There are few bands that did more to counter grunge culture of the late 1990s than Ben Folds
Five, the eccentric trio headlined by pianist Ben Folds. Folds, drummer Darren Jessee, and bassist Robert Sledge, used a combination of clever wordplay and superb song craft in order to come up with commercially popular songs like “Brick” and cult favorites like “Song for the Dumped.” While the three band members have gone their separate ways, the song catalog of Ben Folds Five has been kept alive by Ben Folds’ aggressive touring schedule in the United States and Australia. Folds’ combination of old Ben Folds Five favorites and new solo work gives another generation of college students an outlet for their angst and sarcasm. The list below features some of the best and brightest songs of the brief Ben Folds Five era.
1. Underground- The best songs by Ben Folds Five dealt with teen and young adult angst, alienation, and a search for introspection. Based on that assessment, you would think their songs would induce either a long nap or a rash of self inflicted wounds. However, the essence of the band was that they could turn even the most serious subject into something entertaining or, at the very least, easier to deal with. “Underground” is one of the more popular songs at Ben Folds concerts and its reference to retreating society by going “underground” meshes well with the feelings of high school and college students who don’t feel that society understands their problems. This song is the most representative of the Ben Folds Five collection, combining anger, bittersweet satisfaction, and a sarcastic view of society.
2. Selfless, Cold and Composed- “Selfless” is a great example of the ability of Ben Folds Five to creating sweeping musical numbers while still maintaining the power of their lyrics. The song is a criticism of a person that is cool, calm, and collected, but I know the first time I heard “Selfless,” all I could think about was how well the music was composed by Ben Folds. It is one of the better Ben Folds numbers and a must-listen for the newly initiated.
3. Kate- Ben Folds Five liked to sing biographical sketches of characters they came across in their own lives and “Kate” is no exception. “Kate” is a composite of the type of woman that any good hipster or college guy would be interested in, making the world stop at her feet and listen to her opinions. Among the various songs sung about people, however, this is perhaps the best written song and it is extremely catchy.
4. Song for the Dumped- This song is my favorite as performed by both the entire band and by Ben Folds himself because it is just a fun (albeit angry) song about the immature end to a bad relationship. The song goes through a list of petty disagreements and final requests but is so entertaining (especially live) that it is hard not to sing out loud. Even for those who haven’t had bad breakups, this song is infectious and will have you repeating the song over and over again until you know every word and nuance.
5. Brick- A solemn song dealing with a relationship marred by abortion, “Brick” was Ben Folds Five’s big break commercially, gaining them an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and regular radio play. It was not as surprising a pick to highlight the band considering many of their album tracks featured the type of gradual climax that makes “Brick” a great song. However, compared to the later development of the band, it seems like another song may have highlighted their nerd rock underpinnings much better.
6. Army- “Army,” off of the weaker Ben Folds Five album “Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,” is a fun song, has a fun video, and is a song that I have listened to a lot on my MP3 player. “Army” seems like the type of song that would be more commercially viable than their breakout hit “Brick” or Ben Folds’ newest single “Landed,” but it is one of the most popular Ben Folds concert songs because he invites the audience to back him up with makeshift trumpet sounds.
7. Philosophy- This was the first Ben Folds Five song I ever heard, after I borrowed the self-titled debut album from my brother. It is a good primer for first time listeners of the band because it is relatively up tempo, it features a mixture of Ben Folds’ vocals with backing vocals by the other band members, and it made me want to listen to more of Ben Folds Five in the future.
8. Steven’s Last Night in Town- “Steven’s Last Night” is a fun song with unusual instrumentation that catches the ear of anyone listening to the album “Whatever and Ever Amen.” The song is reminiscent of an Old West saloon, with a fast fingered piano player painting a scene of frivolity and decadence to bar patrons.
9. Missing the War- Ben Folds and his band mates mix solid harmony with a well-written song to create “Missing the War,” one of the most underrated Ben Folds Five songs. For those who are interested in listening to a great song off of “Whatever and Ever Amen,” “Missing the War” is a good choice because it stands out from the rest of the songs on the album.
10. Smoke- This song deals with the ephemeral nature of life and Ben Folds Five cannot be accused of shying away from larger philosophical issues, even if they approach it with their usual sense of whimsy and cynicism. “Smoke” is similar to a song like “Selfless” in that it has sweeping stretches of piano accentuated by the performances of fellow band members Jessee and Sledge, giving the song a sense of completeness that the song worries is lacking in society.