I'm sadly a late bloomer to the Elliott Smith fandom but I have to think this guy will be playing in whatever device I use to listen to music for years to come. He has such a gorgeous clarity to what makes him so unique; you know when it is his music from the way its recorded, written, and performed.
Some things I like about Elliott's music:
-It always feel like a performance, not a recording
-It is intimate, even if I can't relate to the subject matter, I can express empathy and expand my emotional range
-It is more complex chord and structure-wise than your traditional folk or pop arrangement
-It is genuine; it is the result of happenstance; Elliott's self-discovery as a musician is here, in all its glory
-There is nothing pandering about it, at all
-The vocal melodies are certainly not what you would expect
Though it would be arrogant to say that I think I have a good taste, I can be pretty sure in this respect that if you are not familiar with his music, you should check it out as soon as you get a second. It can be super powerful, and the following ten (10) songs are my favorite, so that might be a good place to start!
10. Ballad of Big Nothing
"Ballad of Big Nothing" is probably one of the more popular Elliott Smith songs, and I'd guess that's because compared to most of his catalogue, it is fairly upbeat with a rousing chorus. I think the reason I really like this song is because of that chorus; "you can do whatever you want to whenever you want to." Gotta love that nihilism! The way he plays the music reflects this attitude. This is a pretty carefree song that feels a little chaotic. Just in the right ways.
9. Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands
In my conversations with people who don't know his music, there seems to be a pretty specific image of the music that Elliott Smith creates. "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" blows those doors wide open. This is one of his hardest rocking tunes; AWESOME backup vocals (which are an Elliott Smith staple). A very interesting chord progression with some fantastic guitar work; something I love about Elliott's music is that it always feels like a performance.
8. St Ides Heaven
I won't come outright and say that I know exactly what he is talking about in this song. I won't. What a gorgeous melody. The vocal performance on this track compels it towards some really deep waters and it couldn't make me happier. That transient experience of being fully committed to precisely that specific moment in your life is really captured here.
7. Punch And Judy
A great tune about knowing you've stuck around a little bit too long, a feeling we are all too familiar with, being humans and all. I absolutely love drumbeat in the verse; sits so hard! Citizen Cope would be proud. And should cover this!
6. I Didn't Understand
I love this song, and I put it on the list to show off the versatility in his music. This track definitely has a Beatles thing going on, but in true and familiar Elliott Smith fashion, it is much darker and bleaker. The arrangement is unbelievable; very rarely am I going to be a fan of an all vocal performance from a rock or folk musician, but he knocks this one out of the park.
5. 2:45 AM
The first thing I love about this song is that there is a killer riff that keeps changing ever so slightly ever time. But I really like the message of the song; its about having a terrifying moment of clarity. This is why the riff keeps changing and the song eases its way into being more and more intense. Also, I have to believe this is the song that inspired the Matchbox 20 classic 3 AM. I musta be lonellllaaaaaay.
4. Rose Parade
The way these acoustic guitars are recorded and performed are insane. The panning is so clutch. This was the first Elliott Smith song I heard that made me "get it." It's a pretty sad song, lyrically, but it always gets me so pumped because its so good! Yet another beautiful example of how music can be intended to be received in any way and actually received in any other way.
3. Alphabet Town
These are probably the most opaque lyrics I've encountered from him and will be fully honest in admitting to not knowing what the hell he is talking about here. Therein lay the beauty of this track; I can still feel the emotional energy from this recording as if its being expressed by someone I know right in front of me. The song is probably about a prostitute though. Don't underestimate how sad this harmonica line will make you. It is desolate.
2. Shooting Star
In my opinion the most sonically interesting Elliott Smith song out there. The recording feels chaotic and jumbled; lots and lots of tracks going all over the different ranges of the physical acoustic space the he created. There are weird kick drums everywhere. I love his disregard for keys in this tune. This song should have become a grunge classic. And the heartbreaking refrain "your love is sad, shooting star" is too much.
1. Needle In The Hay
I don't believe a more intimate sounding recording exists out there; certainly not in my collection. "Needle In The Hay" feels like I'm not just peering into the soul of its composer; it feels like that soul conjoined with mine. Maybe this song is literally about heroin, but the emotional content expressed is so true and genuine that the content matters little. This is a haunting melody. And not haunting in the music journalist sense of the word. Haunting in the dead civil war soldier who killed himself in a lighthouse way. Yeah, that! Also, remember that scene where Luke Wilson tries to kill himself in The Royal Tenenbaums? That was this song making you feel those weird things!
Tragically, Elliott Smith has been gone for almost 10 years. I never got the chance to meet Elliott, but I certainly am thankful for his contribution to our musical community. I participate in a community where a lot of people are out for a quick buck; or, in a way that disgusts me even more, out for fame or recognition. Elliott Smith didn't entertain either; he created music that shows effort, skill, empathy, and courage.
Let's all live with effort, skill, empathy, and courage. And let's all get better at guitar, yeeeeeesh please,
Benjamin Ryan Williams