A Beginner’s Guide To Elvis Costello

elvis costello

Art by Molly

Elvis Costello’s voice sounds like a freight train wobbling down the tracks, bound to crash at any minute. His body of work spans so many different genres and so many decades, that his voice has to be one of the strings that tie it all together. From pub rock to punk and new wave, to soul and country, he’s always clever with his word choice, and has been named a “pop encyclopedia” because of his unusually broad list of vocabulary.

Naturally, the first songs I heard by him were ‘Radio Radio’ and ‘Pump It Up’. I’m pretty sure one of those two songs was actually on a mixtape that Kellie made me. I had done the Beatles, I knew Elvis Presley well enough, and I’d gone through my Ramones phase, but I’d somehow managed to miss out on this major musical figure. After some quality googling and raiding of my local CD store, I discovered that in Elvis Costello’s world there exists everything: desire, regret, dancing, social commentary, sex, smoking, war, abuse, extreme joy, silliness, nostalgia, even Americana, but mostly stories and glimpses into a complicated life. Hand someone his complete discography and you have an irreverent guide to life.

I’ve yet to listen to the entirety of Costello’s 23 album discography, but I like that it’s virtually a life-long undertaking to try to understand it all. What I’ve given here is a list of my favorites and some of what I’d consider basics for getting your feet wet. I had to limit myself to ten because I could actually sit here all day and give you a list of my top 50 Elvis Costello Songs. This is by no means a complete list, but a sampler of sorts for the Costello-newbie to understand his wide range.

1. Alison – 1977

I’m not gonna get too sentimental
Like those other sticky valentines
‘Cause I don’t know if you are loving somebody
I only know it isn’t mine
Allison, I know this world is killing you
Oh, Allison, my aim is true

From Costello’s debut  album, this song produced the lyric “My aim is true” which also serves as the album title and one of his most famous lyrics (and formerly my computer password). Here we’re getting a glimpse into the style of all of the other ‘love songs’ he’ll come to write. What I mean is that ‘Alison’ is not lovey dovey, its not about the butterflies in your stomach, it’s a sad love song. It’s a man looking at a past lover and seeing that she’s taken up with an old friend of his, but is worse off for doing it.

2. Pump It Up – 1978

Out in the fashion show, down in the bargain bin
You put your passion out under the pressure pin
Fall into submission, hit-and-run transmission
No use wishing now for any other sin
Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it

So much new wave goodness here. This song gained Elvis popularity outside just the US and the UK. Is it about masturbation? The late 70’s drug-filled club scene? Some kind of social commentary? Whatever it is, its absolute classic Costello.

3. Little Triggers – 1978

Little triggers that you pull with your tongue
Little triggers, I don’t want to be hung up, strung up
When you don’t call up

You know that feeling when you really really like someone and every little thing they do drives you crazy, you spend hours over analyzing why they’re calling or not calling? That is this song. Costello just gives all those things a name: little triggers.

4. Opportunity -1980

She was sitting pretty on a velvet cushion
But her bedroom eyes were like a button she was pushing
She said, “When they get to Dover they’ll be be taking over”
I said I’d come to her defense and then she pulled me over

From the soul-infused album Get Happy!! we hear something quite different here, not only was he tired of the “limitations” of punk and experimenting with soul and Motown inspired sounds, he also has The Attractions backing him. This song is so bouncy and the lyrics fall perfectly with the music, it really does sound like you’re being mocked by a window of opportunity.

5. New Lace Sleeves – 1981

The salty lips of the socialite sisters
With their continental fingers that have
Never seen working blisters
Oh I know they’ve got their problems
I wish I was one of them

My #2 favorite Elvis song. There’s so much to dissect from the lyrics, one of his best examples of storytelling. Opening with a morning after scene: “Bad lovers face to face in the morning/Shy apologies and polite regrets”, we’re reminded that we all have our secrets. Whoever this girl is, she can see the strange societal expectations she’s held to. Elvis ironically understands the silly illusions behind her being a “socialite sister” but still wants to be a part of her world. Or maybe he just wants to be one of her “problems”. The title phrase “and you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves” fades out in a way that starts out condescending but turns almost affectionate. Elvis describes fingers as “Continental” in this song — COME ON, who does that?!

6. From A Whisper To A Scream – 1981

Oh it’s not easy to resist temptation
Walking around looking like a figment of somebody else’s imagination
Taking ev’ry word she says just like an open invitation
But the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation

Featuring guest vocals by Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. Nobody encapsulates anticipation as well as Elvis: “Like a finger running down a seam”. YES, so simply put but so perfect.

7. Brilliant Mistake – 1986

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter

Its now the late 80’s, and Elvis has a beard. The album this song comes from, King of America, was a return to something more similar to his debut album’s sound. Its undoubtedly folk-rocky and he’s dropped The Attractions. ‘Brilliant Mistake’ itself show’s Costello’s ability to poke fun at the sometimes artificial nature of the US’s modern landscape.

8. I Want You – 1986

He tossed some tatty compliment your way
I want you
And you were fool enough to love it when he said
“I want you”
I want you
The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark
It scares you witless

This was the song that sold me on Elvis. Its really an outlier compared to his usual style, but its probably my favorite song, like, ever. Beyond the musical technique or the cleverness of his lyrics, this one is raw emotion. Yes, its haunting, heart wrenching and calculating, but god is it sexy. It all comes back to his voice, it forces you to sit up straight and actively listen. The song builds up to a release that is never fully realized.

9. Drum and Bone – 2008

Maybe we’re nothing but skin and bone
Nerves that shatter
Tongues that flatter
Lips that mutter
Lashes that flutter

Momofuku, the album this song comes from has been characterized by the speed at which it was created – showing us a much looser and natural Elvis. And yes, the album is named after Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles, not David Chang’s restaurants. Features vocals from Jenny Lewis, Elvis also appears on Jenny’s 2008 album Acid Tongue on the song ‘Carpetbaggers’. Whoever thought of making these two work together deserves a medal. See! Elvis can play nice with others, too.

10. Sulphur To Sugarcane  – 2009

It’s not very far from Sulphur to Sugarcane
‘Cos everywhere I travel pretty girls call my name
I give ’em as squeeze and they shoot me a wink
I buy their hot-headed husbands a long cool drink

Costello goes full on country here. Collaborating with T Bone Burnett, we got the fiddles and the banjos and it sounds light years away from ‘Alison’. ‘Sulphur To Sugarcane’ is a vulgar travelogue of sorts, moving from one cost to the other, Elvis brags about his conquests.

If you have Spotify click here to listen to these songs plus many more of my Elvis Costello favorites! 

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About Joanna Harkins

co-founder and editor-at-large of inconnu

45 comments

  1. it’s kind of trippy to think a random song I put on a mixtape gave you to your favorite artist- that’s what being a BFF is all about, bb!

  2. hannahbellamy

    you should make this playlist downloadable (for sampling purposes)!

  3. Alexa

    The first time I heard about Elvis Costello is when Nick Jonas said he was one of his favorite musicians in an interview. I have no shame.

    (that’s a lie. so much shame. make it go away pls)

  4. johnnybilo

    Good list. Of course this is personal, but I would put “45” in there as, like its corollary “Brilliant Mistake,” it is a clever career retrospective. Also, as you ignored 20 years of his career, I would have pulled something from the woefully underappreciated Brutal Youth (maybe the smashing “Sulky Girl” — I saw you practicing your blackmail faces/talking like a Duchess when you’re still a waitress) or even All This Useless Beauty (“Little Atoms” maybe?). That said, that’s the brilliant thing about EC, isn’t it? The sheer amount of top-shelf work in a variety of styles and genres means no two lists like this will look alike, and all make sense.

    • Joanna Harkins

      Ahhh, yes, i know i’ve totally ignored the 90’s here, but thats the next leg of my journey into his music! I will check out Brutal Youth! Thanks!

    • If you haven’t, you need to listen to EC’s 1998 gem “Painted from Memory”, which is a collaboration with the great Burt Bacharach. For some reason it always flies under the radar. It’s on Spotify, and well worth the investment of time for a listen!

      • noelle

        I love the CD he did with Burt Bacharach. Some powerfully strong songs with brilliant composition.

  5. Kevin Kelly

    I have watched from the start and although he is one of the most prolific artists of the last 35 years for myself it’s the first two albums and then Imperial Bedrooms. The King of America is also in there but Imperial Bedrooms may be his masterpiece, imho.

  6. John

    I have playlist on my iPod called “Elvis Costello Primer” – it has 120 songs! I happliy share it with anyone who wants to “learn” why this music is so important to me. Great, great start by you… I’m sharing your link in my network!

  7. Kevin

    You also forgot about 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, his greatest album in my opinion.

  8. christine

    Brutal Youth was the soundtrack to my teen years; it’s really a must. You’ve caught some of his best; hope you continue to enjoy! I’ve had the biggest crush on old EC since I was 8 (36 now) so I feel like he’s part of my blood (and chocolate?)

  9. richard diamond

    At least you’re learning. Better late than never.

  10. Love this list; it includes a lot of my personal faves also. What’s your take on the rest of the “Blood And Chocolate” album, from which “I Want You” was taken? That record was the soundtrack of my life for a while.

  11. Duncan

    Surprised not to see SPIKE represented here.
    Miss macbeth has a gollywog she chucks under
    The chin and she whispers to it tenderly then sticks it on a pin

    Bloody brilliant. And with the passing of Maggie how about a little Tramp the Dirt Down.

  12. Keith McConchie

    Great list. As was said before, the list is personal, but I was disappointed that nothing from “Imperial Bedroom” was listed. It’s always been one of my favorite albums. “Shabby Doll,” “Man Out of Time,” “The Long Honeymoon”. Just about every song is on the album is fantastic.

  13. Monte Davis

    I’m old enough to have absorbed 1930-1960 standards via my parents’ radio and vinyl choices. Beatles, Motown and psychedelia were my teen years. EC soaked it all up to be the best songwriter of the last four decades (Bacharach knew — don’t miss Painted from Memory!), on a par with Arlen, Gershwin, Kern, Porter et al.

  14. Elvis has been a favorite of mine for years…since his first album. His lyrics are so witty, biting, sometimes very angry.

    “Don’t say you love me when it’s just a rumor
    Don’t say a word if there is any doubt
    Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
    You’ve got to cut it out” from Lipstick Vogue

    For anyone new to Elvis Costello, buy his first 3 albums! Loud, energetic, creative and just plain fun!

  15. Kim

    i heard “I want you” my senior year of HS shortly after i broke up with my first love. I have now seen Elvis over 35 times in concert. You are only scratching the surface with these– so so many amazing records, lyrics and collaborations. Keep listening <3 Brutal Youth is amazing–Blood and Chocolate says it all….

    • If you want a real treat… try to find “I Want You” from Elvis’ VH1 Tribute show. Sung by Fiona Apple, backed by the Imposters. Its not often that someone takes a song by another artist and makes it soar like this.

  16. skOt Cranmore

    Great list. As a long time Costello fanatic, I want to suggest so many more songs. But, I’m not going to because it’s great to see which of his songs others find most influential. I agree though, don’t forget about the 90’s. Also, the album “The Delivery Man”. Brilliant.

  17. tim

    good stuff. been listening to elvis since 78′ and i havent been disappointed at any time. hard to pick a favorite song or album but “get happy” sure had a lot of good songs on it. 5 gears in reverse

  18. Elizabeth Levine

    I’ve been “into” Elvis since 1977, he is a poet and tells marvelous stories in a very biting way. He is cynical, creative and origional.

  19. jimmy

    1986-2008 – Less Than Zero songs? Did the dog eat your homework??

  20. SuzanneAlex

    Great list – I would also add…
    Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes
    Oliver’s Army
    Less than Zero
    New Amsterdam
    I Can’t stand up for falling Down
    Everyday I write the book

  21. I love Elvis. Great list…… if my child was a boy I was going ot name him Declan Patrick after Elvis, but she was a beutiful girl instead. :) Elvis’s music is like a drug to me, it makes me happy when I’m sad and it wake me up on my way to work.

  22. My mentor, my hero.

  23. Oh lord.. “Less Than Zero” is what won me over to Elvis at first. I couldn’t stop listening to it! Lifelong fan — truly an amazing artist.

  24. Nice post and good list. I discovered EC about 10 years ago and saw him live on his solo tour in 2008. The last two records are also great from start to finish. My aim is true!

  25. Gary

    Nice list. Obviously, every fan would make changes, but I was happy to see Brilliant Mistake in there as it normally doesn’t rank along with the bigger Costello songs. But what really stood out was your phrase “After some quality googling.” I, too, was introduced to Elvis via a mixtape that contained “From A Whisper To A Scream,” but it was compiled (by a college kid who decided to mentor me, a high schooler, musically) around the time Trust was released. Almost 2 decades before google. So, I really didn’t think Elvis was picking up any new, young fans. A pleasant surprise.

  26. Jeffrey

    I was surprised to see that right up top, song number 1, you chose not to mention the double-entendre that is “my aim is true” and that continued to be a oft-used lyrical tool for Elvis. “I think somebody better put out the big light, ’cause I can’t stand to see you this way?” He is singing about KILLING that girl.

  27. hoddl

    nice track-list but what’s about “shipbuilding” imho it is a brilliant song with amazing lyrics

  28. Rob

    Alison is in my all time top 10, but you left out Watching the Detectives which has one of my favourite single lines -she pulls your eyes out with a face like a magnet

  29. Richard

    How to whittle his catalogue down to just 10? An ambitious task!

    “I want you” live at Tim Festival, Rio – if you haven’t seen it, google it. This is my favourite piece of music.

    There is no bad place to start listening with EC, you can’t help but dig further and find more.

  30. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide To Elvis Costello | Astigmatic Revelations

  31. So good to hear someone younger than myself has discovered the genius of his work. Lets not forget the Attractions. they were the backbone that brought his songwriting alive.

    • Azul

      Guess you’ve never seen Elvis solo? He don’t need anybody, but he can lead any band, and has.

      • Sorry Jim, but I had to step in here… Azul is correct that Elvis “don’t need anybody” to be the King, but the Attractions have helped write and/or arrange a lot of the songs that you and I love so much. Credit, where credit is due.

  32. thank you, joanna. you cover most of my own favourites too. i’m a lifelong fan and am avidly ‘anticipating’ my 114th excursion to see the man in gent in july. this from brussels last year might interest you and your followers.

    http://twochances.wordpress.com/

  33. Nothing from Imperial Bedroom? That album is an absolute masterpiece! I’m also surprised to see such a sampling of his later works in a piece entitled “A Beginner’s Guide.” The differences between his early work and later work (even the differences between an album My Aim is True and King of America – only a decade apart in their releases) are so vast that it may be shocking to a lot of new listeners. I prefer a slow ease into the later stuff when I’m introducing Elvis to friends of mine. However, still very good choices! “Opportunity” is a fabulously underrated Elvis song and I commend you on choosing songs OTHER than “Everyday I Write the Book” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding”. Good job!

  34. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide To Elvis Costello | Karen M. Cook

  35. OK, Molly, nice work. You’ve put yourself out there and subjected yourself to criticism, which most people who criticize, never do. Elvis truly is the King and it’s good that you’ve pointed out some of the great songs to the uninitiated. You’ve inspired me to take the time this year to re-listen to his entire catalog. It’ll take me a couple of months of gym time, but because of you, I’m going to do it. Thanks, Molly!!

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