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Best Randy Newman Songs: 20 Razor-Sharp Satires Of North American Life
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Best Randy Newman Songs: 20 Razor-Sharp Satires Of North American Life

Fearlessly critical, with emotional breadth and depth, the best Randy Newman songs go to places other songwriters wouldn’t dare.

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Randy Newman is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. He started in the early 60s as a songsmith for hire before developing a unique voice of his own, writing whip-smart, fearless and hummable songs that cut to the core of society’s ills. Over the course of 11 solo albums and countless film soundtracks he has assembled a body of work like no other. Whittling it down to its finest moments is no easy task, but here is our attempt to distil such a wide-ranging discography into 20 of the best Randy Newman songs.

Listen to the best of Randy Newman here, and check out our best Randy Newman songs, below.

20: Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

What better place to start looking at the best Randy Newman songs than with the one Newman himself credits as being the first song he felt was truly his own? The eureka moment came as he was struggling with the lyrics to a romantic song about a girl named Suzie, as he later told The Times: “I did the tune quick… but the lyric. I was thinking of a rhyme for ‘where’ and I came across ‘bear’.” Realising that nothing was stopping him from writing a song about a bear, Newman crafted new lyrics that dealt with cruelty and privilege. In Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear, Simon is a down-on-his-luck entertainer reduced to making his pet bear dance for the amusement of “well-fed faces”. Smith kids himself he’s doing it for glamour and fame (“They’ll love us, won’t they?”), and that the rich are accepting of him and his bear, but, in reality, he’s trapped in a cycle of cruelty (“They feed us, don’t they?”). The bleak and intelligent lyric is set to such a jaunty, hook-filled melody that it became a Top 5 UK for The Alan Price Set in 1967, and a highlight of Newman’s Sail Away album in 1972.

19: A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country (from ‘Harps And Angels’, 2008)

Newman initially shared the lyrics of A Few Words In Defense of Our Country as an op-ed piece in The New York Times in January 2007, as a savagely funny and critical response to a State Of The Union address by the then US President, George W Bush. Newman’s “defence” of the Bush administration begins by detailing some of the most heinous reigns in history by way of comparison, as if to make the listener grateful Bush hadn’t followed Caligula’s lead and made his horse a consul. Newman is aware of the flimsiness of this line of defence and has a lot of fun with it, particularly when discussing the Spanish Inquisition (“Put people in a terrible position/I don’t even like to think about it… /Well, sometimes I like to think about it”). Moving on to Bush, Newman calls out the President’s “war on terror”, suggesting, “Now we’re supposed to be afraid/It’s patriotic, in fact, and colour-coded,” before skewering the Supreme Court and, finally, waving farewell to the age of North America’s global influence (“We’re adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free/Goodbye”).

18: Dixie Flyer (from ‘Land Of Dreams’, 1988)

One of the more autobiographical works to be found among the best Randy Newman songs, Dixie Flyer tells the story of how Newman’s mother (nicknamed Dixie) moved with her two sons from Los Angeles to New Orleans while his father (a military doctor) was stationed in Germany during World War II. The young family take a cross-country passenger train called Dixie Flyer to the South (also known as Dixie), or the “land of dreams”. On arrival at the station they are met by uncles from Jackson, Mississippi; the men are drinking rye whisky and attempting to fit in by imitating the boorish behaviour of the local gentiles. Fittingly, Dixie Flyer begins with a musical nod to assimilation – a baroque melody inflected with an unmistakeably New Orleans feel. It all adds up to a subtle take on North American identity and religious assimilation.

17: You’ve Got A Friend In Me (from ‘Toy Story’, 1995)

Pixar’s blockbuster Toy Story movie required a score and original songs that were every bit as witty and emotionally intelligent as the animated film itself, and Randy Newman was the obvious choice to meet the brief. One of the best movie theme songs of all time, You’ve Got A Friend In Me is a peppy and joyful song about the relationship between Woody – a toy cowboy – and his owner, Andy. A straightforward assurance of reassurance and friendship, it’s an anomaly among the best Randy Newman songs, as the singer-songwriter told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2019: “My stuff is sort of convoluted: it’s in character, and I’ve got to explain that if people don’t know. It’s nice to be able to say you’ve got a friend, you got a friend in me, and not sound like a used-car salesman… It’s understandable why that might appeal, at least for a break. I’m glad I write songs like that but only on assignment; I can’t seem to do it for myself.”

16: Baltimore (from ‘Little Criminals’, 1977)

Newman may be famed for his satirical and darkly comic songwriting, but there’s no humour in Baltimore. His tense, circling bluesy piano chords summon a stormy scene before he details a city struggling in the wake of deindustrialisation. Newman wrote Baltimore after reading an article about the city in National Geographic, but the song is an emblem of national struggle rather than a singling-out of one particular city’s problems. Nina Simone recognised the strength of Baltimore, and her reggae take on the song became the title track to her 1978 album, as well as inspiring The Tamlins’ brilliant 1979 version.

15: My Life Is Good (from ‘Trouble In Paradise’, 1983)

As its title suggests, Newman’s 1983 album, Trouble In Paradise, looked beneath the shiny veneer of privilege in early-80s North America, particularly Newman’s native LA. My Life Is Good is typical of an always-entertaining strand of the best Randy Newman songs, in which he plays morally bankrupt, obnoxious characters. The narrator here is a Hollywood braggart who boasts of illegally smuggling a young girl across the Mexican border and forcing her into a life of servitude; of bullying a teacher at his child’s prestigious private school; and of supplying class-A drugs to his pals and sleeping with their wives – all apparently indicators of how great he has it. To top it all off, a jaded Bruce Springsteen asks the narrator (also called Randy) to be “The Boss” for a while – his life really is that good. Newman totally commits to the role, inhabiting the dreadful character with the unaffected, impish glee essential to making the song work.

14: You Can Leave Your Hat On (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

Newman wrote You Can Leave Your Hat On in the late 60s, at first thinking it was too jokey to consider releasing. While the song became a steamy request when performed by others, Newman always thought differently of its narrator, who invites his lover to remove all her clothing, save her headgear. “I always thought of him as a fairly weak fellow,” Newman told NPR in 2013. “I would’ve thought the girl could break him in half. He’s not asking much. You know, Joe Cocker and Tom Jones had hits with it, and they did it… higher than I did, and louder, as if it were a real sexual kind of thing. I could have done it. I just didn’t think of it.” In Newman’s version, the narrator is pleading and oddly reticent, rather than confident and forceful (the listener questions how he has found himself in this situation), while the sound is pure Muscle Shoals soul at odds with the cabaret-like treatment it received from Jones and Cocker.

13: Short People (from ‘Little Criminals’, 1977)

Newman’s biggest chart hit was also his most controversial. Sung from the perspective of a person with such disdain towards the diminutive that he thinks they are grotesque (“Short people got no reason to live”), Short People was clearly a satire of prejudice. Newman explained the song to the Chicago Tribune: “I would never write a song just to make fun of someone or something… What I’m making fun of is people’s callousness and insensitivity, and often that callousness is exaggerated to the point where it’s funny.” Newman’s fans understood the songwriter’s intentions, but when Short People became a massive hit – the single hit No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold 1.5 million copies in the US alone – the underlying meaning was lost and Newman was heavily criticised, even receiving death threats. He still performs the song live to this day.

12: Lost Without You (from ‘Dark Matter’, 2017)

This heart-wrenching song from Newman’s 2017 album, Dark Matter, is written from the perspective of a husband rounding his children up to see their dying mother for the final time. Newman displays the masterful economy of a short-story writer as the narrator remembers scenes from years of marriage (“Rocking the baby by that window there/Planting tomatoes in the yard/Naked by the mirror putting up your hair/Baby, it’s hard”). The narrative switches halfway through, to the children expressing concern that their dad is drinking too much and is no longer capable of looking after himself, at which point the wife remonstrates with them and asks them to care for him after she’s gone (“If he holds out his hand to you, hold it tight/If that makes you uncomfortable/Or if it embarrasses you/I don’t care”). A keenly observed and honest-sounding play condensed into a four-minute song tackling grief, mortality and family dynamics, Lost Without You makes clear the true breadth and depth of the best Randy Newman songs. Nobody else does this.

11: Dayton, Ohio – 1903 (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

On the surface, Dayton, Ohio – 1903 is one of Newman’s most straightforwardly pretty songs (especially when sung by Harry Nilsson, on 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman), a nostalgia-drenched paean to a bygone age – a time when people would “stop to say hello” and invite you over for tea. But Newman didn’t pluck the titular place and date out of nowhere. Dayton, Ohio, was the birthplace of the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who took their flying machine for its first test flight on 17 December 1903. Newman implores us to “Sing a song of long ago/When things could grow/And days flowed quietly/The air was clean and you could see”. When the song was written, LA had a major problem with smog. In its low-key way, Dayton, Ohio – 1903 was an environmental song harking back to a watershed moment in civilisation.

10: Rednecks (from ‘Good Old Boys’, 1974)

The narrator of Rednecks is a Birmingham, Alabama-born steelworker named Johnny Cutler, a creation of Newman’s around whom he loosely based his 1974 album, Good Old Boys. Rednecks finds Cutler outraged at the treatment of Lester Maddox, then the governor of Georgia, on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Newman saw the show in question and was horrified by the way that the liberal host baited Maddox, calling the people who elected him “bigots” until the governor stormed off the stage. Rednecks imagined Cutler’s feelings on the incident, expressing support for Maddox and celebrating Southern identity and racist politics with vile pride – and authentically shocking language to boot. But this is no one-dimensional pop at Southern attitudes. The narrator goes on to suggest that Northerners are as guilty of prejudice as those in the South, listing Black ghettoes across the Northern United States. Again, Newman gave his potent and explosive lyrics a naggingly catchy melody, to the point where Rednecks became a celebratory anthem at his concerts in the South, and its creator decided it was best to retire it from his live shows.

9: Losing You (from ‘Harps And Angels’, 2008)

The phrase “I’ll never get over losing you” might be the stuff of pop-song cliché, but not when Randy Newman sings it. Here it’s pragmatic rather than romantic – the reason the narrator won’t ever get over losing their partner is that they are elderly and simply do not have the time required to weather the emotional storm. The song was inspired by a story that Newman’s brother, Alan, a former oncologist, told him. Alan had been treating a cancer patient in their mid-20s, and the outlook wasn’t good. As Newman remembered in a promotional video for Harps And Angels, “He talked to the parents and they said, ‘Doctor, we were in the concentration camps and both of us lost our entire families. We had time to get over that… we’re not gonna get over this.’ I remembered that story… You reach a point where you get older, and you don’t have time to forget some stuff.” Newman turned that idea into a universal song of elderly heartbreak, creating one of the most affecting entries among the best Randy Newman songs.

8: Lonely At The Top (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

Even when writing a song for Frank Sinatra, Newman couldn’t resist adding a pinch of subversion, as he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “There was a massive drive at Warner Bros Records to get Frank a hit. I thought – maybe stupidly – that he would be ready to make fun of that leaning-against-the-lamppost shit: ‘Oh, I’m so lonely and miserable and the biggest singer in the world,’” Newman revealed. “I never bought that part of him. I thought he’d appreciate that. I played it for him, at his office on the Warner Bros lot. His reaction? Nothing. He said, ‘Next.’” If Lonely At The Top had been sung by Sinatra, it would have sounded as if the biggest star of the time was overcome with ennui. When Newman sings it, the song feels tongue-in-cheek, a comment on his comparative standing in the pop pecking order.

7: Mama Told Me Not To Come (from ‘12 Songs’, 1970)

Another instance of how the best Randy Newman songs can lose their depth when covered by other artists, Mama Told Me Not To Come has been a hit for Three Dog Night and Tom Jones And Stereophonics, though each of those versions bulldozes over the central premise of the song – that the naïve narrator has some serious misgivings about the behaviour at this particular party, and they rather wish they’d heeded their mother’s words of warning. While Newman sounds suitably shocked (“I seen so many things here I ain’t never seen before/I don’t know what it is, but I don’t wanna see no more”), the band cook up a lusty R&B storm around him, doing a fine job of evoking the rambunctious party. Special mention to Ry Cooder for his leering and lascivious slide guitar playing.

6: Louisiana 1927 (from ‘Good Old Boys’, 1974)

In a break from the songs concerned with Johnny Cutler’s 30th birthday, Good Old Boys’ stirring Louisiana 1927 looks back to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Back then it was the worst flooding that the US had ever known, with an area of 27,000 square miles becoming submerged in up to 30 feet of water. Thousands were made homeless and nearly 250 people died. The key lyric here is repeated throughout the chorus: “They’re tryin’ to wash us away.” Water was, indeed, diverted away from the wealthier parts of New Orleans, causing devastation elsewhere. Newman saw this as a formative moment in the collective Southern psyche, and felt that it helped explain the character of Johnny Cutler. “I wrote Rednecks, then felt I had to do more for the guy, explain why he was that way with Birmingham, Whirlwind and Louisiana 1927,” he told Rolling Stone. “The chorus – that’s the North. It’s the feeling that the rest of the country would like them to disappear. It’s much more relevant now. The whole country feels as if it’s a swamp.”

5: Political Science (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

A hilariously grim satire of US foreign policy, Political Science finds Newman first self-pitying (“No one likes us, I don’t know why/We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try”), before becoming aggressive and going nuclear (“They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them/We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them”). He continues with a deliciously gung-ho list of spurious reasons to wipe other civilisations off the face of the planet (“Asia’s crowded, Europe’s too old”), but suggests that Australia should be saved, as he doesn’t “wanna hurt no kangaroos”. Talking to The Guardian in 2003, Newman regretfully noticed a national attitude in his homeland that crept worryingly closer to his comic creation: “There is a strain in the country, a frontier, isolationist, aggressive kind of ignorance that wants to forget about the rest of the world. They don’t quite want to blow up London or Paris, but they don’t want to help anyone or deal with it.”

4: I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (from ‘Randy Newman’, 1968)

Another much-covered entry among the best Randy Newman songs, with Eric Burdon, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, UB40 and Barbra Streisand among the artists who have taken it on. Newman’s version of I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (from his self-titled debut album) is downtempo, bleak and beautiful. The song appears to be written from the perspective of somebody on society’s fringes, most likely a rough sleeper, which makes the threat of rain that much more unbearable. Newman sounds utterly devasted as he almost mumbles the lyrics, heaping irony onto the line “Human kindness is overflowing/And I think it’s going to rain today”. Speaking to Rolling Stone, he revealed how the song came about: “This might have been 1964 or ’63. I may have had the first two chords of the tune, where the voice starts. I have always loved those vanilla-kind of chords, straight-ahead Stephen Foster. And once I had a style, I crystallised it: The music is emotional – even beautiful – and the lyrics are not.”

3: God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

Newman couldn’t resist adding the big man to his repertoire of characters, and the gloriously blasphemous God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) finds him putting words into God’s mouth over a bluesy minor-key dirge. When the Biblical figure Seth asks God why humans must suffer and die, God pleads indifference to mankind, putting it on a level with “the lowliest cactus flower/Or the humblest yucca tree”. He goes on to admit that he finds humans’ devotion to him amusing, even quaint (“How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me/That’s why I love mankind”), and boasts that even though he burns cities, kills children and permits terrible suffering, believers remain steadfast in their devotion (“You say, ‘How blessed are we?’”). It’s a hilarious and scathing indictment of blind faith, written at a time when that was a genuinely risky thing to do.

2: Marie (from ‘Good Old Boys’, 1974)

Marie finds Good Old Boys’ protagonist, Johnny Cutler, returning home after a night out drinking, and gazing adoringly at his sleeping wife. It’s only in this moment, when his inhibitions are laid low and Marie is unaware, that Cutler can express how he feels about her (“I’m drunk right now, baby, but I’ve got to be/Or I could never tell you what you mean to me”). His compliments are clumsy and cliched (“You looked like a princess the night we met”), reflecting the shallowness of male expectations of women, but they nonetheless feel sincere. Newman grappled with Cutler’s relationship with Marie on an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast which was devoted to Good Old Boys. “He certainly loves her. It would seem that that isn’t drink, but it might be,” he said, adding, “Is this a good guy? And my answer to that is, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m suspicious of this – I’m drunk right now baby, but when I’m awake I might knock the shit out of you sometime.” Easily one of the best Randy Newman songs, Marie is a beautiful and complicated study of inarticulate masculinity set to one of Newman’s sweetest melodies. Meanwhile, Nick De Caro’s sweeping string arrangement perfectly complements the lyric with grandiose, swirling peaks that match Cutler’s romantic reveries but are offset by bittersweet moments, reminding the listener that all might not be as it seems.

1: Sail Away (from ‘Sail Away’, 1972)

An acerbic masterpiece, Sail Away finds a North American slave trader promising Africans a life of plenty in the United States. It could be seen as a spectacularly ignorant sales pitch (“In America you get food to eat/Won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet”), except, of course, there would be very little negotiating going on – rather, it feels as if the trader is blithely recounting his sales patter to his peers. The language is as blunt and shocking as the subject matter requires, but, crucially, Newman lets the character’s words speak for themselves. A lesser songwriter might have included a clunky final verse to condemn the narrator’s actions, but Newman knows the power of presenting a deeply flawed point of view. He reflected on Sail Away while talking to Rolling Stone in 2017: “I had this idea of a slave ship and a sea shanty – this guy standing in a clearing, singing to a crowd of natives. These people in my songs don’t know they’re bad. They think they’re fine. I didn’t just want to say, ‘Slavery is awful.’ It’s too easy. I wasn’t doing Roots.” Topping our list of the best Randy Newman songs, Sail Away is the perfect Newman creation: a razor-sharp and fearless lyric set to music as uplifting as gospel, it’s as potent now as the day it was written.

Find out where You’ve Got A Friend In Me ranks among our best movie songs of all time.

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