Yes, this is almost impossible to do. Almost every Ben Folds song deserves to be honored, so narrowing it down to 10 can be emotionally destructive. But let’s do it!
Quick disclaimer: these songs are based on my own preferences, not necessarily cultural impact or anything like that. If you want a list like that, there are plenty of others!
10. Zak and Sara
One of the most contested songs out there when it comes to what it actually means is this classic from Rockin’ The Suburbs. Though I’ve never found an official explanation from Ben Folds himself, it’s been said that he wrote the song about a girl he was dating in the 80’s who went crazy from being bored while listening to him play guitar. Sounds about right if you listen to the lyrics closely. This upbeat, fun, and catchy song is also credited with having my second favorite opening instrumental from Folds. And when Zak finished Sara’s song, Sara clapped.
Yes, Ben Folds covered a Ke$ha song because he’s, well Ben Folds. Best part? It’s 10 times better. You can imagine the immensity of the **** I’m not giving.
8. In Between Days
Another cover, but less obvious to younger fans who’ve never listened to The Cure, this song from Supersunnyspeedgraphic is a great example of how Ben can take someone else’s song and make it seem like his own. Yesterday I got so old I felt like I could die. Yesterday I got so old it made me want to cry.
7. The Luckiest
Just so you know, Rockin’ The Suburbs is my favorite Folds album, so it’s all over this list. Hence, “The Luckiest” made the cut pretty easily. Many people credit this song as his best, mainly because it is one of his most introspective and emotional songs, really capturing his love for his then-wife and mother of his children. I love this song, but the sadness that comes from the hindsight of this song prevents me from really enjoying it. I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.
I am not much of a Ben Folds Five fan, but this is definitely one of his best songs. Slower than most on the album Whatever and Ever Amen, “Brick” is about what Ben went through when his girlfriend in high school got pregnant and eventually received an abortion. The song’s power mostly comes from the conflict and turmoil the couple went through, though Ben has publicly stated he doesn’t want to make an political statements about the matter. She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly.
Fun fact: this is actually the first Folds song I ever heard, and thankfully so. Another Rockin The Suburbs song, “Gone,” is very different from other Folds songs. It’s not too fast, not too slow, and has a very unique and catchy melody, making it one of the more recognizable Folds songs. The song itself seems to be about the aftermath of a breakup, or at least two people who have been estranged for a year. Some of have said that Folds explanation is a little silly, with the song actually being based on a couple he saw on a talk show. And I think that you should spend some time alone. But if you won’t. Then you won’t. And I will. Then I will consider you gone.
4. Not The Same
Yes, this is another Rockin’ The Suburbs song (I warned you.) This makes the top of the list because of how misunderstood it is. Most believe it is the singular story of a guy who climbed a tree at a party and came back completely different. That’s part of it, but Ben himself has said that the story is more generally about how people, after something happens in their life, are not the same after that. Yes, the song is centered around a guy in Ben’s life who climbed a tree while on an acid trip and came down a born-again Christian. The rest of the song is composed of parallels and examples of people in your life who change. You gave your life to Jesus Christ, and after all your friends went home, you came down. You looked around, and you were not the same after that.
3. You Don’t Know Me (feat. Regina Spektor)
One of the standouts from Way to Normal, this one is a sad song brilliantly disguised as happy thanks to its unbelievably catchy tune. The song focuses on a couple that don’t understand each other at all and ultimately resent each other. Why the **** would you want me back? Maybe it’s because…you don’t know me at all.
2. Annie Waits
This is the last Rockin’ The Suburbs song (I promise!) but absolutely had to be included. The song is beautifully simple, referring to a girl waiting on a guy who’s not good for her to finally commit to her. Meanwhile, her friend (the guy who is good for her but stuck in the friend zone) waits for her as well, hence “And he waits” compared to “Annie waits.” Ben is trying to stress that everyone tends to be on someone’s “hook.” Annie waits for the last time. Just the same as the last time. Annie says “You see this is why I’d rather be alone.”
1. Cologne (Piano Orchestra Version)
And the top of my list, which was the easiest pick for me, is this knockout from Way to Normal. Oddly enough, I came across this song long after the rest of this list and past albums, somehow missing it when Way to Normal came out in 2008. I’m glad I did, since a friend introduced me to the Piano Orchestra Version, which is vastly superior to the album version. Why is this my #1? For me, it has everything. The brilliant piano, the irreverent humor, the emotional intensity, and of course the best opening period for any of his works to-date. This is also my favorite because it was done completely improv at a performance. It really doesn’t have a meaning aside from being a spectacular piece of work.
I will let go. If you will let go.
Every other Ben Folds song.
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