Since bursting onto the scene in 1977, Elvis Costello has constantly refused to be pigeonholed. Originally lumped in as part of the punk and New Wave movements due to his short, angry songs, he quickly took a series of musical detours, occasionally circling back before trying something else new. Combining his musical curiosity with a work rate that would fell most speed freaks, Costello has been fortunate enough to collaborate with seemingly whomever he was listening to in a given week.
In addition to Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, he's recorded projects with, among others, the Brodsky Quartet, Allen Toussaint and more than a handful of country and jazz legends. This diversity continued with 2013's Wise Up Ghost, recorded with the hip-hop group the Roots.
Still, the bulk of the entries on our list of the Top 10 Elvis Costello Songs come during the years (1978-86) when he was backed by the Attractions. We've also forsaken some of his best-known songs in favor of some album cuts to give plenty of jumping-off points for you to investigate the rest of his immense catalog.
'Shipbuilding'From: 'Punch the Clock' (1983)
Our first entry on our list of the Top 10 Elvis Costello Songs was written during the Falklands War. He uses the run-up to the conflict to put his narrator through a moral dilemma: a looming war means that prosperity will come to an economically crippled shipyard town, but the fruits of their labor will result in senseless death. Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker plays the mournful solo.
'(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes'From: 'My Aim Is True' (1977)
This early single formed the template for many songs to follow with its darkly comic look at a relationship set to a perfect Beatles-esque hook. Rejection doesn't come more pithy than "I said 'I'm so happy I could die' / She said, 'Drop dead' then left with another guy." In 2011, Costello rewrote the song for a wonderfully silly segment on Sesame Street.
'Brilliant Mistake'From: 'King of America' (1986)
After sessions with the Attractions in 1985 didn't go well, Costello hired the core of Elvis Presley's TCB Band, which resulted in most of the songs found on King of America, released the next year. "Brilliant Mistake" is the opening track, and it borrows a lot musically from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue."
'(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea'From: 'This Year's Model' (1978)
After My Aim is True, Costello assembled the Attractions to be his backup band and recorded This Year's Model. "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" is its standout and a perfect example of the mixture of chaos and skill they brought, with Bruce Thomas' propulsive bass, Steve Nieve's Vox Continental organ fills and Pete Thomas clattering away behind the drums as Costello plays the jagged riff on his trademark Fender Jazzmaster.
'Party Girl'From: 'Armed Forces' (1979)
Armed Forces was Costello's commercial breakthrough in the U.S., reaching the Top 10 on the strength of the singles "Oliver's Army," "Accidents Will Happen" and a cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." But "Party Girl," with its tense build-ups and releases, is its best song, and sixth on our list of the Top 10 Elvis Costello Songs.
'Riot Act'From: 'Get Happy' (1980)
Recorded in Amsterdam under the influence of some R&B records and a whole lot of amphetamines and alcohol, Get Happy crams 20 songs into slightly more than 48 minutes. It's an exhausting listen, but "Riot Act" closes it out on a slow but incredibly emotional note, especially when his voice breaks on the line "Don't put your heart out on your sleeve / When your remarks are off the cuff" before going into the final chorus.
'Watch Your Step'From: 'Trust' (1981)
Trust is one of the most musically diverse of Costello's early albums, but as a result it lacks the focus of his first four releases. Still, there are plenty of great songs to be found. The ominous "Watch Your Step," with a subdued performance by the Attractions and Costello's voice barely rising above a whisper, is the best.
'Alison'From: 'My Aim Is True' (1977)
Costello's best-known ballad owes more to soul music (he fashioned the chords from the Spinners' 'Ghetto Child') than the English punk movement that was blooming at the time. He has said that the lyrics were inspired by seeing a girl at a grocery store and getting a vision of how her life was going to turn out.
'I Want You'From: 'Blood & Chocolate' (1986)
What starts off sounding like an acoustic ballad turns after 50 seconds into an uneasy, creepy listen. For the next six minutes, Costello sings in the voice of a stalker in a jealous rage over the object of his lust's new lover. But even as the music threatens to erupt, the Attractions remain subdued, giving the song that much more of an edge.
'Man Out of Time'From: 'Imperial Bedroom' (1982)
Checking in at No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Elvis Costello Songs, "Man Out of Time" creates a film noir out of a political sex scandal, greed and a cynical view of love, all wrapped up in a lush arrangement that features the Attractions playing at their best.