Monday, May 20, 2019

Elton John Albums, Ranked


by Curt Alliaume

With heritage artists, it’s often hard to decide what studio albums to start with. It’s easy enough to go to the classics, and most rock critics aren’t much help – my experience is an artist’s output over the first 10 years is almost always ranked higher than everything else.

There’s a web site called Metacritic that tries to address this by averaging the critical scores for recent albums – but they don’t go back very far. Which is certainly useless for Elton John, who has released a steady stream of music since his debut 50 (!) years ago. With the movie Rocketman coming out shortly, I thought it was time for a fresher look.

Bear in mind I am not an Elton John expert, although I do own over 80 percent of the albums on this list (I am missing six, plus I own another three only on vinyl or cassette, which means I haven’t heard those three in a long, long time). With the exception of a chunk of the albums from the classic years (I mean from Elton John through Blue Moves, or 1970 through 1976) and a few shortly thereafter, I couldn't sing any songs in the car other than the hits.

I’ve averaged the grades of the following books and web sites:
- Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews, which I recommend for the most part (even though they hate both Steely Dan and Bruce Springsteen),
- this Ultimate Classic Rock article from 2015,
- AZ Central’s ranking of his top 20 albums from 2016,
- Robert Christgau’s reviews, which I loved when I was a teenager and love less today,
- The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Second Edition, which is probably the best of the editions but only goes through 1982,
- Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, which came out sometime in the late 1990s,
- All Music Guide, because they review every album, even if the reviews are poorly constructed (Wilson & Alroy refer to AMG as “All Mushy Gibberish”).

Note this listing does not include live albums, greatest hits sets, or (with one exception) soundtrack work (so don’t write me to ask where The Lion King is). The list runs from worst album to best.

34. Leather Jackets (1986)
I don’t have this album (that’s true for three of the four lowest-ranking albums on this list), and while it’s on Spotify (it looks like all the albums on this list are there but one), I’m not in any rush to hear it; the fact that there were no top 40 singles from the album (the only Elton studio album released between 1970 and 2000 other than the Empty Sky reissue and Tumbleweed Connection to receive that honor, but I don’t think any singles were released from either one) is suspicious. This was the last album under his Geffen Records contract, so I suspect they didn’t put anything into promotion. Elton says it’s his worst album: “[Producer] Gus Dudgeon did his best but you can’t work with a loony” and “I was not a well budgie, I was married [to sound engineer Renate Blauel] and it was one bag of coke after another.”

33. Duets (1993)
Have this one – which is not an endorsement. (In my defense, I think I got it for $1.99 at a time when CDs were hard to find for less than ten dollars.) I honestly think he submitted this to finish his contract with MCA Records in the United States; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the songs had been in the can for awhile and the idea of duets was made a theme to pull it together (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” of course, had been recorded and released in 1991). Bernie Taupin only worked on four songs for the album (and two were remakes of old songs). There are so many collaborators, songwriters, musicians, and producers on this it’s hard to enjoy this as a cohesive whole, but there are a couple of decent songs hiding among the piles of meh.

32. Ice on Fire (1985)
Unlike Leather Jackets, this one at least had some hits: “Wrap Her Up” (with George Michael) went top 20, and “Nikita” was a top 10 hit, and they’re two of the three songs I’ve heard on the album (the other is “Act of War,” an early 1985 flop standalone duet with Millie Jackson that was on the early CD issues of the album, and was also included on his box set To Be Continued). But given this was made just before Leather Jackets, when Elton was clearly having personal problems galore, it’s not surprising this isn’t great either. It looks like the complaint is common to most mid- and late-1980s music: too many electronics, not enough human element.

30 (tie). Victim of Love (1979)
MCA would have been better off not releasing this album. It was recorded in August 1979 and probably written a couple months before, when disco was still looking huge; by the time of its release disco was becoming a dirty word for many radio stations. I have no way of confirming this, but to me it looks like MCA didn’t have a lot of product in the marketplace in the fourth quarter of 1979 (which was an incredibly competitive quarter in the rock market, with The Long Run, Tusk, In Through the Out Door, The Wall, and a few others released) – I looked at an album chart for early November 1979 and the only two MCA albums in the top 75 were this and Jimmy Buffett’s Volcano. But here’s the kicker: only was it disco at a bad time, it was bad disco. Helmed by Pete Bellotte, who worked with Giorgio Moroder on most of Donna Summer’s best music, this only showed that Giorgio and Donna brought a lot more to the table than you might think. Elton does nothing on the album but sing; he doesn’t play piano or keyboards, and all of the songs are cowritten by Bellotte and other contributors (Elton and Bernie Taupin were on a temporary break from one another) except for a remake of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” I don’t have this, I’ve never heard any of it except the title track (which missed the top 30), and I don’t think I’d get this unless it was given to me – even then I’d be hesitant.

30 (tie). Wonderful Crazy Night (2016)
Elton’s most recent album, and I haven’t heard it (yet). It also probably shouldn’t be here, as only two outlets of the seven I’m averaging reviewed it (AZ Central left it out of the top 20, so this is ranked 21st along with all the other albums omitted). Rolling Stone said it was one of the top 50 albums of the year, for what it’s worth, although it’s obviously not in their Music Guide.

29. Sleeping With the Past (1990)
Okay, we’re out of the truly terrible albums section (in fairness, I should withhold judgment on Wonderful Crazy Night). I don’t think this is awful – I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I’ve heard it enough to know it’s decent. The problems are twofold – the arrangements are still boring (lots of synths, courtesy of producer Chris Thomas), and a lack of passion. I can at least explain away the second part; Elton had throat surgery in late 1987 and could no longer hit the high notes or shout the way he once did. (Not that I could ever sing like him, but I had a cyst removed from my throat when I was 36 and my upper register instantly went away.) This was supposed to be a salute to the R&B icons of the 1960s, but the fact that I didn’t realize that until I read it online years later should say something. “Healing Hands,” “Sacrifice,” and “Club at the End of the Street” were all top 40 hits.

28. Reg Strikes Back (1988)
Another one I’ve had for a while – I got a tape of this and Sleeping With the Past in 1990, and I finally upgraded to the CD two years ago – but the only song I could name on the album when I started writing this was “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” (the other hit was “A Word in Spanish”). Again, the material isn’t bad – I think taking a year off after Elton’s throat surgery did both Elton and Bernie Taupin a world of good – but the production isn’t very interesting (although it’s completely in keeping with what pop music sounded like in the late 1980s).

27. The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (1989)
This is an odd story. After Elton and Taupin stopped (temporarily) writing together, Elton recorded several songs with famed soul producer Thom Bell. They did six songs together, not quite an entire album’s worth, and then the sessions ended. (There’s speculation on several pages that Elton was unhappy with the results and Bell, but I’ve never seen confirmation of this – and for what it’s worth, Elton doesn’t seem to badmouth people very often.) Anyway, “Shine On Through” was reworked for 1978’s A Single Man, while three other songs were released as an EP in England and an extended disco single in the US, with “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” becoming a surprise top 10 hit. Finally, in 1989 all six songs were included in one release (which clocked in at 34 minutes – a short album, but an album nonetheless). I have the vinyl disco single version, and while I wouldn’t say it’s brilliant, it’s certainly better than this ranking would indicate.

26. The One (1992)
First album Elton recorded after dealing with his health issues (both drugs and bulimia), and it’s okay. I’m not big on the title track (of all his albums, The One is the only album with the title track as the major hit), but I’m just blown away by “The Last Song,” about a father tending to his son during the end of his struggle with AIDS. Trends in music were changing somewhat (thanks to Nirvana and the grunge movement), but you wouldn’t know it by listening to this.

25. 21 at 33 (1980)
Reaction to Victim of Love was abysmal from the start, Elton undoubtedly knew it, and this was released just seven months later. “Little Jeannie” was his biggest hit in four years, and Bernie Taupin was back for a few songs, but my memory is it wasn’t great (of course, the only song I know really well is “Little Jeannie,” which becomes more syrupy the more you hear it). “Sartorial Eloquence” was the other single, which was inexplicably retitled “Don’t You Wanna Play This Game No More?” in the United States (even though the album covers all had the old title), likely confusing listeners. There were a pile of extra songs recorded during these sessions, some of which were used for B-sides (and could use a rerelease today), the others going on The Fox.

24. The Fox (1981)
When Geffen Records came into being, David Geffen signed up four huge acts right off the bat: John Lennon, Elton John, Donna Summer, and Neil Young. The fact that Elton was the most consistently successful of the four on the label (although obviously no one could have anticipated John Lennon’s murder) should tell you something about how well that went. This was his first album there, and his lowest-selling album on the label. It’s a little schizophrenic; it looks like Clive Franks produced half the songs, then he was let go in favor of Chris Thomas. (EDIT: It turns out about half the songs from this album were originally recorded at the 21 at 33 sessions, which doesn’t raise my opinion of the album any.) “Nobody Wins,” which neither Elton nor Bernie Taupin wrote, was the first single and failed to go top 20. I don’t have this either; I’ll try to listen to it on Spotify.

23. Friends (1971)
Soundtrack to a movie that was probably barely released in the United States (the plot reads like The Blue Lagoon in Paris, and the reviews indicate it wasn’t very good); I suspect Elton and Bernie knocked this one off in a few days. It sounds like a cross between Empty Sky and Elton John, with some orchestrated passages – but it’s not bad at all. It’s almost impossible to find nowadays – the vinyl version went out of print after a few years (I remember being shocked to see it in the 99-cent rack at the height of Elton’s popularity), and was shoehorned onto Past Masters, a two-CD set of B-sides and rare material from 1968 through 1977, which is also out of print but not hard to find (I’ve got it in that format). It also appears to be unavailable on Spotify other than the title track, which was a minor top 40 hit.

22. The Big Picture (1997)
Bernie Taupin’s review of this album, in a 2013 Rolling Stone interview: “I thought that was one of the most anemic records we made. In fact, it was miserable being in the studio, since it was all done on machines.” I’d rank it much lower myself (and the cover is hideous), but somehow Musichound thought it was just as good as Captain Fantastic and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, so here we are. The single “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” was a huge hit, almost exclusively because it was packaged with Elton’s rewrite of “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana, which isn’t on the album.

21. Empty Sky (1969)
This wasn’t even released in the United States until 1975, and you get the idea why when you play it – it’s just nothing like the music of the classic Elton John era. He plays harpsichord on about half the tracks, which doesn’t lend itself to rock and roll. Some listeners will recognize “Skyline Pigeon” from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (a rerecording from that era is on the CD rerelease, and it was the B-side of “Daniel”), but that’s about it. I’ve listened to it once, and I don’t see myself rushing back to give it another chance.

20. The Captain and The Kid (2006)
Not to be confused with the old comic strip. This was a sequel to 1975’s Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, and again it’s autobiographical. Both Elton and Bernie Taupin love it, but it wasn’t all that popular with the public, which both of them blamed on Interscope Records for lack of promotion. I haven’t listened to it in a few years (I got it along with a limited-edition live EP) – I guess I’ll have to give it another shot one of these days.

19. Blue Moves (1976)
The last album of the “classic” period, and by all accounts the worst of that era (but around the middle of Elton’s albums overall). There are two big issues at play here: 1) Like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road this was released as a double vinyl album, but unlike Goodbye Yellow Brick Road it could have been made into a single pretty easily, and 2) both Elton and Bernie Taupin were unhappy when creating the album – Bernie was going through a divorce from his first wife, while Elton was battling fame (he’d attempted suicide in October 1975), so it’s a downer to listen to. Such songs as “Tonight,” the hit “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” “Someone’s Final Song,” and “If There’s a God in Heaven (What’s He Waiting For?)” reflect this. Elton and Taupin broke up their partnership for a few years after this one came out. Unfortunately, at 84:47 it doesn’t quite fit on one CD (there are some one-disc versions out there with four songs removed, which should be avoided), which likely means people didn’t buy it as often during the silver disc era; as it stands now, it’s the same price as all of his single LPs to download on Amazon, which means it’s quite a bargain.

18. Breaking Hearts (1984)
I haven’t heard this album in decades – I only have it on vinyl (I got a promotional copy that record stores weren’t supposed to sell a few weeks after its release). My memory is it’s pretty good and really stripped down – other than occasional synth by Elton and one track with a saxophone, it’s all the original band on their original instruments – Elton on piano, Davey Johnstone on guitars, Dee Murray on bass, Nigel Olsson on drums. No orchestras, and Chris Thomas at his edgiest in the producer’s booth (he was also working on Pretenders albums at this time). “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” a somewhat cheerier version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” was the big hit (unfortunately it was quickly corrupted into a blue jeans commercial), with “Who Wears These Shoes?” and “In Neon” also charting. I’ll have to try this on Spotify.

17. The Diving Board (2013)
I just bought this last week, so I’ve only heard it once. So far, I like it – but I’m comparing it more to the albums of the late 1980s and early 1990s listed previously than the classic albums. It’s moody, it doesn’t rock as hard as I might like (but neither do most of his other most recent albums), and it doesn’t have any big-name guests. But Taupin’s lyrics are probably his strongest in years. I’m eager to hear it a few more times.

16. A Single Man (1978)
Elton’s first album after breaking up his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin; the original version had no contribution from Taupin at all. (Later CD reissues include three songs by Taupin, including the early 1978 flop single “Ego,” which was left over from the Blue Moves sessions.) “Part-Time Love” was the only hit in the United States; the follow-up instrumental “Song for Guy” was a top 15 hit in six countries, but the US wasn’t one of them (apparently MCA was not enamored with the idea of a vocal-free single release; the single only bubbled under the Hot 100). I much prefer Blue Moves to this, but I don’t hate it.

15. Made in England (1995)
First release after Elton had such success with The Lion King, and happily, it’s completely different and pretty good. It may help that Elton produced the album himself with Greg Penny, who had previously worked with k.d. lang. It’s a move back to a more classic Elton sound (especially the single “Believe”), and it works. I got the album a few years ago and I need to give it a few more listens to get the idea, but I’ve liked what I’ve heard. This is his highest-ranking 1990s album, by the way (not counting the soundtracks).

14. Jump Up! (1982)
I liked this when it first came out, mainly on the strength of the singles “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” and “Blue Eyes.” “Empty Garden” has held up nicely as one of the best Lennon tributes; “Blue Eyes” has not. This is the last album with Bernie Taupin in a part-time role, which may be just as well. (His recent reaction to “I Am Your Robot”: “Oh my God! [Laughs hysterically] How could you bring that up? That will go in . . . That’s a far worse song than ‘We Built This City.’”) This got a great rating from Musichound and a good one from AZ Central, but I’d knock it down a few notches. I only have it on vinyl.

13. Peachtree Road (2004)
Another Elton album from the 2000s I’ve had for a few years and couldn’t name a single song. To their credit, Elton and Bernie decided around 2000 or so that they no longer were going to be charting top 40 singles –his streak of 30 consecutive years with at least one Billboard top 40 single had finally ended that year – so they were going to make music that interested them, rather than pandering to the marketplace. The result is while none of the albums since then have sold a lot or are ranked with his classics, all of them are considered at least pretty good (with the possible exception of Wonderful Crazy Night, which again hasn’t had a lot of competitive reviews). I’ll have to try listening to it a few times.

12. The Union [with Leon Russell] (2010)
Leon Russell was huge for a few years there in the early 1970s as a solo act, after being a session man and songwriter for years before that. His biggest solo hit was “Tight Rope” in 1972, but some of his songs were made hits by other artists (“Superstar,” “This Masquerade,” “A Song for You”). He’d been a huge influence on Elton, but by the 2000s his star had faded – still, when this album was released, there was a lot of interest from old fogey critics, and the song “If It Wasn’t for Bad” got a Grammy nomination. It’s definitely different (and it’s probably not for everybody), but it’s definitely worth a spin on Spotify.

11. Rock of the Westies (1975)
This would have ranked a lot higher except Ultimate Classic Rock magazine hates it, ranking it below Duets and Wonderful Crazy Night. I get it – it was released at a time when Elton was certainly overexposed, some of the lyrics were racist and/or sexist (“Island Girl”), and it sounds different (Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson had been fired, with Caleb Quaye, Roger Pope, and Kenny Passarelli added to the band, which gave it a harder rocking feel). But different doesn’t always mean bad – and since Blue Moves, even though it had the same band, definitely didn’t have the same feel, this is almost a standalone for Elton. And I’ve definitely grown to appreciate “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)” more now that I know it refers to Bernie’s marital problems.

10. Songs From the West Coast (2001)
This is the highest ranking of any of Elton’s post-2000 LPs, and again I’ve heard it three times and none of it stuck with me (except maybe the single “I Want Love,” which is merely okay) enough to comment. Produced by Patrick Leonard (who’s worked frequently with Madonna); most of the old band is back. I get the idea the changes in Elton’s voice over the years have limited his range, and may have limited my interest in his music, and that’s my problem, not his. (Sinatra had the same thing happen to him, and I still enjoyed his later stuff.) I’ll have to try this again.

9. Caribou (1974)
This came out nine months after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and contained two top five hits: “The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” (It’s kind of amazing “The Bitch Is Back” did as well as it did given the title – which is actually what Bernie’s then-wife called Elton when he was in a lousy mood.) If you’re going to skip one from the classic era, this may be the one (it’s one of the last ones I got); the ranking is higher because Ultimate Classic Rock and Robert Christgau loved it.

8. Too Low for Zero (1983)
Here it is – the highest-ranking Elton John album after the classic years, and it’s a real good one. This is the first album with Bernie Taupin writing lyrics full time again, and the entire original band is back (Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray, Davey Johnstone, Ray Cooper, James Newton-Howard); there are very few guests, including old friend Kiki Dee and Steve Wonder, who adds the memorable harmonica solo on “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” That was the third (and biggest single) from the album; the other hits were “I’m Still Standing” and “Kiss the Bride.” The songs that weren’t released as singles are also quite good, especially “Cold as Christmas” and “One More Arrow.” I only have this on cassette; I’m looking for the 1998 CD rerelease that adds three more tracks (all recorded years before, oddly). Recommended highly.

7. Madman Across the Water (1971)
Nothing but albums from the classic years going forward. This actually didn’t have a lot of hits – “Levon” made it to #24, and “Tiny Dancer” just missed the top 40 – but those two songs, along with the title track, are among his classics. I ordered this from BMG Music Service years ago and thought mistakenly I’d ordered the original release by accident instead of a rerelease with bonus tracks; I now realize no such rerelease exists. I have to listen to this again, too.

6. Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
Two huge singles here, “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel,” which hit #1 and #2, respectively, and showed both sides of Elton’s persona: the occasionally slightly campy rocker, and the sensitive balladeer. Elton’s first album to hit #1 in the UK; second one here after Honky Chateau. Another one I haven’t listened to in years (there were a whole bunch of his earlier classic years albums I never bought on vinyl because I figured his greatest hits sets would suffice; I was young and stupid).

5. Elton John (1970)
Despite the title, this isn’t his first album; that honor goes to Empty Sky. However, to confuse the matter, it was his first album issued in the United States. Contains “Your Song,” which put him on the map and would make him at least decently well known regardless of what came after it. But holy mackerel, this has a lot of good music (“Take Me to the Pilot,” “Sixty Years On,” “Border Song”) – I don’t see how anyone who had heard Empty Sky thought this would be coming. Try to get the reissue, which has three great bonus tracks (“Bad Side of the Moon,” “Rock and Roll Madonna,” and an early version of “Grey Seal”).

4. Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
When an album this good ranks fourth overall… well, do the math. This was the first album in history to debut at #1 in the United States, and it’s a sign of how important Elton was that he could submit an entire album about how he and Bernie Taupin started writing songs together and everyone loved it. It’s probably marked down a notch because it only has one real rocker in “(Gotta Get a ) Meal Ticket,” but that’s not a problem with me. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which refers to an early near-marriage that Elton managed to extricate himself from, was the hit. Again, look for the 1990s reissue at the very least, which adds his version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “One Day at a Time” (both performed with John Lennon) and “Philadelphia Freedom.” The 2005 reissue adds one more bonus track and a disc of the original album performed live at Wembley – I don’t have it, but I’ve heard it and can recommend that one.

3. Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Elton’s record label(s) probably had a “What the hell?” moment when this was turned in – after having a big hit with the near-standard “Your Song,” an album full of music with western and Americana themes surely wasn’t what they had in mind. It was probably a smart move, however, to release no singles from the album (consequently, this is the only studio album Elton had without any hits until the 2000s). “Country Comfort” and “Burn Down the Mission” are the best-known songs. I can’t say this is among my favorites, mostly because I don’t know the songs well… but it’s another one I should listen to more. The reissue has two bonus tracks (including an early version of “Madman Across the Water”).

2. Honky Chateau (1972)
This is when Elton’s career kicked into high gear. Two top five hits (“Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man”), plus “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Only one bonus track on this one means you can probably live with the original. This is most notable because Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson, and Davey Johnstone played on all the tracks; previously had required Elton to use primarily studio musicians on his albums. It makes a difference; this is more of a rocker than his previous discs. I would take Captain Fantastic over either this or Tumbleweed Connection, but that’s my personal preference.

1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Normally studio double vinyl albums can be edited to one single (you can even make that argument for The White Album) – but these are virtually all winners. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and the title track were all huge hits – but that leaves out “Candle in the Wind,” which didn’t become a Billboard chart hit until the release of a live version in 1987 (and then again in 1997 when the lyrics were rewritten after Princess Diana’s death). And “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” which remains an AOR staple today. And the gorgeous “Harmony,” and “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock & Roll),” the updated version of “Grey Seal”… this is a great album. (Well, side three is a little weaker, but whatever.) A couple of caveats: at 76:20, this makes one awesome CD, so any bonus tracks mean it’ll be a less awesome two-CD set (with a corresponding increase in price). A 30th Anniversary edition adds four bonus tracks (three of which are on Past Masters, plus an acoustic remix of “Candle in the Wind”), the 40th Anniversary edition adds remakes of nine songs by current artists such as Ed Sheeran and Fall Out Boy (pinch me!), plus nine songs recorded live at Hammersmith Odeon (there’s also a super deluxe version with four extra discs). Stick with the single, I say.

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