R.E.M. – “You Are the Everything” (1988)
Yearning and accordions simply go together, as bassist Mike Mills demonstrates on this gorgeous track from R.E.M.‘s Green. Peter Buck’s mandolin anchors it, but the accordion bridges the lyrics’ past and present. Along with “Road to Nowhere” and much of They Might Be Giants, “You Are the Everything” birthed the indie accordion of the 1990s and since.
Aerosmith – “What It Takes” (1989)
Neither Aerosmith nor power ballads have ever been my thing. But I’ve mellowed with age, and the accordion behind the chorus is great enough for me to be willing to deal with the rest. And just imagine how good it would have been if they’d dared an accordion solo in place of the guitar or across the bridge. Still, I have to admit that the fade-out is pretty great. The accordionist is uncredited, but according to guitarist Joe Perry, that’s what “gave it the flavor it needed. Otherwise, it would have just been nice chords and nice changes.”
Grateful Dead – “Queen Jane Approximately” Live at Boston Garden (1991)
Deadheads break ranks over whether Bruce Hornsby—who played over 100 shows with the Grateful Dead between 1988 and 1995—should have stuck to keyboards. Only a few tracks have been officially released, but the many online concert recordings suggest why the Dead asked him to strap on the squeezebox quite frequently. This loping cover of Dylan’s classic from Blonde on Blonde, one of the Dead’s favorites, also reminds us how accordions work with Dylan and how well Hornsby’s accordion complements Garcia’s subtly brilliant leads.
Van Morrison – “Memories” (1990)
“Memories” wouldn’t even make my top 50 of Van Morrison’s songs, but that’s no slight. I’m even willing to overlook his Covid-era work because very few rock musicians indeed can match the quality and depth of his decades of brilliant writing, arranging, and singing. The closer to Enlightenment, one of Morrison’s many great comeback albums, “Memories” certainly sounds like a tossed-off tune. Would that all throwaway closers go down so smoothly. Accordion by Neil Drinkwater, who played with Morrison between 1987 and 1991.
The Mekons – “Now We Have the Bomb” (1991)
The immortal Leeds punk band, the Mekons, didn’t add Rico Bell’s accordion until they had incorporated country into their inimitable style in the mid-1980s. But they never lost their punk sensibility or their political rage. Even when they’re savaging nuclear hypocrisy to a modified cha-cha-cha on “Now We Have the Bomb”. Listen for the accordion’s sublime entrance after vocalist Sally Timms cuts out the first chorus: “An accident sits down with you for breakfast. Things are better now we have the bomb.”
The Pogues with Joe Strummer – “Straight to Hell” Live (1991)
A brilliant song long before M.I.A. sampled it on “Paper Planes”, the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” gets the treatment by the original Celtic punk band the Pogues, touring with Joe Strummer on vocals after Shane MacGowan had left the band over drinking problems in 1991. James Fearnley’s accordion leads the opening beat, Spider Stacy adds a haunting tin whistle, and Strummer’s vocals do the rest, including lyrics cut on the original album edit.
Richard Thompson – “Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands” (1991)
“Squeeze Box” may be the quintessential rock song about the accordion. But this one is accordion rock through and through. Built on the Scottish accordion legend’s 1955 hit “Bluebell Polka”, Thompson’s playful homage pokes equal fun at the music of his parents’ generation and the nerdy record collectors of his own. It’s a fond homage—Thompson had already covered Shand songs on his first two solo albums—that also charts a sea change in British music from the master’s postwar dance tunes to the very different folk sound pioneered by Fairport and others in the late 1960s. It’s carried by John Kirkpatrick, who mimics Shand’s polka for the first three minutes before a literal breakdown resolves into a rollicking folk-rock jig.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – “Mondo Bongo” (2001)
You don’t hear accordion too often in son montuno, although Cuban bandleader Robert Torres used it to brilliant effect in his 1981 hit “Caballo Viejo”. As far as I know, the Clash never bothered with accordion, even on Sandinista, where you might have expected it. Maybe the Mescaleros’ wasted guajira “Mondo Bongo” doesn’t need accordion, but like Tymon Dogg’s weeping violin, it’s a thrill when Martin Slattery’s seesaw playing joins the conversation just after the two-minute mark.
Bob Dylan – “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” (2009)
The late-career renaissance that began with Bob Dylan’s 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, continued 12 years later in Together Through Life. Los Lobos founder David Hidalgo features on accordion and guitar. “I was inspired by Richard Thompson,” Hidalgo remembered in 2015. Equally adept at guitar and accordion, Hidalgo anchors this down-and-dirty blues-rock love song.
Van Dyke Parks – “The All Golden” (2016)
As in the Beach Boys late 1960s sound, Van Dyke Parks’ cult chamber pop album Song Cycle (1967) layered accordion in its dense production. Revisiting a key song from that album nearly 50 years later on Songs Cycled, Parks brought his accordion forward in the mix, as it opens the revision channeling a violin before engaging in call-and-response with Parks’s exploratory piano and typically hermetic lyrics.
Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” (2020)
The classic-rock list concludes with the long brooding meditation that concludes the first disc of Bob Dylan’s brilliant 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Regular “Never Ending Tour” member Dannie Herron straps on accordion to lead the elegiac dirge underpinning the singer’s musings on Radio Luxemburg, the Beats, and the end of the line.