Although better known for his movie soundtracks and writing the theme song for the hit television series Monk, Randy Newman is one of America’s most original rock songwriters. He had little commercial success with his own work, but his songs are continuously covered by other artists. He’s constantly named by other songwriters as one of the best in the business. Newman’s quirky and poignant songs gain new fans every year. Here are the top 10 Randy Newman albums.
# 10 – Ragtime
This is arguably the best of Newman’s movie scores, for James Cagney’s last movie, the critically acclaimed Ragtime (1981). Although the music was written to fit the Ragtime era, it still is poignant today. This soundtrack won Newman numerous awards, including two Oscars. If you’re a fan of Newman’s “Dayton, Ohio 1903” you’ll love this album. Includes the humorous “I Could Love a Million Girls,” which would be covered a few years later by Homer Simpson. Also features the shockingly tender and award-winning, “One More Hour,” sung by Jennifer Warnes.
# 9 – 12 Songs
Randy Newman’s 1970 album is one of the most blues and country inspired of his works. Like his first album, this received good reviews from both critics and fellow musicians. This also contains one of Newman’s best-known songs, albeit the version covered by Three Dog Night, “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” Also contains a modern reworking of the now-controversial Stephen Foster classic, “My Old Kentucky Home.” And what Randy Newman album would be complete without a hint of sexual perversion? Here, it’s in, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield.”
# 8 – Dark Matter
Randy Newman took nearly ten years off from studio albums and worked on soundtracks. This album received great reviews and sold reasonably well in both rock and folk categories. This has more sound effects, rap sections and background vocals than Newman’s better known albums. It includes long songs like a Born Again Christian trying to destroy science in the title track, which goes on for just over eight minutes. Also includes “Putin” – and (surprise) it’s about Vladimir Putin and “Brothers” about the Kennedy Administration and the theme song to “Monk.”
# 7 – Lonely at the Top: The Best of Randy Newman
There have been several “best of” Randy Newman albums, but this one is the best an deserves a spot on any top 10 Randy Newman album list. It has the cream of the crop (until 1987, anyway) and leaves you wanting more. Which brings us to the reissue. It is highly recommended since it includes four more tracks, “Old Kentucky Home”, “In Germany Before the War,” “Christmas in Cape Town” and “My Life is Good.”
# 6 – Bad Love
One thing you can count on in a really good Randy Newman album is a minimum of sentimentality. Many of the songs in this 1999 offering have the cynical and yet downright funny framework Newman fans have come to love. These include a frank talk to Karl Marx in “The World’s Not Fair” and a look at history for the last 400 years in “The Great Nations of Europe.” Also includes a self-parody in “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It).” However, it does include one sentimental love song for his ex-wife in “I Miss You.” Newman would go on to include many of the songs from this album in his set lists.
# 5 – Trouble in Paradise
Breaking the tradition of Randy Newman singles, “I Love L. A.” became an unexpected hit for Newman in 1983, bolstered by a colorful video. However, that’s arguably the weakest song on the track. Others include the sharply satirical, “My Life is Good” and “The Blues.” Although predominantly a funny and bright album, it does close with the dark battlefield scene, “Song for the Dead.”
# 4 – Randy Newman
Originally titled Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, this debut album of 1968 announced a unique new voice on the American rock scene. The songs are very short, piano-based with some orchestral arrangements to flesh out the little tunes. The album came out with an arty collage cover but this was soon revised to show a simple portrait of Newman’s face. Like most naïve new artists of the 1960s, he signed away the rights to all the songs on this album for a small fee. The highlight of the album is the tenth song, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” which Newman (and other artists) would still perform live decades later. Another song, “Living Without You” is especially heartbreaking and a fan favorite.
# 3 – Good Old Boys
In this day and age, it seems odd that an album containing the n-word is so darn good. Born and raised in the South, Newman creates a quintessentially Southern gent named Johnny Cutler in this 1974 offering. He’s pointed out in interviews and in live performances that he rarely writes about himself, which is good since here we have racists, streakers, politicians and various bits of white trash. Backing vocals are from The Eagles’ Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Glenn Frey. This album also features Newman’s tried and true formula of him at the piano with some orchestral arrangement. The real standout tracks are the love song that only drunks can sing, “Marie” and a song about a flood in New Orleans called “Louisiana, 1927.” It would be given new life after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
# 2 – Little Criminals
Being politically correct is nothing new. Newman faced a huge backlash in 1977 over one of the few songs of his that became a hit, “Short People.” It was seen as being derogatory about short people – which means no one ever heard the bridge, which clearly states the opposite. Other songs include the fan favorite, “In Germany Before the War”, about a child murderer, “Baltimore” and “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father”, both about what you think they are about. It also has some background vocals from the Eagles.
# 1 – Sail Away
This is not only our selection for the top spot in our top 10 Randy Newman album list, but is also one a collection of some of the most unusual topics in rock music. We have a boy and animal act in “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”, a river on fire in “Burn On” (about an actual event), divine commentary on humanity in “God’s Song” and the solution to all problems from a right-wing American’s point of view in “Political Science.” The best-known song was ferociously covered by Joe Cocker, “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” This is an album that is just as fresh and funny as it was when it first appeared in 1972. If you only listen to one Randy Newman album in your life, make this one it.
Randy Newman Albums Ranked article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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