Whether you’re a crazed Ben Folds fan, a passive enjoyer of his more popular tunes, or an eager poser trying to impress your Ben Folds fanatic boyfriend/girlfriend, have a look at my Top 30 Ben Folds songs.
Trying to rank songs by one of your favourite artists is a painstaking process. In my case, I had to sift through a collection of Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five CDs and mp3s to re-listen (often several times) to each track I own. In compiling and arranging the list, I considered all Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five tracks that were not covers of other artists, meaning that “Tiny Dancer” and “In Between Days” could not be included.
30. Battle of Who Could Care Less
“It sucks me in when you’re aloof.” There is a pleasing key change right before the Franklin Mint lyric, and buried in the lines of this track is the best-selling album title Whatever and Ever Amen.
29. Hiro’s Song
Released on a Japanese version of Rockin’ the Suburbs, this entertaining Ben Folds ditty tells the silly story of 51 year-old man who leaves his wife for a secretary who went to high school with his daughter.
It seems like many fans love this song because they relate to the concept of just shutting on and off without notice. Defying conventional song patterns with frequent changes and a dramatic lead-in, this first song on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner sets the tone for even better music as the album plays on.
27. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces
A revenge anthem for geeky kids (and anyone else who was likely to get beaten up in school), “One Angry Dwarf” is a live favourite due to the aggressive Ben Folds piano percussion.
When you hear Kate, you’ll want to dance like a Peanuts character. This upbeat, poppy tune is a nice complement to some of Ben Folds’ quieter, more pensive tracks. And the choral “Kate!” exclamation is just too fun to be ignored.
25. There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You
Sporting a corny polka beat, this irresistible tune serves up a keen reminder for anyone who’s gotten too big for their britches: indeed, there’s always someone out there cooler than you. In fact, the people cooler than you are the people who aren’t trying so hard to be cool in the first place. This track appears on one of the Ben Folds solo EPs, Sunny 16.
24. Twin Falls
Anyone who flashes back to elementary school to recall long-lost faces in forlorn small towns can relate to “Twin Falls.” Quietly painting a sad portrait of an Idaho town through a fragmented look at a girl without a future, Ben Folds is masterful without even trying. With references to parachutes in gym class and the thumb-pressing 7-UP game, he uses an eerie nostalgia to set a broken mood
Using a harmonica to open into a waltz rhythm, Ben Folds dances with a favourite topic: reflective loss. The “Smoke” sentiment is a stabilizing kind of destruction.
22. Song for the Dumped
Whether you hear the spirited album version or the bitter minor-key version, you know that this is a favourite among Ben Folds Fans for its flippant profanity and angry truthfulness. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to ask for something back from an ex? Everyone’s got his own version of the black t-shirt.
Sustaining the high quality of the Reinhold Messner album, “Mess” is a look at internalized anomie through the lens of a post-relationship funk. This lament moves quickly as the voice acknowledges his vaguely sketched scorched-earth pattern: “There are rooms in this house that I don’t open anymore.”
20. Alice Childress
Lyrically curious, this track is vague enough to allow for useful speculation about marriages, religion, old friends, and what sounds like a life away from what used to be familiar. Unfolding into a resigned sort of wisdom, Ben tells the Alice character: “Alice, the world is full of ugly things that you can’t change. Pretend it’s not that way. It’s my idea of faith.”
19. You to Thank
One of the better tracks on Songs for Silverman, this tune is a brief look at couples who rush into marriage with their unquestioning families orchestrating a grand context for coupledom. Rather the celebrating the impulsive side of young love, Ben Folds addresses what happens after the novelty wears off but before total resentment sets in. There is a sense of mutual pity in the two characters, which will probably give way to messy contempt soon enough.
After spending much time in the Australian city, Ben decided it was worth a song. What Americans may not get about this track is that Australians see Adelaide as a city living in its own time, existing in a bubble. Normally that’s a bad thing, but this track shows how an insular place can sometimes be desirable, like a kind of suspended animation. Ben Folds’ wife, Frally, says hello at the begining of the track.
17. Fred Jones, Pt. 2
Extrapolating on the glimpse of Fred Jones seen in the song “Cigarette,” Ben Folds looks at a middle-aged man who’s become alienated and ignored around his office until he’s eventually asked to leave. Featuring Cake frontman John McCrea, the Ben Folds Live version is sharp – an understated remark on capitalism, even?
16. The Ascent of Stan
The song is mostly critical yet quietly sympathetic at the same time. It addresses ambitions as they affect values: “Once you wanted revolution, now you’re the institution. How’s it feel to be The Man?” This retrospective ballad features a raindropped piano quality that matches the topic well.
15. Zak and Sara
Sonically pleasing, with the fun story of a young ’80s couple to buttress the sound, “Zak and Sara” reminds us all of those boy-girl couples in which you know the girl is just more clever and inventive than her boyfriend.
14. The Last Polka
Reminiscent of other songs that chronicle doomed relationships, like Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” this Ben Folds number blames neither party. It’s just a failure of marital circumstance, set to an almost vaudevillian tempo. This is, perhaps, a glimpse of what the couple from “You to Thank” might experience fifteen years later.
13. Eddie Walker
An excellent character study by Ben Folds! Given pieces of a fallen man’s life, we’re told that he’s never had a reason to cry. He’s cracked, it would seem, but there are two takes on that. On the negative side, he won’t GET to experience the full range of the human condition, with all its love and joy. On the positive side, he won’t HAVE to experience the full range of the human condition, with all its sadness and woe. This is what happens when a man becomes inert and others are left to reflect on it.
The song is an anthem for self-reflective slackers who want to celebrate and bemoan their situations simultaneously. Particularly animated when performing this song live, Ben Folds is known for dividing the audience into trumpets and saxophone sections, making each half come together in a chorus of vocal brass.
11. Still Fighting It
With excellent arrangement and production, this song is refined but still raw enough to emote. Ben Folds dips into his bag of heart-tugging one-liners and comes up with “You’re so much like me…I’m sorry.” Reflecting Ben’s transition into parenthood without betraying his ability to capture the nuance of mixed feelings, this song shines on Rockin’ the Suburbs.
Telling the partially true story of a man’s who has lost touch with an old connection after moving to California with a controlling woman, “Landed” is the strongest track on Songs for Silverman. It’s a reaffirmation and a humble supplication, with a poignant build-up. Cue the footage of a man who packs his bags and leaves his life behind to recapture something lost in a former location. The idea of landing implies a homing quality, suggesting that the time away was, ironically, a kind of flight that never should have occurred.
Though the material might sound like something out of a country singer’s sentimental hit book, our friend Ben Folds manages to rescue the topic of terminal illness from the verges of utter cliché. The string-infused music is melodic and melancholy, yet still reflectively hopeful. The song touches on the sad beauty of death after painful life: “You’re the magic that holds the sky up from the ground.” Grief and resolution mingle to form a memory.
8. Don’t Change Your Plans
With the added bonus of a Burt Bacharach-style horn bustout, “Don’t Change Your Plans” moves from head-swaying ditty to stark solo and back again. It’s all done deftly, with the classic Ben Folds Five background chorus. Not just any old goodbye, this one builds and builds to a bittersweet close.
7. Not the Same
Based on true tale about a guy who became a born-again Christian after an acid trip, “Not the Same” is especially rich in its live version, with a faux gospel choir (thanks to Ben Folds’ request for audience participation). The studio version, however, includes a wonderful little “You were not the same!” scream at about 3:05 into the track. Both versions, through repetition and curious lyrics, leave listeners feeling like they’re hearing a fable unfold – and the moral is, at best, brilliantly unclear.
An overstated good-bye from someone who’s already been forgotten, “Gone” has that I’m-totally-and-completely-over-you attitude that goes just enough over the top to suggest that it’s a coping mechanism. Any song that makes such a bold declaration undercuts its own assertions, further proving Ben Folds’ ability to create complex characters in just a few brief verses. The strong bridge also helps carry this song, as do the toying echoes of background vocals.
Considered by some to be the quintessential Ben Folds tune, displaying his lively piano, his playful lyrics, and offbeat confidence, “Philosophy” is a fan favourite. Standing the test of time since the early ’90s, the song can’t help but make the listener grin with pride. It really does keep us walking when we’re falling down.
4. The Luckiest
Written off by some Ben Folds fans as too personal, too wimpy, or too sappy, “The Luckiest” has still touched far more people than it has turned off. And despite becoming a wedding favourite, it has staying power because it tries to capture the feeling of love by directly acknowledging how hard it is to put into words. It grasps at stories as a way of expressing the almost ineffable. In short, the song works because it’s genuine.
Without a doubt, this is the best known Ben Folds song. Tackling the difficult topic of abortion from an apolitical perspective (and from the little-heard voice of a male), Ben tells a true story from his high school experience. You can’t help but feel the mood, smell the winter air, and see the greyness of that morning. The scenes are almost timeless, as are the slightly awkward vocal strains mixed with the more monotone dirge-like utterances.
Leave it to Ben Folds to extend a metaphor: “I poured my heart out – it evaporated.” The song captures sentiments of emptiness and loss from a decidedly male perspective. Touching on wanderlust, lack of commitment, isolation, and brooding, the lyrics plod along brilliantly, musing without immediate resolution. It ends at an impasse, like bright sun on a cold, cold day. Even though it does not showcase the full extent of Ben’s piano talents, the power of the song is unparalleled.
1. Annie Waits
With the double entendre of “Annie Waits” and “And He Waits,” the song can be experienced as two story lines. Not only is Annie waiting on a male friend who seems to ignore her, but the male voice of the song appears to be waiting for Annie to recognize his interest in her (which she misses due to her distraction with the other guy). It’s like a dysfunctional threesome, without a real introduction to the third party. Either way, the song is wonderfully arranged musically, with deftly placed claps and a synthesized drum line. When all is said and done, this song merges the brilliance of the classic Ben Folds Five mechanics with the “new” solo Ben Folds sound. All the elements are here: a topic that is both playful and serious, a musicality that is poppy but unique, and a vibe that is thoughtfully bemused. “Annie Waits” is a model Ben Folds song, and for that reason, it earns the peak position.
10 Honorable Mentions
Rockin’ the Suburbs
Your Redneck Past
Best Imitation of Myself