Possibly-controversial statement: More Elton John songs should be popular. The legendary singer has no shortage of beloved hits, but look beyond that (very) rich well, and there are still plenty of gems to be mined, plenty of criminally underrated songs to be heard. With Rocketman in theaters, it’s the perfect time to dive deep into John’s discography. The biopic features an abundance of musical numbers, ranging from the iconic (“Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets”) to the lesser-known (“Amoreena,” “Hercules”). But a plethora of great songs didn’t make the cut. (Rocketman star Taron Egerton has already called out the song he most wishes had made it in.) If you’d like to take the plunge, here’s a sampler platter to start you off.
“Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding”
A sprawling, shape-shifty track that opens a sprawling, shape-shifty album (1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), this pop-rock sonata moves through a whole spectrum of modes over 11 minutes. The song opens with an extended instrumental jam — John’s vocals don’t start until almost the 6-minute mark — that twists and turns between mournful piano, blaring synths, and a nigh-operatic rock section that would do Queen proud. Then comes the second half, which rocks harder than almost anything else in John’s oeuvre. It’s an everything-on-the-table showcase for his talents as a composer.
“Burn Down the Mission”
John and Bernie Taupin, his longtime creative partner and lyricist, have produced a lot of lengthy ballads, and this is one of their best. The closing track of John’s 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection, “Burn Down the Mission” tells a simple story of a poor man who “puts the flame torch” to the place where “the rich man sleeps” in a desperate act to change the status quo. Musically, though, the song is anything but simple, changing keys four times between the first and second verses. And through it all, John hammers away at the piano like a man possessed. If you’re making a playlist, this one would sit nicely next to “Border Song” (which is in Rocketman).
This is one of the more lyrically bizarre songs Taupin’s penned for John (both this and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” bring up the New York Times apropos of nothing; what’s up with that?), and its incomprehensibility is only furthered by John’s signature singing style. He doesn’t make it easy to catch every word. But who cares? “Levon” soars thanks to gorgeous strings, John’s reliably terrific vocals and piano, and a head-bobbingly catchy chorus. And hell, the lyrics are fun for their sheer oddball factor. How does Levon make “a lot” of money selling “cartoon balloons”? We’ll ask again: who cares?
This deep cut from 1972’s Honky Château (arguably John’s best album; come at us, Yellow Brick Road stans) is a gospel song as only Elton John could make one, a soulful piano-driven piece that erupts gloriously when the chorus hits. (Listen to that choir!) All the musical elements of this one cohere beautifully — if you’re not hooked when the bass comes in, we don’t know what to tell you.
This song has a truly odd backstory — John wanted to pay tribute to Billie Jean King, whose tennis team was called the Philadelphia Freedoms. Taupin reportedly responded, “I can’t write a song about tennis,” and the pair instead produced an (apparently unintentionally) patriotic-sounding single released in the lead-up to America’s bicentennial celebration. “Freedom” is also an homage to the Philly soul sound, a strangely successful style for British artists in the mid-70s. (Think David Bowie’s Philly soul-inflected “Young Americans.”)
“Madman Across the Water”
The title track from John’s fourth album makes a superb study in how to rise and fall in intensity over the course of a song. The first verse builds steadily into the chorus, then things dip back down for a moment, then John practically slaps you in the face with the song’s title, then the whole cycle repeats. The string arrangements push this one from good to great, which you could say of Madman the album as well. (“Levon” also hails from Madman; good god, the strings on that album!)
“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”
Is this Elton John’s best song? It’s one of his most emotionally affecting for sure; his plaintive cries of “I thank the Lord for the people I have found” touch something elemental in the human soul. (Not for nothing, it’s also one of two Elton songs — along with “Tiny Dancer” — used perfectly in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.) “Mona Lisas” eschews the lush orchestrations typical of John’s music, settling instead for a simple combination of piano, bass, and mandolin. Sometimes keeping things simple is the best decision you can make.
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