Coming from North Carolina, Ben Folds
has established himself as the premier name in piano pop over the last decade. His work – both with his earlier band Ben Folds Five and his later solo career – ranges from the downright quirky (Narcolepsy, One Angry Dwarf, Uncle Walter) to the satirical (Underground) to the anthemic (Army) to straight pop (Rockin’ the Suburbs) to sincere panagyrics written for loved ones (Gracie, The Luckiest). Folds’ amazing versatiliy with song types makes him a great songwriter, but the man can also play a fierce piano. His breathtaking fills, exuberant nature, and tendency to involve a crowd in his songs (such as having the audience fill in the trumpet part on Army), make him an excellent choice to see in concert. What follows are the ten best Ben Folds songs, both from his work with Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse and the later songs from his solo career. I’ve written these in chronological order, because I’ll be darned if I have to choose a number 1.
Philosophy – Album: Ben Folds Five – 1995. Philosophy is the second track on Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut album. The opening track is an excellent but gritty and rollicking piece called Jackson Cannery. As soon as the song ends, the opening piano solo to Philosophy rings out, and words cannot do it justice. The harsh production of the previous song heightens the melodic, smooth, and positive nature of one of the best piano riffs ever written, and that’s no exageration. Though it may not have recieved airtime, I swear that if one heard 100 new songs in a day, and one of them was Philosophy, at the end they’d remember the main piano theme from that song over anything else they heard. It’s uplifting, well-played, and unlike a lot of solos, goes perfectly with the lyrics and chords that follow it, no matter how quirky they are.
Where’s Summer B? – Album: Ben Folds Five -1995. Where’s Summer B? is the fourth song on the album Ben Folds Five, and itmight have the catchiest chord structure and chorus in their catalog. Much of Folds’ inspiration and lyrics are based in his personal life, and Where’s Summer B? is no exception, being about a friend of his who apparently just packed up and left one day. The song is also about how things can change in an area or a group really quickly, which hits a solid chord with a lot of college-aged listeners. The piano chords Ben plays to harmonize this message and the echoed backup vocals could not be any better.
Brick – Album: Whatever and Ever Amen – 1997. Brick makes the list solely because it reached number 11 on the Top 40, established the band to a national audience, and helped push Whatever and Ever Amen – the band’s second album – to no. 42. It’s not in my top 20 list of the best Folds songs – nor is it in many fans’, I suspect – but it has to make any “best of” list because of what it did for the band. I will say that the song itself is great, it has a memorable and easy-to-play piano base copied by every piano player who heard the song, and Folds’ vocal care showed the band could play something softer with a lot of heart. Indeed, the song is actually about Folds’ ex-girlfriend getting an abortion; thankfully, in my opinion, more people didn’t catch on to that.
Battle Who Could Care Less – Album: Whatever and Ever Amen – 1997. This song marked the band’s first appearence on regular-play MTV, exposing widespread music fans (including yours truly) to Folds’ piano skills and quirky lyrics. It’s a rocking song to boot, one that seems made to cruise around town in a beat-up used car for those of us averse to bass-heavy rap. And who could argue with lines like I’ve got this great idea / why don’t we pitch it to the Franklin (expletive) Mint. / fine pewter portraits of General Apathy and Major Boredom / singing whatever and ever amen.. What an amazing way to musically sell the concept of the album, and consequently it served as its own best marketing device.
Kate – Album: Whatever and Ever Amen – 1997. To my knowledge, Kate was never released as a single, but it’s a strongpoint on a strong album, in my opinion. It’s an homage to jejune and carefree love that also doubles as a pop rock masterpiece. Unlike most of Ben Folds Five’s stuff, the song is remarkably easy to play – the opening bass lines and the piano chords are a cinch compared to their other work, and it goes perfectly with the song’s content in that it’s a feeling most of us had at some point, an irrational crush. And leave it to Ben to make the crush somewhat disagreeable yet intriguing to mainstream ears: everyday she wears the same thing / I think she smokes pot . Hardly the stuff of Byron or Coleridge, but that’s part of the point.
Army – Album: The Unauthorized… – 1999. The band’s third and final album together, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was their most complete and musical album, and the best-selling, hitting number 35 on the Billboard 200. However, the album only had one single, Army, and it’s anthemic, sprawling nature is a huge reason for the album’s success. A song about life for those who don’t really know what to do with it, Army rang true with Folds’ target audience. And it’s their best song as a group. The opening is clean chords and simple production, showing off the odd lyrics and getting the theme of the song in place: Well I thought about the army, dad said “son, you [must be] high. The opening two verses alternate between the lyrics and a treble-clef octave-based riff. In the middle of the song, after parts about joining a band and working fast food, the brass and background vocals kick in to suburb effect. Dare it say it, Army is Ben Folds’ Stairway to Heaven, only instead of having stoners copy the riff in their garage, they sing the trumpet parts at his concerts. Sprawling, fantastic, and great.
Don’t Change Your Plans – Album: The Unauthorized… – 1999. The second song on Reinhold Messner, Don’t Change Your Plans serves as a second introduction to the tone of the album after the awkward Narcolepsy. It’s somewhere between bittersweet and melancholic, opening with sometimes I get the feeling / that I won’t be on this planet / for very long. The piano is very sing-songy in a ballad sort of way, like a bar player one-upping the depression of others. But the song is saved from outright depression, moving to a bittersweetness, because the two lovers in the song love each other, and will continue to love each other, but their resolve for their own thing is greater, thus I love you, goodbye after the song shifts to a major chord halfway through. It just works, darn it.
Fired – Album: Rockin’ the Suburbs – 2001. Folds’ first solo album suffered (at least in my opinion) because it was released on September 11, and I think it sort of became lost , but it’s a great album nonetheless. I’ve chosen to put Fired on the list over the title track and only single from the album because, frankly, it’s a better song. Whereas the title track is derivative of other pop at the time and feels like it was made to be played on the radio, Fired features a rhythym you could dance to in a club, a quirky structure, a catchy pop hook, and the deep, awkward irreverence expected from Ben Folds. His mocking of the modern economic structure will stay in your memory days after the last listen to the ablum.
Give Judy My Notice – Album: Speed Graphic/Songs for Silverman – 2003/2005. There have been two versions released of Give Judy My Notice, the first being on the EP Speed Graphic, and the second on his latest studio album, Songs for Silverman. One is a bit faster and more arranged, the other is slower and more methodical. Both are outstanding, and the variations are a testament to the song’s excellence on paper. In feel, chord structure, and melody, the song is tight, and gives an emotional overtone to the lyrics worthy of the other great singer-songwriters of piano music. What makes Folds a better composer than, say, Carole King, is his abilities on the ivory, and on this song they show.
Time – Album: Songs for Silverman – 2005. The best song off of Folds most recent studio album is Time. Though Landed and Jesusland had success as singles, I name Time as the best song and worthy of the top ten list because it perfectly reflects the turn Folds’ music took. Songs for Silverman is in many ways a mature Ben Folds, less irreverence and more fatherhood. Time is a contemplative song, slow and soft on the piano. The opening bass notes are dissonant with what follows, and it forms the perfect combination for not only the song, but one of the main motifs of the album as a whole.
That list of ten would make an outstanding playlist on an album in its own right, but I’d like to mention the songs that were also in the debate to make the list:
From Ben Folds Five: Alice Childress, Boxing, Uncle Walter
From Whatever and Ever Amen: Stephen’s Last Night in Town, Song for the Dumped
From Naked Baby Photos (a live and odds collection, 1998): Emaline
From …Reinhold Messner: Regrets, Narcolepsy
From Rockin’ the Suburbs: Zak and Sara, Fred Jones Pt. 2, Not the Same, The Luckiest, Annie Waits
From Songs for Silverman: Gracie, Landed