Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Ten favourite Elton John albums

These are ten of my favourite Elton John albums. They are listed chronologically as opposed to in order of merit, I prefer it that way as my favourites are always changing their order. I have also attempted to span his career with my selections.

Elton John (1970)

Often thought to be Elton John’s debut album (it is his second), this was a remarkably mature offering from Elton and songwriter Bernie Taupin when one considers they were barely into their twenties and composed many of the songs in Elton's tiny bedroom at his parents’ house in Pinner, Middlesex. The feelings and issues that the songs approach seem like the work of someone far older than the callow Taupin and, musically, the album is also incredibly mature and it shows just what a precociously talented composer the young Elton John was. It is surprising, therefore, to consider how the album was initially perceived when taking into account producer Gus Dudgeon's quote - "The album was not actually intended to launch Elton John as an artist, but rather as a collection of polished demos for other artists to consider recording his and co-writer Bernie Taupin's songs". 

Tumbleweed Connection (1970)

Up there in Elton John/Bernie Taupin's top five albums (along with Elton John, Honky Château, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic, in my opinion). This was an album that did not feature the excellent Elton John Band (some of the appear sporadically), but the hired session musicians were of an exceptional quality. The whole album is played immaculately and the sound on the "Deluxe Edition" is simply superb - full, powerful and punchy along with having a melodic subtlety when necessary. The album is notable for not having any commercial, hit single on it, which was unusual for those days. It was a genuine adult, "serious" album, largely exploring Bernie Taupin's fascination with the Old West of the USA in an often sad, sensitive and nostalgic manner (for an era he did not live in). For a lyricist still so young. the songs are remarkably mature and perceptive and it is very much influenced by The Band's first three albums, both lyrically and musically.

Honky Château (1972)

Honky Château was the album which saw Elton John finally go “rock” and employ the Elton John Band of Davey Johnstone on lead guitar, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. For some reason, they were not allowed to be used on any more than one track on the previous albums, session musicians were used instead. I suppose when they were of the quality of Caleb Quaye then it didn’t matter so much. Elton had been perceived, particularly by the mainstream media, as a studious, bespectacled singer-songwriter safe enough to appear as a guest on the Mike Yarwood show, or “Cilla”. Now, however, it was getting near the time for him to don the outsized sunglasses and platform boots and become the somewhat preposterous “glam” rocker he would continue to be for many years. Not quite yet, though, he still appeared earnest, serious and hippily bearded on the cover, a bit like Van Morrison at the same period. The music, though, was given a full rock treatment, pounding drums, rocking as opposed to tinkling piano, classic rock guitar and was augmented by Elton’s more bluesy voice. The songs, too, included some jazzy, blues rockers. In all these respects, this was a transitional album for both singer and songwriter.

Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player (1973)

This was the album, released in January 1973, that saw Elton John begin his transition from "mature before his time, bespectacled balladeer" to outrageous glam rocker, still singing many of the same ballads, and interpreting Bernie Taupin's wonderful lyrics, but now with huge platform boots, gold lame suits and massive novelty glasses. The music was now not just adult, sincere ballads but was developing a commercial edge. Yes, Your Song and Rocket Man had been huge hits, but they were not upbeat, "glammy" rockers like the exhilarating, singalong fun of Crocodile Rock. It was a bridging point, musically and conceptually.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

In 1973 Elton John could do no wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player had paved the way, but this tour de force really put Elton and his magnificent lyricist Bernie Taupin into the limelight. Not forgetting the marvellous band - Davey Johnstone on lead guitar, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. They were red hot on this album. Putting out a double album was always a risk but no such worries here. There is not a duff track on it. Even now, it is such a fulfilling listen. Amazing that something now forty-five years old still sounds so good. The remastering is amazing too as it is on all the Elton John Deluxe Editions. Yes, it does attract accusations of being bloated and indulgent, but I really can't find fault with any of the tracks  It was here that Elton John the great flamboyant entertainer was truly born, the old slightly introspective bespectacled figure behind the piano was now strutting round on huge platform boots in enormous comic glasses like a gigantic camp Frankenstein's monster. Eventually that monster would have to be destroyed, but for now it strode the world like a pudgy-fingered colossus. Do not let the over-the-top preposterous image overshadow the music, however, or indeed its tremendous lyrics. 

Caribou (1974)

In many ways, Elton John's 1974 Caribou album was his equivalent of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait from 1970. After some really impressive mature albums in the early seventies, followed by one hell of a crossover to merge reflective, moving adult balladry with glam rock in 1973's multi-million seller, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, so much was now expected of Elton John, both in the UK and, more importantly in the USA, where he was now huge. In the seventies, artists were expected to put out albums virtually every year and one got the impression that this often half-baked album was Elton and Bernie's attempt to say "it doesn't matter, if you pressure us to release an album before we're ready, we will release any old rubbish". Indeed, the track Solar Prestige A Gammon was populated with nonsensical, meaningless lyrics - written in an invented language - as if to exemplify that notion and prove their point. The problem with this album is that after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road they just weren't ready to put out any more material. Captain Fantastic should have been the follow up, and great it would have been too (as indeed it was). It was Elton's Goats Head Soup.

Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)

After the stunning global success of 1973's remarkable Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1974's comparatively half-baked Caribou had found some people questioning Elton John's standing as a "Captain Fantastic" of the music world. "His better days were behind him", and "he's all burnt out" were types of the popularly heard refrain at the time. Huge marketing was thrown behind this album, therefore. "From the end of the world to your town" proclaimed the posters. Elton was back. Let's hope the album lived up to the hype. Thankfully it did. This was a phenomenally mature, sensitive album loosely based around the early experiences of Elton and his prodigiously talented lyricist, Bernie Taupin, in the music business. Notably, it had no obvious commercial "hit single" in the Crocodile Rock vein.  The hit single was the extended, evocative, dramatic and atmospheric Someone Saved My Life Tonight, which tells of Elton being given a late night pep-talk by late 60s blues singer and old mate Long John Baldry.  Concentration on “serious“ material, as opposed to the commercial, was continued when Elton played the entire album from beginning to end in front of a huge crowd at London’s Wembley Stadium. At the time, this did not go down particularly well with the fans, many of whom were coming out with the “we wanted to hear the hits” complaint. Similarly, it did not go down particularly well in the music media either, who seemed to think that Elton was becoming a bit too big for his boots in that he felt he could do what he wanted without considering his fans. Unfair. He and Bernie were creative artists, and had every right to challenge their own muses and try to push themselves higher.

Reg Strikes Back (1988)

This album was hyped very much as Elton John's "comeback" album after some torrid years in his personal life - the break up of his odd marriage and a huge cocaine consumption. It was unfairly criticised by many in the media and bracketed with 1986's execrable Leather Jackets. That was an unfair comparison. This album is a million miles better. The difference between both is light and day. Subsequent albums would contain less low points than some of those eighties offerings did.

Sleeping With The Past (1989)

The 1980s were a strange period for Elton John, each higher quality album seemed to be floored by a patchier one. There are some highlights - the Too Low For ZeroIce On Fire and Reg Strikes Back albums, but for long periods of the decade he was involved in length legal proceedings against the UK's "Sun' newspaper for defamation (which he won). So, by 1989, a weight seemed lifted from his often troubled shoulders and he returned with one of his most successful albums. He seemed to have straddled the generations well, and now had the respect of the younger generation. indeed, the forthcoming decade was the one that would see him elevated to the somewhat ludicrous, media-created and perpuated position of "national treasure". He seemed to enjoy that sort of thing, though, despite his battles with the media, and the old creativity came rushing back. Back with Bernie Taupin once again  for this album, having re-united for the previous year's Reg Strikes Back there was some great, often upbeat material. There was a bit of unfortunate late eighties synthesised influence on the percussion at times, but you just have to accept that from this era. Everything was awash with synthesisers.

Peachtree Road (2004)

This, like all of Elton John's post 2000 albums, is a fine piece of work. He was back writing with Bernie Taupin again, concocting beautiful, catchy, evocative melodies around Bernie's Americana-influenced lyrics. This is what they did best, releasing albums that were a fine balance between solid, moving ballads and potent, bluesy rock. The albums are never built around singles, they are proper albums and, as they always were, are mature, sensitive and often reflective. Bernie Taupin is simply one of the greatest songwriters of our time, no question about it. All these albums have been hailed as a "return to form", but Elton/Bernie's quality never really left, these albums just reiterate it more than others.

To read my in-depth, album-by-album, track-by track reviews of all of Elton's career, click here :-


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