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41 Essential Pop/Rock Songs with Accordion

No popular musical instrument has been more frequently maligned than the accordion. Despite gaining hipster cred in the 1990s, its role in pop remains underappreciated.

Richard Thompson – “Tear-Stained Letter” (1983)

A post-breakup rockabilly rave-up for Kirkpatrick’s accordion, Thompson’s guitar, and the saxes of Pete Zorn & Pete Thomas, with one of my all-time favorite lyrical shoutouts: “Well my head was beating like a song by the Clash / I was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash.” A longtime Thompson tour staple, it’s a showcase for the resident accordionist whenever the audience refrains from the dreaded singalong. Here’s Alan Dunn on accordion at the BBC in 1984 and Thompson on guitar with Cajun star Jo-El Sonnier on accordion and vocals in 1990.

Tom Waits – “Rain Dogs” (1985)

The accordion was a linchpin sound and vision to Tom Waits’ inimitable hodgepodge of cabaret, barfly raconteurs, roots, punk, and lower-depths trawling. The sweeping accordion that opens the album’s title song conjures a mythic central European past that couldn’t be more American if it tried.

The Pogues – “The Old Main Drag” (1988)

The slumming anger of the original Celtic punk band, formed in Kings Cross, London, in 1982, is captured here in a highlight from their Elvis Costello-produced second album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash. James Fearnley’s atonal drone opens the tune, resolving into a soulful dance tune and capturing the band’s tension between traditional music and contemporary lower-depth reportage that skirts poverty porn. The Pogues avoid it through Shane MacGowan’s empathetic first-person vocal and the drop back into dissonant plain speech at the song’s abrupt conclusion, which ends where it began.

Talking Heads – “Road to Nowhere” (1985)

I’ll always love this album as a favorite band’s eagerly awaited sixth album and as the perfect accompaniment to the early years of my first niece. This anthemic closing track begins a cappella before Jimmy Macdonell’s accordion-driven march leads it ecstatically down that road.

Camper Van Beethoven – “Good Guys and Bad Guys” (1986)

Former Mink DeVille accordionist Kenny Margolis would guest with this Santa Cruz-based stoner band in the early 21st-century. Long before then, an uncredited musician duetted with Jonathan Segel’s violin on this irresistible Cold-War homage to America and everywhere else.

Paul Simon – “The Boy in the Bubble” (1986)

Accordionist Forere Motloheloa was already a force in the music around the Lesotho mines in southern Africa when Paul Simon tapped him for the driving hook that opens Graceland. According to Motloheloa, “the groove he came up with on the piano accordion was ‘paying tribute to a beautiful woman who he found and is happy with’.” Here’s the original version by Motloheloa’s band Tau Ea Matsekha.

John Mellencamp – “Cherry Bomb” (1987)

My late brother-in-law went to school with John Mellencamp in rural Indiana and was always dismissive of what he regarded as his erstwhile classmate’s posing: first as Johnny Cougar and then as a roots rocker. As bassist and songwriter for a Louisville punk band, Ricky was biased, and I definitely picked up his bias. On the other hand, like Mellencamp’s other pop-roots hits, this song is awfully easy on the ears, especially the pairing of violin and accordion. The latter is played by regular keyboardist and saxophonist John Cascella.

Oingo Boingo – “We Close Our Eyes” (1987)

Before he made it big as a movie soundtrack composer, Danny Elfman was the songwriter and frontman for the hands-down winner of the silliest New Wave band name ever (Oingo Boingo). One of three singles from their sixth studio album, this echt-1980s pop romanticism features regular guitarist (and Strawberry Alarm Clock alumnus) Steve Bartek on accordion.

Siouxie and the Banshees – “The Last Beat of My Heart” (1988)

Vocalist Siouxie Sioux’s original punk band quickly hit its stride as post-punk icons and continued into the current century. This brooding tribute song puts new bandmember and multi-instrumentalist Martin McCarrick’s cello and accordion to magical use as both the pulsing heartbeat of the title and an homage to Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’s melodica on “Decades”, the last song on their final album.

They Might Be Giants – “Ana Ng” (1988)

They Might Be Giants were one of the first and remain one of the few alt-rock bands built around the accordion. Along with fellow founder John Flansburgh’s guitar, John Linnell’s playing is the heart and soul of their 1980s quirk. According to Linnell, the lyrics of “Ana Ng” have two main sources: the puzzle of “four pages of this name that contains no vowels” in the Manhattan White Pages (back when there were phone books) and a strip from Walt Kelly’s enduring Cold-War comic Pogo in which some of the animals “decide they’re going to dig to China, but one of the smarter characters pulls this huge revolver out of a drawer and shoots a hole ‘in the desktop globe.’ Then they look at the other side, and the hole is in the Indian Ocean.” As is especially evident in the music video, this brilliant late 1980s pop confection is also a slantwise meditation on Cold War politics.