Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Ranking Elton John Albums - Part 1, Nos. 31 through 21

I've been an Elton John fan for just about as long as I can remember. From the age of 9 or 10, I began listening to my own music and generally gravitated towards guitar-driven rock (Van Halen, Dire Straits, eventually Guns n' Roses, etc.). But before all of that, there was Elton John.

His first Greatest Hits album, from 1974, was basically a family playlist. I guess my earliest family music memories are of Amy Grant and other Christian singers, but once my parents decided it was okay to introduce their precious children to secular devil music, it was basically Elton John, and maybe some Alabama.

On vacations and other long trips, this album would also get played through a least a couple of times. I knew all the songs on it by heart. As I got older, more compilations were put out and I eventually had his Greatest Hits volumes 1, 2, and 3.

For a long time those were the only Elton John albums I had, and the songs on those albums were basically the only Elton John songs I knew. Then, in college, I got a book with note-for-note transcripts of a bunch of Elton John songs. Many of them were songs I wasn't familiar with. There was one in particular - Indian Sunset - that I really enjoyed playing and I was dying to hear the real, actual song. (Children, this was back before Al Gore invented the Internet.)

So I figured out which album that song was on (it was Madman Across the Water) and I bought the CD. I ended up liking every song on the album, which didn't surprise me, since I'd always liked every other Elton John song I'd ever heard.

Still, after that, I never bought another Elton John album. Up until a few years ago, I was okay with only knowing the same 35 or so songs I'd had on my greatest hits albums and my one studio album.

But then I got a subscription to Amazon Music and discovered they had every single one of his past albums available. So I created a playlist with 372 songs on it. I've been listening to it very regularly now for the past few years.

And now I've decided I'm qualified to make a list ranking his albums from worst to best.

I am ranking the 31 studio albums that Elton John has released as of 2019. I have not included any live albums, compilations, or collaboration albums he's done with other people. I also am not including the five or six movie soundtracks he's done over the years. These are just the 31 solo studio albums that he has put out since 1969.

I didn't actually intend for this introduction to be so long, but hey, shit happens. Anyway, here's the first part of the list. Let me know what you think, although be aware that if you disagree, you'll be wrong.

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31. VICTIM OF LOVE

If you've ever heard this album, then you are like me: a victim of Victim of Love. This is a no-brainer. I can't imagine a ranking of Elton John studio albums that didn't put this album as the very worst. It's not just Elton's worst album, it has to be one of the worst albums that's ever been recorded by a major act. It's remarkably bad. It is absolutely unbelievable that a star of Elton's caliber agreed to do an album this awful.

Here's the thing: It's a freaking disco album. The first song is an 8-minute disco version of Johnny B. Goode, if you want an idea of how awful it is. I think all the other songs are originals, but they are just terrible. And it's not just because disco is terrible. Even by disco standards, these songs suck. I guess if you were high as a kite in orange bell bottoms on a disco dance floor in Germany in 1979, maybe it would've been fine, but I can't imagine any other setting where this album isn't just fucking terrible.

I don't know the background of the album, but it seems to have been a record company gimmick to cash in on the disco fad of the late 70s. Released in 1979, Elton basically only participated by singing the songs. He didn't write any of the music or play keyboards (or any other instrument) on any of the songs. And he's never performed any of them live. The record company seems to have wanted something, Elton was too fucked up on coke to produce anything, so they brought in studio musicians and songwriters to write and record a disco album, and then just brought Elton in to sing the lyrics and put his name on the cover. That's what it appears to be, anyway.

Regardless, it's terrible. I skip the songs when they come on.

30. THE THOM BELL SESSIONS

I haven't seen the Elton biopic, so I don't know if it addresses this, but the late 70s seem to have been a bad time in Elton's life. This is another terrible album from that time.

Thom Bell was a famous producer who had developed a sound called Philadelphia Soul. Elton had written a stand-alone single called Philadelphia Freedom in 1975 that tapped into this sound. After that, he apparently wanted to work with Bell for a whole album. Evidently the two didn't get along well and they ended up only recording 6 songs before calling it quits. Even though the recording sessions took place in 1977, the album wasn't released until 1979, and then it was only a 3-song EP. One of those songs (Mama Can't Buy You Love) did end up going to #9 on the charts.

In 1989, the album was re-released, this time with all 6 songs.

With the exception of Mama Can't Buy You Love (which is a decent song), both incarnations of this album suck. Maybe if I was into 1970s Philadelphia Soul music, I would like it. But I'm not. The background music is heavy on brassy orchestration and apparently one of the gimmicks of this sound is to repeat a catchy chorus about 435 times at the end of the song. I mean these songs just go on and on and on, and it's not NEW music, it's the same hook, over and over and over again. If you're familiar with Mama Can't Buy You Love, you'll know what I'm talking about.

With the exception of Mama, I skip all these songs when they come on.

29. WONDERFUL CRAZY NIGHT

This is Elton's most recent album, released in 2016. It was a tough decision to put it here, because there are no "bad" songs on it. And I don't want to be one of those "all his new music sucks" guys.

But the problem is that there are no really good songs on it. It's basically just 10 very average, forgettable tracks. A few of the songs have a catchy beat or a catchy hook, but all in all the music is just not great. It feels very much like what it is ... an album by a 70-year-old former pop/rock star who has long since graduated into the low end of the Adult Contemporary arena.

I also can't stand the cover of this album. In my opinion, Elton John is remarkably bad at album covers. He's got some really, really awful ones in his catalogue. This is one of them. The expression on his face and his body language on the cover reminds me disturbingly of my mother-in-law. And the music can probably also be described as Music Your Mother-In-Law Would Like.

28. ICE ON FIRE

This album is from 1985 and it's like he wasn't even trying at this point. There is one gem on this album in the song Nikita, but that's about it. Wrap Her Up is catchy, but it's ultimately just bubble-gum pop by two gay guys (George Michael sings back-up) pretending to be straight.

And besides those two songs, the others are all "meh." Some are basically skippers, but even those you don't skip are basically songs you never need to hear again.

27. A SINGLE MAN

Back to that bad period in the late 70s again, and another album that's just not that good. This was the second album Elton did after "breaking up" with his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin. The first was the aforementioned Thom Bell Sessions and the third was Victim of Love. This one, at least, was a straightforward studio album with Elton writing the songs and performing them, albeit with a different lyricist.

I put this album above Ice on Fire simply because A Single Man has the song Georgia on it. I absolutely love this song. It's probably in my top 10.  Elton had made his fame playing a style of music I like to call piano-driven Gospel Rock, and in the late 70s, he moved away from that sound, pretty much permanently. But Georgia was like one last hurrah of that classic Elton, piano-driven Gospel Rock sound. I just love this song.

There are a few other decent songs to be found here, but all in all it's not a good album. Elton just wasn't the same during the 5 or 6 years that he and Bernie Taupin weren't writing together.

As a bit of trivia, Elton frequently recorded songs during his recording sessions that didn't make the final cut for the album. They were sometimes used as "B-sides" for singles, and other times just stuck into the vault unreleased. Years later, they would frequently make it onto compilation albums of "rare" songs or included with re-releases of the studio albums they were recorded with.

One of those songs for this album was called Flintstone Boy. It was originally the B-side to a single. It's now included on the reissue of A Single Man. It's the only song I know of where Elton John wrote the music and the lyrics. Elton is famous for his playing and songwriting, but lyrics are not his forte, which is why he's always used a lyricist to write with him.

I guess maybe in the wake of breaking up with Bernie Taupin he decided to try his hand at writing some lyrics. The result is this song. And it is absolutely awful. It seriously must be the most inane, asinine set of lyrics I have ever heard. And I guess because the lyrics were so uninspiring, the music he wrote for them was also pretty terrible. It's just a bad song. Definitely a skipper.

26. THE ONE

This is an album from 1992. It reminds me a bit of Wonderful Crazy Night in that it doesn't have any bad songs, but it also doesn't have anything really all that great on it. I need an album to have at least a few gems, and this one doesn't deliver. The songs are all okay, but there's just nothing here that I would ever intentionally go and play. The title track was a top 10 hit and it's probably the best song on the album.

25. THE DIVING BOARD

This is another recent album, having been put out in 2013. If you like albums that sound like basic jazzy piano bar music, then this is an album for you. As a pianist, I like the piano-driven aspects of the album, which includes 3 brief piano solo instrumentals scattered among the regular songs (called Dream #1, Dream #2, and Dream #3).

The Ballad of Blind Tom is a good one that tells the story of a real-life pianist in the late 19th century. He was a black man born into slavery who was a blind piano prodigy. He could also apparently mimic any voice he ever heard and repeat long speeches and soliloquies from memory. He was diagnosed as mentally handicapped during his life, but he was likely an autistic savant. Someone could play him a song he'd never heard before, and he could immediately play it back to them, note-for-note.

If there's any problem with this album, it's just that it's a little too piano-lounge for me. You need to have a glass of brandy, a book of philosophy, and a tweed jacket on when you listen to this album.

24. THE FOX

We're beginning now to reach the stage where the albums are more good than bad. This album comes from 1981 and Elton had begun to write with Bernie Taupin again, although Taupin only wrote the lyrics for about half the songs.

Just Like Belgium is probably the best song on this album. There aren't any bad songs here, although a couple of them are just sort of boring. Carla/Etude/Fanfare are three songs that all run together on the original B side of the album, comprising about 6 minutes of instrumental music. Why there are three different titles to what is basically a single 6-minute instrumental is anyone's guess. The music then runs directly into the next track, called Chloe, which is the only one of the four that actually has lyrics.

But all in all, this is a decent record with some good hooks and laid back grooves that make for a decent 80s soft rock album.

23. EMPTY SKY

This was Elton John's first album, released in the UK in 1969. It was not released in the U.S. at the time, which is why his second, self-title album, is frequently named as his "first" album. Empty Sky didn't get released until 1975 in the U.S., at the height of his fame.

This album's main strengths lie in its hints of the greatness that was to come, and in its novelty value. If you're familiar with "classic" Elton John, you notice immediate differences when you listen to this album. His voice sounds different, and many of the songs have a very 60s, psychedelic sound to them. He bizarrely opted to play harpsichord instead of piano on a number of the songs, which gives them a very foreign, artsy kind of feel.

The best song on the album actually wasn't even on the original album released in 1969. It's Me That You Need was one of several singles released independently at that time. The song has since been included on reissues of the album.

Another song from the album, Skyline Pigeon, is easily one Elton's best songs, but not the early version found on Empty Sky. On this version, he plays harpsichord, and it totally ruins the song. A few years later had the sense to re-record and re-release it, and that second version is one of my favorite Elton John songs.

22. TOO LOW FOR ZERO

This is actually Elton's best-selling album of the 1980s, but as a whole, I think it's actually among his worst. But that doesn't mean it's a bad album.

To begin with, it has I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues on it, and that's one of his best songs (maybe his very best song) of the 1980s. It also produced several other hits that are decent, including I'm Still Standing, Kiss the Bride, and the title track. Kiss the Bride is another one of those bubble-gum pop songs that Elton did so well in the 80s and which sound funny today because OF COURSE he didn't want to kiss the bride.

In any case, the reason this album is lower than most of his other 80s albums is because besides those hits, the rest of the songs on the album are pretty weak. A set of pretty much forgettable songs.

21. THE BIG PICTURE

According to the Wikipedia article, lyricist Bernie Taupin lists this album as his least favorite, because he apparently thinks his lyrics weren't very good. Considering how bizarre and sometimes even silly his lyrics can be, I don't necessarily understand what his problem with this particular album is.

In any case, this album is from 1997 and its very heavy on orchestration. Some of the songs give a sense of elevator music. It's definitely strongly in the Adult Contemporary camp. But over time, this album has grown on me.

A lot of the songs are very dramatic and theatrical (he wrote a number of movie soundtracks in the 90s, including The Lion King and several others, so he must have just been in that mode when he went into the studio to do this one). If you let yourself, you can kind of get swept away in the drama of a few of the songs, with their big, sweeping orchestrations and their booming climaxes.

Something About the Way You Look Tonight is probably the last truly great song Elton John wrote. It got a lot of attention and airplay because it was the B-side to his standalone single Candle in the Wind 1997, the tribute to Princess Diana, which is to this day the best-selling single of all time.

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Keep watching for my next post, which will continue the countdown from 20 to 11. We're going to start getting into some really, really good Elton John albums.