It would not be such a stretch to call Elvis Costello a genius. If anything, he is one of the most prolific quality songwriters of the 20th century. He has also explored his craft through many collaborations which include, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Ann Sofie Von Otter, Squeeze, Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett, Allen Toussaint, Marcus Mumford and many more.
Costello released his debut album, My Aim is True, in 1977, and the following year he formed a partnership with his backing band, The Attractions and released This Year’s Model and would continue to work with them until 1986. He would also work with another band called The Imposters in the early 2000s.
Costello has been called an encyclopedia of pop, for his fearless experimentation and his insatiable thirst for exploring different ways of songwriting. Currently, he can boast a catalogue of over 30 studio albums, which is not often seen.
When he first came onto the scene in 1977, many were quick to place him into the category of the new wave that had been developing around this time. Costello, however, always refused to be pigeonholed. During a time when punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Ramones were dominating the world at large, Costello offered more introspection, more elaborate songwriting, better vocabulary, while also maintaining the same kind of anger and ferociousness that made punk so appealing.
Instead of remaining within the framework of fast-paced new-wave songs, he explored the works of the aforementioned Burt Bacharach, as well as the genre of jazz. This knowledge helped Costello grow into other more ‘sophisticated’ genres.
He was always ahead of his time and seemed to have never written for anyone else but himself. In honour of the great songwriter, we decided to take a look at his 10 best songs he’s written over his expansive and genre-defying career.
Elvis Costello’s 10 greatest songs of all time:
10. ‘Complicated Shadows’ – All This Useless Beauty
When Costello wrote ‘Complicated Shadows’ he asked Johnny Cash if he had any interest in singing it, but he would decline. All This Useless Beauty came out in 1996 and peaked at number 28 on the UK album charts. This record would be the last one he did with his long-lasting backing band, The Attractions.
Costello had originally intended for the album to be called A Case For Song and was supposed to be an entire album of songs written for other artists. A bonus version of the record was released a few years later which included the song, ‘The Comedians’, written for Roy Orbison, who, unlike Johnny Cash, used Costello’s song.
9. ‘When I Was Cruel No. 2′ – When I Was Cruel
In this song, Costello sings from the perspective of someone at a wedding who’s observing the superficiality of a wedding between a couple that is doomed to fail. He resists the urge to voice this observation, something he would have done when he was younger – when he was cruel.
The reason why this one is titled number two is that Costello had written ‘When I was Cruel’ but it never made it onto the album, instead he replaced it with this one.
This is the first album with Costello’s backing group, The Imposters, which the only difference between The Imposters and The Attractions is the replacement of Bruce Thomas on bass with Davey Faragher.
8. ‘Accidents Will Happen’ – Armed Forces
‘Accidents Will Happen’ found on Costello’s third album, Armed Forces, came out in 1979 and wrote it while he was on tour in the States at three in the morning at a hotel in Tuscon, Arizona. “Back in ’78, I was young and newly famous, and I didn’t have any sense of responsibility. Temptation came along, and I gave in to it more than I should have. That’s what this song is really about,” Costello said in regards to what it was about.
Musically, the song was different from what he had been doing up to that point; it seemed like it was structurally more complex. Costello wrote the song about his numerous infidelities, and how fame took even him by surprise. Costello commented about the lyrics, explaining: “About a straying lover struggling to tell the truth and face the consequences.”
After he wrote the song with Attractions’ keyboard player Steve Nieve, Costello removed all the personal pronouns because “this was pop music, not a confession.”
7. ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ – This Year’s Model
From his second album, This Year’s Model, Costello wrote this track while he was still working as a computer programmer. It was based on the earlier films he was watching as a kid and his frequent trips to Chelsea.
The track reached number 16 on the UK charts and did well in other countries also. This song, as well as others from This Year’s Model, are considered his new-wave work which was heavily inspired by ’60s garage rock.
Costello said about writing the song: “Early one morning, I snuck my guitar into the office, as I knew I’d be working late into the night. Once everyone else had gone home and I was alone in the otherwise darkened building, with just the hum and chatter of the computer terminal and the far-off light of a coffee machine next to the stairwell where murderers lurked, I wrote ‘(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea’.”
6. ‘Pump It Up’ – This Year’s Model
This one was heavily inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and features sarcastic commentary on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle: “It was a satire. If you listen to the lyrics, it kind of goes against the grain of hedonism”. He later said, “Well, just how much can you fuck, how many drugs can you do before you get so numb you can’t really feel anything?”
‘Pump It Up’ is probably one of Costello’s most career-defining song and is also his most rock ‘n’ roll song, in that it is simple and straight forward. Even those unfamiliar with Costello’s work will usually know this one.
Paul Flattery produced the music video for the song. Costello said about the video: “The director quickly found out that I could walk on the sides of my ankles. That was a trick that I’d learned not in vaudeville school but at the hands of a vaguely sadistic doctor. When it was determined that I had flat feet as a child, I was first told I would never make it in the army, then I was taught to pick up a ball of socks with my feet like a monkey and do that trick with my ankles in an attempt to strengthen my arches.”
5. ‘Alison’ – My Aim is True
Supposedly, Costello wrote this one after seeing a woman working at a supermarket as a cashier. While a lot of people have attempted to further explain Costello’s usual cryptic way of telling his version of the story, he has refused to comment further and has said, “Much can be undone by saying more.”
As is the case with so many of Costello’s songs, ‘Alison’ sounds like it is a love song, but the lyrics are a touch ambiguous leaving much up to the imagination. While Costello’s version did garner success in the beginning, over the years it has become one of his fans favourites.
Linda Ronstadt covered it the following year and found some moderate success. It climbed to number 30 in one of the US charts. ‘Alison’ has been described as Costello’s best song, second only to another one which we will mention in this list.
4. ‘I Want You’ – Blood and Chocolate
‘I Want You’ was the second single for Costello’s Blood and Chocolate. The song starts as a kind of soft and understated lullaby, presenting the song as romantic. The song quickly develops into more of a sinister mood, which is emphasised by the minor chords, which makes it less innocent and more of an unhealthy obsession.
Costello commented about the track, “The sound of this track was always going to be the aural equivalent of a blurred polaroid, so no apologies for the lack of fidelity. None are needed, it’s just a pornographic snapshot; lots of broken glass, a squashed box of chocolates and a little blood on the wall.”
3. ‘This Year’s Girl’ – This Year’s Model
Released in 1977 on Elvis Costello and The Attractions’ brilliant first album, This Year’s Model, ‘This Year’s Girl’ received a lot of pushback for its seeming misogynistic nature. Costello, however, adamantly refuted this notion and said that he wrote it in response to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Stupid Girl’. Instead, Costello’s song is a criticism of superficial fashion and the fickleness of it. In response, Costello said, “Everything in the song is about the way men see women and what they desire from them.”
Adding: “If there is a lie being told, then it is the one that a girl might be prepared to live or tell, in order to live up to some false ideal of attraction. That may contain disappointment and be critical, but it hardly constitutes hatred.” This comment alone shows you how intelligent Costello is and doesn’t take the bait to lower himself down to the level of prodding questions.
Costello commented on the relationship between his song and the Stones song: “My lyrics might have been tough on the girl but it was full of regret and a little sympathy, while the Jagger/Richards song seemed to take delight in being heartless and cruel.”
2. ‘Oliver’s Army’ – Armed Forces
‘Oliver’s Army’ is Elvis Costello’s highest-charting single and it spent three weeks at number two in the UK, as well as charting in a number of other countries. Lyrically and also musically, though to a lesser extent, it is one of Costello’s most fascinating songs; it has an exceptional lyric that paints a vivid picture of imperialist occupation. The name ‘Oliver’ refers to Oliver Cromwell – an English general who fought in the English civil war.
Costello was inspired to write the song after he visited Northern Ireland and witnessed the occupation of English soldiers; while the song doesn’t directly reference this, Costello does allude to an army (Oliver’s Army) and its perpetual presence. In Costello’s own words, he said: “I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working-class boy to do the killing’.”
1. ‘Shipbuilding’ – Punch The Clock
Elvis Costello wrote ‘Shipbuilding’ in 1982 during the Falklands War and Costello wrote the words while Clive Langer wrote the music. The song is a comment on the irony and hypocrisy of the argument that the Falklands War was prosperous for the economy as it put shipyards back into making money, to replace the English ships that were being sunk. In addition, the sons of the shipbuilders were sent off to war to fight against Argentina.
While Costello wrote it, the best version of the song is the one done by ex-Soft Machine member, Robert Wyatt, who did a haunting rendition of the number. The story goes that Langer originally wrote the song for Wyatt, but didn’t like his words he had written for it. Costello then heard a version of it at a party hosted by Nick Lowe, and proceeded to write what Costello himself has called, “The best lyrics I’ve ever written.”
Wyatt recalls the story of how he ended up doing a version of it: “Geoff (Travis, head of Rough Trade Records) sent me a cassette saying this is a pretty good song, you ought to sing it. So I tried it out and it sounded good. The musical setting was nothing to do with me. Elvis had already recorded a vocal for it – very good vocal – and it was going to come out in the same form with him singing on it. I went in and did a vocal in a couple of hours with Mr. Costello producing, and that was it … I had no expectations of it at all. All I thought about was singing it in tune!”