation and feeling like you’re all alone in a universe too vast to notice.
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