“Weird Al” Yankovic has never gotten enough credit for his original, non-parody songs. That’s a truism that’s come up constantly throughout his 40-year career, and it’s a major plot point in the parody documentary Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, starring Daniel Radcliffe as an exaggerated version of Al who becomes rich and world-famous for the Knack parody “My Bologna,” then vows to only write original songs for the rest of his life.
“That was always a struggle, throughout my entire career, to get recognition for my original musical work,” Yankovic told Polygon in an interview ahead of Weird’s release. “To this day, even after 40 years, I have people going, ‘Oh, Al writes original music?’ Half my albums are comprised of original songs. I mean, they’re pastiches and style parodies, but they’re original work. [...] I’m not ashamed of doing parodies, but the originals thing has always gnawed at me a little bit, because it’s been a constant fight to make people even aware of that.”
Digging into Yankovic’s original songs makes it adamantly clear why he’s had such a lasting and successful career. The unique brand of humor is part of the equation — the way it mixes up whimsy, faux-sentiment, and dark and murky emotions, all hidden under a bright pop surface. But on top of that, he’s a ridiculously talented wordsmith and musical chameleon. His songs in any genre — from rap to country to pop to metal to murder ballad — are often phenomenally sticky earworms that linger in the back of the brain.
It’s hard to choose between his 80-plus original works (more like 100, if you count unreleased and live-concert-only songs), but we rose to the challenge. Here’s our ranking of the best of Weird Al’s original songs.
Honorable mention: Yoda Chant
Not really a “song” so much as a startling performance experience, the “Yoda Chant” isn’t on any of Yankovic’s albums, so it isn’t on playlists or available for purchase. But you can find versions of it on YouTube, recorded on people’s phones at his live concerts. It’s a constantly mutating string of snippets and fragments of other songs, delivered in fervent unison by Weird Al and his band, complete with coordinated arm gestures, hissing and hooting and chanting. It’s a strange, mesmerizing act of unison performance and creative cultural crate-digging (the references range from Spike Jones to “Frère Jacques”), and the unpredictability is part of the fun.
15. “Mission Statement” (2014)
This lulling Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young pastiche, heavily inspired by “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” layers sweet, dense harmonies over a litany of ridiculous corporation-speak. For anyone who’s ever worked in a company where the leadership was obsessed with nigh-meaningless phrases like “leverage our core competencies” or “scalable synergies,” this song may be a bit of a PTSD trigger, but the ironic contrast between the cliche ’90s business-babble and the lulling ’60s vocals is hilarious and subversive all on its own.
14. “Don’t Wear Those Shoes” (1986)
“Don’t Wear Those Shoes” underlines one of Yankovic’s biggest comedy tools: characters who are so fixated on one object or idea that they take it to ridiculous, outsized extremes. Here, in an upbeat, catchy ditty with a bit of a Kinks riff, it’s someone who can put up with anything in a relationship except one specific set of footwear. It’s particularly funny that the song never even slightly suggests what’s wrong with the shoes that make them worse than murdering the family dog, or killing the narrator himself.
13. “Frank’s 2000” TV” (1993)
This lyrical takeoff on R.E.M.’s gentle suburban songs in particular (“Near Wild Heaven” comes to mind) is one of those Weird Al songs that starts with a banal concept — in this case, a man who buys a big new TV that the neighborhood envies — and blows it up to wild proportions. (A 2000-inch TV would rival an IMAX screen for size. “It’s like having a drive-in movie in your own living room,” the lyrics explain, purposefully ignoring the logistics.) This one’s particularly dreamy in a pleasant sort of way: The opening, in which the newly installed TV is “risin’ above the city, blocking out the noonday sun / It dwarfs the mighty redwoods,” is particularly poetic.
12. “Hardware Store” (2003)
“Hardware Store” channels some of the same simple American acquisitiveness and obsession over mundane objects, but stylistically, it’s the polar opposite of the gentle balladeering of “Frank’s 2000” TV.” This one’s a gleefully frantic, revved-up speed-metal jam that feels ecstatic in its sheer density. The same people who obsessed over learning all the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” so they could sing them flawlessly at parties during the song’s heyday should be just as obsessed with trying to reel off this song’s intimidatingly zippy bridge, a rundown of items you can acquire at the local hardware store.
11. “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” (1983)
A lot of Weird Al’s original songs are obviously from the point of view of invented characters he’s channeling for comic effect. This early song, though, is one of a handful that feels like it came straight from Yankovic’s own id, like he’s talking directly to the whole world (and to ’80s-era California neo-hippie culture in particular) about his personality and his intentions. It’s simpler and more repetitive than a lot of the songs on this list, because it’s more about emphasis than nuance. But it’s also infectious as hell, and gleeful in a way that’s pretty unique compared to his other early work.
10. “Stuck in a Closet With Vanna White” (1988)
Listening to people talking about their dreams is boring. Listening to Weird Al describe a recurring dream to a doctor is a lot more fun because he gets to play in an open-world sandbox that makes fun of the unpredictable, shifting, grab-bag nature of dreams. The premise lets him completely engage his imagination and include absolutely any clashing story elements he wants, giving fans one of the most imagistically strange songs in his library: “Now I’m bein’ followed by these Russian spies / They give me some velcro, and an order of fries / Suddenly I’m bowling on the Starship Enterprise…”
9. “I Remember Larry” (1996)
A gratifying antidote to every annoying prankster who’s ever said “Can’t you take a joke?” (see also Al’s song “I Was Only Kidding”), “I Remember Larry” is one of several Al songs that feels warmly nostalgic and positive until the deadly punchline kicks in. But of all his songs in this particular subgenre, “I Remember Larry” is the most lyrically and musically sophisticated, and the most satisfying. Larry had it coming.
8. “Nature Trail to Hell” (1984)
A fun thing about Weird Al’s original songs is that he gets to put on original voices, too — instead of imitating the vocal style of David Byrne or Chamillionaire or Kurt Cobain, he gets to match the vocals to the subject matter. That’s true with “Nature Trail to Hell,” a song that’s effectively a trailer for a gory horror movie, delivered in the deep, chesty tones of an old-school horror-trailer voice-over artist. It’s kinda delightful how it shows that some things about moviegoing haven’t changed since this song came out in 1984 (like spoiler culture: “Please don’t reveal the secret ending to your friends / Don’t spoil the big surprise,” Weird Al sings). But this one also feels like a big nostalgic throwback to the first 3D horror boom, when it didn’t much matter if a movie was any good as long as it had effects coming straight at the audience’s eyeballs.
7. “Melanie” (1988)
Looking back on Weird Al’s career with 2022 eyes, it’s actually kinda disturbing how many of his songs mine comedy out of men stalking women, relentlessly hitting on them, or both, all because it’s meant to be funny that they take their obsessions so far. (Especially in “Good Old Days,” where that extends to the narrator torturing his high school sweetheart, among other sadistic acts.) It makes sense that a career so based on pop music would feature a lot of songs coming out of the pop idea of romance, which is often pretty obsessive and one-note itself, but it is a little dispiriting sometimes.
And yet there’s “Melanie.” It’s even more unsettling and ironic than the rest of them, as the singer describes the crush he developed on an unwitting neighbor he spied on while she was showering, then details the various creeper activities he gets up to while complaining that she’s “too dumb” to accept his love, then finally killing himself over her. And yet it’s one of his most inescapable and lovely tunes, a plaintively fake-sincere song that’s really designed to get under the skin and live there, whether you want it there or not.
6. “Slime Creatures From Outer Space” (1985)
Featuring some of the weirdest production in Weird Al’s entire catalog (courtesy of Thomas Dolby, who inspired this style parody), plus some of his oddest rhymes (pairing “sewers” with “manicures”???) “Slime Creatures From Outer Space” sounds like nothing else, which is part of the fun. It’s also the rare Weird Al song that’s authentically creepy without getting there by ironically clashing nostalgia or sentiment with dark deeds. Nope, it’s just all thanks to ’50s sci-fi style: There are aliens who suck people’s brains out through straws (“You just can’t trust those guys!”) and a narrator taking it all kind of personally. It’s playful in the best kinds of ways, channeling all that enjoyable ’50s sci-fi xenophobia and paranoia, and it beat Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! to the punch by a full decade.
5. “That Boy Could Dance” (1984)
An upbeat anthem for everybody out there who felt unloved or unseen in junior high or high school, “That Boy Could Dance” is a little classic rock, a little classic affirmation, and a whole lot of that classic Weird Al vein of drilling in on an oddball detail and making it the whole story. It’s really improbable how incredibly incompetent “that boy” is, and hilarious how much detail about his failings the song piles on before admitting that his one talent rocked him to wealth, fame, and admiration. It’s a winning fantasy for any of us, but especially for kids slogging through school and dreaming of one day showing them, showing them all.
4. “Virus Alert” (2006)
One of the best examples both of the way Weird Al scales up a minor, familiar topic to ludicrous proportions and the way he makes those topics a lot more interesting with fantastically dense lyrics and high-energy performance. “Virus Alert” was inspired by the music of Sparks, but is maybe a wee bit more accessible than that eclectic art-band ever gets. It’s a caffeine rush of a song, a big exciting energy boost that whips by so fast, you’re likely to hear different things every time you listen.
3. “Dare To Be Stupid” (1985)
Up there with “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” as a personal, defining statement of a song, the Devo-style “Dare To Be Stupid” is essential, bedrock Weird Al. It’s a validation and mission statement aimed squarely at kids and early teens who haven’t retreated behind “too cool for this” walls yet, but it’s also a good message for all ages. And it’s delivered in a way that’s too silly and oddball to feel preachy or teach-y.
2. “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” (1989)
Every now and then, Weird Al pulls out all the stops on an epic-length narrative song like “Albuquerque,” “Jackson Park Express,” or the R. Kelly parody “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” where it feels like the point might be just to see how far he can stretch the story. But they all fall before “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” a loving ode to a silly Midwestern tourist trap that doubles as a loving ode to family road trips and triples as a joke about kitsch and the people that love it.
Featuring some of Al’s cleverest lyrics and maybe his best bridge ever (where his narrator, a little drunk and overwhelmed with sentiment, reels over his big philosophical questions about the twine ball), it’s a singalong the whole family can enjoy, because it makes fun of all of them. But it’s also one of Al’s happiest songs, with nothing comedically dark or deranged lurking under the surface — everyone here is happy, including the hitchhiker who steals the narrator’s new camera.
1. “Everything You Know Is Wrong” (1996)
It’s impossible to really do a style parody of They Might Be Giants, which is itself a long-running, shapeshifting band that’s worked in every imaginable style and tone. So this attempt at a TMBG style riff really just comes across as an amiably wacky nonsense story with a banger of a chorus and a ton of giddy dreamlike energy — and like one of Al’s most original songs of all time. Try singing it to yourself in the car when the bastards of the world get you down, assuming you can keep up with its leaping pace — it’s a surefire mood-booster, but also the cheeriest imaginable way of saying “Everything’s all screwed up, and that’s OK, because the world is a silly place anyway.”
Want more? This Spotify list of every Weird Al original came in handy for us: