This weekend, Elton John will play his final two shows in Detroit as part of his multi-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour that will cap his illustrious career in popular music. Since the author is a lifelong Elton John fan, he felt it would only be appropriate to give an ode to John, in the form of a top 10 ranking of his favorite songs.
10. Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny), 1982, from Jump Up!
Elton John was good friends with John Lennon. He had covered Lennon’s Beatles hit “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and was made the Godfather of Lennon’s child with Yoko Ono, Sean. Thus, the assassination of Lennon in December, 1980, hit John hard. He and Bernie Taupin wrote Empty Garden as a tribute to Lennon and it’s both a moving tribute to the late musical legend but also a meaningful song about the grieving process in general. The song describes Lennon as the gardener of a garden that has since been left empty due to his death and the track includes heartbreaking lines like “I’ve been knocking, but no one answers”. Released as a single in 1982, it peaked at #13 on the Billboard charts.
Most important line: “It’s funny how one insect can damage so much grain”
9. Harmony, 1973, from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The only true deep cut to make this list, “Harmony” was never released as a single, though it was originally slated to, only getting cut because its release would have come too close to the release of John’s next album, Caribou. Despite that, the final track on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road became a fan favorite due to its euphoric chorus. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of the verses but the fact that it still makes this list is a testament to the beauty of its chorus, with the backing music and John’s vocals meshing together with vivid color. It leaves you with a warm and wholesome feeling that sews together a near-perfect album with typical near-perfection.
Most important line: “Harmony and me, we’re in pretty good company. Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea”
8. Candle in the Wind, 1973, from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Elton John’s ode to Marilyn Monroe has since been associated with dozens of different celebrities, most notably Princess Diana. The song first appeared on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as a clear nod to Monroe, with references to her given name, Norma Jean. However it’s the chorus that really sticks, being written in such a way that it can refer to any person who died too young and Bernie Taupin said that the song could have easily referred to James Dean, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. Thus it’s not surprising that when Diana, Princess of Wales died at age 36 in 1997, John returned to Candle in the Wind to honor the late princess. Taupin re-wrote the lyrics to be more specific to Diana and John performed the song at the funeral which was televised worldwide. That version was released, titled “Candle in the Wind 1997” and it far surpassed the original in terms of commercial success. While the 1973 version was never released as an A side single (a live version in 1987 peaked at #6), the 1997 version was a #1 hit in every major country and became one of the best selling singles in American musical history.
Most important line: “your candle burned out long before your legend ever will”
7. Your Song, 1970, from Elton John
Your Song is both Elton’s finest love song, but also his breakout hit. Released on his self-titled album, it was John’s first top 10 single in the United States. It’s not a perfect song by any means, and the lyrics are rather rough around the edges. But in some ways that’s what makes it so endearing, with stumbling lyrics like “If I was a sculptor, but then again no” making it feel authentic. It’s a gentle and harmless song that doesn’t quite encapsulate what was to come with John’s career but it showcases his softer side and for that, it finds itself firmly in the top 10.
Most important line: “it’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I’m not one of those who can easily hide”
6. Bennie and the Jets, 1973, from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
This is one of those songs that you can recognize from the first note. Of course, to diehard Elton John fans, it can be recognized from the opening applause line, which was added in the studio (it was not a live version). But the distinctive first chord is incredibly recognizable and it sets the tone for the rest of the song. While some tracks are taken over by 1970s Elton’s voice, “Bennie and the Jets” is defined by the piano chords that thump along like waves in the ocean. It’s a track that is rather bizarre, so much so that John was against it being released as a single out of fear that it would fail commercially. Instead, it became his second #1 single in the United States and still lingers on classic rock stations to this day, with its satirical lyrics that critique the glamor of the 1970s music industry flowing along with the piano that rules the day.
Most important line: “we’ll kill the fatted calf tonight so stick around”
5. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973, from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The title track of one of the greatest albums in music history, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road represented the peak of Elton John’s musical powers. With a falsetto chorus accompanying Taupin’s lyrics draped with imagery from The Wizard of Oz, the track tells the tale of a narrator wishing to return to a more simplistic life after realizing that fame was not what he had dreamed of. This narrative is very similar to the way that Dorothy and her pals got to Oz just to find out that they had what they were looking for all along. It’s a definitive Elton John track and despite the seething line “maybe you’ll get a replacement, there’s plenty like me to be found”, this song encapsulates the fact that there is only one Elton John.
Most important line: "When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?"
4. Tiny Dancer, 1971, from Madman Across the Water
A track that didn’t immediately become a hit, “Tiny Dancer” grew on musical audiences as the years went by, eventually rising to become one of Elton John’s most popular songs. Written by Bernie Taupin about women he had met in California upon his first visit to the United States, it features a gentle melody and a very catchy piano riff that the song relies on quite frequently. It didn’t even crack the top 40 on its initial release as a single in 1972 and would shortly thereafter be overshadowed by some of John’s biggest hits, but its persistence as a classic is a testament to its ranking at #5.
Most important line: "lying here with no one near, only you"
3. Someone Saved My Life Tonight, 1975, from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Before Elton John became an international superstar, he nearly committed suicide in the late 1960s due to conflictions about his sexuality and a looming marriage to a woman. He was saved from doing so by a friend, Long John Baldry, who is named “sugar bear” in this song and is the “someone” in the title. The track recounts that period in John’s life and is one of the most intimate and personal songs that Elton ever released. It features his typically stellar piano but also some of his best vocals, with the line “I would’ve walked head on into the deep end of the river” standing out as maybe the single best vocal performance of his career. It’s deep and introspective but also quintessentially Elton.
Most important line: “I would’ve walked head on into the deep end of the river”
2. Levon, 1971, from Madman Across the Water
One of the few very well regarded singles that didn’t chart highly (for an Elton John single, that is) was Levon, mostly because it came a bit too early. Indeed, it was only the 4th single of John’s to chart in the US and came before his peak, but it was a sign of things to come. As the years have gone on, Levon has gotten its due as a beautiful work of storytelling by John and Taupin. The song tells the tale of a fictional Levon, a cartoon balloon salesman who has accumulated wealth and his son, Jesus. Despite the speculation, it’s never been truly resolved whether or not the title for Levon was inspired by Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band, though obviously the character of Levon in the song has little to do with Helm. The song’s distinctive piano intro kicks off the first verse which is soft and restrained before the symphony picks up and adds the kick, but it’s John’s vocals that cement it in the pantheon of Elton’s collection.
Most important line: “Take a balloon and go sailing”
1. Rocket Man, 1972, from Honky Chateau
It’s Elton John’s most culturally memorable song and the one that still defines him to the day. Long before it experienced a recent revival in a remix by Young Thug or as a nickname for Kim Jong Un, Rocket Man was Elton John’s biggest hit to that point. A space pop song similar to Space Oddity of David Bowie, Rocket Man details the story of an astronaut’s emotions before going to Mars. It has everything that made Elton John one of the greatest to ever perform music, the vocal range, impeccable piano, poignant verses, and catchy choruses. The best section? 2:20-3:20, which showcases John’s elite vocal range (“a rocket man” starting at 2:37) interspersed between the piano which leads right into the symphonic chorus. It’s a masterpiece that still resonates today and culture remembers it, from our President to hip-hop artists, to companies that have used it in commercials, like this Volkswagen ad. There’s a reason many call it Elton John’s signature song. Because quite simply, it’s his best.
Most important line: "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids"
Honorable Mentions: "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" "Funeral For A Friend", "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues", "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"
Image Credit: https://www.rollingstone.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/rs-26739-rectangle.jpg