Where does someone even start when making their way through the expansive catalogue of Elton John's music? That's about as easy of a question as the one that follows: which song is the best? With a career spanning five decades, over 50 Top 40 hits, and 300 million records sold, it's not like finding a good Elton John song is particularly difficult. But of the whole crop, the flamboyant rocker has had a few that seem to rise to the top of the heap. From the song that serves as the name for his 2019 biopic, to the album that started his career, here are the 30 best songs to come from one of the greatest musicians of all time.
30. "Sacrifice" (1990)
As insane as it sounds, the 1990 track “Sacrifice” was one of John's only few No. 1 hits in the U.K. (his first as a solo artist—no, that’s not a typo). The song is a major departure from John’s early work, leaning much harder in the soft rock style that was popular in the early '90s. "Sacrifice" is somewhat of an anti-love song, chronicling the sad end of a relationship.
29. "Ego" (1978)
“Ego” is a strange deep cut that shows off a bit of Elton John’s glam rock side. It wasn’t particularly well received, but the curious train whistle effect and dizzying piano is proof that John wasn’t ever fearful of playing with his style. This did preempt a strange disco age, but even some of John’s biggest swings are still more commendable than other artists' safe moves.
28. "Madman Across the Water" (1971)
“Madman Across the Water” wasn’t released as a single, but it highlights how powerful Elton John’s vocals can be when stripped down from the excitement of rock guitars and playful pianos. While John is mostly known for his soft rock and rock pop hits, "Madman Across the Water" gives a little more of a glimpse into his purely rock artistry.
27. "Honky Cat" (1972)
"Honky Cat” is its own beast. The funky, horn-laden hit of the early '70s is sandwiched between two other mega hits, but it’s hard to compare the odd mix of electric piano and wheezing saxophone to any other single in Elton's songbook. It's easily one of the tracks he has the most fun with, but it's not as much of a standout as the song that followed it, "Crocodile Rock."
26. "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" (1983)
An early '80s hit, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” shows off a slower side of Elton John. After a strange late '70s turn to disco, the pseudo-ballad pushed John back into the spotlight. The song reached No. 4 and remains one of his greatest hits. Of all his early '80s ballads, this is one that manages to push Elton in a new direction while carrying a big dose of the past along with him.
25. "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" feat. Kiki Dee (1976)
The duet with Kiki Dee came at a time when John was careening toward bonafide superstar status. This was John’s sixth No. 1 hit in the States, and the first No. 1 for both him and Dee. He later re-released the song as a duet with RuPaul (even dancier and more fabulous), but the original remains canon. The 1976 hit was Elton John and Bernie Taupin at their best: catchy music and ear worm lyrics that stand the test of time.
24. "The Circle of Life" (1994)
No, Elton John's version doesn’t start with that signature yell, but his performance of The Lion King’s opening track is iconic in its own way. It’s also worth noting that neither version of the song would have existed without John, who composed the music for the mega hit. Nominated for an Academy Award, it ultimately lost when another of John’s entry beat it. Thanks a lot, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”
23. "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" (1982)
A hat tip to one of the greats, Elton John’s “Empty Garden” is a perfect tribute to his late friend, John Lennon. Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics to the single that calls back to the relationship between John and Lennon, with reference to the mountain of flowers that mourners left for John in the wake of his death.
22. "I'm Still Standing" (1982)
It’s a perfect response to the changing times. After a tumultuous '70s, a disco album misstep, and a tonal shift in the musical landscape, “I’m Still Standing” was John’s response to the threat of becoming irrelevant. Still working with Bernie Taupin, the lyrics and rhythm were early proof that John had what it took to last the long haul. Five decades into his career, and John is standing taller than ever before.
21. "Grey Seal" (1973)
“Grey Seal” kicks off with the exciting piano that John is so well known for. While this is an excellent example of what John and Taupin can do together, it’s so easy to overlook on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road—an album so weighted down with iconic hits that a good song appears mediocre in comparison.
20. "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" (1973)
The 10-minute opening track of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really sets the tone for the 1973 album. Composed by John as what music he might like at his funeral (?!), the swelling rock and classical instrumental stretched how innovative the rocker was. The back half of the song moves into a piano-heavy vibe that sounds a bit more like the bombastic rock hits that John released later in the '70s. Even better, it was never released as a single, yet stands out as an essential John hit (on an album full of bangers, no less).
19. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" (1994)
In the canon of Elton songs, you can’t overlook his contributions to the Disney songbook. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is the kind of ballad that could have gotten swallowed up in the Disney machine as an accompanying song to a blockbuster, but John isn’t one to be overshadowed. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is proof that the larger than life singer was as iconic as The Lion King itself.
18. "Take Me to the Pilot" (1970)
“Take Me to the Pilot” is just a damn good song. The heavy piano and strings that kick off the single are a perfect marriage of the energy of the late '60s and the emerging rock culture coming in the '70s. It also served as one of John’s first major hits both in the U.K. and the United States. With that being said, the lyrics make absolutely no sense. That’s not particularly a bad thing because ultimately “Take Me to the Pilot” keeps your foot tapping until its final seconds. It also initially outperformed its A-side counterpart—more on that below...
17. "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" (1984)
The mid-'80s hit from John is a bit of a strange one. He captures the '80s in all its glory, with a catchy tune and a bit of keyboard, but in some ways, it seems the least like the rocker. His signature glasses are missing from the music video, as well as the album cover. The single feels like a turning point in John’s career, departing from the in your face liveliness of past hits. Either way, the single is a banger in its own right.
16. "Philadelphia Freedom" (1975)
This mid-'70s hit was another of John’s long list of No. 1 hits. Fun fact: Elton John wrote the song as a favor to tennis legend Billie Jean King, who played for the Philadelphia Freedoms. Yeah, Elton is a major tennis fan. Who knew?
15. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (1974)
A gut punch of a ballad, the original 1974 hit tells the story of Elton John finding rejection from someone he once cared about. It’s a power play that didn’t just see success with its original release, but again in the '90s when John re-released the song as a duet with George Michael. Drum heavy and full of big notes, it’s a must have on any Elton playlist.
14. Crocodile Rock (1973)
Coming off of “Honky Cat,” Elton John’s follow up single took some of those funky vibes of the early '70s and produced one of the biggest hits of his career. The organ-heavy single is early rock and roll magic, but unlike some of John’s other greatest singles, it didn’t take years for audiences to put that together. “Crocodile Rock” snagged John his first American No. 1. And outside of Queen, it’s hard to think of a more identifiable falsetto in the game.
13. "Sorry Seems to Be The Hardest Word" (1976)
“Sorry Seems to Be The Hardest Word” opens up with 20 seconds of pared down piano before Elton John sadly croons, “What do I gotta do to make you love me?” If that doesn’t cut to your core, why are you here? The beauty of Elton John is that 70 percent of the time, he brings the party. But on the off chance that you’re looking for a single to hit deep, he knows how to take you there. In this case, it’s in the most devastating way.
12. "Candle in the Wind" (1973)
Written as a late-game memorial for Marilyn Monroe (and later repurposed for the death of Diana, Princess of Wales), “Candle in the Wind” is among John’s best-known hits. It tells the true story of Monroe, who was plagued by paparazzi and the onslaught of media attention. Taupin’s lyrics directly address the starlet and her untimely passing, saying, “Even when you died, the press still hounded you. All the papers say is that Marilyn was found in the nude.”
11. "Daniel" (1973)
This early-'70s soft rock track was written by Taupin after seeing a story about a man who returned home to Texas from the Vietnam War. "Daniel" highlights the storytelling capability that Taupin brings to so much of John’s music.
10. "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" (1973)
Face it: it’s impossible to dislike “Saturday Night’s (Alright For Fighting).” The single is one Elton John’s most commercially successful and the encapsulation of his '70s rock vibes. The single’s lyrics are another product of Bernie Taupin’s genius, setting a perfect background for a night out on the town. Pair that with some heavy guitars and a fast-paced beat, and you've got one of the best hype up jams in history. Another big hit from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, "Fighting" manages to stand out among the crop. Saturday! Saturday!
9. "Your Song" (1970)
If this were a Bernie Taupin lyric ranking, “Your Song” may have very well landed at No. 1. Of all of Elton John’s songs, “Your Song” is handily his best love ballad, simplistic in lyrics and downplayed in melody. The song was initially less successful than the B-Side “Take Me to the Pilot,” but time has recognized the single as the powerhouse it is. Anything more musically or lyrically complex and the sheer beauty of “Your Song” might have been overshadowed. Sometimes, the ornamentation isn’t necessary when a message can stand alone.
8. "The Bitch is Back" (1974)
“The Bitch is Back” is pure glam rock. It’s the perfect encapsulation of John’s flashy exterior and his penchant for pushing the buttons of more conservative listeners. The single initially had trouble getting airplay on account of its racy title, but John remained unmoved. The guitar-heavy track is fun, dancey, and iconically Elton John. Bonus: listen to Tina Turner’s very good cover of it.
7. "Bennie and the Jets" (1973)
To be honest, no one in history (maybe not even Elton) knows the full lyrics to this song. But “Bennie and the Jets” is karaoke royalty. Piano bar gospel. Elton John perfected. Even if you’re not an Elton fan (is that a thing?), you can’t help but join in when “b-b-b-Bennie and the jets” hits. It also, unsurprisingly, landed John another No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile commercial popularity with artistry, but I’d dare anyone to compile a list of Elton John songs and not have “Bennie” in the top 10.
6. "Tiny Dancer" (1971)
“Tiny Dancer” is beyond analysis. Mix a little bit of Taupin’s storytelling (allegedly, the song is about his wife), a little bit of country twang, and that signature Elton John piano, and you’re left with one of John’s biggest hits. The 1971 mega single is the encapsulation of John’s early career, yet somehow only managed to only make it to 41 on the Billboard charts. Oh, and don’t even start with the Tony Danza jokes. “Tiny Dancer” demands more respect.
5. "Rocket Man" "1972)
“Rocket Man” is iconic Elton John. (The movie was named Rocketman, after all) The spacey song wasn’t particularly a hit when it first came out (shocking, right?) but its storytelling and Bowie-esque vibes place “Rocket Man” among his greatest singles. Squarely in the timeline of John and Bernie Taupin’s collaborative heyday, the deep impact “Rocket Man” had on the course of John’s career and rock history is undeniable.
4. "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters" (1972)
"Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” comes with a little bias on this ranker's end. The beautifully written ballad serves as songwriter Bernie Taupin’s snap judgment of New York City—a spotlight on the grueling metropolis that can lean a little more gritty than welcoming. The song’s lyrics gives a nod to Ben E. King’s hit “Spanish Harlem” in its opening lines, while John’s musical composition provides a masterclass on all that can be done in a five minute song. “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” doesn’t offer a sweet resolution like many of John’s other songs, making it all the more powerful.
3. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (1973)
If a last minute switch happened and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” slid by and landed at No. 1 on this list, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d disagree with the decision. The titular song off John’s seventh studio album is often regarded as one of the singer’s best. Calling back to a simpler time, “Road’s” message feels both incredibly personal and uniquely universal. Plus, who doesn’t love a solid Wizard of Oz reference? It's hard being the single that leads an album, but if there were ever one to carry an album across the finish line, it's this one.
2. "Levon" (1971)
Off Madman Across the Water, “Levon” is a top tier Elton John single. It’s not the most commercially successful, nor is it his most well-known, but it’s hard proof of what can happen when Taupin’s lyrics and John’s compositions come together in perfect harmony. The single is laced with piano and strings, as John gives one of the strongest vocal performances of his career. The lyrics tell a magically dizzying story about a man named Levon and his son named Jesus. To be frank, the lyrics are wide open for interpretation and have been the root of speculation for years, but even with no clear answers about what they mean, the single is a standout in John’s expansive collection.
1. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (1975)
In terms of story alone, this is John and Taupin's greatest. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is the brave autobiographical story of John’s attempted suicide. If there’s a single that offers a testament to the bond that John and Bernie Taupin share, it's this one. John entrusted his story to Taupin and the result is a breathtaking cut that combines the heady vibes of '70s pop rock and the deepest vulnerability a human can expose. The song clocks in at well over six minutes, but John reportedly wouldn’t allow any to be cut. That move proved to be beneficial, with the 1975 single peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. The song is more than a pop hit—it’s an anthem of survival, resilience, and being able to throw a finger to the vices that nearly ruin our souls. There are bigger Elton songs that people know every word to, but no song in his songbook captures his range as an artist like "Someone Saved My Life Tonight."
Justin KirklandWriterJustin Kirkland is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on television, pop culture, food, and the South; he is from East Tennessee.