Despite a career that spans from the 1962 single ‘Golden Gridiron Boy’ to the 2017 album Dark Matter, L.A. singer-songwriter Randy Newman has only recorded eleven studio albums. He’s also achieved recognition as a film composer, for movies like 1980’s Ragtime and the Toy Story franchise.
Newman is acclaimed as a satirist – songs like the skewering of America’s foreign policy on ‘Political Science’ and the mockery of bigotry on ‘Short People’ are among his best-known. But Newman’s albums work best when there’s warmth to balance his dark humour – songs like ‘I Miss You’ and ‘Falling In Love’ aren’t as celebrated, but they’re an important part of his legacy. Cornball but not cliché.
Newman’s father came from a family of film composers while his mother came from New Orleans, and Newman’s music reflects the union of these two American traditions. His music is sophisticated and steeped in pre-rock influences – growing up, he loved Ray Charles. Here are his eleven studio albums ranked – not including his numerous soundtracks or his 1995 musical Faust.
Randy Newman Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best
#11 – Born Again
Newman followed his most commercially successful record, 1977’s Little Criminals, with his least impressive record. The KISS parody on the cover is more fun than most of the music. There’s a strong pair of opening tracks – the anti-materialism of ‘It’s The Money That I Love’ and the tale of a misguided ELO fan on ‘The Story of a Rock and Roll Band’. After the opening salvo there’s little of note, a procession of insular and second-tier Newman songs.
#10 – Randy Newman
Newman’s first album largely ignores 1960s popular music, instead building its arrangements around strings and Newman’s piano. Newman’s vocals aren’t strong enough, particularly at this point in his career, to carry these arrangements – it’s a musical setting that would suit Frank Sinatra, but Newman’s voice is subsumed. Strong Newman songs like ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ and ‘Davy The Fat Boy’ aren’t presented accessibly, and a lot of this material sounds better on 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman.
#9 – Trouble in Paradise
Newman’s seventh album was inspired by sharing a flight with Don Henley – the former Eagles drummer complained that he could no longer afford to fly by Lear Jet after his band’s breakup. Newman skewers materialism, backed by members of Toto. They provide a synth-heavy sound that hasn’t aged well, and along with the nihilistic tone on songs like ‘Miami’ it makes for a tough listen. There’s plenty worth salvaging though – a poignant duet with Paul Simon on ‘The Blues’ and stripped-back piano balladry on ‘Real Emotional Girl’.
#8 – Dark Matter
73 years old when Dark Matter was released, Newman’s still sharp, skewering everything from Russian leader Vladimir Putin to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. On ‘Brothers’, JFK and Bobby Kennedy propose invading Cuba for the sole reason of rescuing singer Celia Cruz. The album is dominated by lengthy opener ‘The Great Debate’, an adaptation of a piece from Newman’s 1995’s musical Faust which pits religion again science.
#7 – Little Criminals
Little Criminals features Newman’s biggest hit, ‘Short People’, a satire of bigotry that’s still widely misunderstood. Little Criminals isn’t as strong as Newman’s previous two records, but it climbed to #9 on the U.S. charts. It’s stacked with guest appearances from members of the Eagles – most notably Glenn Frey and Eagles associate J.D. Souther furnish ‘Baltimore’ with glorious harmonies.
#6 – 12 Songs
12 Songs was lauded upon release and it presents Newman’s singular version much more clearly than on his debut. Like the debut it has few traces of rock music, opting for a bluesy Americana sound that sometimes sounds like a grainy old gramophone record from the 1930s. 12 Songs hasn’t aged as well as Newman’s other acclaimed records, but it features Newman classics like ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’ and ‘Suzanne’.
#5 – Harps and Angels
Newman delved into his New Orleans musical heritage on 2008’s Harps and Angels. His piano rolls along, and his arrangements are coloured by horns and backing vocalists. He’s still serving up sharp political satire like ‘A Few Words in Defense Of Our Country’, balanced by sentimentality on ‘Feels Like Home’.
#4 – Land of Dreams
Newman’s previous pair of albums felt overly cynical and jaded, and Land of Dreams benefits from its warmth. Newman often writes from the perspective of unsavoury characters, but here he tells his own story on the opening trio of songs about a childhood spent in New Orleans. The late 1980s sheen, with Jeff Lynne involved in production, works for Newman, and even his rapping on ‘Masterman and Baby J’ is better than you’d expect. ‘It’s The Money That Matters’ topped the mainstream rock chart and featured Mark Knopfler on guitar, but opener ‘Dixie Flyer’ is the standout track.
#3 – Bad Love
Newman ended the 20th century as sharp as ever. His lyrics have never been better than on the colonialism chronicle of ‘The Great Nations of Europe’ and Karl Marx encountering the modern U.S.A. on ‘The World Isn’t Fair’. Bad Love mostly consists of stripped-back songs centred around Newman’s piano, but he ventures into hard rock on ‘I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)’ and country on ‘Big Hat, No Cattle’.
#2 – Sail Away
Newman’s first two albums felt like genre exercises, his third presents his wonderful songs in straightforward fashion. The record features some of his most beloved satires – the slaver advertising passage to America on the title track and trigger happy American foreign policy on ‘Political Science’. His original version of ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ is much subtler than Joe Cocker’s bombastic cover.
#1 – Good Old Boys
Good Old Boys started as a concept album about a man named Johnny Cutler. It’s focused on the American South, exploring Newman’s affection and frustration about the place where he grew up. The fuller band arrangements help it to stand up to repeated listens, and there are great songs like ‘Kingfish’, ‘Marie’, and the racial commentary of ‘Rednecks’.
What’s your favourite Randy Newman album?