If anyone was destined to get into the music business, it was Randy Newman. His uncles, Alfred, Lionel, and Emil Newman, all made their names as Hollywood composers, racking up a stonking 10 Oscars and 50 nominations between them. He started composing as a kid and by the time he was 17, he’d already written hits for everyone from Cilla Black to Gene Putney. In 1968, he made a grab for the spotlight with his self-titled debut solo album. It didn’t break into the charts, but it inspired hit covers from an army of big-name artists such as The Everly Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Dusty Springfield, and Nina Simone. His career has continued in much the same vein since, with his own recordings rarely bothering the charts, but providing enough fodder to keep generations of artists in material, and generations of music lovers in hours of listening pleasure. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Randy Newman songs of all time.
10. It’s a Jungle Out There
Newman has written no end of songs for movies and TV shows over the years, including It’s a Jungle Out There for the detective show, “Monk.” Newman was invited by producer David Hoberman to create a new theme song for the show at the end of season one, and the song got its first airing on the first episode of season two. But no one likes change, even when that change comes at the hands of a master like Newman, and the network was inundated with calls for Jeff Beal’s Monk Theme to be reinstated. It wasn’t, and eventually, the show’s fans came to accept the new theme song for what it was – a perfectly constructed, Emmy-award winning masterclass in songcraft.
9. Political Science
Newman’s 1972 album, Sail Away, is littered with gems, not least the wonderful Political Science. Like much of the album, the song takes a satirical look at American culture and foreign policies, with the narrator casting a critical eye over the state of the world before finally concluding “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” Since its release, it’s been covered extensively by artists such as Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Glen Phillips, Don Henley, and Pedro the Lion.
8. Louisiana 1927
Louisiana 1927 was originally recorded for the album Good Old Boys in 1974. 30 years later, the song, which describes the terrible way New Orleans’ municipal government handled the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the devastation that resulted from their decisions, found a new significance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both Newman’s and Aaron Neville’s cover picked up heavy airplay on both the radio and TV during the months that followed, leading it to become something of an anthem.
7. Sail Away
Like many of Newman’s songs, Sail Away, a sardonic piece of brilliance written from the perspective of a recruiter from the slave trade, sounds like a simple, homespun yarn on first listen, but dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find a song of immense heft and emotional complexity. Bobby Darin, who covered it for his final album before his death in 1973, didn’t dig far enough to find the irony, leading Newman to comment “I don’t think he understood it. He did it like was a happy song about coming to America.” Gladys Knight, on the other hand, understood exactly what kind of thorns were buried beneath the pleasant melodies, resulting in a splendid rendition for her debut solo album.
6. Mama Told Me Not to Come
On Mama Told Me Not to Come, Newman adopts the character of a wide-eyed innocent shocked by the wild goings-on of the LA music scene in the late 1960s. Eric Burden got to take it for a ride first, recording a version with The Animals for the 1967 album, Eric is Here. Three years later, Newman gave the song his own spin on the 1970 album,12 Songs, adding a tinkling piano and enough slide guitar (provided by the always excellent Ry Cooder) to turn it into a wonderfully bluesy piece of R&B.
5. You Can Leave Your Hat On
Described by All Music as a “potent mid-tempo rock tune” and a “witty and willfully perverse bit of erotic absurdity,” You Can Leave Your Hat On ranks as one of Newman’s biggest hits… for other people at least. Joe Cocker’s version for his 1986 album Cocker is perhaps the best known, particularly following its use in the striptease scene in the 1986 movie ” 9½ Weeks” – something that rapidly earned it a reputation as a striptease anthem. Other artists to enjoy success with the song include Etta James, Tom Jones, and country singer Ty Herndon.
4. You’ve Got a Friend in Me
If you’re a “Toy Story” fan, you’ll know this next song only too well. Originally created as the theme song for the first in the franchise, it’s since featured heavily in each subsequent installment, as integral to the films as Woody’s hat. Various versions have been recorded over the years, including an instrumental by Tom Scot, a duet between Newman and Lyle Lovett, and a cover by Robert Goulet. Released as a single from the original soundtrack in 1996, it ended up certifying platinum in both the UK and US and snagging nominations for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
3. Short People
When Newman first released Short People in 1977, a lot of listeners came away thinking he had a genuine problem with the vertically challenged. He doesn’t, obviously – as he’s done on many of his finest pieces, Newman deliberately assumes the perspective of a biased, bigoted narrator in order to show the folly of prejudice. That didn’t stop a bunch of people from sending him hate mail, leading him to later comment “I had no idea that there was any sensitivity, I mean, that anyone could believe that anyone was as crazy as that character. To have that kind of animus against short people, and then to sing it and put it all in song and have a philosophy on it.”
2. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2017, Newman revealed that despite the popularity of I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, he’s never been entirely satisfied with it. “The music is emotional – even beautiful – and the lyrics are not. The honest truth is the song bothered me because of the darkness – it felt sophomoric, too maudlin.” Maudlin or not, the beauty of its melody is impossible to deny. Key covers to check out include Judy Collins’ ethereal 1966 version and Barbara Streisand’s 1977 rendition.
1. I Love L.A.
Despite its lively melody and enthusiastic title, I Love L.A. is less of a tribute to the City of Angels than a very pointed insult. Described by LA Weekly as a “paean to the moral weakness and intellectual vapidity” of Los Angeles, it finds Newman pointing an accusing finger at the proud residents who wax lyrical about the city’s splendors in an effort to conceal the squalor and misery of its neglected corners.