Ben Folds Five

Where’s Summer B.?Ben Folds Five
Alice ChildressBen Folds Five
VideoBen Folds Five
FairWhatever And Ever Amen
SmokeWhatever And Ever Amen
EmalineNaked Baby Photos
MessThe Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
MagicThe Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
The Sound Of
The Life Of The Mind
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Draw A CrowdThe Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

Ben Folds Five photo 1
(l-r) Robert Sledge, Darren Jessee, Ben Folds – photo Marina Chavez (1997)



Ben Folds Five playlist


Ben Folds Five picture 1


Contributor: Nicola Tyzack

Ben Folds Five picture 4

One day not too long ago, I posted a picture on Twitter (I still refuse to call it X, sorry) of a CD I was listening to while I was working. I do that quite often to be fair, but this time I was excited by the amount of folks who commented that they loved the album in question. This got me thinking and I decided to run my ‘Ultimate Setlist’ activity on the band in question.

This was also met with lots of enthusiasm, so I put my hat in the ring to write this top ten on the band before I could change my mind and back out. And then to make matters worse, I pitched in to write another top ten on the solo work of the lead singer of the band, you know, just for a laugh as I’m an idiot and I like to give myself something to do (that one will be following on here soon). But now as I type this intro, I realise what a big task this is and I must admit that I am unsure if I can do it justice. Why? Because picking two top tens out of a massive back catalogue is hard enough, but to add insult to injury, the lead singer is someone I am a massive fan of (you can read this as a long-time crush if you like, I don’t hide my feelings) so I don’t want to mess this up and look like a pillock.

So, look back to 1995 if you can. Britpop was knocking around, there was also a rise in what I call ‘Americana’ soft rock type bands going on and, in amongst it all, was a trio of men who were about to bring piano rock back into the mainstream. And all without a guitar in sight. With leanings towards the stylings of the 70s (but not enough so you’d recognise it – you were made to think that this was something completely new), this band decided that piano, bass and drums were all that was needed. They would go on to become the kings of nerd rock with their sensitive, but sometimes sweary, tunes. I am of course talking about Ben Folds Five. And yes, the name makes absolutely no sense as there are three of them which is actually the point.

Now, this may be a good time to state that the tracks I have chosen for this article are the ones that I love and hope will inspire people to have a bit of a listen to the band. Whenever I write a top ten piece, I never usually include the tracks that are the well-known ones as the whole point of writing this is to dig a lot deeper and showcase ‘the other stuff’ that may be buried on an album or was a B-side to a single. These are simply some of the songs that I have personally found something in and want to share with you.

I’d also like to add, while we’re just chatting, that I do not consider myself to be anything of an expert on either Ben Folds or Ben Folds Five. I read a lot online in the forums and groups and there are clearly plenty of other people out there who know a hell of a lot more than I do about the music. I just decided back when I was a teenager to be a fan and I make no apologies for it. My writing is always of a personal nature and this music has had a big impact on my life and continues to do so now. I make no apologies for being sentimental either. Right then, now we’ve cleared that up, let’s go.

Ben Folds (piano), Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums) met in North Carolina in 1993 and formed a band. Ben had been trying to further his music career but was getting nowhere fast, so he decided to return to his home turf and start a band to take on the world. North Carolina had a great music scene going on and he had a real feeling that this was where he needed to be to achieve his dream of getting into the music business. He found Robert and Darren and the rest, as they say, is history.


Ben Folds Five picture 2

Their debut album Ben Folds Five was released in 1995 and this was the album I tweeted about that got all this started. Back in ’95, I was 18-years-old and when I heard the sound of delicate piano supported by aggressive bass and noisy drums alongside wonderful harmonies it was like nothing that I had heard at that time before. I used to play piano (badly, I have to say) but I have always thought of it as a somewhat polite and beautiful instrument. But not anymore. Hearing it have the s**t knocked out of it along to questionable lyrics meant a kind of rewiring needed to happen in my head. Punk rock was here folks and it played piano and looked like a nerd. And I absolutely loved it.

The debut was a starting point for us other nerds to find a set of heroes who understood life, love and what it was all about through songs that had both classical elements alongside loud distorted bass. I mean, where else were you hearing part of the piano from Rhapsody In Blue in a rock song at that time? But it was also fun sometimes too and had a lot of humour going on. Usually, musicians aren’t meant to be comedians, but there has always been a thread of sarcasm running through BFF and I think we kind of got that here in the UK. Ben once described their music as “punk for sissies” and I guess that’s not a bad way to put it. This album didn’t actually bother the charts too much, though, which was a real shame as it’s an extremely clever and brilliant record, but those of us in the know were totally hooked into the band from then on.

My first pick from that first album is Where’s Summer B.? which was one of the singles released in 1995. Now, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t usually include singles, but this one is an upbeat song which always gets me joining in, and I know from online chatter about the album that it’s a favourite with lots of other folks too. The bassline is fab, the piano is classy and the ‘oohs’ and the ‘aahs’ are a great singalong piece of the track with a nice unfolding story – Hey, that’s Darren’s girlfriend!. Plus, I happen to have the 7-inch numbered vinyl of this one in my collection (number 1911 if you’re interested).

Next up from the same album is the track Alice Childress. This one was my first definite inclusion for this top ten mainly due to the intricacies of the song and the overall way it’s put together. I can’t really explain what it is about this track, but when I listen to it I find it to be so well-constructed that it almost makes me shed a tear, especially the lines – Thank god it’s you / you know, your timing is impeccable / I’m not fooling you / I don’t know what to do. I try to sing along with the harmonies and only get so far as my voice isn’t really up to it in places. It’s just stunning in my opinion.

Finally, from the first album, is the track Video. And once again this is simply because it’s so well-crafted and is such a very sad, but very beautiful song that I had to include it. The piano is the star in this one as it moves through the track quietly, then loudly alongside the drums and bass, that you feel yourself moving in motion along with the tempo as the song progresses. I believe it’s about how people change as they grow older and when you look back you realise how different things now are. I usually tend to choose songs on how they make me feel, and this one just hits all the markers for me. But that’s gone / we don’t think that way no more / that’s gone, turn around, turn the volume down / we’re counting the days down…

To be fair I could have chosen a few more tracks from Ben Folds Five including The Last Polka as the journey you go through with that track is also worth mentioning. Just wow.

Ben Folds Five released their second album, Whatever And Ever Amen, in 1997 and this one managed to gain them a lot more attention and higher charting positions on release. Probably due to the fact it was a little bit more ‘pop’ and also because of the extensive airplay of singles like Battle Of Who Could Care Less and the band’s biggest hit Brick. I have purposefully not included either of these tracks in my list, mainly because I am awkward, but also because this album has so much more within it on top of those songs that it was difficult to pick what to include. I changed my mind about five times and am still not totally convinced. This album is also cited as the band’s finest work by various people and I’m guessing it’s because it was more accessible to listeners. Five singles were released and I reckon this one cemented them into the charts and the public eye a bit more.


Ben Folds Five picture 3

I went to see Ben Folds Five play at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 1997 as part of the tour for this album. I don’t really have too much recollection of the setlist to be honest, but I do remember that I took two of my girl mates with me and it was their first ever gig. I may not have much of a memory of what the band played, but I think I did a great thing by introducing some friends to this particular group as their first musical experience.

My first choice from Whatever And Ever Amen is the track Fair, literally because there is so much going on with this song that I don’t know where to begin. The rhythm, the harmonies, the lyrics, the pace, the story, that funky bit towards the end that sounds like it’s coming straight out of the 70s, the piano, the bass – it’s all there. I very nearly didn’t include this track, but when I played the album back for the umpteenth time to debate it, I knew I couldn’t leave it out as it’s just too damn good. Especially with lines like Every couple nights or so / you know you pop into my dreams / I just can’t get rid of you / like you got rid of me… Amazing.


Next, I have chosen the song Smoke. Basing it on feeling and also looking at the technicality of the music again, this one is simply perfection. It’s hauntingly beautiful but so deep and sad that it leaves you feeling a bit breathless at the end of it (no pun intended). The slow burn of the end of a relationship right there in a delicate 5-minute song. I don’t purposefully pick the sad songs by the way, but I think I have more of a connection to the ones that push the emotion and hit you in the gut.

Other standout tracks on this album for me are Missing The War and Evaporated.

1998 saw the release of a compilation album featuring rarities, outtakes and live tracks from the first two albums. This was called Naked Baby Photos and has some ridiculous tracks on it that always make me laugh as well as some pieces of pure brilliance. The standout is my next choice, Emaline; a little piece of power pop that definitely deserves a listen.

Studio album three arrived in 1999 and it was something of a departure from the previous work. The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner didn’t sound like anything the band had produced before as it was influenced more by chamber and classical music rather than the poppy rock sounds that we were used to. It was also darker in subject matter and lyrics and generally a bit more melancholy. It has a greater maturity to it. This change in direction was something that perhaps Ben especially wanted to do as his later solo work is often in this style. In interviews, he does say that this is his favourite BFF album, but that it was also partially to blame for the break-up of the band which would happen the following year. Unfortunately, Reinhold Messner wasn’t a commercial success either and I must admit that I never fully warmed to it at the time. It has taken me a while to engage with it and understand what they were trying to achieve with this style of record. I’ve talked to other fans who tell me this is in fact their favourite of all the BFF albums and that the flow and storytelling alone is worth the listen. With that in mind I have delved in and chosen two tracks to include in this top ten that I believe are the best – Mess and Magic.


After the break-up in 2000, all three members of the band dispersed and at various points released either solo work or formed other bands. Ben has probably been the most visible of the three with his many avenues of work, but both Darren and Robert have also continued to create and release music. Ben Folds Five reunited for a one-off concert in 2008 and then again in 2011 when they worked on three new songs for Ben’s retrospective album The Best Imitation Of Myself. Some other live appearances took place before they properly joined forces again to release their fourth and final studio album in 2012.

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is probably (if I am pushed to choose and depending on the day of the week) my favourite of all the Ben Folds Five albums as it resonates with me completely. I can play it end to end without skipping tracks and then start it all over again. To come back and produce something this good after over a decade apart is an achievement in itself and this album is pretty flawless in my opinion. It’s a lot more grown-up and has a lot of real beauty in it as well as the loud, raw sound we heard at the very beginning of their formation. It does follow the direction of its predecessor with echoes of a classical style and more ballads, but then there are also enough punchy tracks here as well to make even the most serious person smile. Plus, the video for the single release of Do It Anyway features Fraggle Rock. I mean, what’s not to like?

So, once again, I had a hard time picking tracks from this one. I could have chosen them all for different reasons but I ended up with just two. The first being the title track from the album – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. Why? Just because it’s epic. It has a lot of depth and takes you on something of a journey throughout the song which I think is always a good thing and it certainly makes me feel something while I am listening to it.

My final choice is Draw A Crowd. I absolutely love this song, turn it up full blast whenever I am listening to it and sing along as loudly as I can. I think perhaps the chorus of Oh oh, if you’re feeling small / and you can’t draw a crowd / draw dicks on the wall speaks to me on a level which says more about me than about the song, but I don’t care. It’s loud, it’s fun and it reminds me of why I love this band so much. They are not afraid to be a bit ridiculous in the same space as being unbelievably poetic and I cannot fault that.


When I read comments from fans about what Ben Folds Five means to them, the common threads that run through it are things like “this band forms a big part of my timeline” or “their songs helped me through tough times in my life” et cetera. They seemed to be there for a lot of us when we needed something to hold on to and get us through low periods and times of angst. The fact that I can pick up that debut album now, know every lyric from every song and still feel like it’s brand new, shows that it has stood the test of time. I don’t ever get bored of hearing these songs either and have often found new things within them to appreciate and enjoy. I really cannot express how much I love these three extremely talented individuals and the music that they have created over the years and how much it means to me. I can only hope that this small starter for ten will bring something new to you and that perhaps you will end up enjoying the music as much as I do.

My final confession to end this piece is that I cannot help but sing parts of all the songs in my poor imitation of an American Southern accent (not in my own Southern UK accent as that would be horrendous) as, clearly, I would like nothing more than to be Ben Folds. But hey, let’s just keep that between you and me.



Ben Folds Five photo 2
Ben Folds Five (l-r) Robert Sledge, Ben Folds, Darren Jessee – press photo Autumn de Wilde (2012)


Ben Folds official website

“A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons” – Ben Folds (Simon & Schuster 2019)

The Suburbs: Ben Folds fansite

Robert Sledge (Wikipedia)

Hotel Lights: Darren Jessee’s band’s website

Ben Folds Five biography (AllMusic)

After writing for other sites for a while, Nicola decided to give it a go on her own and now runs Sounds Familiar sharing articles, interviews and reviews on the music she loves. You can follow Nicola on twitter @call_me_cynical and @soundsfamiliarb

Nicola’s earlier posts for this site include The Bluetones, Phil Collins, Crowded House, Neil Finn, Turin Brakes

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1 Comment

  1. Andy Harland
    Mar 9, 2024

    This is a great article written on a really difficult subject. How to pull together a top 10 from a group with such a delightful array of beautiful pop songs. I’ve been inspired to curate my own BFF top five playlist and I recommend you have a go as well!

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