Elvis Costello's 'My Aim Is True' Turns 40: Ranking All the Tracks

Elvis Costello, 1977
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Elvis Costello photographed in 1977.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello’s debut, My Aim Is True, we’re ranking the tracks on this July 22, 1977 debut that turned out to be one of the most influential albums in the history of rock and punk. It's a tall order, but we'll give it a shot.  

Recorded with his swinging backing band, Bay Area rockers Clover (sometimes credited as The Shamrocks), My Aim Is True is one of the strongest debut albums in history. It’s rough edged and bluesy—Costello has been an outspoken lover of the New Orleans sound—and explores various genres, including punk, rockabilly, native pub rock, jazz and even honky-tonk country. It’s tightly-wound—most songs are under three minutes—and melodically simple and pop-smart (i.e.: very whistle-able). It sounds exploratory, but with a glue pulling it all together: Costello, his bitter lyrical barbs and the even-handed production from Nick Lowe, who gives it the warm feel of the band performing in your bedroom. If there’s one essential Costello album, it’s this one.

Here goes…

1. “Alison”

It’s the spiritual centerpiece for the album, with Costello’s sometimes-bitter, always-genius lyrical bite on display. A golden-warm, gliding guitar lick—thank you, Clover guitarist John McFee—opens the shimmering, mid-tempo tribute to a young lady. Or is it a tribute? Costello whisper-sings, “Sometimes I wish I could stop you from talking / When I hear the silly things that you say” and coos “My aim is true” over and over and over. So… is Alison in Costello’s cross hairs literally or figuratively? Either way, it’s one of his best-known songs and favorite amongst Costello super fans.

2. “Watching the Detectives”

Costello and Clover reportedly listened to The Clash on repeat while recording My Aim Is True, and it especially shows on the LP’s closing track. Here, Clover prove to be one damn versatile band, shifting to a reggae groove with funky-fun keys and jittery guitar riffs. Costello tells the tale of a murder mystery, then on the bouncy chorus the band pair dub grooves with punk ferocity, driving the keys louder and louder, as Costello yells “shoot, shoot, shoot!” ["Watching the Detectives" was only on the U.S. version of My Aim Is True.]

3. “Welcome to the Working Week”

Costello wastes no time laying on the snide in the opening statement of his debut album. “Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired,” he sings. Wink, wink. Working is certainly overrated. Musically, it’s smart-aleck pub-rock with crunchy guitars, clapping drums and Girl Group-style doo-doos and wah-wahs to accompany Costello’s barbs about the ol’ 9 to 5. “Welcome to the working week / You gotta do it till you’re through it, so you better get to it.”

4. “Sneaky Feelings”

A recurring jazz-flecked riff is the highlight of this catchy tune, filled with swinging rhythms and stop-start breaks. It’s a hybrid with tricks and turns from various genres, all mish-mashed into a new sound that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Lyrically, it’s a bitter take on concealing his feelings: “Sneaky feeling, sneaky feelings, you can’t let those kids of feelings show / I’d like to get right through the way I feel for you, but I’ve still got a long way to go.”

5. “Less Than Zero”

This chugalug track, Costello’s first single for Stiff Records, is about Costello’s disgust with seeing British fascist Oswald Mosley on TV denying his past actions in the 1930s: “Calling Mister Oswald with the Swastika tattoo,” he sings, before alluding that Oswald is shagging his sister and suggests he move to South America along with all the other Nazis. Yes, it inspired the title of the infamous 1985 Bret Easton Ellis novel about drugs and depravity in the City of Angels (for no real reason other than the author loved the song, which is understandable: Costello’s “Hey oh way-ah-ayays!” are certainly catchy).

6. “Miracle Man”

It’s a kiss-off to a miss-have-it-all that sounds like a Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. tune, complete with a loose honky-tonk riff. “And I’m doing everything tryin’ to please her / Even crawling around on all fours," Costello barks over charging punk rock. “I thought by now that it was gonna be easy / But she still seems to want for more." That barroom riff circles back, then lays it on: "Why do you have to say that there’s always someone / Who can do it better than I can?” 

7. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”

Clover bassist John Ciambotti used to refer to this tune as the “one that sounds like The Byrds” and he was right. It’s like a New Wave rendition of the band’s twinkling sound from the psychedelic 1960s, opening with weaving guitars and dreamy organ lines. Costello delivers some of his most impassioned singing, alongside call-and-response vocals from Lowe. The track, written on a train traveling from London to Liverpool in 1976, finds angels appearing to offer Costello immortality in exchange for his red shoes: “Since their wings have got rusted / The angels want to wear my red shoes,” he croons. “But when they told me about their side of the bargain / That’s when I knew I could not refuse.” Those must be some nice shoes.

8. “I’m Not Angry”

It’s one of the more aggressive tracks on the album, exploding with The Who-like guitar heroics and a wall of keys sky-high. It’s a bitter tribute to a girl who picked another guy—then rubbed it in his face. “You’re upstairs with the boyfriend while I’m left here to listen,” Costello spits. “I hear you calling his name, I hear the stutter of ignition.” After each verse, a backing vocalist—presumably Lowe—hushes, “Angry,” and despite Costello’s claims of otherwise, he seems a bit POed. “I could hear you whispering as I crept by your door / So you found some other joker who could please you more.”

9. “Blame It on Cain"

It’s a tribute to American blues, but with a bitter, well-dressed English punk on the mic—deriding his country’s oppressive, money-grubbing tax collector. A roadhouse riff kicks open the door, as the band drives a hard beat to Costello’s rapid-fire delivery. Then the band pauses and the chorus arrives and, damn, it’s so good. Look, Costello doesn’t have any cash and it’s not his fault. So… “Blame it on Cain, don’t blame it on me” he yells with gusto. “It’s nobody’s fault, but we need somebody to burn.” Down with the taxman!

10. "Pay It Back"

It’s hard out there for broke guys. This tightly-wound, jazz-blues rocker with saloon piano bits, bright guitar riffs and a looping chorus has Costello in debt to his country and his love—and wondering how to get out: “They told me I could be somebody,” he sings. “If I didn’t let too much get in my way. I tried so hard just to be myself. If I could fool myself, then maybe I’d fool you.” In one of the many so-simple-it’s-genius melodies on My Aim Is True, Costello offers up this catchy unforgettable chorus: “One of these days I’m going to pay it back,” Costello spits, “pay it back one of these days.”

11. “No Dancing”

Picture Costello fronting a Phil Spector-style girl group and you get this fun track with all the drama of a Ronettes song. It opens with that boom, boom-boom tssskkkkk drum beat from many an early 1960s teen hit, and tells a tale of heartbreak at the sock hop: “I know that she has made a fool of him / Like many girls have done so many times before / But he’s so strange, I don’t know why / But somebody has to cry.”

12. "Waiting for the End of the World"

It’s perhaps the most New Wave-y song of the lot, with angular guitar riffs and deadpan lyrics: “Waiting for the end of the world / Dear Lord, I sincerely hope you’re coming / ‘Cause you really started something.” A guest Jesus spot on Costello’s next album? You never know.

13. "Mystery Dance"

Yes, this track is coming in last place, mostly because it’s a 12-bar blues x-ray that pales in comparison to the originality of the rest of the album. Still, it’s a fun rock n’ roller with guitar wailing and Costello’s lyrics on romance: “Romeo was restless, he was ready to kill / He jumped out the window, ‘cause he couldn’t sit still / Juliet was waiting with a safety net / He said, ‘Don’t buddy me ‘cause I’m not dead yet.'” Now that’s storytelling.