10 Best Marshall Crenshaw Songs

Detroit’s Marshall Crenshaw started playing the guitar at age ten. At high school he started the band Astigfa – an acronym for “a splendid time is guaranteed for all”, a lyric from The Beatles’ /Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’. Crenshaw went on to play John Lennon in the musical Beatlemania. Given this background, you’d expect Beatles-inspired music, but Crenshaw’s songs are often derived from 1950s rock and roll.

Crenshaw’s songs are sweet and concise, like Buddy Holly for the 1980s. On his first two albums, which dominate this list, he plays as part of a three-piece band, accompanied by his brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato on bass.

I’ve made this list with less knowledge of the artist’s catalogue than I usually have – I only own the first three albums and a compilation. Please let me know if I’ve missed some great songs, but it’s clear that Crenshaw peaked early. I didn’t realise until I was researching this list, that the two selections from after 1983 were both largely written before Crenshaw released his first album.

10 Best Marshall Crenshaw Songs

#10 Someday, Someway

from Marshall Crenshaw, 1982
The lead single from Crenshaw’s first record, ‘Someday, Someway’ cracked the US top 40. Crenshaw told PBS that the song is about the early stages of marriage: “All of a sudden, you’re married and you realized that you signed up for something permanent. That’s what the song’s about.” Rockabilly singer Robert Gordon released his cover of the song before Crenshaw, while it was later covered by British pop band S Club 7. Marshall Crenshaw was produced by Richard Gottehrer – I recently covered his work in The Strangeloves on this blog.

#9 Starless Summer Sky

from Miracle of Science, 1996
‘Starless Summer Sky’ was the last song recorded on this list, but it was actually one of the first songs that Crenshaw ever wrote. There’s a 1979 demo of the song on the deluxe edition of Marshall Crenshaw, titled ‘Starlit Summer Sky’. In an interview with Rock Cellar, Crenshaw stated that he crossed paths with Rick Cioffi and Fred Todd, who “bullied him” into writing songs with them. ‘Starless Summer Sky’ was written around 1979, and gave Crenshaw the confidence to start writing his own songs. Released in 1996, ‘Starless Summer Sky’ has a fuller sound than the other songs on this list, but it shares the same effervescent joy.

#8 There She Goes Again

from Marshall Crenshaw, 1982
The opening track from Crenshaw’s critically-acclaimed debut sets the tone perfectly, capturing youthful romantic angst in a relaxed and understated fashion. Crenshaw later praised the work of bassist Chris Donato on the track – he told Popdose “He plays really well. I liked it … he did a nice job on that one.”

#7 Our Town

from Field Day, 1983
Crenshaw wrote ‘Our Town’ to reflect his feelings of homesickness for New York, his hometown at the time. Crenshaw later said that the melody was inspired by ‘Honest I Do’. Field Day was produced by Steve Lillywhite. Fresh from ground-breaking records with Peter Gabriel and U2, he immediately makes Crenshaw sound more 1980s with his gated reverb on the snare. In hindsight it’s fine – it gives Field Day a distinct identity from the debut.

Marshall Crenshaw Debut Album

#6 Girls…

from Marshall Crenshaw, 1982
‘Girls’ celebrates the wonders of women, in a bright and summery song. Crenshaw’s so charming that a song that would feel voyeuristic from another vocalist is fresh-eyed and innocent. He even apologises for his enthusiasm, singing “You know I don’t want to be impolite”. This is the only song on the list not featured on the compilation This Is Easy – the debut is so loaded with great songs that something had to miss the cut.

#5 Cynical Girl

from Marshall Crenshaw, 1982
‘Cynical Girl’ does a great job of subverting pop cliches without disrespecting the genre. Crenshaw’s looking for a girlfriend – common pop territory, except that he has exacting and unusual requirements for his partner. “I hate TV/There’s gotta be somebody other than me”

This Is Easy The Best of Marshall Crenshaw

#4 Mary Anne

from Marshall Crenshaw, 1982
‘Mary Anne’ was never a single, but it’s still one of Crenshaw’s most-loved songs. It’s straightforward musically, but there’s plenty happening in the arrangement with Crenshaw’s 12-string guitar parts and the arrangement of the backing vocals. Crenshaw didn’t know anyone named Mary Anne, but told Popdose that he “tried to write a song around the name” because it’s “kind of a musical-sounding name”.

#3 Blues Is King

from Downtown, 1985
Crenshaw’s third album was produced by roots music maestro T Bone Burnett, with the exception of this track, which Crenshaw produced with Let’s Active’s Mitch Easter. ‘Blues is King’ is another song that dates back to Crenshaw’s early days – it started as an instrumental titled ‘Bruce is King’, named after Mr Springsteen. Crenshaw took the lyrics from a BB King title – he’s later expressed dislike of them.

#2 Whenever You’re On My Mind

from Field Day, 1983
The first single from Field Day, ‘Wherever You’re On My Mind’ somehow failed to make the US #100. It’s great anyway – I love the pauses as the song takes a big gulp of air at the start of each verse. Crenshaw had already written ‘Whenever You’re On My Mind’ when he recorded his debut album but decided to keep it in “his back pocket” for later. According to Wikipedia, Crenshaw “thought ‘Whenever You’re On My Mind’ was the best thing we’d done up to that point. It was, like, ‘the bomb,’ as they say.”

#1 You’re My Favourite Waste Of Time

b-side to ‘Someday, Someway’, 1982
‘You’re My Favourite Waste of Time’ was one of the first songs Crenshaw wrote. He arrived a day early to a Beatlemania set and wrote the song on a Gibson J-160 from the show. The music was inspired by The Hollies, while the lyrics were a recollection of killing time with his future wife as a teenager, waiting for her parents to go to bed. A 1979 demo of the song was originally released as the b-side of the single ‘Someday, Someway’. Despite its origins as a b-side, the song took on a life of its own. It was covered by Bette Midler in 1983 and became a #3 hit for Scottish singer Owen Paul in 1986. I’m with Crenshaw when he claims that he can’t listen to more than 20 seconds of the latter.

Did I include your favourite Marshall Crenshaw songs?

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  1. Easily Someday, Someway. And then There She Goes Again. I don’t like his Favorite Waste of Time as much as I thought I would, probably because I heard Bette Midler’s years before I ever heard his, and I like it better.

    • Yeah, I think ‘Someday, Someway’ at #10 is the most controversial point of this list – never warmed to it as much as the others (which is obviously why it’s at #10).

  2. A tough call for me. I have his first two albums and there’s nary a bad song on either. I might pick “Whenever You’re on My Mind” for number one. At least, of those I’ve heard. He’s another great power-popper.

  3. Crenshaw is almost like the Replacements to me. Back then I was a fan but lost touch with him. I had his first two albums. This might kick offanother Crenshaw revival for me. He is right down my alley. My favorite song by him is Cynical Girl. I remember 7 out of your 10 off of this list…which is good since it’s been a while since I listened to him a lot.

    • I love Blues is King off the third album – he went a bit country then. I get a sense of diminishing returns – he was best when he was doing that fresh-faced rock and roll. But he’s tuneful anyway.

      • I listen to Blues is King today because I never heard it before and I liked the music on it, and then I saw one called I’m Sorry (But so is Brenda Lee} and I had to listen to it because I’m Sorry by Brenda Lee is one of my favorite records ever. And it was really good. I think that countryish sound that he started doing sounds more substantial than his other music. I thought it suited him good. Have you heard that one?

        • Yup, I have Downtown and This Is Easy, and the Brenda Lee song is on both. He’s fine at country, but it’s hard to beat the ebullient joy on those early rock and roll songs.

          • I wonder why so many people have mentioned Brenda Lee and her songs in one of their songs. Most famously of course, there’s Radar Love by Golden Earring where they say “Brenda Lee’s Coming on Strong”, which was one of her old hits, and Marshall Crenshaw talks about I’m Sorry, and there’s another one that says “Listening to Brenda Lee on the record player”. I forgot who did that one but it was kind of like country rock. I wonder why there’s so many. I think it’s so weird. Maybe it’s some kind of obscure sub-genre. Ha ha.

  4. Every one of these is an absolute classic, and I’m pleased you included “Blues Is King” which is brilliant. I would rank “Whenever You’re On My Mind” at #1 but all of them would be at/near the top of my Crenshaw list, along with “Not For Me,” “The Distance Between,” “Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)” (co-writer Don Dixon also did a great version of this song), “She Hates To Go Home,” “Fantastic Planet Of Love” and “Walkin’ Around.” I’ve seen Marshall probably a dozen times and he never disappoints. Definitely an all-time favorite artist of mine.

  5. Great playlist, Graham. This music is right up my alley!

    While I recognized the name Marshall Crenshaw right away, I didn’t know any of his songs. Based on my initial impression, I think I agree with Max (something that never happens! 🙂 ) that “Cynical Girl” is the standout. I just love the guitar sound on that one.

    Your playlist makes me curious to check out more of his music.

    • I’m glad you listened – right up your street, I reckon. That debut album, which half the songs on the list come from, often pops up on best album of all time lists.

    • Yeah, Costello’s first album is quite 1950s rock and roll too. Quite different outlooks though – Crenshaw is sweet and breezy while Costello is grumpy.

  6. Terrific artist to feature. I don’t know all these, but have broken out my copy of the compilation for a refresher. One that didn’t make your list that I really love is “What do you dream of?” Fabulous.

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