Here Are Elliott Smith’s Ten Best Songs
An entirely subjective list of the songwriter’s greatest hits on what would have been his fiftieth birthday.
A fair warning, ye who enter this post with pitchforks (no shade to Pitchfork) and a burning desire to argue with my choices: I am a human being with thoughts, and these thoughts may very well differ from your own. When I say “these are Elliott Smith’s best songs,” what I really mean is “these are the Elliott Smith songs that harrow up my soul, personally.” None of my favorites come from his self-titled album or Roman Candle—those are a tad too scuzzy and sad for my taste—and I tend to favor his later, production-heavy records of layered baroque and power pop.
When Smith died in 2003, I was a fifteen-year-old sophomore who wore black to school and hand-made a shitty button with Figure 8’s red and blue stripes to pin on my shirt. Elliott died at the age of thirty-four and released just five full-lengths as an alive solo artist and one posthumously—but the tracks he left behind are rich enough to last a lifetime.
Elliott moved to LA in the late ’90s, and wrote about the city where he died several times. Amidst gentle finger-picking, Smith quiveringly tells an anthropomorphized Los Angeles that he’s glad to meet her (was he, though?), encapsulating a culture of fame-seeking and hedonistic brutality in just a few brief phrases: “I could make you satisfied in everything you do / All your secret wishes could right now be coming true / And be forever with my poison arms around you.”
“Between the Bars” (Either/Or)
This lullaby love song has some of the tenderest lyrics Smith ever penned, about getting drunk with a lover and promising them that you’ll help keep their sadness at bay with whatever power you have. When he sings, “Drink up, baby, look at the stars / I’ll kiss you again, between the bars,” he might be referring to the bars he’s stumbling out of after a booze-fueled night, or the bars of a metaphorical prison cell, or the bars of a song.
“Bled White” (XO)
“I’m a color reporter, but the city’s been bled white” is the greatest opening line to any song, period. What more poetic way to say that everything is shit? This is where Elliott’s music moved away from muted lo-fi to drum-heavy orchestral flourishes you couldn’t help but move your body to. “I’ll have to be high to drag the sunset down / and paint this paling town!” he complains, another double entendre (both high in the sky and high on drugs, presumably. He did a lot of those).
“Waltz #1” (XO)
The second waltz gets all the accolades (and it deserves them)—but “Waltz #1” conjures up imagery that’s more specific and haunting: for me, it’s a ballroom full of waltzing ghosts. I probably have my childhood trip to the Haunted Mansion at Disney World to thank for that, and also Elliott’s specter-thin voice layered over dreamy, tinkling piano. “Silent and cliché, all the things we did and didn’t say / Covered up, by what we did and didn’t do” is the nicest expression of unrequited passion, and when Smith whines, “I wish I’d never seen your faaaace” to close out the track, holding onto the last note like a dying breath, you wish you could spare him that pain somehow.
“Oh Well, Okay” (XO)
Firstly: amazing title. Secondly, I’m including this solely for the point at which the formerly quiet song, laced with cello strings, swells into a climactic bridge: “If you get a feeling the next time you see me / do me a favor and let me know / cuz it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to say,” Elliott’s combined vocals harmonize, desperate to know what someone else feels about him, but too afraid to ask.
“Waltz #2” (XO)
This might be his masterpiece, a heartbreaking song about his mother and allegedly abusive stepfather, written in the ¾ time signature of a waltz, but much fiercer and wilder than any waltz you’ve heard before. “XO Mom / it’s OK, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong,” Elliott lies, seconds after admitting he’s tired of staying alive, tired of trying to impress and satisfy the people around him. When searing synths pierce the chorus at the very end as Smith repeats what are perhaps his most famous lyrics—“I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow”—your heart is in your throat. Post-death, Elliott’s fans all feel the same way.
“Everything Means Nothing To Me” (Figure 8)
Part-funny, part-pathetic, on this piano track off his first fully power-pop album, Elliott again recites the song title over and over and over until you really start to believe it, and then a violent drum solo kicks in. It’s simple, but effective.
“Can’t Make a Sound” (Figure 8)
This one also builds to a symphonic climax, concluding with Smith’s stark question: “Why should you want any other, when you’re a world within a world?” That’s the best proposal for self-love and/or staying single that I’ve heard.
“King’s Crossing” (From a Basement on the Hill)
This is one of Smith’s spookiest, most psychedelic songs. The lyrics don’t begin until almost two minutes in (before that, there’s scattered talking, poetry being read, sinister chuckles)—and once they begin, they’re enmeshed within a wall of sound. His death in 2003 was much contested—suicide or murder? It’s hard to kill yourself with a knife—but this tune alludes to suicide without question, whether it be one already attempted or one that soon will be (“I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have,” he mutters darkly). Here Smith describes his mental anguish as “frustrated fireworks inside your head” and caps things off by yelling for us to “give me one good reason not to do it / (because I love you) / so do it.” The “it” seems to be ending his life, and the “because I love you,” that reason not to, is so strangled and crunched beneath the bass line you can barely make it out.
“Junk Bond Trader” (Figure 8)
Weirdly, this is it: my most loved Elliott track. From the first time I heard that jazzy harpsichord, I was hooked. It’s a theatrical, intricate baroque pop extravaganza, with cynical lyrics about being used and conned in a capitalist society. Favorite line: “I won’t take your medicine, I don’t need a remedy / To be everything I’m supposed to be.”