Too often the accordion is relegated to the niche instrument category. Given its instant recognisability, it has a tendency to be filed away in the “ambient sounds of Paris” category of our collective subconscious.
There is, of course, more to this challenging instrument. Designed to offer the breadth of musical functions, including melodies, drones and harmonies, the accordion is a powerful tool to incorporate in any song. Let’s dive into a list of 10 that do it better than most.
The accordion has a sound that’s instantly recognisable – a fact that can make it easy to pigeonhole. But here are 10 songs that do this complex and sophisticated instrument justice.
Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads
It only makes sense that the ever-curious David Byrne-fronted Talking Heads would heartily embrace the accordion. Coming from the band’s 1985 record Little Creatures, the accordion makes its mark here rhythmically and melodically on Road to Nowhere.
The ska-like rhythm of the accordion slots in among the military drive of the snare, as well as playing miniature melodic motifs in the instrumental sections and occasionally breaks into lush pads. If any songs wrings maximum musical interest out of the accordion, it’s this one.
Constant Craving – K.D. Lang
This song was K.D. Lang‘s smash hit, famously elevating the Canadian’s voice to a worldwide audience. As a bona fide pop track, the vocal is, of course, front and centre. The accordion plays a massive role.
Despite being overshadowed by the powerhouse vocal performance, the accordion weaves in an out of Lang’s phrases with finesse, carving its own compelling melodic path throughout the song.
Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon
In the mid-’80s Paul Simon took a musical tour through South Africa, resulting in his definitive artistic statement, Graceland. The opening salvo was Boy in the Bubble featuring the unique accordion stylings of Forere Motloheloa.
The rhythmic rub between the angular accordion and the smooth shuffle of the drums and reverberant vocals of Simon shouldn’t work on paper, but it sure does.
A Pair of Brown Eyes – The Pogues
With the Irish folk stylings of The Pogues we’re on safer accordion territory. This kind of tempo and metre seems made for this particular sound, but that doesn’t make it any less alluring.
It finds a perfect home among other folk staples like the tin whistle and banjo, filling in the arrangement’s mid-range with rich harmony and lush texture.
4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) – Bruce Springsteen
In this immortal example from Bruce Springsteen, the accordion plays an unconventional role. This sprawling song is heavy with lyrical content, yet the accordionist Danny Federici manages to pull off a masterclass in busy rhythms and melodic gymnastics amid the dense arrangement.
Most impressive of all is the instrument’s ability to inject extra emotion into the song. It’s subdued when the vocals take over and springs into life in between The Boss’ phrases.
When I Paint My Masterpiece – The Band
Canadian-American Folk-rock legends The Band were famous for incorporating all kinds of strange tones into their music. Their freewheeling style never compromised the chops of this all-star ensemble and in When I Paint My Masterpiece, the accordion shone.
Garth Hudson was a master of many keyboard and woodwind instruments and perhaps it was this intimate knowledge of breath and keyboard skills that met its apex on the accordion.
Scenic World – Beirut
The brainchild of Zach Condon, Beirut has always incorporated a broad swathe of cultural influences in its music. The accordion finds a home in Scenic World among a selection of other typically non-rock ‘n’ roll sounds, especially trumpet.
The use of accordion here isn’t excessive, though it plays a concise melodic role alongside the trumpet, blending together to concoct a phasey, breathy and altogether otherworldly tone.
Neighborhood #2 (Laika) – Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire didn’t so much emerge as explode onto the world stage. Their debut album, Funeral, displayed the band’s eclectic roots on its sleeve, with the accordion stylings of Régine Chassagne at the fore.
The simple motif that punctuates Neighborhood #2 (Laika) was the world’s introduction to the riff mastery of the band. It’s a gentle tone, but given its distorted rock context, it carries a great deal of menace and foreboding.
Back Street Girl – The Rolling Stones
The Stones have a reputation for being one of the hardest rocking bands in history, filling stadiums with their anthemic tunes, built on the back of immortal guitar riffs. On Back Street Girl, however, the band explores their gentle side.
This singalong waltz makes a hero of the accordion, which fills the production with warmth, making this very rock ‘n’ roll band sound positively folky. It was the ’60s after all.
I’m Shipping Up to Boston – Dropkick Murphys
In the same tradition of The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys lean heavily on their Celtic roots in their brand of hard-hitting rock. If you ever thought the accordion wasn’t capable of dishing up some serious attitude, this track is here to prove you wrong.
This is accordion for the big stage. It’s an accordion anthem. It’s accordion that you can have a barfight to. Interestingly, there’s no alternative treatment of the instrument, but within the context of this song, this “folk” instrument is utterly transformed.