Underrated Elton John: The Most Overlooked Song From Every Album
For all the amazing hits Elton John has had, sometimes the best moments on his albums are the deeper cuts.
The singer and songwriter did a deep dive into his catalog with 2020's Jewel Box, an eight-CD set of album tracks, demos, B-sides and unreleased tracks. The below list of the Most Overlooked Song From Every Elton John Album is less comprehensive, spotlighting one song from each of his 32 studio LPs that deserves more attention.
From: Empty Sky (1969)
It can be tough to reconcile the Elton John of his debut with the artist who would emerge over the next few years. John set out as a psychedelic folkie, with lyrics from Bernie Taupin on tracks like “Hymn 2000” and “All Across the Havens.” “Sails” stands out on the album because it has a definable groove, propelled forward by John’s electric piano and some smooth guitar work by future Elton John Band member Caleb Quaye.
“No Shoe Strings on Louise”
From: Elton John (1970)
John and Taupin have always worn their influences on their sleeves. On their earliest efforts, they displayed a passion for rootsy country-rock in the vein of the Band and Gram Parsons. “Louise” has an unmistakable twang, from its pedal steel guitar to the lyrics about kissing the boss man’s cow. Somehow, it never feels like a ripoff; through their decidedly British lens, they give their country and western explorations an unexpected credibility.
“My Father’s Gun”
From: Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
The third album from John and Taupin is an outright homage to the Band and the American West, a topic Taupin would continue to return to throughout his songwriting career. There’s a sound on Tumbleweed Connection that John and producer Gus Dudgeon achieve - it feels as open as the plains - and with Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements, it reaches an almost Aaron Copland-esque tone. “My Father’s Gun” captures that sound perfectly, with Taupin’s lyrics highlighting particular details about a vigilante cowboy for hire that make the story feel lived-in and real.
From: Madman Across the Water (1971)
From Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out” to Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues,” nearly every artist from the '70 seems to have a personal take on the rock ’n’ roll tour song. "Holiday Inn" is John’s version, and it’s a gentle, rollicking pop song buttressed by a heavy layer of arranger Paul Buckmaster’s strings. As it comes out of the chorus, the instrumentation drops to the soaring combination of just John’s piano and the strings. Check out the early solo from stalwart guitarist Davey Johnstone on mandolin as the tune fades out.
From: Honky Chateau (1972)
On "Mellow," John finds a deep, soulful gospel pocket and wallows in it, conjuring the feel of a lazy Sunday morning in a sunny bed, drowsy and dreamlike. Dee Murray, who served as John’s bass player from his earliest days onward, offers a standout performance, alternating between a funk groove and a more fluid pop sound. The bridge features a funky solo that’s either a Hammond organ or an electric violin played by Jean-Luc Ponty. Such was the eccentric brilliance of early '70s Elton John.
“High Flying Bird”
From: Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
"High Flying Bird" is one of the few tracks here that probably could have been a hit single, if the record in question wasn’t already packed with other worthy candidates ("Daniel," "Crocodile Rock"). The track simply soars - there’s no other way to describe it. The yearning chorus featuring John and his band on backing vocals sends their voices skyward to capture the longing for a lover who's departed and will never return.
From: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, John's second release of 1973, is a double album. The quality of all six sides he put out that year is a testament to not only John but also Taupin, who delivers on “Roy Rogers” a wistful portrait of a simple man who loves to escape into old Western TV shows when the working day is done. John and his band can deliver twang with their eyes closed, but Taupin’s novel approach to the traditional cowboy song elevates the tune beyond pastiche and parody.
“You’re So Static”
From: Caribou (1974)
“You’re So Static” is a horn-driven rocker with some fierce piano from John, but what drives the song compulsively forward is percussionist Ray Cooper’s incessant castanet riffs on the chorus. It’s one of those instrumental touches that elevates a good song to an impossibly catchy one, and the rest of the band seems somehow driven to an even wilder performance by the insistent clickety-clack.
From: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
John and Taupin crafted their first album of 1975 as an autobiographical tribute to their earliest days in the music business, when opportunities were thin and it seemed as though their struggles would lead nowhere. “Bitter Fingers” chronicles the tension between their desire to write successful pop and their growing interest in breaking the mold to develop their own style. Taupin’s lyrics here really hit; some smooth guitar work by Davey Johnstone closes out the track.
“Billy Bones and the White Bird”
From: Rock of the Westies (1975)
After nine studio records in five years, a sense of overall fatigue was setting in by the time of Rock of the Westies. Still, the Rocket Man was up for some sonic experimentation. “Billy Bones” builds up around a classic Bo Diddley beat and a crunchy Davey Johnstone guitar riff, but it feels like there’s a big open space in the middle until the chorus, when the full band comes in along with Moog synths and sound effects. That shift in dynamics lends the tune plenty of impact.
“Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)”
From: Blue Moves (1976)
Blue Moves wrapped up an impossible run of critical and commercial success for John and Taupin with a double record that carries with it a smoky, jazzy ambience. For the record’s finale, John and his band go full-tilt wild on “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance),” a threadbare lyric about (you guessed it) getting down. Ray Cooper wails away on the conga drums, John pounds at the piano, a full string section soars up and down the scales and two full Baptist church choirs contribute backup vocals. There’s something gleefully ridiculous about two choirs enlisted to sing “Bite your lip, get up and dance” over and over for the several-minute fadeout.
“I Don’t Care”
From: A Single Man (1978)
A Single Man proved to be a big transition record for John. First, he worked with a new lyricist, Gary Osborne, who developed his words based on melodies created by John - a reversal of the typical John-Taupin writing dynamic. It was also John’s first record since his debut that didn’t feature Gus Dudgeon's production. The result is a piano-driven underrated gem in the Rocket Man’s catalog. "I Don't Care" is one of the standouts, with a classic Paul Buckmaster string arrangement dancing up and down behind the band’s accompaniment.
“Warm Love in a Cold World”
From: Victim of Love (1979)
Widely regarded as Elton John’s worst recording, Victim of Love wasn’t written by John and Taupin; John didn't even contribute any of the keyboard or piano. Instead, producer Pete Belotte wrote six disco songs, with the seventh being an eight-minute version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," and John added his vocals. "Warm Love in a Cold World" is the best on the album for one simple reason: It’s the shortest.
“White Lady White Powder”
From: 21 at 33 (1980)
One of John's more underrated efforts, 21 at 33 boasts a hit single (“Little Jeannie”) and a few above-average cuts (“Two Rooms at the End of the World,” “Sartorial Eloquence”). The record also brings Taupin back into the songwriting fold. “White Lady White Powder” is a classic example of his deadpan sardonic wit at work — a love song to cocaine, sung by someone famously in the midst of a cocaine addiction at the time. Members of the Eagles - no strangers to the drug - provide backing vocals.
From: The Fox (1981)
One of the most powerful aspects of the 2019 film Rocketman was Elton John's inability to fully express his sexuality until his early 40s. That struggle makes “Elton’s Song” all the more moving. Lyricist Tom Robinson sketches out a tender story about a gay teenage boy describing his crush on a classmate. There’s sparse instrumentation - just John on piano and James Newton Howard providing a gentle synth accompaniment. There’s power in just the poignant twist of the title itself — “Elton’s Song,” from the same singer who performed “Your Song,” suddenly turning that yearning eye toward his own heart.
From: Jump Up! (1982)
In 1992, John would begin a brief but fruitful musical partnership with lyricist Tim Rice, who contributed lyrics to their work for Disney (The Lion King, Aida) and Dreamworks (The Road to El Dorado). Ten years earlier, Rice provided lyrics to a deep cut, “Legal Boys,” on an otherwise unremarkable Elton John album. Rice’s trademark wit and wordplay elevate John’s game on this cut, which feels like it’s from another album compared to the next track, “I Am Your Robot,” one of John and Taupin’s all-time low points.
“One More Arrow”
From: Too Low for Zero (1983)
A tremendous vocal performance from the days when John’s falsetto was beyond compare, “One More Arrow” predates 1992’s “The Last Song" but is a similar elegy for a departed friend. It’s driven by piano but builds to a haunting and strange synthetic-voiced call-and-response in the tune’s final seconds. Another track that deserves a place on the list of all-time great Elton John album closers — the man knows how to end a record.
From: Breaking Hearts (1984)
On 1972's “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” John sings Taupin lyrics about New York City that suggest he doesn’t have a place on Broadway. That would prove to be extremely inaccurate. But before John’s name graced marquees on the Great White Way, he and Taupin occasionally managed to summon up their own version of an emotional showtime. “Buildings” is the kind of soaring, gut-wrenching love ballad you can imagine being sung in the later moments of a musical's second act.
From: Ice on Fire (1985)
Sure, "Soul Glove" is a laughable name for a song. But John has a secret weapon — a full horn section leading the charge with catchy riffs that add an easy soul swing to what could otherwise be a forgettable album cut. There’s some incredible bass work here, too, from Deon Estus, who played in Wham! and had his own Top 5 single in 1989 with “Heaven Help Me.” Just ignore the insipid lyrics - not exactly Taupin’s finest hour.
“I Fall Apart”
From: Leather Jackets (1986)
Even in his darkest creative moments — when it’s clear John and Taupin are going through the motions — the Rocket Man has always managed to pull at least one decent ballad out of his pocket. Leather Jackets is one of those albums where even the singles didn’t really stick, but “I Fall Apart” is classic John balladry, from the soaring falsetto chorus to the spacey synth beds. It is a quintessential '80s song, with all the production nonsense that entails, but the songwriting shines through.
From: Reg Strikes Back (1988)
John himself positioned Reg Strikes Back as a comeback, and there are certainly moments that surpass much of his middling '80s output. One unexpected gem is "Heavy Traffic," a rare co-write for John and Taupin with the band’s lead guitarist and musical director, Davey Johnstone. The tune is built around a samba-esque acoustic riff by Johnstone, around which John’s piano dances for a terrific solo. It’s an album cut for sure; this could never have made it as a single. But it’s a unique approach that pays off.
From: Sleeping With the Past (1989)
For Sleeping With the Past, John and Taupin wanted to pay tribute to the many icons of '60s soul and R&B who had inspired them. Taupin would write a lyric and suggest a few artists or tunes that had inspired him; John would then write with that in mind, sometimes as a major influence, and sometimes moving in a completely different direction. “Blue Avenue” is a smooth blue-eyed soul ballad in the vein of Smokey Robinson or Sam Cooke, but the chord changes and plaintive synth are purely Elton John.
From: The One (1992)
The early '90s were not kind to Elton John. There was something about the production choices by Chris Thomas, who worked with John off and on throughout the decade, that made every song sound immediately dated. “Runaway Train” has one big thing going for it: Eric Clapton, who duets with John on vocals and provides his traditional smooth, supple guitar licks. Olle Romo, a producer who also worked extensively on both Eurythmics and Dave Stewart solo projects, contributes a co-write and drum programming. The whole package is a down-the-middle, beefy, burly rocker by two legends who know how to hammer together a studio performance.
“When I Think About Love (I Think About You)”
From: Duets (1993)
In the early '90s, recording a duets album suddenly became a hot thing, due largely to the success of two hit Frank Sinatra records. John’s Duets record is full of misses, but when the singer lets his duet partner guide the pairing, the results can be stunning. On "When I Think About Love (I Think About You)," John partners with P.M. Dawn on a cut written and produced by the hip-hop soul duo. You can hear the passion in John’s voice as he elevates his game to match a visionary group at the height of its powers. It’s an ethereal trip.
From: Made in England (1995)
Sometimes a song and a moment in the studio captures more than anyone involved can expect. “Please” is flawless — from the light twang in John’s vocals to the fiddle accompaniment to the ringing Byrds-esque guitar leads. It’s also worth tracking down the cover by bluegrass legend Rhonda Vincent and Dolly Parton, which appeared on the 2018 compilation Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
“Love’s Got a Lot to Answer For”
From: The Big Picture (1997)
Of all John’s producers, Chris Thomas is the one most likely to get in the way of great songwriting. There’s something artificial about so much of the work they’ve done together. On "Love's Got a Lot to Answer For," he manages to put John’s voice front and center, along with a minor-key synth backing that calls to mind “Blue Eyes.” This is Elton John as midnight crooner at the coolest pop-jazz club on the planet.
From: Songs From the West Coast (2001)
Elton John’s collaborations with Stevie Wonder have resulted in some exceptional recordings, including “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” maybe his greatest single of the '80s. On "Dark Diamond," Wonder joins in on harmonica and clavinet, and you can instantly hear the song’s groove jump and funk up with his distinct touch. And that harmonica riff is one of the most infectious things he’s ever put on record.
“Weight of the World”
From: Peachtree Road (2004)
In 1991, John decided to completely remodel his home in England and add a residence in the U.S. He found his new home in Atlanta, and in 2004, recorded much of Peachtree Road in the city. Perhaps because of that location, the record picks up where John and Taupin left off decades before on early albums like Tumbleweed Connection with a distinct country-soul vibe. The record opens with "Weight of the World," beginning with a piano and string section coming in over the ticking noise of rain on a tin roof. It’s a moment where John and Taupin take stock of their lives and express the simple appreciation for having survived the wild rock lifestyle and made it to a more stable, loving place.
“Just Like Noah’s Ark”
From: The Captain & the Kid (2006)
It’s always been amazing to hear Elton John rock out on the piano, but it’s somehow even more amazing to hear it in the later stages of his life after he had abandoned his drug-fueled lifestyle. So when the drums kick in and John launches into a fierce piano intro on “Just Like Noah’s Ark,” it doesn’t just sound like incredible rock, it sounds like home. This is the gospel, soul, country and pop goulash that John is best at. Eagle-eared listeners may also hear John’s dog Arthur on this track; he was freaked out by a cowbell and started barking in tempo, so they decided to keep it in the song.
“Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes”
From: The Union (2010)
There are many incredible moments on The Union, an album that teamed up Elton John together with not just Leon Russell but producer T Bone Burnett, who brought along a roster of all-star guests and studio magicians, including Booker T. Jones on organ, Jim Keltner on drums and Mark Ribot on guitar. This ornate piano waltz is an underrated gem. Taupin takes aim at a nameless pop star with his lyrics, dismantling the character with lines that invoke Caesar on the Rubicon, Shakespeare and the titular shoes.
From: The Diving Board (2013)
John returned to T Bone Burnett for his next album, The Diving Board, and the producer suggested John simplify his approach with a return to the piano, bass and drums sound of his earliest records and live performances. That’s not quite what happened, as some songs do feature additional accompaniment, but the resulting effort still has an organic, analog sound that matches John and Taupin’s songwriting. The story probes into dark territory as a sinking lover realizes he’s losing himself to the person he cares so much about.
From: Wonderful Crazy Night (2016)
Wonderful Crazy Night includes some seriously mixed results. The attempt to create a relatively light, up-tempo set of pop-rock tunes sometimes comes off like an artificial intelligence bot programmed to create Elton John soundalikes. But “Tambourine” is an absolute gem, driven by the tambourine playing of longtime percussionist Ray Cooper. one of the unsung legends of classic rock. He’s worked in studio and live for John, George Harrison, Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton, among others. “Tambourine” is a sweet pop gem that doubles as a tribute to the versatile Cooper.