10 Best Ted Leo Songs
Ted Leo is a well-respected veteran of the punk and indie scenes, but you can’t accuse him of coasting on his reputation. In terms of songwriting, you’ll never catch the New Jersey native phoning it in, and Leo’s albums are deliberately layered, brimming with subtle references and clever nods. He’s not above throwing in a German quote from a T.S. Eliot poem, but even when the lyrics get a bit heavy, Leo’s music is fun and packed with hooks. Time and time again, he proves that catchy tunes can be meaningful, and in honor of this rare achievement, we’re counting down the 10 Best Ted Leo Songs.
‘Where Have All The Rudeboys Gone?’
You don’t find too many self-professed ska buffs these days, but if you know anything about Ted Leo, you know that he’s a big nerd for the genre. This song — No. 10 on our list of the Best Ted Leo Songs — is his homage to the legendary U.K. ska label 2 Tone Records. Filled with references to such bands as the Specials, the song finds Leo lamenting ska’s waning popularity and the dearth of modern acts writing about social issues the way the 2 Tone groups did.
‘Ballad of the Sin Eater’
‘Ballad of the Sin Eater’ was released in 2003, a time when international hostility towards the United States was at an all-time high, due to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many American tourists went so far as to wear regalia from Canada when traveling abroad. This song traces an American traveler through some unfriendly locales. It’s a brilliant condemnation of the ugly American.
‘The Unwanted Things’
Toward the end of Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s life, his solo music started drifting towards a brilliant combination of rock and reggae, a sound he’d always loved. On ‘Unwanted Things,’ Leo seems to be channeling his inner Strummer. The song is a bit out of place on the album and in Leo’s catalog, but it somehow fits.
‘Counting Down the Hours’
Speaking of Joe Strummer, Leo makes a subtle reference to the punk icon in ‘Counting Down the Hours’ when he says he “asks our Mr. Mellor how to get to where one’s going.” Strummer, who was born John Mellor, was a noted anti-war crusader, and this protest song pays tribute to him and his philosophy of peace.
‘Me and Mia’
One of Leo’s most commercially successful songs, ‘Me and Mia’ follows characters named Mia and Anna and is said to be about dealing with bulimia and anorexia. Hence, buli(mia) and (ann)orexia.
‘The Sword in the Stone’
Right around the time Leo released his 2003 album ‘Hearts of Oak,’ he put out a fun little EP called ‘Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead,’ which featured mostly solo material, including covers of songs by the Pogues, the Jam and Split Enz. It also included No. 5 on our list of the Best Ted Leo Songs: ‘The Sword in the Stone.’ It proves Leo doesn’t always need to show off his lyrical prowess to get his point across. Sometimes, he can be blunt, as he is here with lines like “I’m not impressed with your desire to be the biggest in the bowl / You’ll still just be a little s— in a world that’s just a big s—hole.”
‘Sons of Cain’
As far as album openers go, it doesn’t get much better than ‘Sons of Cain.’ The song starts on a frantically energetic note that continues until it’s broken up at the song’s midpoint by a jarring slam on a piano. Later, Leo ends with a primal scream, the likes of which he hadn’t unleashed since his work in the late-’80s thrash-punk band Citizen’s Arrest.
Ted Leo once made a career decision he likely regrets. He recorded a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone.’ He may have given it way more diligence than the song merits, because years later, he’s still getting requests for it shouted at him from 16-year-old girls in the crowd. Those young fans should delve deeper into Leo’s discography. Maybe not as far back as his work in the band Chisel, but certainly to classics like ‘Dial Up.’
‘Parallel or Together?’
‘The Tyranny of Distance,’ Ted Leo’s debut album with the Pharmacists, recently turned a decade old. In that time, it has not aged a single day. One of the most distinguishing elements of the album — arguably Leo’s finest — is the 1-2 punch it packs right at the outset. The album starts with the slow windup of ‘Biomusicology,’ a perfect introductory song for track No. 2, ‘Parallel or Together.’ The song centers on that moment in every failing relationship when the decision must be made to cut your losses and call it a day.
Ted Leo is a crafty one. The man is basically incapable of writing a non-catchy song. But sometimes, you get so lost in the toe-tapping, you forget that behind the upbeat riffs, there lies deep substance. Leo has likened this, No. 1 on our list of the Best Ted Leo Songs, to an Irish wake. (Leo is half Irish.) It focuses on three friends who have died, among them a woman named Timory Hyde, a Pharmacists fan who fell out of a third-story window on her 23rd birthday. The band OK Go also wrote a song, ‘Return,’ about her.