Paul Weller’s 30 greatest songs – ranked!

On the B-side of A Solid Bond in Your Heart lurks Weller’s mea culpa take on the sudden demise of the Jam, the arrogance of youth and the perils of becoming the Voice of a Generation. “I was a shit-stained statue / Schoolchildren would stand in awe … I thought I was lord of this crappy jungle.”

After the demise of the Style Council, it took Weller’s dad-cum-manager to talk him into performing again. On his debut solo single, a kind of musical note-to-self, there’s something really thrilling about the way you can hear Weller willing himself along, “into the stars and always up … praying that it has not passed”.

The relative commercial failure of Confessions of a Pop Group certainly wasn’t down to the quality of the music it contained – it may be the Style Council’s best album. And Life at a Top People’s Heath Farm should have been a bigger hit: soul horns, electronic funk, a ferociously bitter lyric.

In which Weller revisits his home town of Woking in search of inspiration and becomes surprisingly emotional at the sight of the old place – “dear reminders of who I am, the very roots on which I stand”. A fascinating mediation on place and ageing and the ties that bind, plus its sax-driven groove absolutely bangs.

Prior to the radical reinvention of 2008’s 22 Dreams, Weller’s 00s albums were subject to diminishing artistic returns – not bad, but nothing spectacular. And yet, he could still occasionally pull out something that made you sit up and take notice. From the Floorboards Up, from 2005’s As Is Now, is a short, sharp, exhilarating – and Jam-like – jolt.

Pigeonholed as traditionalists, the Jam don’t get enough credit for being experimental. Funeral Pyre has almost no tune, just sprawling guitar noise, a relentless fusillade of drums and a furious, still-relevant lyric. “As I was standing by the edge / I could see the faces of those who led / Pissing theirselves laughing.” A single, incredibly.

For an artist who spent the first part of his career fetishising youth – from “I wanna tell you about the young ideas” to Saturday’s Kids – Weller has worn age exceptionally well. Case in point: the voice of hard-won experience that sings gruff, careworn southern soul ballad The Cranes Are Back, shaking his head at the death of Alan Kurdi as he goes.

The standout from Sonik Kicks, Starlite is a delight in its album version – a breezy, lovely melody floating over scratchy funk guitar, clattering drum machines and a dose of dubby echo. If you want something smoother, the Drop Out Orchestra remix is laid-back, disco-string-laden, sax-solo-heavy nirvana.

Yes, it’s the dictionary definition of dadrock, complete with footy, kids and Beatles T-shirt in the video. Yes, it’s a Weller song that could be played on Mellow Magic – a once-unthinkable notion. But You Do Something to Me is also a supreme bit of songwriting, a genuinely affecting lyric set to a melody so well-turned, it feels like it always existed.

The biggest singles band of their era – four of them went to No 1 – the Jam were also extremely adept at hiding incredible songs away on their albums. Case in point, Carnation’s gently psychedelic Beatles-soul hybrid, topped off with an extraordinary self-baiting lyric.

A high-water mark of Britpop-era classicist Weller, Peacock Suit is essentially one of those swaggering check-me-out 60s mod anthems – I’m the Face; Whatcha Gonna Do About It? – rewritten for troubled middle age. The schmutter is still as sharp as ever, the man inside is “sour as shit … I have no solutions”.

Pastoral psychedelia of a sort, albeit shot through Weller’s grimy early 80s lens – “life and death are carried in this stream”, he sings – and there’s a dark undercurrent to the music. Tales From the Riverbank is the perfect example of the Jam’s willingness to release superb, A-side quality songs as B-sides.

It says something about Weller’s determination to prove the Style Council were Not the Jam that the rap-influenced funk of Money-Go-Round was the single and Headstart For Happiness – 2min 47sec of pure, 60s-soul-infused joy – was relegated to the 12” B-side. The best version is on Café Bleu – Weller was still performing it live in the 00s, testament to its charm.

The great Weller love song – at least until You Do Something to Me came along to compete – You’re the Best Thing is timelessly beautiful songwriting. In a different era, Al Green could have covered it; instead, it was subjected to a spectacularly drippy reading by dimly remembered 90s boyband 911.

One thing that made the Jam so compelling was the sound of Weller growing up in public. The jump from A Bomb in Wardour Street’s shock-horror ramalama to Down in the Tube Station at Midnight – a tightly written short story with a horrifying twist, the music leaping from tensely evocative to cathartic release – is vast.

Whatever provoked Weller’s artistic volte-face on 22 Dreams, it led to a flood of brilliant songwriting. You could fill half this chart with selections from that album alone – Sea Spray! Where’er Ye Go! – but let’s go with the Push It Along: ramshackle, occasionally atonal, mad key changes and a massive hook.

English Rose wasn’t listed on the cover of All Mod Cons, suggesting Weller felt self-conscious releasing something so nakedly romantic – “no bonds can ever tempt me from she”, he sings, over fingerpicked acoustic guitar – in the climate engendered by punk. He shouldn’t have been: English Rose is musically gorgeous, lyrically heartfelt, a vast leap forward.

The summer of 1983 was indeed scorching, and the singles chart was weirdly filled with songs that seemed to soundtrack the weather. Hazily brilliant and audibly influenced by cutting-edge R&B, Long Hot Summer fitted perfectly. Extra marks for the homoerotic video, apparently designed to outrage the more lumpen aspects of Weller’s fanbase.

The sound of a man completely re-energised, aged 51, a clangorous punky racket bearing Weller’s most stirring call-to-arms in decades. His vocal verges on Rotten-esque sneer, everything sounds like it’s on the verge of collapse, there’s room for some codger-ish moaning about “the Facebook”, and it’s all over and done in barely two minutes. Fabulous.

More than any song, Sunflower set Weller’s course in the 90s, its sound a twitchy cocktail of Low Spark of High Heeled Boys-era Traffic and soul. It was a blueprint he eventually wore out, but it sounds aggressive and fresh here: a fantastic riff, a subtle but effective lift into the chorus.

Weller’s latterday exploratory purple patch continues apace. Rockets, from 2020’s On Sunset, is a song that he patently wouldn’t have written 20 years ago – you can hear the influence of David Bowie, for one thing. It’s incredibly powerful, the arrangement swelling as the lyrical focus shifts. “All the wealth is hidden … well, have it all, it’s worthless.”

The Eton Rifles is an old-fashioned protest song, inspired by a single incident, when unemployed marchers clashed with jeering pupils from the titular school. But the sheer force of its anger – and the brilliance of its melody – meant it long slipped its original moorings. No matter. The story that provoked it may be forgotten, but the song’s fury still burns bright.

Boasting one of Weller’s most attention-grabbing opening lines – “You don’t have to take this crap” – Walls Come Tumbling Down! had him railing against political apathy to a northern soul backbeat. The chorus is so terrific, it snuck a lyric as uncompromising as “the class war is real and not mythologised” into the Top 10.

A snappy, super-smart Motown pastiche that’s Ray Davies’ favourite Weller song, which makes sense: a eulogy for the passing of a Britain destroyed by the rise of Thatcher, the gaucheness of his early lyrics is gone, replaced by incisive lines, evocative images and wit (“I could go on for hours and I probably will”).

Take your pick from the ballad on Café Bleu, or the 70s soul-inspired reading released as a single. Both are superb in their own ways, the ambivalence of the lyric and the strong melody (inspired, one US critic insists, by easy-listening band Classics IV’s 1968 hit Stormy) meaning it works perfectly as either wistful lament or celebratory anthem.

“I will never be embarrassed about love again,” sang Weller on 1980’s Monday, and he meant it. The opposite of English Rose’s muted, don’t-mind-me appearance, The Bitterest Pill’s saga of romantic woe opens with a pealing, wedding bell-like riff, and brings in dramatic strings, falsetto vocals and an epic chorus. What a fantastic single.

You could trace the roots of Weller’s folky bent back to the Jam’s English Rose and Liza Radley, but Wild Wood remains its finest flowering. The gorgeously understated music suggests getting it together in the country, but – as on Weller favourite Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter – the lyrical setting is distinctly urban. Killer Portishead remix too.

The greatest Style Council single of the lot, an exquisite, orchestrated anthem of resistance and picking yourself up after failure; its video made its message’s links to the ongoing miners strike explicit. Shout to the Top! enjoyed an unexpected afterlife as a Balearic anthem on the early acid house scene.

Weller at his most brilliantly contrary: horrified by Thatcherism, he writes a song claiming he doesn’t get what “the public want” and has no interest in the mainstream, then sets it to his most potent and irresistible melody yet, full of explosive twists and turns. It enters the charts at No 1.

It’s a very close-run thing – indeed there are Weller songs that didn’t make this list that people might easily claim as their favourite, with Strange Town, The Changingman and Speak Like a Child among them – but That’s Entertainment nudges in front. Apparently written in 10 minutes, while drunk, it’s a cynical depiction of the limitations of working-class life that also captures a universal sense of longing and restriction – is that all there is? – in a series of blunt, but memorable, images. “Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday”, “A hot summer’s day and sticky black Tarmac”, “Watching the telly and thinking about your holidays”. To put it in equally blunt terms: what a fucking great song.

An Orchestrated Songbook: Paul Weller with Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is released 3 December on Polydor Records




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