Elliott Smith is undoubtedly one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, and has few equals in terms of his ability to combine musical skill, lyrical mastery, and emotional expression in his songs. This summer his family is holding tribute concerts in cities around the country where he lived, so I figured this is a good time to sit down and write up a top 10 list. (or top 15, there are too many f-ing good songs.)
So why is this list controversial? Well, I don’t think that his most well-known songs are necessarily his most perfect compositions by far. Unlike most other top ten lists of Smith’s music, this list features mostly unreleased songs, and three songs Smith’s family didn’t want released to the public because of their subject matter. So more or less, these songs are pretty underappreciated and unheard of, but IMHO, they are the most genius.
Top 15 Best Elliott Smith Songs
15. I Didn’t Understand (XO)
I didn’t put too many of Elliott’s characteristic songs where he kind of whines about being alone or losing love, but this one is the exception. Despite the cliché subject matter, the song makes it to number 15 because of its amazing a cappella composition. Besides that, the in breaths he takes before every line are so obnoxiously loud that it garners this song a high position.
14. Single File (Elliott Smith, Self-Titled)
This song features a haunting guitar melody in the background and is a step above the rest of the songs on this album. The lyrics are also a good description of conformism without sounding overdone.
13. See You In Heaven (Unreleased)
See You in Heaven is apparently one of his last songs and a great instrumental track on its own. It kind of seems like there should have been lyrics, and the song My New Freedom seems to match it pretty well according to fan mixes. I suspect SYiH would probably be as good as “Suicide Machine” if it was finished.
12. Place Pigalle (Unreleased)
Elliott goes to France and meets a lady. Lyrically this song isn’t that amazing or meaningful, but the guitar work is so gentle that you can’t help but be captured by whatever the f he’s singing about. It’s like a lullaby for adults.
11. Dancing on the Highway (Unreleased)
One of Elliott’s songs that seems to have percussion as the center of the piece. Both the vocal melody and the guitar loop are too repetitive and subtle to take center stage, but the drums are pretty obnoxious, in a good way. Also makes the list for being the perfect song for driving at three in the morning.
10. Stained Glass Eyes (Unreleased)
Pretty beautiful, simple, and honest lyrics about humanity.
9. A Passing Feeling (From a Basement on the Hill)
An almost perfect musical expression of transience, only to be surpassed by #1 on this list. Just listen to the last note he sings and you’ll understand what I mean.
8. I Figured You Out (Unreleased)
Classic Elliott love song. E.S. actually didn’t like this song all that much, and gave it to Mary Lou Lord. But if this shit doesn’t give you shivers, you are not a human being. Also, this song perfectly sums up the interplay of love, capitalism, and fame, at least how it seems in America: “you’re every kind of color / there ain’t nothing that you won’t claim / your ambition and promise / and your addiction to fame / and everyone’s got a dollar sign after their name / and when somebody wants you / you treat them just the same.”
7. You Make it Seem Like Nothing (Unreleased)
Probably the greatest love song ever written. You’ll notice that more than half of the songs on this list are not Elliott’s love songs. I think his music about less common topics are more innovative and interesting to listen to, but this song makes it so high on the list because of the heart-wrenching simplicity of the guitar work and lyrics.
6. King’s Crossing (From a Basement on the Hill)
4. Fond Farewell (From a Basement on the Hill)
Any song that starts “The litebrite’s now black and white” deserves to be in the top five. Enough said.
3. Suicide Machine (Unreleased)
Supposedly Elliott’s last song. Even though it’s called Suicide Machine, the lyrics still make it completely ambiguous whether he actually killed himself. S.M has some of the best lyrics in his career, totally simple but filled with meaning. “Baby got a place in the sun / I had to shade my eyes / I don’t think I’ll ever know anyone besides you / but it’s no surprise.” This is another track that seems to have the percussion at the forefront of the song. You might orgasm from the giant echoing drum explosion at the end.
2. Stickman (Unreleased)
By themselves the lyrics don’t seem like much, but combined with the vocal melody, this song is a masterpiece of musical emotional expression. Took a few years for this song to grow on me though.
1. Unlucky Charm (Unreleased)
The greatest song Elliott ever wrote. How do I know its true? Drunk fans in the audience are talking throughout the whole thing, and no one claps at the end of the recording. Like Elliott once sang, “My sweetie pours the beer/ for the millions of fans ignoring the bands.” To this day no one even knows this song, and it doesn’t even have a real name. But, ironically, it’s probably his most masterful lyrical composition and chord progression. This song captures pure ephemerality in every way, and that’s why it earns the position of Number One Elliott track.
Anyway, thanks for entertaining my opinion of Elliott’s work. If this gets enough likes and/or reblogs, I will make the top ten worst Elliott songs of all time. heheh
edit: I’ve put King’s Crossing and Abused in the list and changed it from top 13 to 15. :O