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Elton John songs: 15 of the best - Louder

Posted by Catherine Yates on May 22, 2019
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Elton John songs: 15 of the best - Louder

There are a lot of Elton John songs. By our calculations, there's at least 200 of them. It's a staggering number, but one which should be expected when you consider that John is one of the most important – and prolific – artists the UK has ever produced. 

Among those 200 songs lie some of the most interesting and invigorating work in rock'n'roll history. Alongside his long-term songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, and resident producer Gus Dudgeon, John produced music which both marked him out from his contemporaries and pushed boundaries for what it meant to be a real rockstar in the 1970s. 

There's a scene in new biopic Rocketman which pulls John's talent into sharp perspective. Sitting down in front of a piano in his mother's poky front room, the opening bars of eventual mega-hit Your Song flow from his fingertips in a flush of easy inspiration. Given that the real song was allegedly written in minutes, it's an account which doesn't seem too far from the truth.

Of course, with a back catalogue so vast, not everything could make the cut. John's biggest hit, Candle In The Wind, has been omitted here thanks to the years of cloying overfamiliarity which have rendered it, frankly, one of those songs you never need to hear again.

Instead, we pick out the 15 best, most original and dynamic Elton John songs, and celebrate a back catalogue which has come to define British music.

Elton John songs

15. I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues (Too Low For Zero, 1983)

Home to one of the most recognisable choruses in John's back catalogue – which really is no mean feat – this plaintive doo-wop power ballad tells the story of two lovers ripped apart by war. Laced with casual regret and mournful longing, the lyrics were written by John's writing partner Bernie Taupin in tribute to his second wife, Toni Russo.

It would become one of John's biggest hits during the 80s, no doubt helped by the fact the song features Stevie Wonder on harmonica. 

"Bernie was back on Too Low for Zero – we wrote everything on the album," John told Rolling Stone of the song in 2013. "Also, it was the first time I met Renate [Blauel, later to be John's first wife], because she was an engineer on that record. 

"It really was a return to form. Even though I'm Still Standing was kind of an anthem, ...Blues is the one for me because it's just a great song to sing. It's timeless."

Elton John songs

14. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters (Honky Château, 1972)

Taken from the first Elton record to hit number one in the US, this track showed what the singer was capable of as he scaled the heights of his brilliant Early Period – before his fascination with ostentatious glasses threatened to overshadow his talent.

Inspired by Taupin's first visit to New York – where he discovered a less salubrious city than he'd expected – it's an unusually direct lyric from the writer which could equally be interpreted as a metaphor for facing reality with the people you really care about while the spectacle of your dreams crumbles around you. 

"This song is about our first impressions of New York City in 1970, and if anybody was around in that period of time they'll realise that New York wasn't quite as magical as it was probably presented to the rest of the world," Taupin told CBC in 2018. "It was a tough place to get along in and we didn't have a lot of money back then, but it had a profound effect on me. 

"I remember New York as being always cold when we were there. I found refuge in museums and art galleries and any place I could get in that didn't cost any money that would give me some sort of inspiration. But it was a tough place and all the magical things you hear about it sort of were contradicted by other things that were happening on the street."

Elton John songs

13. Grey Seal (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is arguably the gleaming apex of John's recording career, and this relative deep cut is one of the album's very best. 

Originally released as a B-side to Rock And Roll Madonna but dusted off and polished up for GYBR, this song is allegedly one of Elton's favourites – and one he dubbed "Procol Harum-ish absurd, like a Dali painting." The track is a brilliant showcase for Elton's knack for a sweet harmony and storming chorus. 

With a lyric written by Taupin, Elton fans have long dissected the song's surreal words searching for a deeper meaning – though it's likely they'll be looking a long time, as Taupin himself has admitted he “hadn’t a clue what [he] was writing about”.

Elton John songs

12. Pinball Wizard (Tommy Soundtrack, 1975)

Okay, okay, we know – if we're splitting hairs, this isn't technically an Elton John song. Written by The Who for their 1969 rock opera Tommy, Elton's version came to life when he tackled it for the album's 1975 film adaptation. Similar but distinct, John's version replaced The Who guitarist Pete Townshend's acoustic guitar licks with piano and gave the original a glam rock stomp. 

John's version became such a hit upon its release as a single that it became the first and only The Who cover to ever break the top 10, and John's first appearance in the top 10 since another of his covers, The Beatles' Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, a year earlier. It's now well known as an enduring part of his oeuvre and live set, so for our money, it counts.

“Elton arrived at the Battersea studio in a Phantom 5 limousine,” Pete Townshend wrote of the cover's inception in his Who I Am autobiography. “Similar to the one used by the Queen; I hadn’t seen one in the rock world since Andrew Oldham’s in 1967. 

"It was a revelation to observe how quickly and efficiently Elton and his band worked, nailing a driving track with solos, lead and backing vocals in less than four hours."

elton john songs

11. Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (Blue Moves, 1976)

Another of John and Taupin's unashamedly mournful love songs, this Blue Moves single marks something of an anomaly for the songwriting duo. “The interesting thing about Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word is that it’s one of the rare occasions when Elton played me a melody line that inspired a lyric, as opposed to our routine of the lyrics always coming first," Taupin says of the song. 

"He was messing around on the piano one day and was playing something and asked me what did I think. It was actually pretty immediate, the title and the first couple of lines came into my head in a way that I guess I felt they were already there and just needed a little prompting.

Lyrically, the song cuts pretty deep: "It’s a pretty simple idea, but one that I think everyone can relate to at one point or another in their life," says Taupin. "That whole idealistic feeling people get when they want to save something from dying when they basically know deep down inside that it’s already dead. 

"It’s that heartbreaking, sickening part of love that you wouldn’t wish on anyone if you didn’t know that it’s inevitable that they’re going to experience it one day."