Randy Newman’s 20 greatest songs – ranked!

<span>Photograph: Yoram Kahana/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Yoram Kahana/Rex/Shutterstock

20. Short People (1977)

To hear Newman assert that vertically challenged people have “no reason to live”, it beggars belief that anyone could have taken his obvious satire at face value – yet Short People sparked a genuine controversy, with reviewers criticising him for his “vicious attack”. Naturally, it became his biggest solo hit – “the worst kind of hit anyone could have”, in Newman’s words – though its reputation as a novelty record does it a disservice.

19. Have You Seen My Baby? (1970)

The opening track to Newman’s 1970 album 12 Songs (hailed by critic Robert Christgau as “a perfect album”) was a swampy yet concise slice of Americana. Covered by Fats Domino and Ringo Starr, it plays like a rollicking standard but is distinguished by its undercurrent of unease.

18. Lonely at the Top (1972)

The lament of a jazz singer, jaded by applause, parades and his “pick of any girl”, Lonely was written for Frank Sinatra – who walked out of the studio, hearing himself as the butt of the joke. Certainly the doleful trad-jazz suggests that this lounge lizard’s best days are behind him, but it’s a self-effacing take on the isolation and fleeting satisfactions of fame, 50 years before that became pop’s chief preoccupation.

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17. You Can Leave Your Hat On (1972)

It is Newman’s curse that his songs are most popular when recorded by other artists, but few instances are more ironic than this. What Newman intended as a stuttering, even faintly sinister attempt at seduction by a “fairly weak fellow” became, in Joe Cocker and Tom Jones’s hands, swaggering and cocksure. (At least Jones’s, for The Full Monty, was knowingly ridiculous.)

16. When She Loved Me (1999)

Of all of Newman’s work for film – most notably his longstanding relationship with Pixar beginning with the Toy Story song You’ve Got a Friend in Me – this, from its sequel, is the composition that most closely rivals his solo work, realising the heartbreak of an abandoned toy. With the voice of Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl a bit beyond Newman’s register, Sarah McLachlan stands in as singer.

15. Love Story (You and Me) (1968)

The modesty of the title belies the scope of Newman’s ambition, encapsulating a relationship that lasts a lifetime in a little over three minutes – from early courtship to children to the retirement home “where we’ll play checkers all day / Till we pass away”. It’s one of his finest arrangements, too, unearthing the dignity in this union from its small-scale domestic canvas.

Newman in 1972.
Newman in 1972. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

14. Mama Told Me Not to Come (1967)

Newman at his most playful, the unsteady piano and free-roaming guitar capturing his strait-laced narrator’s aghast response to finding himself at “the craziest party that ever could be”. Written for the Animals’ Eric Burdon, it was turned into a hit by Three Dog Night, who fleshed it out while retaining its tongue-in-cheek spirit; Tom Jones and the Stereophonics, not so much.

13. Birmingham (1974)

In his clear-eyed interest in America and wry empathy for characters often reduced to “the other”, Newman is reminiscent of the author George Saunders. With its cheery, storytelling tone, Birmingham seems to celebrate a humble steel mill worker’s home-town pride – until Newman hints that his narrator may not just be merely ignorant of the city’s significance in the civil rights movement: “Get ’em, Dan,” he tells his “meanest dog”.

12. Political Science (1972)

One of Newman’s most straightforward satires, Political Science is a jaunty, jingoistic take on the time-honoured US foreign policy of dropping “the big one” on every continent bar Australia (“don’t want to hurt no kangaroo”). Remarkably prescient on release, today it plays as the bullish delusions of a fading world superpower.

Newman in 1981.
Newman in 1981. Photograph: AP

11. Louisiana 1927 (1974)

From Good Old Boys, his quasi-concept album about the deep south, Newman sings of the devastation of the Great Mississippi Flood and the dispassionate response from Washington: “They’re tryin’ to wash us away.” Newman even dignifies the government’s response; in fact, President Coolidge didn’t even visit the flooded areas at all. It later became identified with Hurricane Katrina.

10. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (1966)

More than the sum of its sparse and slightly strange parts. Newman sings of human kindness over halting piano, with shards of imagery (broken windows, a pale dead moon) and dissonant orchestration creating a lingering mood. The song’s unlikely timelessness is demonstrated by the range of singers who have taken a crack at it, from Dusty Springfield and Judy Collins to UB40.

9. I Love LA (1983)

Perhaps Newman’s best-known solo work after Short People, it was adopted as LA’s unofficial theme for the 1984 Olympics, suggesting no one had listened very closely to the lyrics, which satirise bicoastal competitiveness and dim-witted LA stereotypes. Newman plays it straight, singing joyfully about the sun “shining all the time” to wild acclaim from his baying backing singers. Impossible not to love.

8. Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear (1967)

A song as simple yet irresistible as any written by Cole Porter or Paul McCartney, as Alan Price intuited when he recorded it as a single in 1967. It reached No 4 in the UK; Newman’s take, in 1972, came nowhere near, as would prove to be the case throughout his career. The spritely piano melody is as undeniable as the song’s plucky narrator, cheerily oblivious to the disdain or disgust of his patrons.

7. Rednecks (1974)

Newman’s most controversial song and one he tends not to play live. Hearing the N-word is wince-inducing, but Newman’s target is clear and deserved: not just the proudly bigoted southerner whose perspective he assumes, but superior coastal elites. Inspired by a disastrous interview with a Georgia state governor on The Dick Cavett Show, it foretells the current US culture war.

6. Marie (1974)

Newman has written many beautiful love songs, but his best has a shard of darkness. A man addresses his partner with a tenderness only ever reached via the bottle, exalting her as “a flower … a river … a rainbow” – but his declaration of everlasting love is made bittersweet by his admission of his frequent cruelty when sober.

Newman in 1975.
Newman in 1975. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Alamy

5. In Germany Before the War (1977)

Inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M, itself drawing from the real-life Düsseldorf child-murderer Peter Kürten, this song falls far outside Newman’s usual preoccupations of masculinity and US patriotism. Yet, as a work of pure imagination, it is genuinely chilling, its lullaby-esque piano leading into haunting orchestration and final verse.

4. My Life Is Good (1983)

If I Love LA is Newman good-humouredly playing at big, dumb fun, My Life Is Good (also from the LP Trouble in Paradise) shows its darker underbelly. He plays the part of a sexist, status-obsessed bully, insisting on his enviable existence to his son’s teacher, then, in a hilarious reverie, Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps Newman’s funniest vocal.

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3. Living Without You (1968)

In just a few strokes, Newman paints a moving portrait of heartbreak, the circling, even slightly mocking piano invoking the daily ruminations of the recently dumped, before the undeniable crescendo: “It’s so hard livin’ without you.” As heartfelt a love song as Without You, by noted Newman fan Harry Nilsson, and much more elegant for its restraint.

2. Sail Away (1972)

Newman sings as an American slave trader in Africa making his sales pitch to the locals. The sweeping strings and swelling brass emphasise the narrator’s promise of a grand adventure across “the mighty ocean”, while simultaneously revealing it to be hollow and self-serving. Ray Charles and Etta James’s recordings made the most of that dramatic irony.

1. God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) (1972)

Newman’s finest composition is also the hardest to listen to and, by his own admission, not easy to perform. He plays the part of a nondenominational god toying with his creation and repulsed by its ongoing devotion. Over the length of a pop song, Newman mounts a theological case against religion, the sparse arrangement and haunting piano making clear the stakes. (Newman has singled out Etta James’s bluesy cover as the best of any of his songs: “The fact that she did that was a hell of a thing.”) A bone-chilling song befitting of the word “genius”, it never loses its power – and is the antithesis, ironically, of You’ve Got a Friend in Me.