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Elton John’s Ten Best Songs

Sir Elton John is one of pop’s biggest hit machines, churning out top forty singles through the 1970s, 1980s, and much of the 1990s. He set Bernie Taupin’s lyrics to music, using his piano skills and agile voice to transcend eras and set sales records.

While John was successful for a long time, most fans would agree that he peaked in the first half of the 1970s. My picks are all taken from that era, but John continued to record worthy material. 1980s hits like ‘I’m Still Standing’ and ‘Empty Garden’ are strong additions to his catalogue, while his songs for the 1994 musical The Lion King are also beloved.

Even within the 1970-1975 time-frame, it hurts to ignore classic songs like ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’, ‘Harmony’, ‘Candle in the Wind’, ‘Honky Cat’, and ‘I Feel Like A Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)’.

Ten Best Elton John Songs

Ranked from #10 to #1

Susie (Dramas)

from Honky Château, 1972
Most Elton John fans will know the rest of the list – either big hit singles or notable fan favourites. ‘Susie’ is the one semi-obscurity – an album track from my favourite John record, 1972’s Honky Château. Honky Château combines the sincerity of John’s earlier work with the more energetic band feel of his later 1970s records. Honky Chateau had an excellent pair of hits (‘Honky Cat’ and ‘Rocket Man’), so ‘Susie’ remained as an album track, but it could have served on radio with its great piano runs and memorable chorus.

Well she sure knows how to use me
Pretty little black-eyed Suzie
Playing hooky with my heart all the time


Philadelphia Freedom

non-album single, 1975
‘Philadelphia Freedom’ is Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s tribute to their friend, tennis star Billie Jean King. It uses the Philly Soul sound of King’s Philadelphia, and its chart topping performance reportedly benefited from patriotism leading up to the American bicentennial. King had recently beaten retired male star Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’.

‘Cause I live and breathe this Philadelphia freedom
From the day that I was born I’ve waved the flag


Levon

from Madman Across The Water, 1971
1971’s Madman Across The Water showcased John flirting with progressive rock, featuring lengthy songs and utilising Rick Wakeman. The results were uneven, but the highlights were among John’s best. ‘Levon’ features impressionistic and incomprehensible lyrics from Taupin – “And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus/Leave Levon far behind” – but John’s tune, vocal, and the orchestration are sublime. ‘Levon’ is Jon Bon Jovi’s favourite song of all time.

Levon wears his war wound like a crown
He calls his child Jesus ’cause he likes the name
And he sends him to the finest school in town


Take Me To The Pilot

from Elton John, 1970
Elton John’s second album was intended as a collection of polished demos, showcasing John and Taupin’s songs. Instead, on the back of the hit ‘Your Song’, it paved the way for John’s mega sales in the 1970s. The album sometimes suffers from languid tempos and suffocating strings, but ‘Take Me To The Pilot’ is a fun, gospel-tinged romp. John and Taupin have both admitted to having no idea what lyrics like “Through a glass eye your throne, is the one danger zone” mean.

Through a glass eye your throne
Is the one danger zone
Take me to the pilot for control
Take me to the pilot of your soul


Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding

from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973
Elton John tried out everything on his uneven but often brilliant Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The double album opens with the eleven minute progressive rock epic ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’. It was too long for a single release, but it received FM airplay and became a fan favourite anyway. The first part is an instrumental, inspired by John thinking about what kind of music he’d like at his funeral, the second part is an impassioned rocker.

I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan
But my guitar couldn’t hold you
So I split the band
Love lies bleeding in my hands


Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973
The Wizard of Oz was reportedly the first movie that Bernie Taupin ever watched as a child – he used its imagery to express a desire to return to his roots. Musically, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is a very typical 1970s Elton John song – piano-driven soft rock, using John’s falsetto on the chorus hook. The Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album has an embarrassment of riches – it also boasts ‘Candle in the Wind’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ – but the title track is my favourite.

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough


Burn Down The Mission

from Tumbleweed Connection, 1970
Taupin and John were fans of North American roots-rock, like The Band, Neil Young, and Dylan, and their third record was accordingly western-themed. Tumbleweed Connection didn’t spawn any hits, but it was one of his best records all the same. The closer ‘Burn Down The Mission’ is one of John’s most complex compositions with multiple key changes, inspired by Laura Nyro’s free-flowing writing. Despite its complexity, it’s become a fan favourite.

Burn down the mission
If we’re gonna stay alive
Watch the black smoke fly to heaven
See the red flame light the sky


Someone Saved My Life Tonight

from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, 1975
John was so huge commercially by 1975 that Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy became the first album to debut at number one. The album is themed around John and Taupin’s early career struggles; the song is about John’s engagement and his related 1968 suicide attempt. The “Someone” is Long John Baldry, who convinced John to break off his engagement. Captain Fantastic is an intricate studio creation, notable for the intricate backing vocals from the Elton John Band; Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray, and Nigel Olsson. At almost seven minutes, it’s very long for a single, but John refused to edit such a personal song.

You nearly had me roped and tied
Altar-bound, hypnotized
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear


Tiny Dancer

from Madman Across The Water, 1971
‘Tiny Dancer’ was only a minor hit when released as a single in 1971, but it’s since become one of John’s signature songs. It was helped by its use in the film Almost Famous, as well as a scene in Friends where Phoebe thought it was about Tony Danza. Like ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’, it’s not an obvious hit single – it’s a lengthy, piano-based song. Taupin’s claimed at different times that the song was about his first wife, seamstress Maxine Feibelman, or about the various women he encountered on his first trip to the US.

Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today


Rocket Man

from Honky Château, 1972
It’s not unreasonable to label ‘Rocket Man’ as John’s signature song – it provided the title for his 2018 biopic. It was also the lead single on the album that signalled John’s ascent to mega-stardom – Honky Château was the first in a long series of US number one albums. Honky Château marks the first time the Elton John Band were allowed to play on an entire album – Davey Johnstone’s pedal steel in the verse, and his acoustic strum in the chorus, provide the key textures, along with the group’s harmonies.

Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

Did I omit your favourite Elton John song?

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38 thoughts on “Elton John’s Ten Best Songs Leave a comment

  1. Those are all good ones- on my list I’d have Funeral For A Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding at #1 and Philadelphia Freedom #2… after that?? A great singles artist.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fantastic list. You covered mine with Tiny Dancer, Philadelphia Freedom, Levon, and Burn Down the Mission.

    I regret not seeing the Elton and Billy Joel tour…piano based pop/rock bliss for hours.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. don’t know if you saw the Golden Globes but Elton and Bernie came out to give an award and they got a spontaneous standing ovation. And then they won an award and it was the first time they’d won an award together ever for anything.

    Here’s my list: Your Song, Take Me to the Pilot, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Sacrifice, Border Song, High Flying Bird, Burn Down the Mission, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Bennie and the Jets.

    Left out Amoreena, Honky Cat, Rocket Man, Daniel, Crocodile Rock, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Tiny Dancer, I’m Still Standing, I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues. Levon, Part-Time Love. SO MUCH GOOD STUFF.

    Philadelphia Freedom? Hate it. And I’m FROM Philly. I put it on the same level as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • You really like that 1970 self-titled album, huh? High Flying Bird is a pretty cool deep cut.

      I used to work with someone called Daniel, who was named after the song. He cheated on his girlfriend something chronic.

      I figured Philadelphia Freedom would be divisive. It’s kind of dipping into disco territory.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, deep cut as is ‘Susie,’ a good tune I’d forgotten. ‘Freedom’ just never did it for me. BTW, I watched ‘Rocket Man.’ Meh. Much better I thought was Elton’s autobiography ‘Me.’ I got it for Christmas and burned through it in a few days. What a life. I’m glad to see he’s learned to accept himself and get past his self-loathing. As to disco, he talks about how he loved to go to discos, dance and then fall for the same wrong guy over and over again. Did you know he released a disco album? It bombed in part because it was after disco peaked. Victim of Love.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I thought there were some really creative scenes in ‘Rocket Man’. I liked some of the big imaginative dance sequences, although the lack of chronology drove my inner nerd crazy.

          I haven’t heard any Elton John records past 1975’s Rock of the Westies – I get the impression that his albums get pretty patchy after that, even though he kept having good singles.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Really good list, even though it features only a couple of my favourites.

    For what it’s worth here’s my Top 10…likewise from #10 to #1.

    10. Daniel
    9. Honky Cat
    8. Sacrifice (look past the slick MOR production, and you’ll realise it’s a GREAT song)
    7. Candle In the Wind
    6. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
    5. Bennie and the Jets
    4. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
    3. Rocket Man
    2. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (I don’t care how commercial this is, I f**king love it!)
    1. I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool – thanks for sharing your list.

      I actually really enjoy ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ – it’s certainly divisive, but I think there’s a good pop tune there. The one I don’t like so much is ‘Daniel’ – as I explained to Jim in another comment, I had a workmate named after the song who was a philanderer. Plus I find it just too soft and sentimental. ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues’ is a really good pop song though.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re most welcome. And props for not approving of your ex-workmate’s philandering ways! It’s definitely a bit on the soft and sentimental side, for that reason it only narrowly edged into my Top 10 (marginally ahead of Philadelphia Freedom, which ironically is another divisive one, I read that the aforementioned Jim loathes it! It’s great we all have our loves and loathings. Really enjoyed this post of yours, its stimulating passionate debate among music-lovers, always a good thing!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I only know a few of his albums and you’ve picked tunes I can’t argue with.. though I’d need to make room for Your Song and Birdie Song from his first album.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Empty Garden and Saturday Night have both been mentioned by a lot of commenters – both very good songs that I couldn’t fit. I think I tend to prefer the big piano epics like Burn Down the Mission and Tiny Dancer.

      Like

  6. I’d have to agree with about seven or eight of your picks. But not Burn Down the Mission or Candle in the Wind, which I always thought was clunky and awkward and poorly written, and the worst track on that album. I would have included a few more from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, like my favorites Saturday Night’s Alright, Bennie and the Jets and Grey Seal, which I think is the best track on Yellow Brick Road.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like Grey Seal a lot – definitely in the good half of GYBR for me. Candle in the Wind wasn’t in my list of ten, although I do like it. It probably would have been in my top ten when I was younger, but the Diana tribute version killed it for me.

      Like

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