Few songwriters have covered as much ground as Elvis Costello has in the past four decades: He’s done classical, opera, jazz, country, and classic pop, and still rocks with a vengeance when he’s in the mood. It’s no wonder that the most avid Costello fans tend to be voracious record collectors and open-minded music heads, much like the man himself. Every fan’s list of the best Elvis Costello songs is bound to vary, but here we’ve collected 20 can’t-miss tracks that cover most of his catalog and much of the stylistic ground he’s traversed.
Think we’ve missed one of the best Elvis Costello songs? Let us know in the comments section below.
The Signature Songs
Watching The Detectives
No matter what musical direction he heads in, there are a handful of signature songs that Costello can never get offstage without playing. “Watching the Detectives” was one of the first Elvis songs many fans ever heard, and it remains one of the most loved, with its reggae groove and guitar salute to John Barry’s Bond scores. And the storyline about zapping an indifferent date into the movie she’s watching, neatly wraps up Costello’s angry-young man days.
At the other emotional extreme is “Alison,” arguably the first great ballad to come out of the New Wave movement and a song of conflicted tenderness. Live versions have offered many variations over the years; unlike many songwriters who get sick of their early hits, Costello has continued to find new nuances in this one.
The young Costello famously said (in the lyric of “Radio Radio”) that he wanted to bite the hand that fed him, and few songs accomplished that better than “Clubland.” A double-edged song if there ever was one, its lyrics cast a cynical eye at the excesses of nightclub culture and early-80s style – but the song was so bright and upbeat (with a reggae groove influenced by The Police) that those same nightclubs played it to death.
What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding
The one signature song he didn’t write came from his friend Nick Lowe (with the blessings of Lowe who produced it) – but in the Attractions’ hands, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” went from being a gentle country-rocker to an urgent anthem from the ages.
Pump It Up
Another classic from the early days was “Pump It Up,” an anthem from the get-go, a fist-waver full of manic energy and relentless rhymes – and onstage, the perfect vehicle for band intros.
The Fan Favorites
Man Out Of Time
Some Elvis Costello songs aren’t quite famous enough to qualify as greatest hits, but they’re the ones that fans invariably return to again and again. High on that list is “Man Out Of Time,” a highlight track from the much-admired Imperial Bedroom. His first song over five minutes, the lyrics approach Dylan territory, a dense narrative where nobody can be trusted – least of all the narrator.
“High Fidelity” earns a place here as Costello’s most danceable track. Fueled by amphetamines and vintage vinyl, he and the Attractions jumped into 60s soul for the 20-track epic Get Happy!!, and with this tune. they proved they could do a Motown groove with the best of them.
The Big Light
Nearly any track from Costello’s roots-music reinvention King of America, could be a contender for fan favorite, but “The Big Light,” is a stone-country stomp that’s about as feisty as hangover songs ever get. The song impressed Johnny Cash enough to lead off an album with it; Costello’s version also gives a tasty solo spot to guitarist James Burton, who spent years playing with the other Elvis.
I Want You
Without a doubt the scariest love song in his catalog, “I Want You” is nearly seven minutes of pure obsession, a stalker song where the singer’s devotion gets more extreme as it goes along. It made the perfect centerpiece to 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, a divorce album that included some of the loudest guitars, most snarling vocals, and nastiest lyrics of his career.
I’m In The Mood Again
As an antidote to the above, “I’m In The Mood Again” finds Costello at his warmest and most hopeful. It’s the finale to 2003’s North, a piano-led song cycle that chronicles his second divorce and ensuing new love affair. If you’re looking for a late-night ballad album that goes straight for the heart, try this one.
’Less Than Zero’
Costello has been weighing in on societal issues since day one: his very first UK single, “Less Than Zero,” was written in disgust after seeing a notorious racist being politely interviewed on British TV. Because the meaning didn’t translate abroad, this was the song he famously cut short on Saturday Night Live, telling his band there was “no reason to do this song here.”
One of his next great protest songs was less a rant than a lament: “Shipbuilding” marked the effects of the Falklands War, specifically the revival of the shipbuilding business at the cost of their sons’ lives. A rare writing collaboration between Costello and Clive Langer, its stately melody (and Chet Baker’s jazz-noir guest solo) stood out among the otherwise raucous spirits of 1983’s Punch the Clock album.
Tramp the Dirt Down
Costello would take many jabs at the Thatcher era and Margaret Thatcher herself, but never with quite the venom of “Tramp the Dirt Down,” which expresses the wish that he could outlive her just to stomp on her grave. The Chieftains add a haunting touch to this Spike track.
American Gangster Time
By 2008, Costello had spent enough time in America to warrant as U.S.-themed protest song, and “American Gangster Time” got the job done handily, with plenty of rapid-fire images that take down the American disposition toward violence and corruption. It also found Costello rocking out (with the newly dubbed Imposters) as he hadn’t done in years, so anyone who prefers that side of his work needs to check out the underrated Momofuku album.
Written and recorded in a quick-shot session in February 2019, “No Flag” was the first single off Hey Clockface. It prophetically captured the angst and nihilism of the pandemic era. Its thrilling electro-punk sound is unlike much else in the canon of best Elvis Costello songs.
In recent decades, Elvis Costello has put much of his heart into working with other artists, and he’s challenged himself by working with the best there is. Most famously, he jumped into the ring with Paul McCartney in the late 80s; their writing session was fruitful enough to produce standouts on two Costello and two McCartney albums. One of the first to see release, “Veronica,” was everything fans hoped for – a feast of great hooks and lyrical depth; the words tell the story of Costello’s grandmother’s declining days. It remains Costello’s biggest-ever single in the U.S.
God Give Me Strength
Modern songwriters don’t get more iconic than Burt Bacharach, and though their collaboration began by fax, it became a strong connection yielding an album full of heartfelt torch songs, Painted From Memory. The classic from these sessions was the first they wrote together, “God Give Me Strength.” Written for Allison Anders’ film Grace of My Heart – a loosely fictionalized story of the 60s songwriting hotbed the Brill Building – it seamlessly matched Bacharach’s melodic grace with the emotional intensity of all the best Elvis Costello songs.
Jacksons, Monk & Rowe
One of Costello’s biggest stretches was The Juliet Letters, a 1993 song cycle written and performed with England’s Brodsky Quartet. Neither strictly pop nor classical, it drew equally from both. One of the gems was “Jacksons, Monk & Rowe,” which resembled a vintage Costello pop tune.
In late 2005, Costello teamed with New Orleans maestro Allen Toussaint for some of the first recording sessions in the city post-Katrina. Though steeped in the city’s recent losses, the album also evinces spirituality and hope, especially on the new songs they wrote together. A prime example is “Ascension Day,” a stately hymn they adapted from a piece by one of the city’s musical cornerstones, Professor Longhair.
There’s a Story in Your Voice
Country music is another enduring love of Costello’s, and he reconnected with it on 2004’s loose-knit concept album, The Delivery Man. The album’s backstreet, barroom feel hits a peak on “There’s a Story in Your Voice,” which catches both him and duet partner Lucinda Williams in a moment of wild abandon.
Other honorable mentions include collaborations with The Roots, Bill Frisell, Anne Sofie von Otter, and a few orchestras; not to mention dozens more notable solo tracks. Once you dip into his discography, you’ll keep discovering more reasons why Elvis is king.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ 1978 landmark release This Year’s Model, is newly remastered on CD and 180-gram black vinyl with the addition of “Big Tears” and “Radio Radio,” and a reimagined version of the album with Spanish covers is also available for pre-order on This Spanish Model.