Joe Jackson

Got The TimeLook Sharp! (1979)
It's Different For GirlsI’m The Man (1979)
A Slow SongNight And Day (1982)
Heart Of IceBody And Soul (1984)
Evil EmpireBlaze Of Glory (1989)
Only The FutureNight Music (1994)
Hell Of A TownNight And Day II (2000)
Invisible ManRain (2008)
The Blue TimeFast Forward (2015)
Fabulously AbsoluteFool (2019)

Joe Jackson photo 1
(‘Look Sharp’ back cover photo by Brian Griffin)



Joe Jackson playlist


Contributor: Rob Jones

The old standby when talking about Joe Jackson is that he came in a pack of three with his contemporaries Graham Parker and Elvis Costello; the angry young men triumvirate of the new wave era, sneering their ways onto the pop charts in the late 1970s. Yet even from the start, Joe Jackson showed himself to be a sophisticated musician from his era-defining hit Is She Really Going Out With Him? and beyond. He was always a singular musician with a career trajectory of his own.

Jackson fostered and retained an incredibly broad range of musical interest, compositional vocabulary, and instrumental capability to serve him as the music scenes shifted. When they did, he was able to score on the charts while always keeping his hand in a variety of styles and approaches to go beyond what those charts demanded. To illustrate this in the classic Toppermost tradition, here’s a selected list of ten songs that demonstrate that very thing, across nothing less than a forty plus career as a musician.


If there’s one thing Joe Jackson and his band understood about what was happening on the punk and post-punk scenes of the late Seventies, it was the energy quotient. Got The Time is a sterling example, with a frenzied rush of guitars, bass, drums, and Jackson’s breathless vocal, capturing the cadence of a hectic modern life. Thrash metal band Anthrax covered it with aplomb in 1990. Yet, Jackson’s own original version carries just as much crunch and verve.


A top five single in the UK, It’s Different For Girls touches on a theme that Jackson would explore later on other songs; communication breakdowns between lovers. Jackson’s rare sensitivity subverts the rules of the macho rock singer or the angry punk in a wistful one-act play full of Sixties girl group references and Steely Dan-like changes. Here, Jackson examines love’s complexities in a manner not usually heard in a radio-friendly hit, while also subverting our expectations about gender, too.


Moving to New York City by the early 1980s allowed Jackson a personal and artistic reset to craft a new sound comprised of more intricate, sonically diverse arrangements. Accompanying hit songs like Steppin’ Out and Breaking Us In Two, A Slow Song is a slow burn track featuring one of his most impassioned vocal performances. It’s a languid piano ballad about longing to be with the right person accompanied by the right song at the end of an uneasy day.


While aiming for the pop charts, Joe Jackson continued as a curious musician and artist very much interested in being a composer, not just a songwriter. This led to scoring films. But Jackson also introduced his audience to cinematic musical aesthetics on his pop albums. Heart Of Ice is a modern classical music piece that incorporates jazz and anthemic pop in a sonic smorgasbord of woodwinds, insistent hi-hat, brass, organ, and sparkling piano, bringing Jackson’s musical worlds together.


Joe Jackson’s voice telegraphs his acerbic musical signature on Evil Empire; a missive about a country (guess which one) whose concerted rhetoric seeks to cover a multitude of sins. Its chord changes are unexpected yet familiar in this acoustic guitar-driven XTC-like melody. Jackson ties it up by saying his song won’t change anything on its own, but is another blow from an artist who knows the purpose of art in highly fraught eras; to speak the truth out loud.


By 1994, listeners found Jackson continuing to blur seemingly disparate stylistic lines as he’d done for over a decade by then, defying the usual compartments by which music is categorised and marketed. Only The Future is a lushly crafted slice of orchestra-sized pop suspended in well-balanced tension. Building slowly from the ground up, the song examines the sinking feeling that things are about to get much worse while set to music that suggests the exact opposite.


Undercutting expectations again from a guy hell-bent on never repeating himself, Hell Of A Town returns to his Salsa-inspired jazz-pop approach of the early Eighties. It’s also a reflection of Joe Jackson’s complex relationship with New York, with the phrase hell of a town becoming a double-entendre. Polyrhythms from original Night And Day percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos remain a sturdy and life-affirming foil to Jackson’s own moody voice and piano on this song brimming with vital, nocturnal energy.


Matching sophisticated rock-pop with the dynamics of a jazz trio, Invisible Man stands as a stark rumination on being famous. Ramping up the pathos, this is one of the greatest examples in Jackson’s catalogue of that element. Jackson distinguishes himself with an affecting, sorrowful falsetto against his rainy-day piano while drummer Dave Houghton locks in with stalwart bassist Graham Maby’s melodic low-end lines. Together, they demonstrate chops in a song that requires the full extent of their deftness and versatility.


The Blue Time finds Joe Jackson examining the theme of transitions, and of leaving eras and people behind. Musically stately with big piano chords, electric guitar adding melancholic asides, the tune is set to a tango-like rhythm and pulse. This is an exquisitely wrought jazzy lament in shades of blue and indigo, supplemented by a keening trumpet to provide bright contrast. Jackson’s voice is a desolate croon that conveys the happy-sadness of the song’s complex emotional landscapes.


Over the years, Joe Jackson didn’t forget about high energy rock music. Fabulously Absolute is a kind of progressive punk rock song, if that’s a thing. It’s carried by crunchy guitar/bass/drums, but with an ELP-style synth line to keep listeners on our toes. Even in a song that’s as sneery and ironic as can be on the subject of how an easily-led public seals their own doom, there’s so much fun to be had as Jackson spits out his sarcasm like an angry young man of old.


Coming out of the London new wave scene at the end of the 1970s, Joe Jackson embarked on a unique journey of his own to be compared to no other artist. Across several albums, he expanded on his established pop-rock sound by incorporating jazz, classical composition, show tunes, and Latin music, just to name a few genres. All the while, Jackson largely ignored trends and stayed true to his artistic voice as scenes and eras shifted.

Jackson’s musical curiosity, sense of adventure, and artistic risk led the way at each point. There are many examples of his incredible range as a musician and songwriter. These ten songs only scratch the surface of a unique career that showed listeners how wide a range pop music itself has to offer us. This is inclusive of the top ten singles you’ve heard on the radio, and also of the lushest instrumental pieces you haven’t.



Joe Jackson poster
Mr. Joe Jackson presents “The Two Rounds Of Racket Tour” – US Summer 2024 tour (additional dates TBC including Europe) – featuring Joe Jackson Solo Set & The Music of forgotten Music Hall genius Max Champion with a nine-piece band


Joe Jackson official website

The Joe Jackson Archive fansite

Joe Jackson Discography
21 studio & soundtrack albums + over 50 singles to date

“A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage”
Joe Jackson – Da Capo Press – 2000

Joe Jackson biography (AllMusic)

Rob Jones is a music writer and blogger born in Toronto. After living in London, England for a time, he now lives in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia with his partner and their many houseplants. As a child, he followed the familiar path of falling in love with The Beatles and with AM radio hits in the 1970s and into the 1980s. He came into his own as a music fan during the new wave era, then embracing all manner of music into adulthood from 1930s country blues to Big Beat techno, while always feeling at home with indie-rock and singer-songwriter folk as his sonic homebase. He is the primary author and Editor-in-Chief of the music blog The Delete Bin. He has previously written about Martha and the Muffins and Ron Sexsmith on Toppermost.

TopperPost #1,099


  1. David Lewis
    Jan 23, 2024

    What a great Toppermost on an artist who has always intrigued me. If I plump for Real Men it’s because it’s a song that has (deliberately?) perplexed me since I first heard it on its release. But what I’d replace it with I couldn’t pick.

    • Rob
      Jan 23, 2024

      “Real Men” is a head-scratcher, alright. From what I know, it was Jackson’s initial questions about his own sexuality and how that matches up, or doesn’t, with how masculinity plays into all that. It’s always been a kind of internal monologue song to me. And like most internal monologues, it wanders a bit. That’s a part of its realness.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 23, 2024

    Thanks for this great piece Rob on a very underrated songwriter. Lost touch with his music after ‘Night and Day’ – which is by far my favourite album of his – so this piece lets me explore what I have been missing. Thanks again.

    • Rob
      Jan 24, 2024

      You are very welcome, Andrew! It was a fun piece to write, and a great way for me to revisit his body of work again.
      There’s a couple of tunes that missed the list, because I restricted myself to ten. One is “Home Town”, which appeared on the Big World album which he then re-arranged for 2000’s Summer in the City: Live in New York. He turns it into a truly poignant solo piano piece about his unromantic home town that he loves anyway. Check that out if you haven’t heard it.
      Another is “Sea of Secrets” from 1994’s Night Music which is as atmospheric and wistful and with lyrics as raw as any you’re likely to hear from any song in his catalogue. Happy listening, and thanks for comments!

  3. Jon J
    Jan 24, 2024

    That you can (mention but) not pick “Is She Really…” (neat rule circumvention there!) is
    a) a brave move and
    b) commentary on the breadth of quality material available

    • Rob
      Jan 24, 2024

      Yeah, Jon. On the surface it looks like a bolshy move, doesn’t it? With so much ground to cover, I thought I’d lean into some of his lesser-known songs that also communicate his range as a writer and arranger across the decades and in light of changes to the musical landscape.
      I also missed “You Can’t Get What You Want Till You Know What You Want” from *Body and Soul*, which was a sizeable hit in Canada at least, and like nothing else that was on the radio in 1984. See? I’ve snuck that song into this, too!
      Thanks for reading, and for comments!

  4. Glenn Smith
    Feb 4, 2024

    Nice work Rob, a fascinating and eclectic list by a true fan. You got me thinking about my own Joe moments and I’d plump for Cancer from Night and Day, superb track and very prescient lyrics, vaginal candles anyone? I’m a sucker for Jumpin Jive, now I know he was desperately trying to get away from the post punk skinny tied songwriter thingy and it might appear to be a bit naff, but man it is fun. Jack You’re Dead! is an absolute knock out. Now to Mike’s Murder, Memphis as a track is a straight lift from Stepping Out but lyrically is works so much better, great song. Ditto Moonlight and Moonlight Theme, easily one of his most beautiful melodies. Great list Rob, thanks for the listen and thoughts provoked.

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