Ranking Elton John’s American top 40 singles: 1980-2022

A safe distance from the mega stardom he enjoyed during the Nixon-Ford years if not the excesses without which his ambition might not have been enough rocket fuel, Elton John’s consistent and often grand 1980s pop career surprised observers who thought he would ignominiously fade after 1976’s admissions. As the list shows, he scored a lot of hits, many of them not much more ephemeral than the average seventies album track. But when Elton got homiletic, in imitation of the American soul singers he revered, he was as braying and insistent as a New Age convert; in 1989, Gloria Estefan recorded inspirational numbers better than “Healing Hands.”

Yet the list a couple of standards, the product of a decade he spent quashing the public image of his sexuality with mortifying gestures of heteronormativity. He was at his best when he didn’t mind coming off like a dotty aunt; I imagine Agnes Moorehead’s aged Mrs. Kane sharing “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” as a lifetime’s distilled rue –a memory of an adolescent same sex passion without followup. Millions of Americans thought “Nikita” about a Soviet-born woman. As coke and age blunted his high end, he deepened the interpretative possibilities of his low end; high-end products like “Blue Eyes” and “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” (which I kill in karaoke) were the results. In the nineties he got sober — he needed to — and the hits bled with wisdom. At last Bernie Taupin and Tim Rice were the same person.

He experienced the most unexpected of comebacks when a song called “Cold Heart,” assembled out of samples from “Sacrifice,” “Kiss the Bride,” and “Rocket Man,” exploited Dua Lipa’s global fame to it #1 in his home country and, wow, #7 in the States a couple months ago. Reviewing it last fall, I recoiled from what I thought was a sad mess. What a difference ubiquity can make. Now “Cold Heart” has a chilly pathos, a sad robot’s lament. And it recontexualizes “Kiss the Bride” into something tolerable.

The Hague

Little Jeannie
Something About the Way You Look Tonight
Wrap Her Up
Kiss the Bride
Who Wears These Shoes?
Written in the Stars (with LeAnn Rimes)


Through the Storm (with Aretha Franklin)
Candle in the Wind (Live)
Healing Hands
In Neon
Can You Feel the Love Tonight
Nobody Wins
Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)
Circle of Life
Club at the End of the Street
A Word in Spanish

Sound, Solid Entertainments

Sad Songs (Say So Much)
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (with George Michael)
The One
Cold Heart
Simple Life

Good to Great

I Guess That’s Why The Call It the Blues
I’m Still Standing
I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That
Blue Eyes
The Last Song

10 thoughts on “Ranking Elton John’s American top 40 singles: 1980-2022

  1. Where would ‘Passengers’ and ‘I Want Love’ have been placed, out of interest? The former was an inescapable hit in Britain in 1984, but John seems to have disowned it in embarrassment for the last 35 years. I rather enjoy it myself…

  2. ‘Passengers’ is dumb. “I Want Love” solid. I don’t get how “Passengers” took off.

  3. I think it was the call-and-response aspect of ‘Passengers’ that appealed to the public. Perhaps works best when you’re drunk… The tune is derived from a South African folk tune, a la ‘Tom Hark’. Its apparently supposed to be about apartheid, in which case the theme was the only subtle thing about it.

  4. I’ve only heard six of those. That’s far more Top 40 then I would have believed. No wonder the guy is an icon! But I hear you on the imagined line in the sand after 1976.

  5. “The One” beats several of these to me. It has a majestic sweep, matching the inescrutable lyrics (better than “The “Last Song” lyrics, which makes sense, but it’s sentimental goo not far from what you hate about “True Colors”, just more specific) and its piano/guitar coda is arguably the most inspiring Elton moment in the entire decade. I like George’s backing vocals” in “Nikita”, but come one, it’s cheese AF! At least, Elton should have had the decency to make the video with a soldier man, which is what the song really is about, for “Nikita” is a Russian male nickname.
    I like the first four songs in your list.

  6. The echo-y piano and drums, the backing sound of seagulls and winds and even like seems like a thunder before the second verse, the discreet but perfectly played bass. It’s is as if Spector and Steinman had made a record together for Kate Bush (hear that coda again, then listen to “Wuthering Heights” coda) , without the spareness of the former and the vocal bombast of the latter. And I declare The One by far my favorite Steinman track not made by him. Stephen Thomas Erlewine is right in declaring Evans production “even handed”. The whole album is bland and glossy in the worst ways, but the titular song escapes that tag because it’s so meticulosly arranged, so full of many details that add extra meanings to that quasi-mystics lyrics, that is “glossines” is justified. And I don’t even find it much of that. It’s obviously a song about finding true love after many one-offs when “sex and long no longer gel”, including a weird-ass Biblical reference to a gloomiest past before “the second that the hammer hits” . And the whole thing is so impassioned like nothing John did in the 90s (including his shameful attempt to recreate it with “Believe”, deservedly hagued here) that at least it deserves being separated from the rest of that record.

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