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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala


Rather than trying to create a Top Ten list from Sir Elton’s entire catalog, I decided to limit my ranking to his first ten albums. Why? Because choosing my favorites from his entire output would land me on the same ten titles. For me, there’s nothing from Blue Moves on that would shove aside any of Elton and Bernie’s amazing records from 1969 to 1975.

These ten records are some of the most important of my listening life. Before the Rolling Stones took over and swept away everything before them, Elton was my first experience with musical obsession. I’d had a bit of a flirtation with Creedence, and the Guess Who briefly seemed like the greatest band ever, but Elton’s early releases introduced me to what deep focus on an artist meant. I loved every second of these albums back then, played them non-stop, and still put most of them on semi-frequently. If he hadn’t fallen deeply in love with drugs, booze, and alienation, hadn’t decided to kick Bernie to the curb, who knows? Maybe the Stones would have only become co-headliners in my life.

My ranking is of the first 10 studio albums released in the U.S. I'm leaving out the live one, 11-17-70, and the Friends soundtrack (even though it has the wonderful "Can I Put You On"). And though it's a full-fledged John/Taupin collaboration, I'm skipping 1968's Regimental Sgt. Zippo, too. EMI decided at the time that it wouldn't release the album, the world didn't see it until Record Store Day a couple of years ago. I have a copy but rarely play it, it's an interesting Sgt. Pepper-influenced curio at best. If I included it, it would be dead last. I've listened to all ten on the remaining list more times than I can count, and could stand in front of the class recite them by heart.

Since I've already prattled on at some length in this intro, I'm not going to say too much about each record. Even casual fans will know them and info about them is readily available anywhere you care to look. I'm just going to attempt to put them in an order of preference that works for me, lowest to highest, and list a few of the songs from each that remain indelibly imprinted on my psyche. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

#10: Empty Sky (1969 UK, 1975 US) - Elton plays the harpsichord on a few tunes, presumably for post-Sgt. Pepper "psychedelic" reasons. Only drummer Nigel Olsson from his future Elton John Band is present, and only on one song.

• "Skyline Pigeon" the harpsichord works really great once

#09: Rock of the Westies (1975) - Elton and Bernie's most rock album, but only guitarist Davey Johnstone from his classic band is still hanging in. Sir Elton's drug abuse slip is showing in spots.

• "I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)"

• "Feed Me" a deep-grooving ode to addiction

• "Sugar on the Floor" an essential outtake, written by Kiki Dee

#08: Madman Across the Water (1971) - Kicks off with two of the greatest songs E&B ever wrote, then gets a bit choppy. But oh those two songs. Overall, MATW barely stays afloat in its dramatic string arrangements.

• "Tiny Dancer" The bus singalong in Almost Famous. Enough said.

• "Levon"

#07: Tumbleweed Connection (1970) - After the success of Elton John and "Your Song" Bernie's writing focus turned to an odd, romanticized version of America's Old West, before either of them had ever been to the US. But his lyrics, and Elton's melodies, were getting sharper. Much sharper.

• "Come Down in Time"

• "Country Comfort"

• "Amoreena" used to memorable effect in the film Dog Day Afternoon

• "Burn Down the Mission"

Aaaaand, here's where the going gets tough. It's only the benefit of decades of hindsight, and dozens, if not hundreds, of listens that provides enough perspective to rank the rest. They're all records I'll never stop listening to. This order is probably different than it would have been a year ago, probably different than it'll be a year from now.

#06: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) - Considered by some fans to be E&B's masterpiece, I find it a little too self-conscious and fussy to put it above the ones to come. Their most autobiographical album by far, which is nice for them, but not their strongest approach musically.

• "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"

• "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows"

• "Curtains"

#05: Caribou (1974) - The peak of the glitzy, glammy, crazy eyeglasses act, and increasingly decadent life. The bitch was, indeed, back. No surprise they toned it down for Captain Fantastic, there wasn't really anywhere else to go in this direction.

• "The Bitch is Back"

• "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"

• "Ticking" the creepiest, most intense song Elton and Bernie ever concocted

#04: Elton John (1970) - More singer/songwriter than pop at this early stage, at least on record. The unusual dichotomy of the singer and songwriter not being the same person, on such a personal album, has always drawn my attention back to it.

• "Your Song"

• "Take Me to the Pilot"

• "Sixty Years On"

• "Bad Side of the Moon" outtake from the sessions, included on later expanded versions, and a live killer.

#03: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) - The Magnum Opus, the Grand Statement, whatever you want to call it. E&B were writing historically great pop songs at an astonishing rate, easily filling 2 LPs with enduring classic singles and equally brilliant deep cuts. Docked a notch or two for me because I'm fine with never hearing the clunky, annoying "Bennie and the Jets" again.

• "I've Seen That Movie Too"

• "All the Young Girls Love Alice"

• "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting"

• "Harmony"

#02: Honky Château (1972) - Bernie's cleverly obtuse lyrics and Elton's mastery of unstoppable pop melodies (and piano hooks) reach full bloom. They'd go from here to ruling the world in the blink of an eye.

• "Honky Cat"

• "I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself"

• "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)"

• "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"

#01: Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973) - After a fresh listen, I swapped the top two albums on my list. Don't Shoot Me... is the duo's weirdest, darkest, funniest record, and the one that still has the ability to surprise me. That counts for a lot fifty years on.

• "Teacher I Need You"

• "Blues for Baby and Me"

• "Crocodile Rock"

• "High Flying Bird"

Despite having the only name on the album covers, Elton John was never a solo act. He had a lot of genius help making his classic records. MVP awards go to:

• Bernie Taupin - Elton and Bernie weren't a typical songwriting duo. By all reports, they played their specific roles and never collaborated in the traditional "in the same room" sense. Bernie would hand (or send) pages of his vivid, complex, imagistic poetry to Elton, who then, somehow, turned them into impossibly catchy pop songs. When I talk or write about Elton John records I use "they" and "them" because I have no doubt the albums I love so much wouldn't exist without Bernie. I'm anxious to read his just-published memoir.

• The Elton John Band - The band came together piecemeal over the first few records. Drummer Nigel Olsson first, then bassist Dee Murray showed up on Tumbleweed Connection. By Honky Chateau, guitarist Davey Johnstone joined and Elton's brilliantly creative, supportive live and studio band was set. Nigel and Dee were top-shelf backing vocalists, as well, that's why they were initially brought in to the fold. You hear them on all the classic records. Nigel, Davey, and long-time oddball percussionist Ray Cooper shared the stage with Elton on his final Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. Dee passed in 1992, at age 45.

• Gus Dudgeon & Paul Buckmaster - The sonic magicians on Elton's globe-conquering albums. Dudgeon was Elton's record producer on all of these records after Empty Sky, Buckmaster was the first call guy to compose and conduct the memorable string arrangements. The story goes that Elton met Gus after hearing his production work on David Bowie's "Space Oddity" single, and the two became inseparable. Elton has said that he had such complete confidence in the two men that he and the band would record the basic tracks and vocals and leave. Gus and Paul would sculpt the songs into the epic, influential groundbreaking pop the world knows and loves.

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1 comentario

06 oct 2023

"If he hadn’t fallen deeply in love with drugs, booze, and alienation...." LMAO. OMFG. I was selling records in that era (before moving to GR). E&B ALWAYS had a new album in the pipeline. They were all great but I started getting exhausted about the time "Don't Shoot Me'" came out. It on the heels of "'Yellowbrick Road" and every bit as good. Wow. He statrted to feel a bit forced after that - to me anyway. What are you Oct 20? Holiday?

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