Happy 41st, Elliott

Today marks what would have been Elliott Smith’s 41st birthday and I’d like to share a brief thought.

Think about some of the most influential popular musicians from the last 50 years.  Perhaps Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Creed [followed by an audible laugh] and so on.  Perhaps we could come to a consensus and say that these names (with the exception of one) are legendary.  Dylan, McCartney, Lennon, Gilmour, Waters, Jackson, Cobain.  We could continue the list for ages, but what I want to point out is that I’ve listed surnames and readers who are familiar with popular music in America and Britain probably knew exactly whom I was referring to.  When I write ‘Paul and John’ you probably realise that I am referring to the principle songwriters (though George is clearly the best) of one of the most influential bands in history and in the proper context we will often call Michael by his forename without too much confusion.  This is probably due to the fact that Michael Jackson and The Beatles are very much household names.  Still, taken on their own we’ll more typically employ the surname.

Now, I am not suggesting that somehow Elliott Smith might someday be recognised among these greats.  He’s been grossly underrated and ignored in the public, but such is the lot of a shy and reclusive indie songwriter who killed himself at 34.  Regardless, I find it quite interesting that when I write about Elliott Smith I cannot write, ‘Smith recorded his debut record while still fronting Heatmiser.’  It feels unnatural and impersonal.  Elliott wouldn’t want to be talked about that way (although he probably wouldn’t want to be talked about at all).  (This is all apart from the fact that ‘Smith’ is one of the most common surnames in the English language.)  Perhaps the same can be said of Sufjan Stevens, but we all know that writing/saying ‘Sufjan’ is a billion times more pleasing than writing/saying ‘Stevens’.  When we write or talk about Elliott it is as if we are talking about an old friend.  I never knew Elliott.  I never met him and I never saw him in concert, but his music reaches out to listeners like me and each listen becomes a very personal encounter.  Elliott shares his soul with us and—as I’ve written about before—he shares our souls for us.

I’ve been compiling a list of my ‘Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs’ for several months now.  As Greg so conscientiously shared his ‘Top 50 Sufjan Stevens Songs’ in order based upon his preference, I had hoped to do the same for Elliott.  But Elliott’s work is quite different from Sufjan’s and I found that after arranging the first few songs on the list in preferential order it became very arbitrary – I am in love with different tracks for different reasons.  So, like my ‘Top 50 Albums’, I am going to organise these songs by title.  These tracks (as well as many many others) are all gems and if you don’t own any of the official releases I suggest you look into making some purchases immediately.  Enjoy.

Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs

  1. ‘2:45 A.M.’/Either/Or, 1997
  2. ‘Angeles’/Either/Or, 1997
  3. ‘Baby Britain’/XO, 1998
  4. ‘Between the Bars’/Either/Or, 1997
  5. ‘The Biggest Lie’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  6. ‘Can’t Make a Sound’/Figure 8, 2000
  7. ‘Christian Brothers’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  8. ‘Coast to Coast’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  9. ‘Dancing on the Highway’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
  10. ‘A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  11. ‘The Enemy Is You’/Either/Or era, circa 1997
  12. ‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’/XO, 1998
  13. ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’/Figure 8, 2000
  14. ‘Going Nowhere’/Either/Or era, circa 1997, officially released on New Moon in 2007
  15. ‘Good to Go’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  16. ‘Happiness’/Figure 8, 2000
  17. ‘High Times’/Either/Or era, circa 1997, officially released on New Moon in 2007
  18. ‘How to Take a Fall’/Either/Or era, circa 1997
  19. ‘I Better Be Quiet Now’/Figure 8, 2000
  20. ‘I Can’t Answer You Anymore’/3 Titres Inedits (French promo), 2000
  21. ‘I Didn’t Understand’/XO, 1998
  22. ‘In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)’/Figure 8, 2000
  23. ‘King’s Crossing’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  24. ‘L.A.’/Figure 8, 2000
  25. ‘Last Call’/Roman Candle, 1995
  26. ‘Let’s Get Lost’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  27. ‘Miss Misery’/Good Will Hunting (soundtrack), 1997
  28. ‘Needle In the Hay’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  29. ‘No Name #2’/Roman Candle, 1995
  30. ‘O So Slow’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
  31. ‘Oh Well, Okay’/XO, 1998
  32. ‘A Passing Feeling’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  33. ‘Pictures of Me’/Either/Or, 1997
  34. ‘Pitseleh’/XO, 1998
  35. ‘Pretty Mary K’/Figure 8, 2000
  36. ‘Roman Candle’/Roman Candle, 1995
  37. ‘Rose Parade’/Either/Or, 1997
  38. ‘Say Yes’/Either/Or, 1997
  39. ‘Shooting Star’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  40. ‘Son of Sam’/Figure 8, 2000
  41. ‘Southern Belle’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  42. ‘Splitsville’/Southlander (soundtrack), 2001
  43. ‘Strung Out Again’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  44. ‘Stupidity Tries’/Figure 8, 2000
  45. ‘Sweet Adeline’/XO, 1998
  46. ‘True Love’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
  47. ‘Twilight’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  48. ‘Waltz #2 (Xo)’/XO, 1998
  49. ‘The White Lady Loves You More’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  50. ‘You Make it Seem Like Nothing’/Either/Or era live recording, circa 1996

(For the sake of space I’ve omitted anything Elliott did with other musical acts, otherwise I’d certainly include ‘Plainclothes Man’ and ‘Half Right’ from Heatmiser’s 1996 album Mic City Sons and the rare recording from a French radio broadcast of ‘The Machine’ from Elliott’s high school band Stranger Than Fiction.)

Happy birthday, Elliott.

1969 – 2003


4 thoughts on “Happy 41st, Elliott”

  1. Thanks for helping us all remember E. Smith, E. Smith. I was playing his work all day long yesterday…some other tracks I would include on my list:
    -Independence Day & Waltz #1 from XO
    -Somebody That I Used to Know from Figure 8
    -Don’t Go Down & Pretty (Ugly Before) from Basement

    Other important b-sides/rarities (you hit most of mine):
    -Everything’s Okay (highly preferable to Pretty Mary K (other version) on New Moon)
    -Taking a Fall
    -Another Standard Folk Song

    I also love his haunting version of the Schoolhouse Rock song “Figure 8”

    Elliott Smith is dead; long live Elliott Smith!

    1. Greg,

      Thanks for the comment. The songs you suggested were all on my ‘shortlist’ for the Top 50, excluding ‘Figure 8’, but only because he didn’t write it. I want to stress that ‘Everything’s Okay’ is simply amazing. I was going to include that with the other version of ‘Pretty Mary K’ – I think he was nearly improvising ‘PMK’. But, sadly, when one has to cut them down to 50 (and I have some 300 Elliott Smith tracks in my iTunes…) one must leave many out.

  2. totally agree with you. thanks for remembering elliott.

    i will never understand why “dancing on the highway” never made it on an album. It must be the greatest song ever written.

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