Outsider anthems: Daniel Johnston’s 10 best songs of all time
If there was ever one artist to ever entirely sum up the word ‘outsider’ it was the late, great singer-songwriter, Daniel Johnston. Making his name in the early 1980s with a run of bootlegged home recordings, Johnston’s acclaim had continued to grow before his death in 2019. He is largely regarded as one of the most influential underground artists of all time. Today, we celebrate what would have been his 60th birthday by looking back at 10 of his most beautifully perfect songs.
The singer died of a heart attack, aged just 58, last year and left behind a legacy of authentic and honest work that will forever shine on in his name and provide inspiration for other equally gifted outsiders. The singer battled mental and physical health issues throughout his life, struggling particularly with his bipolar disorder. Though it would hamper his life, both personally and professionally, Johnston also provided a unique perspective for pop songs.
His persnal struggles wouldn’t stop Johnston from pursuing a career in music, however, and the singer went about creating his own buzz in the early ’80s as he became a local legend in Austin, Texas. The artist was known for handing out homemade tapes of his stripped back and vulnerable work, an action that typified the man. It’s about as pure an image as one can hope to have of the music industry, that of a poet and performer making music for his own purpose.
The artwork for one of Johnston’s tapes, Hi, How are you, would soon see the mercurial writer thrust into the mainstream media. Kurt Cobain, then the most famous man on the planet, wore a t-shirt displaying Johnston’s art and soon he was the name on everybody’s lips. He quickly became synonymous with the counterculture movement that exploded across Gen X in the early 1990s.
Johnston became a figurehead, of sorts, for a group of artists which included Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam and of course Nirvana. He was their chosen leader, the ultimate weirdo artist finally breaking through. It would see Johnston be allowed to create in his own unique way throughout the rest of his life. It means we are left with some of the most honest and authentic songs in modern history.
Johnston may have transcended into the mainstream but he would always be an outsider. Here are 10 of the best Daniel Johnston songs ever written.
Daniel Johnston’s 10 Greatest Songs:
‘Some Things Last a Long Time’
With the first jarring notes of Johnston’s piano, ‘Some Things Last a Long Time’ from 1990 is one of Johnston’s most openly vulnerable works.
Stripped back and laid bare, the artist bears his soul on this delicately detailed piece. It remains one of the most beautiful moments of Johnston’s incredible career and one that should be revisited at every occasion. It was on tracks like these that Johnston made his name.
‘True Love Will Find You in the End’ (1990)
This is Daniel Johnston’s signature tune. It encapsulates everything that made him legendary. A simple structure, a tender beating heart in the middle, wrapped int he splendour of authenticity. Listen below for a reason to keep up your hope in love: “True love will find you in the end / This is a promise with a catch / Only if you’re looking can it find you / ‘Cause true love is searching, too.“
While it can be easy to write songs off like this as rudimentary or comparatively simple, and these aren’t necessarily false statements, the real beauty of these songs is that Johnston says everything he needs to in such few words.
Daniel Johnston’s potency was unmatched.
‘Devil Town’ (1990)
In just over one minute, without a band or any other instruments, Daniel Johnston conveys more honest and evocative feelings than most artists can hope to achieve in their entire career.
Succinct, voracious and utterly compelling, this is what endeared Johnston to the hearts and minds of so many. He, unlike any other artist, was able to touch your heart and soul without feeling corny or saccharine. He engaged with a part of us all that we usually keep hidden.
It was this unique talent, connecting with our inner child so effectively, that will ensure Johnston’s place in the history books.
‘Mind Movies’ (2009)
Much of Johnston’s later work failed to accurately match his artistry. The singer’s failing health and mental instability were ensuring that his transcendence into the musical mainstream was being held back. He was beginning to be recognised for his work but sadly rarely matched up to his new acclaim.
Yet on 2009’s Is And Always Was, he (with the help of Jason Falkner) gets it right. Amply backed by a band and some glittering production, Johnston shines for the last time on ‘Mind Movies’.
Usually, Johnston survives using only his wits and his guitar but with this more luscious arrangement we get a glimpse into the mind of the mercurial musician.
‘Life in Vain’ (1994)
When you’re known as an outsider artist it can be expected to not reach the top of the charts. Yet when listening to Fun, Johnston’s 1994 record it’s incredible to us that ‘Life In Vain’ never popped up on Billboard’s radar.
A swooning ballad built on Johnston’s creativity, it is one of his most accessible works. This is the song to play if your friend has never heard of Johnston before. From ‘Life in Vain’ a long and storied love affair with the singer can, and usually will, begin.
Press play and begin your own.
‘Speeding Motorcycle’ (1983)
After Johnston got an eviction notice while staying in Houston, the singer jumped on his moped and left to join a travelling carnival. Mentally fragile and without contact from his support network he left a lot of people worried.
“It’s the saddest time in your life not to know where your son is, and he might be needing help,” Johnston’s late mother, Mabel, said in The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
That moped would go on to provide the inspiration for ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ a track Johnston then recorded with Yo La Tengo some years later.
‘Story of an Artist’ (1982)
Johnston was always happy to lay his heart on the ground for you to get a better look. ‘Story of an Artist’ is a testament to that fact as one of his earliest recordings offers more than most can muster in their career.
An autobiographical prophecy, Johnston puts his inner troubles in the shop window for all to see on this song. With it, Johnston staked a claim in ’82 to be the hidden gem we were all waiting for.
From here on Johnston continued to peddle his tapes and walk the streets looking for an audience. While it wouldn’t arrive til much later, here in 1982, Johnston is arguably completing his finest work.
‘Walking The Cow’ (1983)
One of Johnston’s most notably emotionally charged songs sees the singer contemplate the meaning of existence and the futility of trying to find it.
“I really don’t know how I came here/ I really don’t know why I’m staying here,” Johnston sings as the organ hums in the background. It’s a sentiment that still feels as poignant today as it did when he first released the song.
The singer was allegedly inspired to write the song after he saw an ice-cream advertisement for Blue Bell Creameries. Some people find beauty in everything.
‘Worried Shoes’ (1983)
Another brutally simple and stripped back recording sees the very early embers of Daniel Johnston’s creative mind beginning to catch alight. Another window into the mind of Johnston offers a view on his pursuit of love and happiness.
‘Worried Shoes’ may well offer up a view of Johnston’s life and mind but its a song that can connect us all. After all, aren’t we all searching for love and happiness in the same, self-doubting ways?
‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ (1983)
Arguably one of Johnston’s most well-known songs, thanks to its brutal appearance in the cult film Kids, ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ is one of the singer’s least accessible songs and takes lo-fi to a whole new level.
Recorded very early on in Johnston’s career, the song sees him mashing keys together while reeling off his subversive twist on the story of Casper.
In it, Johnston tells the story of a kid who “was smiling through his own personal hell” until he dies and finds happiness because “everybody respects the dead”. It reflects the inner turmoil Johnston experienced for most of his life.