Lowe may not appear on any Rolling Stone ‘best of’ list. He may not win any Grammys. He is, though, one of the most vital and brightly beating hearts of American music, and has been for nearly four decades. His hits have inspired some of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, and his deep cuts have compelled listeners for years.
From his early work with Rockpile to his most recent endeavors, the Jesus of Cool has been one of the most undeniably excellent forces of music propelling the art’s creative energy forward for years. Here are ten of his finest songs very much worth revisiting.
# 10 –‘Christmas At The Airport’ | ‘Quality Street’ | 2013
From 2013 to 2015, Nick Lowe collaborated with Los Straitjackets, a fantastic band that backed him for an album and subsequent live release. ‘Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family,’ was Lowe’s hat being thrown into the ring as a holiday tune interpreter. While his renditions of classics like ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’ and ‘Silent Night’ were superb, the highlight of the album was his original song.
‘Christmas At The Airport’ is the perfect contemporary Christmas song. Lowe’s writing walks the line between lovable holiday cheer and the endless frustration of Christmas travel. “It looks like Christmas at the airport this year,” he croons. “The doors are locked and bolted, let the festivities begin!” The authenticity of Lowe’s sound works splendidly for holiday music, and ‘Christmas At The Airport’ is a tune that needs to be on everyone’s holiday playlist come the end of 2017. It’s such a wonderful piece of music to start out our Top 10 Nick Lowe Songs List
# 9 – ‘Failed Christian’ | ‘Dig My Mood’ | 1998
The only song not written by Nick Lowe on this list, ‘Failed Christian,’ very much deserves inclusion on it nonetheless. In June of last year, Henry McCullough passed away, best known for his work with Wings and Spooky Tooth. McCullough struggled heavily in his life with his lifestyle and his faith, and ended up pouring that emotion into the breathtaking ‘Failed Christian.’
Lowe recorded the song in 1998 for his ‘Dig My Mood’ album. For once, Lowe was the performer taking a lesser known artist’s song and covering it, not the other way around. His version of ‘Failed Christian’ is simply haunting, an unbelievably sublime take on McCullough’s best songwriting. Since McCullough’s death, Lowe has taken to performing the song live as a tribute.
# 8 – ‘You Make Me’ | ‘Labour of Lust’ | 1979
It’s very easy to skip and forget ‘You Make Me,’ a tiny 1:53 long track in the middle of Lowe’s sophomore solo record, ‘Labour of Lust.’ In actuality, it’s one of the most lovely gems in his entire catalog. Clearly inspired by the likes of the Everly Brothers, whom Lowe was actually covering with Rockpile around this time, ‘You Make Me’ is the essence of a love ballad.
There isn’t anything on ‘You Make Me’ that doesn’t need to be there. Lowe’s soft, whispering vocals are so delicate that you can hear his lips move as he expresses each line. His acoustic guitar is even more quiet, very carefully finger-strummed with emphasis on the bass notes of each chord. ‘You Make Me’ does what The Beatles’ ‘I Will’ does: manifest love in less than two minutes. It’s pure beauty.
# 7 – ‘When I Write The Book’ | ‘Seconds of Pleasure’ | 1980
‘Seconds of Pleasure’ is Rockpile’s only studio record, released in 1980. The ultimate demise of Rockpile was inevitable, as Nick Lowe’s solo appeal was growing too large for the group. (Similar to Rod Stewart and the Faces, for example.) At the end of the day, however, Rockpile gave Lowe the freedom and space to be experimental as a songwriter. The songs he wrote with Rockpile, he carried with him for decades after.
One of those tunes was ‘When I Write The Book,’ an excellent foray into Lowe’s wham, bam, thank you, ma’am style of songwriting. It’s got a chorus you’ll never forget, snappy verses that are memorably intelligent, and Lowe was in fine form as a frontman. Heartbreak and break-ups would remain a constant theme in Lowe’s catalog. ‘When I Write The Book’ is one of the first efforts in that vein.
# 6 –‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ | ‘Jesus of Cool’ | 1978
Lowe’s debut Stiff Records release, ‘Jesus of Cool,’ was one of his most commercial successes. Between 1977 and 1980, Stiff Records dominated the music scene. ‘Jesus of Cool’ was right alongside Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True.’ Lowe’s debut record captures that new wave sound perfectly.
‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ is one the most memorable songs on ‘Jesus of Cool.’ It’s snappy, and houses some of Lowe’s most eclectic backing band instrumentation. The thick bass and cascading pianos is unlike anything else in Lowe’s catalog. Though it was originally a parody of David Bowie’s ‘Breaking Glass,’ the song has come into its own over the years as one of the most fun entries in Lowe’s discography.
# 5 –‘So It Goes’| ‘Jesus of Cool’ | 1978
Similarly, ‘So It Goes’ is in the same vein as ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.’ It’s a punchy new wave rock track that remains one of Lowe’s best. Its sharp commentary of the Cold War and its oddball lyrics make it one of the highlights of his early career. “Remember the night the kid cut off his right arm in a fit to save a bit of power?” Lowe sings in the introduction. “He got fifty thousand watts in a big acoustic tower.”
Though the song never charted, it did help push Stiff Records onto the commercial stage. The song was released as a single two years earlier in 1976, at which point it was lauded by fans of Stiff’s quirky DIY releases. One could argue the success of ‘So It Goes’ helped pave the way to artists like Elvis Costello becoming commercially viable on Stiff.
# 4 – ‘Sensitive Man’ |‘That Old Magic’ | 2011
‘Sensitive Man’ is quintessentially Nick Lowe. Released on his exceptionally good 2011 record ‘That Old Magic,’ the song continues Lowe’s exploration of heartbreak and relationship strife. Even 31 years after ‘When I Write The Book,’ Lowe was still having grief with the opposite sex.
There’s a sense of elegance to ‘Sensitive Man,’ however, that ‘When I Write The Book’ lacks. That song was infused with youth, whereas ‘Sensitive Man’ is aged. Lowe has been around the merry-go-round many times, and you can hear it in his voice. His cheeky, sharp lyricism is as great as it ever was on this single, though, making it one of the finest parts of his late in life catalog.
(Also, ‘Sensitive Man’ simply has the best music video ever, depicting Marc Maron getting help from members of Wilco and Robyn Hitchcock to overcome to his sensitive nature. It’s absolutely brilliant.)
# 3 – ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?’ | ‘Untouched Takeaways’ | 2004
In 1979, Elvis Costello had one of his megahits, ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?’ It was a Lowe-penned track, one that never really saw a proper release from its songwriter until many years later, despite being a staple of Lowe’s live repertoire. The song’s popularity transcended even Costello, becoming a cultural colloquialism of its own. (Even John Lennon quoted it in a 1980 interview.)
The lyrics are so simple it’s hard to believe nobody thought to write the song before Lowe did. Truly, what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Lowe wanted to know, because it always seemed so far out of reach. The hopeful track was, and still is, relevant to the social and political climate of the world. “Where are the strong?” “Who are the trusted?” Those are questions we’re still asking today.
(The live version of ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding’ on 2004’s ‘Untouched Takeaways’ is one of Lowe’s best performances of the song available on an album.)
# 2 –‘Cruel To Be Kind’ | ‘Labour of Lust’ | 1979
One cannot put together a list of Nick Lowe’s finest work and not include ‘Cruel To Be Kind,’ the songwriter’s most successful song. In 1979, ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ entered the public conscious similarly to ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.’ This time, though, it was Lowe behind the microphone. It made Lowe a radio superstar.
That commercial success was short-lived for Lowe, but it opened up a very important door by showing that he was talented enough to hold his own against his songwriting. People like Elvis Costello didn’t need to take his songs to the top of the charts; he could do it himself.
‘Cruel To Be Kind’ is one of those songs we all know. It’s a song engrained in the American artistic conscious as one of the most memorable, infectious parts of the late 1970s new wave movement. The music video, which was recorded at Lowe’s wedding to Carlene Carter, became one of the early MTV sensations as well.
# 1 ‘The Beast In Me’ | ‘The Impossible Bird’ | 1994
In 1979, Johnny Cash became Lowe’s father-in-law. For years, Lowe wanted to write a song for Cash, and one night, slightly intoxicated, Lowe penned ‘The Beast In Me’ whilst doing his best Cash impression. Soon after writing it, he invited the Man in Black to come hear the song. Little did he know, however, that Cash would be bringing his entire entourage to Lowe’s home.
When prompted to perform it, Lowe choked, his voice muffled in awkward crackles attempting to mimic Cash. Needless to say, it sounded much better to Lowe after a few drinks. Despite the embarrassing performance, however, Cash told his son-in-law that he needed to record the song. Four years after Lowe and Carter divorced, the song had yet to be released.
So, Cash took it upon himself to do it, releasing his legendary cover on ‘American Recordings,’ the first in his series of releases with Rick Rubin. Seven months later, Lowe finally released his original rendition on ‘The Impossible Bird.’ Cash’s performance is terrific, but there’s an inherent magic to Lowe performing his own song, solo on an acoustic guitar.
Johnny Cash was right. ‘The Beast In Me’ is the best song Nick Lowe has ever written. It balances Lowe’s signature lyrical talent with his ability to delve deep down into the recesses of his own personal struggles to create a song everyone can relate to. ‘The Beast In Me’ is Lowe’s masterpiece.
(‘The Impossible Bird’ is also a great album in its own right, heavily featuring one of the best guitarists around, Bill Kirchen.)
10 Nick Lowe Songs
Written by Brett Stewart
Updated Nov 9, 2020