Elton John's 20 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Elton John
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Island Records

Elton John 

Culling the best Elton John songs from his extensive catalog feels like folly in a way.

The knighted pop icon has nearly 60 Top 40 singles for good reason; both with and without lyricist Bernie Taupin, John has written a big pile o' great songs, with a variety that stretches from rockers to ballads, soul to show tunes and blues to symphonic grandeur. Something as simple as "Your Song" is equally effective as the over-the-top bombast of "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," and he's proven himself as adept at long-form stage pieces such as "The Lion King" and "Billy Elliot the Musical" as hit singles.

John has won a full slate of music awards, and his charitable work, particular in support of AIDS awareness and research, has been exemplary. And while he stands and will be remembered as one of the most successful pop stars of all time, what will endure are the songs themselves -- including these 20 best Elton John songs from his extensive catalog.

20. Elton John - "Skyline Pigeon"

John may have sung about "waiting for the day he can spread his wings," but the guy who sang this earnest ballad from his 1969 debut album Empty Sky was already well-formed and ready to take flight -- although nobody then could have known the heights he'd reach.

19. Elton John - "I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That"

The lead single from 1988's Reg Strikes Back is taut, spare and propulsive, with some of the most inspired piano playing we'd heard from John in quite some time.

18. Elton John - "Electricity"

There are many strains of John's previous balladry in this lush entry from the "Billy Elliot" musical, but the familiarity breeds anything but contempt as John makes us all feel like we can be "flying like a bird."

17. Elton John - "Honky Cat"

The jaunty semi-title track from 1972's Honky Chateau is pure fun, putting you right in the room (or in this case, castle) with John and his band, who sound like they could keep playing it for hours without anybody getting tired of it.

16. Elton John - "Ball And Chain"

The subject matter, about a troubled relationship, is a little dark, but is mitigated by an ebullient, finger-snapping performance that modulates to another octave at the end. That's Pete Townshend playing acoustic guitar, by the way.

15. Elton John - "Hey Ahab"

If John's teaming with Leon Russell on The Union seemed surprisingly mellow, this soulful stomp 'n' romp was more like what we expected, giving both men a chance to trade licks on the 88s

14. Elton John - "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"

It's mushy and a little maudlin -- but it's great, too, a dynamic gem that unfolds and builds to epic, horn-drenched proportions over its five and a half minutes. And it's hard to beat a backing vocal choir that includes Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille and Billy Hinsche.

13. Elton John - "The Circle Of Life"

The opening number from Disney's "The Lion King" let John stretch himself a bit, weaving African rhythms into his natural melodicism in a matter that's both easygoing  and anthemic. Come on now, everybody, hold your cub up in the air...

12. Elton John - "Ticking"

John's voice and piano are the stars of this even-tempoed (and tempered) closing track from his Caribou album, delivering one of Taupin's most intricate (and bloodiest) tales without succumbing to drama or emotive bombast.

11. Elton John - "Candle In The Wind"

Inevitable, isn't it? John and Taupin's ode to Marilyn Monroe has transcended its original tribute to tragic beauty and become an anthem for the ages.

10. Elton John - "Burn Down The Mission"

An ebb-and-flow masterpiece that mixes gentle country comfort with hand-clapping gospel fervor and expertly demonstrated John and Taupin's passion for and understanding of the American idioms they'd admired from across the pond.

9. Elton John - "I'm Still Standing"

An upbeat ode to resilience that celebrated John's early 80s resurgence as well as the resumption of his full-time writing partnership with Taupin.

8. Elton John - "Rocket Man"

John's own space oddity is a gem of a pop single with a more pronounced ambience than he had explored up to that point. Taupin's lyrics humanize the guy in the capsule, capturing a yin-yang of wonder and loneliness as well as the airy feeling of being "high as a kite" (nudge nudge, wink wink...)

7. Elton John - "Take Me To The Pilot"

A couple of Brits wrapped their arms around Americana on this track from John's self-titled 1970 album, with Taupin's metaphor-heavy lyric powered by John's punchy melody and forceful playing. It also left plenty of room for it to become a galvanizing Elton John song in his live repertoire.

6. Elton John - "Your Song"

A plainly beautiful, straightforward love song that says it better than any Hallmark card could -- which Three Dog Night knew when it released the song first, a few months ahead of John's definitive version.

5. Elton John - "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)"

Even back in 1972 John wasn't the kind of guy you normally associated with bar brawls and switchblade knives, but he was convincing enough on this edgy guitar rocker that launched the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road campaign.

4. Elton John - "Tiny Dancer"

The arrangement of this Madman Across The Water single became something of a template for classic early '70s John, riding a midtempo melody into a rich crescendo built on Paul Buckmaster's strings. It's so gripping you barely notice it's over six minutes long -- and "Almost Famous" insured that it could be sung, unabashedly, by any group of people, anywhere and at any time.

3. Elton John - "Levon"

This other Madman Across The Water epic edges "Tiny Dancer" by a nose thanks to Taupin's vivid lyric portrait and the dynamic ebb-and-swell created by Buckmaster's string arrangements. There was no doubt by then, but this certainly cemented the John-Taupin tandem as one of rock's finest. 

2. Elton John - "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding"

John's finest opus and perennial concert opener climbs its own stairway to hard rockin' heaven, with both John and company -- particularly guitarist Davey Johnstone -- kicking holy butt from the spectral opening to the frenetic fade-out.

1. Elton John - "Bennie And The Jets"

This Goodbye Yellow Brick Road hit has everything that John (and Taupin) do best. It's playful, campy at times, catchy as all get-out and leaves room for him to show there's a pretty fine piano player behind the glasses and sequined costumes. "Bennie" gets to really breathe when he plays it live, but the original recording is masterful both as song and record. 

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