Feature: THE 50 GREATEST SONGS BY BURT BACHARACH

Rest in Peace, Mr. Bacharach (1928-2023)

By: Feb. 12, 2023
Feature: THE 50 GREATEST SONGS BY BURT BACHARACH

I revere the late great Burt Bacharach so much that he's in the pantheon of composers of the past half century, up there with the likes of Lennon-McCartney, Stephen Sondheim and Brian Wilson. His music may be the most listenable of all time. Remember when Neil Sedaka used the term "ear-delicious" to describe contestant Kimberley Locke on American Idol; well, that's the perfect definition of Bacharach's sound: "Ear-delicious." His music could be soothing but sad, yearning but hopeful, heartfelt and soulful, breezy and torchy, down but optimistic, and always so much fun to listen to. He had many great collaborators, but none that made him shine brighter than Hal David; it's no accident that the top twelve songs on this list are all Bacharach-David compositions.

Mr. Bacharach passed away this past week at age 94. I first heard of him, not from his flurry of Sixties classics that held the Billboard charts hostage for years, but from a single TV commercial: "Say yes...Say yes...to Martini and Rossi on the rocks...Say Yes!" (Anyone fifty and over probably just sang along with that jingle.) Sitting at the piano as his then-wife, Angie Dickinson, offers him a Martini and Rossi, salt-and-pepper-haired Bacharach looks so elegant in the commercial, like a turtle-necked piano player in a heavenly lounge. Little did I know then that he was a genius of a composer whose music sounds deceptively light on first listen but actually subverts his pop stylings with unusual time signatures and complex harmonies.

So many artists and groups sounded the best with Bacharach's music, including The Fifth Dimension, Luther Vandross, Dusty Springfield, the Carpenters, Herb Alpert and a host of others. But none played his muse better than Dionne Warwick, who can be found peppered all over this list. She brought that velvety, torchy soul to his songs, sometimes singing of optimism ("That's What Friends Are For") but also of so much sorrow ("Walk on By") and surrender ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"). She rightfully became synonymous with the Bacharach sound.

But what is the Bacharach sound? First of all, when you hear his music, you know it's him. Accept no substitutes. In his songs you'll usually find a horn-fueled bounciness, fab vocals and harmonies, hitting any genre he wanted--pop, jazz, rock, show tunes, easy listening, R&B, lounge, and even country/western and, yes, proto-punk. Attention must be paid to any composer who can boast interpretations by Perry Como and Love, the Carpenters and Chaka Khan. "Pacific Coast Highway" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance" may be completely different songs and genres, but there's no mistaking that they both were created by the same lovely genius.

He tackled movie themes (from Alfie to Casino Royale), musicals (Promises, Promises), and invaded the pop charts for many years. Listening to his canon, I find it surprising how deep and sometimes secretely religious, or at least prayerful, some of his key songs became.

Brian Wilson, who also gifted us with an infectious melody or two, once called music "God's voice." And that's what I think about when I hear Bacharach's compositions. He may have shucked this mortal coil at a ripe old age, but he left us with his heart-melting oeuvre--if nothing else they offer a glimpse of heaven, with music both so simple and complex that it can become a religious experience. God's voice can be found with many artists, but none lovelier than the gorgeous works of Mr. Bacharach.

Below is my list of Mr. Bacharach's 50 greatest songs, from #50 counting down to #1. After each entry, you'll notice I added what I believed would be the "Preferred Version" of the song, the one I recommend most. Feel free to disagree and argue over what's in and what's been left out, but know a list like this is created from a place of love...my love, respect and gratitude to the great Burt Bacharach. May he rest in peace, and may you enjoy his music for eternity.

THE FIFTY GREATEST Burt Bacharach SONGS...

50. LOVE POWER [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager]

Dionne Warwick is going to be found all over this list, and here she is at #50, her last Billboard Top-100 hit where it peaked at #12. Bacharach really gets the soul vibe moving with this joyous anthem to the one thing that world needs now. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick with Jeffery Osborne.

49. MAGIC MOMENTS [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

One of the earliest collaborations between Bacharach and David (1957). You'll notice a lot of whistling in Bacharach's works, used here to perfection. Will get stuck in your head, no matter if you want it to or not, something we can say about nearly all of the songs on this list. Preferred Version: Perry Como

48. THE BELL THAT COULDN'T JINGLE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Larry Kusik]

Christmas is the perfect season for a Bacharach tune, even one about a lonely bell that couldn't ring-a-ling, another Christmas misfit along with the likes of Rudolph and Charlie Brown. As sweet as sweet can be. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach.

47. MONEY [Music by Burt Bacharach]

I dare you to feel depressed while listening to this, the poppy, vibrant theme music to the 1981 comedy, Arthur. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach

46. TWENTY-FOUR HOURS FROM TULSA [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Many of the Bacharach-David songs deal with extra-marital affairs, like this one, about a salesman who finds love twenty-four hours away from his wife, never to go home to her again. It's told from the adulterer's viewpoint, and not the abandoned wife (the broken-hearted crooners will have their say later in the chart). The music tells the story as much as the straight-forward lyrics, especially in its tonal ambiguity that Bacharach trademarked so well. Preferred Version: Gene Pitney.

45. STRONGER THAN BEFORE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager]

Title song from Sager's 1981 album that, due to their collaboration here, would eventually lead to Bacharach marrying the talented songwriter. Sayer's version is fine, but it just can't compete with the soulful joy of Chaka Khan's 1984 interpretation. Preferred Version: Chaka Khan.

44. WAITING FOR CHARLIE TO COME HOME [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Bob Hilliard]

Early Bacharach torch song that produced an answer song from ZZ Ward: "Charlie Ain't Home." Preferred Version: Etta James.

43. ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Of all of the lesser-known Bacharach tunes, this one (from 1971) is the one that captures his patented sound the most. The music is upbeat, trumpeting with a positive message of bringing groups of individuals together; far more inspirational than "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," released the same year. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach

42. COME TOUCH THE SUN [Music by Burt Bacharach]

Better known as the instrumental theme to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's quite melancholic, capturing the lost West much better than Max Steiner's theme to a forgotten time and place in John Ford's The Searchers. If "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" seemed too peppy for the hip Western movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, then this balanced it out with a sort of beauteous agony, a West and its anti-heroes that literally get shot into the past. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach

41. PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY [Music by Burt Bacharach]

You don't need to drive down the PCH with the convertible top down; just listen to this instead. One of the great easy listening California themes. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach

40. THE VENERABLE SIR JAMES BOND [Music by Burt Bacharach]

I know, it doesn't sound like it belongs to any James Bond 007 movie, even a spoof of one like the 1967 Casino Royale was. But it's so damned listenable with a surfeit of feel-good vibes Everyone I play this for fall in love with it immeditely. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach

39. TURKEY LURKEY TIME [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Shame on you if you think this number from the Broadway musical Promises, Promises is a Thanksgiving song; it's Christmas all the way, complete with a gospel choir of jingle bells at the end. (In the show, three secretaries do the memorable Turkey Lurkey dance at an office Christmas party.) Preferred Version: Margo Sappington, Baayork Lee and Donna McKechnie from the Original Broadway Cast

38. TRAINS AND BOATS AND PLANES [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Gene Pitney was a great singer but not a great judge of music. When he first heard this song, he turned it down telling Bacharach and David that it wasn't one of their better numbers. But it's a haunting song, reminder of how trains and boats and planes can bring a lost love back to the lonely singer. Preferred Version: Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.

37. BLUE ON BLUE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Another great breakup song, about heartache to heartache and another narrator who can't get over their lost love. Perfect for the smooth blue velvet singer, Bobby Vinton, but don't miss Marc Almond's odd version either. Preferred Version: Bobby Vinton

36. ANY DAY NOW [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Bob Hilliard]

This isn't a breakup song, but one of a person paranoid that a breakup is soon coming and that he'll be left all alone. Preferred Version: Chuck Jackson

35. MESSAGE TO MICHAEL [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

In this, a message via bluebird is sent from a person in Kentucky to her musician beau (Michael) in New Orleans, begging him to return home. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick.

34. (THE MAN WHO SHOT) LIBERTY VALANCE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Proof Bacharach could write anything, even western music. The unused theme to John Ford's most underrated film, this doesn't appear in the movie but became a sizable hit for Gene Pitney. Preferred Version: Gene Pitney.

33. HEARTLIGHT [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager]

As sugary and cringey as it comes, but still mesmerizing. Also one of the sweetest songs about friendship ever written; it answers the question: How do you make a song about E.T. without referencing E.T. or extraterrestrials (we have to take the "ride across the moon" line as figurative)? Cash Box wasn't wrong when they labeled this as "ear candy." Preferred Version: Neil Diamond.

32. MAKING LOVE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts]

One of the first mainstream films that centered on a gay relationship, Making Love produced this scintillatingly forlorn lounge title song that is hauntingly quiet with an almost blushing intimacy. Preferred Version: Roberta Flack

31. MY LITTLE RED BOOK [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Bacharach and David ventured into the British Invasion rock scene when they wrote this and Manfred Mann performed it (but only hitting #124 on the pop charts). But the song lived on. It ventured into an entirely different direction when Love recorded its-proto-punk garage rock version, a territory you'll rarely find our beloved Bacharach lounging around. Preferred Version: Love.

30. ANYONE WHO HAD A HEART [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

This is where Burt's muse, Dionne, appears for the first time in the Top-10 of the American charts. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick.

29. ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK A HEART [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

This overwrought plea was the #2 song during the week that I was born in November 1962, kept out of the top position by the Crystal's "He's a Rebel." Gene Pitney's ultra-emotive take makes Johnnie Ray seem subtle by comparison. And there are those whistles again! Preferred Version: Gene Pitney.

28. DON'T MAKE ME OVER [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

With this, the perfectly blissful holy trinity of Bacharach-David-Warwick was officially born. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick.

27. BABY IT'S YOU [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Mack David]

Yes, the Beatles covered Bacharach with their rendition of this, and terrific as it is, it pales to the Shirelles' original sexy sha-la-la-la-la version written during the height of the Girl Group craze. Preferred Version: The Shirelles.

26. ALWAYS SOMETHING THERE TO REMIND ME [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Dionne Warwick and Sandie Shaw brought this to life in separate Sixties versions of the tune, but it was Naked Eyes who, in 1983, sprung Bacharach and David back in the Top-10 two decades later with an oldie but goodie given the Eighties synth-pop treatment (complete with what sounds like synthisized wedding bells). Preferred Version. Naked Eyes.

25. ON MY OWN [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager]

A Yacht Rocky duet about splitting up, and yet it would become a mega-hit when Michael McDonald and Patti LaBelle tackled it. A ubiquitous radio staple of '86. Preferred Version: Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald

24. GOD GIVE ME STRENGTH [Music and Lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello]

Such a beautiful song, written for the film Grace of My Heart, is so heartfelt, so meaningful and deep, that it inspired Costello and Bacharach to collaborate and create a full album together. Thus, Painted from Memory was born. Preferred Version: Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach

23. SOMETHING BIG [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

This is my latest go-to Bacharach track, the one I listen to when I feel lost and need a pick-me-up. It brings to mind Robert Browning's famous quote: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Listening to it, it gives me instant confidence, making me feel like a grain of sand that wants to be a rolling stone, as the lyrics suggest. I adore its gonna-fly-now-like poignancy, like a daydream gushed to life. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach.

22. WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Just to show you how ridiculous the Academy Awards Best Song category is, this future commercial jingle was nominated but lost to some forgotten filler called "The Shadow of Your Smile" from the awful Sandpipers. But nobody can forget this testosterone-fueled tune. The phrase "What's new Pussycat?" was reputedly inspired by Warren Beatty's pickup lines, and the Peter Sellers movie that inspired the song would be Woody Allen's first filmed screenplay (and acting debut). I still don't know the obsession with Pussycat's nose in the song. Preferred Version: Tom Jones.

21. CASINO ROYALE THEME [Music by Burt Bacharach]

So lively, so hyperactively bouncy, that it needs a major dose of Ritalin. Preferred Version: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

20. WISHIN' AND HOPIN' [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Sultry vocals with a cha-cha beat, the singer pleading that just thinking about something doesn't make it come true. Introduced the world to the splendors of Dusty Springfield. Preferred Version: Dusty Springfield.

19. PROMISES, PROMISES [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Rousing title tune to Bacharach's Broadway hit, pulsating and full of heated passion. Dionne Warwick had a hit with it, but her rendition is eclipsed by Jerry Orbach's blissfully bombastic work in the original show. Preferred Version: Jerry Orbach.

18. WIVES AND LOVERS [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Bacharach would go on to win six Grammy Awards, but he got his very first nomination with this, for Song of the Year. One of the great advice songs, even though the advice seems outdated and possibly sexist in today's world, especially calling the wife "little girl." Preferred Version: Jack Jones.

17. ARTHUR'S THEME (BEST THAT YOU CAN DO) [Music and Lyrics by Burt Bacharach, Christopher Cross, Carol Bayer Sager and Peter Allen]

Christopher Cross may be the central figure in this, his Academy Award winning song from the movie Arthur, but you can hear the deft affability of Bacharach in that relaxing music that automatically transports us to 1981. Preferred Version: Christopher Cross.

16. LIVING TOGETHER, GROWING TOGETHER [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

The Fifth Dimension brought such loungy loveliness to Bacharach's songs, and when it comes to songwriters, only Laura Nyro was more in-tuned with the quintet of champagne soul. This song is perhaps the only great thing to come out of the horrid movie musical, Lost Horizon, featuring a gaggle of Bacharach-David ditties. But this one rises above Lost Horizon bomb blast, a positive message that makes the listener pump up the volume if ever they're feeling low. Preferred Version: The Fifth Dimension.

15. THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager]

Originally from the movie Night Shift (with Rod Stewart singing the lead), this would later become the top song from 1986 (with Dionne and Friends at the helm) and a spirited feel-good anthem for those suffering from AIDS. It would also go on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick and Friends (Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight).

14. (THEY LONG TO BE) CLOSE TO YOU [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

The Carpenters were shuttled onto the pop music landscape with this lush ode, their second hit (and a major #1 on the pop charts, resting there for four weeks), perfect for Karen Carpenter's sweetly melancholic voice. Again, there is a religious angle to David's lyrics, perfectly blending with the stirring music, with unforgettable lines about angels getting together on the day that "you were born" and making "a dream come true" by sprinkling moondust and starlight on "you." Cheesy, yes, but great. Preferred Version: The Carpenters.

13. SOUTH AMERICAN GETAWAY [Music by Burt Bacharach]

My vote for the finest Bacharach instrumental (although it contains vocal harmonies that only sing ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba throughout the number). Exciting in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch and Sundance gleefully rob Bolivian banks, but even better when you listen to the soundtrack and the images of the action remain in your head. Venture in your car along to this pounding song, and your foot will eventually slam the accelerator. This music drives and swings, and then stops for an exquisite vocal solo moment, then drives and swings again, backed by those relentless ba-ba-ba voices. The best song Ennio Morricone never wrote. Preferred Version: Burt Bacharach, but check out the Christy Minstrels' relentless interpretation as well.

12. ALFIE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Bacharach's personal favorite among his songs, based on the Michael Caine film. Its seemingly simple musing--"What's it all about?"--has baffled philosophers from Socrates to Spinoza. Dionne performs one hell of a version of this song, but I have to pick Cilla Black's as the heavenly honoree of this pop pinnacle. Preferred Version: Cilla Black.

11. YOU'LL NEVER GET TO HEAVEN (IF YOUR BREAK MY HEART) [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Here's a song which gives new meaning to "wrapped around your finger," where the singer literally wishes their lover to "Go to hell!" if they ever break up. But it sounds so much sweeter, especially in the hands of the effervescent Stylistics in 1973. Preferred Version: The Stylistics.

10. RAINDROPS KEEP FALLIN' ON MY HEAD [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

It's one of the great observational arguments of the Twentieth Century: Why is this song featured in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, especially in a scene where Butch and Sundance's girl, Etta, go bicycling in the morning sun with not even a whisp of a storm cloud in sight? My answer: Who cares? It's the feel of the song that counts, a lighter moment before things in the film would grow quite dark. And the title is to be taken figuratively, not literally. It's become an anthem of resiliency, about overcoming adversity, about not letting anything get you down. And what's wrong with that? Preferred Version: BJ Thomas.

9. THIS GUY'S IN LOVE WITH YOU [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

It was a simple question from Herb Alpert in 1968: "Say, Burt, do you happen to have any old compositions lying around that you and Hal never recorded?" Bacharach responded with a simple, "Here, Herb...you might like this one." Found stashed in an office filing cabinet that day, "This Guy's In Love With You" would become one of the biggest songs of the year as performed (and sung) by Alpert and landed Bacharach-David on the top of the Billboard Hot-100 for the very first time. Preferred Version: Herb Alpert.

8. A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

No one remembers the 1964 Shelley Winters film that this was originally written for, but no one can forget this beautiful ballad of heartsickness and yearning that was brought back to life by Luther Vandross' spirited, soulful take in the 1980s. Preferred Version: Luther Vandross.

7. WALK ON BY [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Only Aretha Franklin's "Respect" scored higher for solo females on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Singles (Bacharach-David's hit rested at #51). The music is like a funeral march, which is appropriate because a jilted young woman (or man, when Isaac Hayes recorded it) just had their heart stomped on and can't stop from crying. Will tear your heart out if you let it. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick.

6. THE LOOK OF LOVE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Imagine the lights down low, a candlelit dinner for two. Bossa nova music echoes in the background, followed by the lost art of dinner dancing, a couple deeply in love. One of the most sensual, romantic songs in the entire Bacharach oeuvre, now enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Play it on Valentine's Day, and you'll agree: Love doesn't get any better than this. Preferred Version: Dusty Springfield.

5. DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE? [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" San Jose may be in the title, but this is a song that targets Los Angeles, a city that continuously spits out dreams of stardom. The singer has been through the wringer and is homeward bound, head held high, lying to herself that she at least has "lots of friends" in San Jose. The great big city of Los Angeles is one lonely freeway, especially if all of your dreams have become nothing but nightmares. Time to head home. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick.

4. ONE LESS BELL TO ANSWER [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Bacharach's most haunting melody, a song about a woman's obsessive plea for understanding after she's been abandoned by her lover without explanation. And the slick classiness of The Fifth Dimension's version, with Marilyn McCoo's impassioned lead vocal, includes that background refrain neurotically echoing in the singer's mind: 'WHY DID HE LEAVE?" This could act as a sequel to 24 HOURS FROM TULSA, the Gene Pitney song about a salesman who leaves his wife for another but never tells her why, but told from the jilted wife's point of view. Preferred Version: The Fifth Dimension.

3. I'LL NEVER FALL IN LOVE AGAIN [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Originally written as a sorrowful duet for the musical Promises, Promises, this works even better when Dionne Warwick gets a hold of it. In that version, the upbeat music betrays the sad lyrics of a person giving up on a love forever, but because the music is so foot-tappingly catchy, we know that love will bite them in the future. If ONE LESS BELL TO ANSWER is Bacharach at his most haunting, then this is probably his catchiest tune of all. Preferred Version: Dionne Warwick.

2. WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

Possibly the most beautiful prayer set to pop music, even more powerful in its way than "Bring Him Home" from Les Miz or Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" If any song on this list can change the world for the better, then this is it. Preferred Version: Broadway for Orlando, released after the Pulse Nightclub shootings of 2016, followed closely by Jackie DeShannon's original 1965 hit.

1. I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER [Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David]

The perfect Burt Bacharach song, the music and lyrics working in complete harmony. Hyperbole noted, this may be the finest song about the euphoria of love ever written. The lyrics walk us around everyday activities--waking up, putting on make-up, combing hair, running for a bus, taking a coffee break--but all through it is the "little prayer" to God that the singer's lover will be safe (presumedly in Vietnam) and will always be in love with her. Bacharach supposedly found Dionne Warwick's version too fast, which is why I prefer Aretha Franklin's rousing, belting take of it (not to mention the Sweet Inspirations' background vocals and Clayton Ivey's piano work). It's one of Franklin's greatest songs, and In 1987, in the New Music Express critics list of the 150 greatest singles, they picked her rendition as the #1 song of all time. It's my #1 here too, and it's where we salute the genius of Burt Bacharach and thank him once again for so much joyous music. Preferred Version: Aretha Franklin.



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