On this day 45 years ago, Steven Paul Smith AKA Elliott Smith was born. While he died in October 2003, his music and legacy will continue to live on as one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the late 90s. If fact, you can hear a lot of his influence in music today from The Decemberists, Conor Oberst, and Iron & Wine. While there are many great Elliott Smith songs out there, here are six that everyone should know.
1. “Miss Misery”
“Miss Misery” is probably Elliott Smith’s most well known song. Smith explicitly wrote it for Gus Van Sant and Good Will Hunting in 1997. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song the following year, but lost out to James Horner and Will Jennings for “My Heart Will Go On” for Titanic. In fact, everyone lost to Titanic that year.
Over the years, Elliott Smith grew to resent the song and hardly played it live, despite fan requests. It’s a shame, it’s one my all-time favorites!
2. “Between the Bars”
The song “Between the Bars” from Elliott Smith’s third studio album Either/Or also appeared in Good Will Hunting, but as an orchestral instrumental. Smith worked with the film’s composer Danny Elfman to properly arrange “Between the Bars” into a film score. It’s also one of the most popular Elliott Smith songs that other recording artists cover, including Metric, The Civil Wars, and sadly, Madonna, who completely butchered and misunderstood Smith’s beautiful song.
3. “Waltz #2 (XO)”
“Waltz #2 (XO)” was Elliott Smith’s first single released from his first major label (DreamWorks Records) album as a solo artist. It’s a very clever song and shows Smith’s songwriting diversity. The song was actually written as a waltz in a 3/4 time signature. The song is about Smith’s youth growing up with an abusive step-father and his ability to leave and move on from his pain with the lyrics, “I’m so glad that my memory’s remote / ’Cause I’m doing just fine hour to hour, note to note.”
Another song that appeared in Good Will Hunting, Angeles is many people’s introduction to Elliott Smith and his wonderful music. It’s also one of Smith’s most soulful songs, which many feel is about drug addiction, while others think it’s about Smith’s transition from indie label to a major one.
5. “I Better Be Quiet Now”
“I Better Be Quiet Now” is my favorite song from Elliott Smith’s penultimate album Figure 8, which is also my favorite album from his discography. It’s a soft song about longing and loneliness, much like most Elliott Smith’s songs, but “I Better Be Quiet Now” just seems like a perfect ending as part of the trio of songs that close out Figure 8.
6. “Needle In The Hay”
While the song “Needle In The Hay” from Elliott Smith’s self-titled debut was released in 1995, it didn’t really gain popularity until 2001 when Wes Anderson used it in Richie Tenenbaum’s attempted suicide scene from The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a difficult enough song to listen to as it is, but with the haunting images of Richie Tenenbaum slitting his wrists fused with “Needle In The Hay” makes it even harder. Although the song has a dark tone with its affecting imagery of drug addiction and child abuse, it’s also strangely beautiful and poignant, and shows off Elliott Smith’s ability to marry the disturbing with the elegant and graceful.