Ben Folds is the punk of punks. He doesn’t reject the norm; he rejects the norm of rejecting the norm. (In fact, some of his early fame was based on his hilarious evisceration of the punk scene in early favorite “Underground”.) You think of punks as spiky- or shaggy-haired shouters who make loud and abrasive guitar-driven music. Folds wears t-shirts and jeans, has no visible tattoos or hair dye, and plays acoustic piano.
His aesthetic recalls Joe Jackson or Elton John, but his approach to making music evokes Lou Reed. He’s an independent — and I don’t mean that in the sense that his music was released by a small label, though most of his albums have been. I mean that the only thing predictable about his career is that he’ll try something a little bit different next. From creating the experimental sonic fart Fear of Pop to producing an album of a capella covers of his songs and more, Ben Folds has continually branched out beyond his comfort zone.
That’s what I like about Ben Folds. I enjoy his sound and love a few of his albums, but above all admire his maverick, muse-following attitude.
Of course, he wouldn’t have made this list if he didn’t create some incredible music, so let me comment on that for a minute. His three most indispensible albums, in my eye, are his first two albums by Ben Folds Five and his solo debut.
The self-titled debut of the Five (which, of course, is a trio) is Folds’ most high-energy production, bouncing from mini-masterpiece “Philosophy” to the kinetic “Julianne” to the reflective “Best Imitation of Myself” to opulent tearjerker “Boxing.”
Their follow-up, Whatever and Ever Amen, was a bigger commercial success, thanks to the hit “Brick,” a fantastic ballad that can be interpreted either as a reluctant love song or the story of a secret teenage abortion (something Folds and his former girlfriend went through). But the best track on Whatever — also the best song by Folds, period — is “One Angry Dwarf,” the acrobatic, blow-out-the-speakers raver that kicks off the album.
A few years later, Ben went solo and released Rockin’ the Suburbs, probably the closest thing to a normal pop album that Folds will ever release. If you want a pleasant introduction to many of Folds’ strengths and some of his best writing, look no further than Rockin’ the Suburbs. The title track is snarky fun (“Let me tell y’all what it’s like / being male, middle class, and white”), but the three tracks from the disc I spin most often are “Gone,” “Not the Same,” and “The Luckiest,” the latter of which is Folds’ best-ever love song.
I had the pleasure of seeing Folds live in 2007, and he didn’t disappoint. He’s intelligent and hilarious as a speaker and engaging as a performer. He has a self-deprecating sense of sarcasm, making fun of his novelty semi-hit cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” Plus, I walked away with a smile as he closed with “One Angry Dwarf,” performing his trademark show-ending move of slamming his stool into the keyboard of his piano. Sensational.
Though Folds hasn’t released as much material as usual the past five years, he’s become a more prominent figure in general pop culture thanks to a gig as a judge on the singing competition show “The Sing-Off.” He’s a good judge, too, encouraging but genuinely insightful.
I don’t love every piece of music he’s ever released, but that’s part of the point with Ben Folds — he follows the beat of his own drum. Or the plunking of his own piano, as the case may be.