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50. Island Girl (1975)
One of Elton’s most joyous tunes, but the toe-curling lyrics (“Island girl, what you wanting with the white man’s world?”) are presumably why he retired this single from live shows in 1990.
49. Part-Time Love (1978)
Elton starts a six-year break from otherwise career-long songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. New lyricist Gary Osbourne doesn’t yet conjure the same magic.
48. Honky Cat (1972)
Overshadowed by Honky Chateau’s bigger hit, Rocket Man, this brassier single finds Elton in playful mood: “Time to drink whisky!”
47. Come Back Baby (with Bluesology) (1965)
Recorded when Sir Elton Hercules John was still Pinner, Middlesex teenager Reg Dwight, a classically trained pub pianist and occasional session musician. A fine early career effort from his youthful rhythm and blues outfit.
46. The Ballad of Blind Tom (2013)
From late period, minimalist gem The Diving Board, EJ evokes the poetry and spiralling piano runs of his early years with this lovely insight into the mind of a blind Deep South bluesman.
45. Please (1995)
A touching song from Made in England, which finds Elton in the role of elder statesman with nothing to prove except his capacity for love, and pleading “let me grow old with you”.
44. When Love Is Dying (with Leon Russell) (2010)
Elton’s first ever US performance was supporting the late Leon Russell, who shared vocal tips and decades later, joined Elton for the album The Union. This is a beautiful song about a fading love.
43. Believe (1995)
With the crazy outfits, barmy glasses and wheelbarrows of cocaine of the 70s far behind him, the post-throat op Elton uses his deeper range and older man’s gravitas to maximum effect.
42. Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future) (1975)
Three years after Rocket Man, space travel again provides inspiration via 1950s comic character Dan Dare. The song was one of the first to use the talkbox, a wacky effects-pedal.
41. Blue Eyes (1982)
A mid-career, Grammy-nominated gem, laden with dollops of trademark melancholy (“Blue eyes … holding back the tears, holding back the pain.”)
40. Grey Seal (1973)
This lesser-known cut from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road showcases similar piano skills to those Elton brought to his version of the Who’s Pinball Wizard in the film Tommy. A vintage 70s Dr Marten’s-stomping ballad.
39. All the Young Girls Love Alice (1973)
According to some liner notes, this driving rocker from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was penned about Alice Cooper before being hurriedly rewritten to be about a tragic lesbian schoolgirl sex worker. Righty-o.
38. Circle of Life (1994)
A trademark big ballad from the animated Disney film, The Lion King, with lyrics by Tim Rice, who recalls how Elton produced a “stunning demo” from the written words in just 90 minutes. A true pro.
37. Little Jeanie (1980)
After the disastrously-received disco experiment of 1979’s Victim of Love, new songwriting partner Gary Osbourne helps Elton relocate his soft-rock mojo and return to the US top five. Elton celebrates with a free concert in Central Park, dressed as Donald Duck. Obviously.
36. Nikita (1985)
One of Elton’s richest vocals, this trans-Atlantic hit tells of a doomed love for an eastern European border guard. The synthesizer solo is as dated as shoulder pads, mind.
35. This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore (2001)
From the film Songs from the West Coast – starring Justin Timberlake as peak glam lunacy era Elton – is this prime Elton ballad. Get the scarves out.
34. Elderberry Wine (1973)
Brilliant Bernie hasn’t dropped many lyrical clunkers such as: “You aimed to please me / Cooked blackeyed peas me”, but otherwise this sax-blaring, piano-thumping retro rocker from Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player is glorious.
33. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me (with George Michael) (1991)
This trademark big ballad about unrequited love was initially a hit in 1974 before the combined star power of G&E gave them a trans-Atlantic 90s No.1.
32. Skyline Pigeon (1969)
Elton’s fortunes initially upped after meeting his lyricist of many decades, Bernie Taupin, through an advert. Elton (on harpsichord here) later re-recorded this stirring, hymn-like song, which he has described as “the first one of ours we got excited about”.
31. Can You Feel the Love Tonight? (1994)
This song was also written with Tim Rice for The Lion King, where it is initially sung by a meerkat and a warthog. Elton decided it deserved more than comedy, and his version scored a hit, an Oscar and a Grammy.
30. Border Song (1970)
The first Elton John song to chart (albeit low) in the States, this gospel-influenced spiritual was nevertheless later covered by Aretha Franklin. The two stars’ 1993 TV duet is a treat.
29. I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues (1983)
Following a six-year gap after 1978’s disappointing Too Low for Zero, Elton and Bernie get back to work in style, with Stevie Wonder on bluesy harmonica and the rejuvenated singer “rolling like thunder under the covers”, the devil.
28. Sad Songs (Say So Much) (1984)
As these 50 songs make clear, Elton likes a weepie. This local radio playlist staple is a timeless anthem to the strangely uplifting power of melancholy songs. “Turn ’em up!”
27. I’m Still Standing (1983)
Elton made so many great records in the 70s that his 80s efforts can be overshadowed, but this piano-bashing celebration of endurance is such a signature tune that some shops have even sold I’m Still Standing underpants.
26. Madman Across the Water (1971)
Elton describes this musically complex album title track as “one of Bernie Taupin’s eeriest lyrics” – it’s certainly odd, written from the mindset of a lad gone insane.
25. I Want Love (2001)
Sent viral by a stunning one-take video featuring a post-rehab Robert Downey Jr, this magnificent, Beatles-y ballad about love after addiction is presumably from Elton’s heart.
24. Daniel (1973)
Another lovely ballad and one of Elton’s biggest, most popular hits. The “Daniel, you’re a star!” vocal flourish is glorious.
23. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (with Kiki Dee) (1976)
“Baby you’re not my type,” quips Bradford singer Kiki Dee, affectionately cheekily, in the year Elton came out as bisexual. Two years later, Elton performed his first British No1 on the Muppet Show, with Miss Piggy, who probably wasn’t his type either.
22. Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding (1973)
An 11-minute instrumental/song segue in which Elton displays an unlikely penchant for prog rock and gives Welsh post-hardcore rockers Funeral For a Friend their band name. Result!
21. Step Into Christmas (1973)
One of the catchiest Xmas hits, from an era when Slade, Wizzard et al covered the nation in festive glitter.
20. Ego (1978)
By the late 70s, Elton was a mess: bulimic, suffering seizures, and gorging on coke, whisky, pornography and ice-cream, his career in nosedive. Opinions differ whether this Queen-ish No 34 minor hit addresses Elton’s own megalomania or is a dig at rival David Bowie, but wired energy makes this lesser hit a dramatic document of tensions at the top.
19. The Bitch Is Back (1974)
Elton is famous for his tantrums, and a particularly grumpy one led Bernie’s then wife, Maxine Feibelman, to exclaim, “Uh-oh, the bitch is back!” Bernie loved the phrase so much he turned it into this pithy hard rocker (featuring John Lennon on tambourine and the Tower Of Power horns), about which Elton chuckles, “I suppose it’s my theme song.”
18. Crocodile Rock (1972)
“I remember when rock was young, me and Susie had so much fun,” sings Elton in this playful, uptempo old-fashioned rocker that pays touching but fun homage to the rock’n’roll era that inspired him.
17. Levon (1971)
Producer Gus Dudgeon always claimed that this gritty song about escape was inspired by Levon Helm, drummer from the Band, whose 1968 album Music From Big Pink had a big impact on Elton and Bernie. But the lyricist insists he “just liked the name”. Elton does too, naming his first son (with husband David Furnish, via a surrogate mother) Zachary Levon Furnish-John.
16. Rotten Peaches (1971)
Elton and Bernie barely put a foot or note wrong between 1970’s Elton John and 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, producing so many great songs that some almost got trampled in the rush. This lesser-known story of a prisoner, missing home, is an underrated gem from Madman Across the Water.
15. Someone Saved My Life Tonight (1975)
This dark, seven-minute hit revisits Elton’s suicidal late 1960s feelings as a struggling, musician engaged to be married. The “someone” is musician friend Long John Baldry, who offered advice. Ironically, shortly after the song’s release, an again stressed-out Elton took 60 Valium pills, dived into a pool and yelled, “I’m going to die!”
14. Sacrifice (1989)
There is a haunting maturity to Elton’s mid-to-late career material, although his first British solo No 1 (in 1990) flopped, bizarrely, on initial release. An Elton and Bernie personal favourite, this sublime ballad bookends Elton first hit, Your Song: by now, the couple in the lyrics have married, drifted apart, and are breaking up.
13. Philadelphia Freedom (1975)
Much has been rightly written about David Bowie’s impeccable shapeshift from glam rock to “plastic soul” with Young Americans, but Elton did a similar thing the month before. This strings-peppered homage to Philly soul (and the Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team) was his fourth US No 1.
12. Are You Ready for Love (remix) (2003)
Recorded with Stylistics producer Thom Bell, this ace disco cut from the fag end of Elton’s Philly soul period flopped on release in 1979. Years later, DJ Ashley Beedle shortened the eight-minute song, remixed it with a contemporary club feel and gave the great man an unexpected fifth British No 1.
11. Candle in the Wind (1974)
Ubiquity shouldn’t sully the innocent purity of this haunting ballad about a vulnerable Marilyn Monroe, as worshipped by a “kid” from afar. Twenty-three years later, a visibly upset Elton sang a rewritten version at close friend Princess Diana’s funeral, which was subsequently released to become the biggest-selling UK single ever.
10. Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny) (1982)
Elton famously sang Whatever Gets You Through the Night with his friend John Lennon at Madison Square Garden in 1974. Eight years later, the “garden” stands empty as the former Beatle’s 1980 shooting provides melancholy inspiration for one of Elton’s most affecting ballads. He still performs it.
9. Song for Guy (1978)
Elton’s strangest hit, penned as he imagined looking down at his dead body. The next day, he was told that his 17-year old messenger boy, Guy Burchett, had been killed on his bike 24 hours earlier. The (mostly) instrumental’s sole words – “Life isn’t everything” – glide over one of his most heartbreaking, haunting melodies.
8. Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word (1976)
“What do I have to do to make you love me?” sings Elton, perhaps the most disconsolate opening line of his career. By the mid-70s, touring and drug use were taking a toll, but Elton and Bernie both contribute lyrics to a song about dying love that’s as beautiful as it is sad.
7. Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (1972)
Mystifyingly, one of Elton’s personal favourite songs was never released as a single. The dazzling wordplay addresses the crime, hustlers and characters Bernie encountered in New York – “Subway’s no way for a good man to go down / Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown” – and the melody is one of EJ’s very best.
6. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Huge, wistful ballads are Elton’s stock in trade, and they don’t come much better than this title track of his 31m-selling double album. Bernie’s childhood memories of the film The Wizard of Oz fuel this song about disillusion with the “penthouse” existence and yearning for simpler comforts.
5. Bennie and the Jets (1974)
Elton felt this staccato piano-driven epic was too far-out to release as a single, but unlikely support from soul and R&B stations made it a US No 1. Bernie’s sharply-observed lyrics (“electric boots, a mohair suit”) imagine what he once described as a “futuristic rock’n’roll band of androids fronted by some androgynous, Helmut Lang-style beauty”. That sounds like Janelle Monáe.
4. Your Song (1970)
This one of Elton’s most-loved songs ever began as a humble B-side (to Take Me to the Pilot) before radio stations flipped it, triggering the golden run of hits which turned Elton into the world’s biggest pop star. In subsequent decades, countless couples have taken his advice to “tell everybody, this is your song”.
3. Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting (1973)
Elton is primarily known as a balladeer, not a rocker, but this stomping classic from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road can get any joint jumping. Davey Johnstone’s immortal guitar riff fires a typical weekend raucous ruckus: “It’s 7 o’clock and I wanna rock, want to get a belly full of beer.”
2. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be a Long, Long Time) (1972)
Although the line “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then” seems to anticipate Elton’s subsequent cocaine use, this mighty 70s space travel anthem was inspired when Bernie spied something in the night sky. It also seems to predict Elton’s mercurial trajectory from awkward, bespectacled, music-obsessed schoolkid to stratosphere-conquering, glam-outfitted pop astronaut.
1. Tiny Dancer (1971)
It flopped when it was released as a single in the US, but this six-minute track became one of Elton’s best-loved songs after featuring in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous. It’s now weirdly ubiquitous in popular culture, referenced in song by David Guetta and Lana Del Rey, covered by Dave Grohl, and in a 2015 John Lewis advert (with a rumoured reappearance this year). When Ed Sheeran sings (in Castle on the Hill) of “driving at 90 down those country lanes”, Tiny Dancer, inevitably, is the song playing in the car. Perhaps the anthemic tune and Bernie’s poignant depiction of free-spirited California girls in the 1970s speaks to our timeless yearning for liberation.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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