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Top 8 Elvis Costello Songs of the '80s


It might not be totally accurate to label Elvis Costello an '80s artist, but only because he has been a distinctive presence in all four decades of a brilliant career. Still, the singer spread his most prolific period across nine years that stretched into the mid-'80s, releasing 11 albums of acclaimed music. Also, Costello reinvented himself and perfected multiple styles throughout the '80s, becoming a reliable, consistent artist capable of building imaginatively on his punk rock and new wave roots. Here's a chronological look at his best songs from the decade, a list as difficult to narrow down as any you may find.

1. "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"

Elvis Costello performs on stage, New York, 1982.
Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Costello is one of those rare artists whose covers tend to sound as organic and deeply his own as any of his bountiful originals. Such is the case with this spirited take on the Sam & Dave R&B nugget, one of the standout tracks on Costello's 1980 joyous soul music exploration, Get Happy!! In fact, I must admit that the knowledge that this is indeed not a Costello original has only been mine for an embarrassingly short time, mainly because I never had reason to suspect otherwise. The groove laid down by the Attractions' organ and rhythm section meshes perfectly with Costello's impassioned, convincing vocals.

2. "High Fidelity"

That Elvis Costello has long been one of rock's finest singers is probably not a fact lost on many music fans, but it's still worth discussing at every opportunity. Buoyed by yet more evidence of this, the blue-eyed soul of this tune bursts exuberantly from the indelible piano opening and gallops along at an exhilarating pace, punctuated with typical aplomb by Costello's wordy but never unwelcome lyrics. This is soaring music that defies genre while simultaneously embracing the many styles Costello so clearly admires.

3. "Watch Your Step"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hip-O Records
Although the name Elvis Costello often draws references as a solo artist, for much of the singer's career his backing band, the Attractions, has played an undeniably significant part in communicating his songs to listeners. More great keyboards here form a mesmerizing tone both typical of Costello's broad style and fresh every time around. This track from 1981's Trust casts an odd spell of slight menace and plenty of mystery, the closest perhaps that Costello ever came to a full-fledged modus operandi.

4. "Beyond Belief"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hip-O Records
Perhaps there has never been any question that Costello is a pop craftsman of the highest order. Nonetheless, a song like "Beyond Belief" proves beyond the slightest doubt that as a songwriter, Costello has a knack for transforming the listener to putty in his hands. Luckily, he rarely disappoints, and in this song from 1982's reliably impressive Imperial Bedroom, he and the band truly squeeze all the marrow out of instrumental textures and rising tension. As usual, the lyrics can be frustratingly obscure, but the central lines of the chorus nonetheless ring with force, vigor and confidence.

5. "Man Out of Time"

In art, poetry and even music, sometimes it's more than enough to be emotionally resonant even if literal meaning is baffling and evasive. For Costello, it's a particularly good thing that many people find this to be the case, as this intricately layered tune demonstrates so clearly the singer's ethereal appeal in the defiance of bedrock interpretations or explication. The raucous screams and guitar punch at the song's opening and closing likewise represent Costello's iconoclastic leanings, but the pure beauty of this tune's structure and the singer's vocal delivery are what continue to endure.

6. "Every Day I Write the Book"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hip-O Records
If there's just one Elvis Costello song most listeners remember from the '80s, it's probably this one. But don't hold that against the tune, a typically cerebral, conceptual entry in the songwriter's deep catalogue. With lines that warn against finding "strange hands in your sweater," the subject matter is appropriately dark and bitter, while the music wraps around the words with its beautiful intricacies. And while the song never cracked the charts in America, its status as an '80s classic proves what needs no confirmation, that an artist of Costello's stature has little need for the capricious nature of hit songs.

7. "Brilliant Mistake"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hip-O Records
In all its folky, acoustic greatness, this song from 1986's King of America album offers yet more literate observations from one of rock music's most playful songwriters. Costello's singular vocal style and his lived-in mastery of melody take over once again here, delivering yet another languorous, completely pleasurable pop nugget. Besides, whom else could we depend upon for a delightful line like "She said she was working for the ABC News, it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use"? As usual, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Costello's joyful use of language.

8. "Indoor Fireworks"

It's possible to accuse Costello's songs of being a bit too busy at times, as they certainly hit the listener so often from so many directions with romantic melancholy, sophisticated metaphor, lyrical density, and emotionally rapturous melody. But when these aspects result so completely in a richly rewarding listening experience, just what exactly is there to complain about? In fact, when listening to Costello's best tunes, it's easy to feel as though you're listening to a finale almost every song, as a result of the songwriter's unbelievably refined sense of craftsmanship.
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