Monday, 29 June 2015

Elton John album by album





Elton John is one of the world's most popular artists. He has had more than fifty Top 40 hits, and has sold over 300 million records. He works in partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, and they churn out musically well crafted, melodic and popular middle of the road tunes with limited but ambitious and somehow fairly evocative lyrics. The songs don't break new ground, they don't summarise society, they tell us little about ourselves, they don't influence anyone; they are simply decent songs sung in a warm, pleasant voice where the lyrics can be plainly heard. With such undemanding, pleasant, melodic music, and 6th form, yet evocative lyrics, the pair have found a mass appeal. The lack of cleverness, ambition, artiness, obscurity, difficulty, in the songs, the occasional homely awkwardness of the lyrics, the familiarity of subject matter and tunes, and the timelessness of some of the melodies (Candle In The Wind), makes Elton John very approachable and likeable for a large and undemanding audience.

Elton was born Reginald Dwight in 1947, and raised in the Pinner area of London. He learned to play piano at an early age, and by 1962 had formed Bluesology. His first single, "Come Back Baby", was recorded as Reg Dwight with Bluesology in 1965. He wrote and sang it. The band's second single was "Mr Frantic" in 1966, also written and sung by Elton. The band joined with Long John Baldry, and released their last single (with Stu Brown on vocals), "Since I found You Baby", in 1967.  Elton met his songwriter partner, Bernie Taupin, in 1967, after they had both answered an advert for songwriters. For two years they wrote songs for other artists, including Roger Cook and Lulu, and John also worked as a session musician for artists such as the Hollies and the Scaffold. In 1969 the pair worked on and released Elton John's debut album, Empty Sky, which met little success. The following year, 1970, his second album  Elton John, also failed to impress, but a combination of the release of the fine Tumbleweed Connection album along with a single from the Elton John album, which contained Your Song on the B-side, brought him to the public's attention. A series of sometimes patchy, but generally likeable albums and singles kept him in the charts for many years. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a double album released in 1973, and containing "Candle in the Wind", "Bennie and the Jets", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", is generally regarded as his best and most popular album.


Empty Sky (1969)

Recognisably Elton John, his debut album consists of pleasant music with competent lyrics, sung with his homely, comforting voice.Voice and lyrics aside, the album has much in common with the feel and sound of Randy Newman's first album. There is an awareness of folk and even a bit of country music in the style of the  album, and also of the singer/songwriter - notable mainstream albums released just before Empty Sky was recorded which have a similar feel, are Simon & Garfunkels'  Bookends, James Taylor's first album, and Harry Nilsson's Ariel Ballet. A stand-out track is  "Skyline Pigeon", which he would re-record  in 1972. Not included on the original vinyl, but on later CD releases, is "Lady Samantha", a single released six months earlier. This is a sadly overlooked album.

Rating: 4

Elton John  (1970)

Elton's second album, Elton John, released in 1970, continues the style of the first, though contains "Your Song",  which was released as a single and reached number seven in the UK and number eight in the US, becoming John's first hit single, and launching him into public view and the path to his extraordinary commercial success.  Originally it was the B-side to Take Me To The Pilot, but DJs preferred Your Song. The success of the single drove sales of the album. It's a great song, sung well. It's one of my favourite songs, and for me Elton John's best.The album, though in the style of the first, has a little more confidence, and a more sympathetic production, and  a slightly more country feel - which suits Elton John's homely style, and there's more emphasis on melodramatic orchestration thanks to arrangements by Paul Buckmaster. The producer, Gus Dudgeon, would continue to work with Elton on his next albums. Other than "Your Song", the stand out track is "Border Song".

Rating: 4 - 5


Tumbleweed Connection  (1970)

There's a pleasant, relaxed, and cohesive feel about Tumbleweed Connection - it feels like a proper unified album.  While the individual songs may not amount to much on their own, together they great a mood and ambiance of easy-listening country and western music that is both relaxing and evocative. The gossip swing in some of the choruses works very well. The notion of a wild west album would be picked up two years later by The Eagles who would use a similar album cover styling of sepia photographs. Though Elton and Bernie had picked ideas themselves from CSN&Y's Déjà Vu album, and  The Band's The Band album, who had themselves been influenced by Dylan's John Wesley Harding. Not all (or indeed most) of the songs are easily related to the Wild West, so thoughts of this as a concept album are probably misplaced, but it would be true to say that elements of America, American music, and the Wild West are present in the album, and influence it significantly. I find this the most attractive and complete of Elton's albums. It's my favourite. And it has Dusty Springfield involved as one of the backing singers. Interestingly, because the album doesn't yield any individually strong songs, the record company released Take Me To The Pilot / Your Song from Elton's previous album, as the promotional single. That worked, as people liked Your Song, and when they came to this album, found they liked it as well. Together, Your Song and Tumbleweed Connection make up Elton's best work in my view. Best track - Country Comfort.

Western Themes in Contemporary Rock Music.
Liner Notes
Rating: 6 1/2


Friends (Soundtrack - 1971)
A soundtrack album. Two songs, the rest are instrumentals. Pleasant but inconsequential.

Rating: 2


17-11-70  (Live - 1971)
A pretty decent live album taken from a radio broadcast of a New York studio performance in November 1970. Good sound, and a solid performance. There are several versions available of the broadcast, including bootlegs of the full show. The album has six tracks, the later CD releases rearrange the order of the songs, and one has an extra song, "Amoreena". The song selection and arrangement doesn't quite work for me, and the album has a patchy feel; the rockers don't quite rock, and the ballads are sparse rather than warm and intimate, but it's a strong, professional performance, and it's listenable enough.

Rating: 4 1/2


Madman Across The Water  (1971)

Contains the single "Tiny Dancer". A fairly dull album of middle of the road pop songs. There's a an earnestness about this which doesn't help, and the orchestration underlines the attempt to appeal to a broad, mature audience. This is a significant move away from the country feel and inventiveness of Tumbleweed Connection.

Liner Notes
Rating: 2


Honky Chateau  (1972)

Contains the cute and throwaway boogie woogie song, "Honky Cat", very commercial, and nicely done. There is a wide variety of songs on the album - something for everyone, yet it holds together well. The songs are well written and warmly performed. There's a New Orleans feel about the album, giving it a warm richness. "Rocket Man" was a hit, and continues to be a radio favourite. This album exemplifies my dilemma with Elton John. It's well written and well performed, and a lot of the tracks are very listenable and attractive, but there's a superficiality about it all, and a commercial gloss, that I find it hard to engage on a deeply emotional level. Elton is a very fine craftsman - he understands music, and can write very attractive tunes. In that regard he is like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Taupin's  lyrics are interesting. You can see what he is about. That he rarely says anything profound or revealing doesn't seem to matter as much as being able to reach across to people. "I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself" gives us nothing new about teenage angst, provides no insights, gives us no great lines, it's simply a throwaway play with the theme; and Elton attaches the right playful tune to it. More telling songs on the same theme, which underline how lacking the song is, are "My Generation", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues". Elton and Bernie's song is good on its own terms - it's just that it doesn't have anything significant to say. But people like the simple, homely approach. It makes the subject matter more understandable. There's nothing clever or challenging about it. And there's a place for approachable songs. And that's a huge part of Elton's success. He is approachable. He is understandable. He makes attractive music - nothing new, nothing challenging - just good, well constructed, attractive music, with lyrics that are understandable and simple and even stumble here and there, adding to their charm and approachability. I like this album, but I don't think it's important musically, lyrically or socially.

AllMusic
Liner Notes
Rating: 5


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

A lot of filler in between "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock", both of which are a little weak in themselves, but Crocodile Rock is a bit of harmless fun with some pop-style bubblegum rock n roll, and Daniel has some evocative melody lines that give some emotional weight to Taupin's suggestive lyrics.

AllMusic
Liner Notes
Rating: 3 1/2




Goodbye Yellow Brick Road  (Double - 1973)

Originally intended as a regular album, the team went to Jamaica to record, but found the atmosphere intimidating, and the studio too primitive, so moved back to the French studio where the previous two albums had been made. The frustrating delays and the contrast between the tense situation in Jamaica with the relaxed French château resulted in Elton writing extra songs which resulted in the album being expanded into a double. Widely regarded as Elton's best and most popular album, it's also seen as a being a little bit over-blown and self-indulgent, typified by the prog-rock intro. The album does feel somewhat ambitious for a rather straightforward tune-smith, but that's no bad thing. There's some good songs here, "Candle in the Wind", "Bennie and the Jets", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" were all hit singles, and while "Funeral for a Friend" is superficial, tedious and derivative, "Love Lies Bleeding" does work. Other songs, for me, are a little trivial and unimaginative, but it's a matter of opinion, and others regard the album as not only Elton's best, but also as something of a classic.

AllMusic
Liner Notes
Classic Albums
Rating: 5




Caribou  (1974)

The singles were "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me". Neither are great songs, but listenable enough. My preference is for the ballad. The rest of the album is fairly throwaway - probably one of Elton's weakest. Later CD releases include "Pinball Wizard" which was recorded around the same time for the Tommy film.. This lifts the album somewhat, but not enough to save it.

AllMusic
Rating: 2 1/2



Elton John Greatest Hits  (Compilation - 1974)

A very decent summary of Elton's most popular songs up to 1974. Three of his studio albums are not represented, including Tumbleweed Connection, but his best singles are. At this point, anyone having Tumbleweed Connection and this compilation would have pretty much the best of Elton to date. Except that in America the album replaced "Candle In The Wind" with "Bennie And The Jets" - not a good switch!

Rating: 5 1/2


Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy 
(1975)

Elton John fans like this one because the songs are about Elton and Bernie. But the music is dull, the weakest that Elton has done in his career. Just average tunes. The best melody is in "Somebody Saved My Life Tonight", but the lyrics are cringey and unpleasant. I dislike this album.

AllMusic
Rating: 1


Rock of the Westies  (1975)
Plods along pleasantly and unremarkably. Listenable, but it's musical wallpaper.

AllMusic
Rating: 2 1/2



Here and There  (Live - 1976)

Live album recorded to fulfil contractual obligations to Elton's British record company before he could form his own record company, Rocket Records. The choice of songs is interesting, especially on the fuller CD releases. The album is split into an intimate acoustic "Here" at the Royal Festival Hall in London, which mainly contains ballads, particularly from the early part of his career, and a grand electric "There"  at New York City's Madison Square Garden, which contains rockier songs, and includes two songs with John Lennon (only included on the CD releases). This is a likeable album.

Rating: 3


Blue Moves  (Double - 1976)

A fairly solemn and serious middle of the road album. This album, more than the predecessors, shows Elton John as more at home with stage musical material and middle of the road songs than with rock or blues or folk or country, though there is still a country flavour present. It's a very competent album, and Taupin's lyrics are quite mature. Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word is a very decent song indeed - probably Taupin's most accomplished lyrics. But on the whole the album never really lifts above the mediocrity of its' middle of the road material. A serious album, but ultimately a failure.

Rating: 2
AllMusic
Liner Notes


Greatest Hits Vol 11  (Compilation - 1977)

An interesting collection of  his singles from around 1974 to 1976, not all of which would be considered his greatest either commercially or critically, and not all of which were singles. There are four songs which were not on any Elton John album:  There are different versions of the album. It's quirky and interesting, but doesn't really hold together.

Rating: 2




A Single Man  (1978)

Elton's first album without Bernie. When I first rated this I wasn't impressed, but listening again now, and it's listenable music with OK tunes, such as the New Orleans "Big Dipper".  If you like Elton John you're going to like this, and evfen if you don't, it's quite acceptable and jolly enough. Proper professional music by an exceptionable craftsman.

Rating: 3
AllMusic


Victim of Love  (1979)
Good grief.

Rating: 1
AllMusic


21 at 33 (1980)

Counting double albums as two, this is the 21st album to be released under the Elton John name from a label to which he was under contract. It's a moderately pleasant album, but fairly uninteresting. Feels like someone just going through the motions.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


The Fox  (1981)

More moderately pleasant, trivial and dull stuff.

Rating: 2
AllMusic




Jump Up!  (1982)

More of the same.

Rating: 2
AllMusic





Too Low for Zero  (1983)

There is a different feel about this album straight from the opening song. This feels like classic Elton John - there's a warmth about the music and the production and the playing. After years of going through the motions, he goes back to the energy, feel, and compassion of his early 70s period. It's the best he's done since Yellow Brick Road.

Rating: 5
AllMusic


Breaking Hearts  (1984)

With the same team as Too Low for Zero, this should have the same feel, but it doesn't. It simply repeats the moderately pleasant, trivial and dull stuff of the bulk of Elton's output during the late 70s and 80s.

Rating: 2
AllMusic

Ice on Fire  (1985)

I honestly didn't know when I started looking into Elton John just how much dull music he has made. I knew the early albums and the hits over the years, and found his music enjoyable, and so while I hoped to perhaps discover an interesting album that I didn't know about, I at least expected to find music I liked along the way. So far there's only been Too Low for Zero which has contained likeable music, and there's - so far - been no interesting albums I didn't know about. This is another dull album. Contains the plodding but attractive single "Nikita", and the moderately workable "Too Young" that in a different time and place Elton could have made more of.

Rating: 2
AllMusic

Leather Jackets  (1986)

And so it goes on.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


Live In Australia  (1987)

The song selection from Elton's early period, exploring lessor known songs, and the use of a symphony orchestra, suggests this should be an attractive album - sadly his voice is so damaged it makes for painful listening. Shortly after recording this he had surgery on his throat, and it was unknown if he would be able to sing again afterwards. If the surgery had failed, this would have been his last recording.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


Reg Strikes Back  (1988)

New throat and new contract. Same dull songs.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


The Complete Thom Bell Sessions  (1989)

Originally recorded in 1977 but only three remixed versions of the six tracks were released in 1979 due to disagreements over use of the vocals. In 1989 the full session was released, using the original 1977 recordings.It's more attractive than much of Elton's 80s output, but not really the great lost album that Radio 4 try to make it out to be. Elton's vocals are not as sweet as they need to be for such songs. This really shows him up as a warm, homely pub performer than a subtle, sweet soul singer.

Rating: 3
AllMusic
BBC Radio 4 Documentary


Sleeping With The Past  (1989)

Supposedly in the style of 60s and 70s soul music, but it's really more of the same. The biggest soul influence seems to come from George Michael, and some Drifters feel on Club At The Of The Street. Sacrifice was released as a single and became his first proper number one in the UK (he previously had a number one as part of Elton John & Kiki Dee, but Sacrifice was his first under his own name only).

Rating: 2
AllMusic


The One  (1992)

I think I'm losing the will to live. It's not that the songs are bad or unlistenable, it's just that they are so unimaginative, and simply plod along. This one is interesting because you can hear the emergence of the melodies that Elton will use on The Lion King.

Rating: 2
AllMusic

Duets  (1993)

From the late 80s onwards it was popular for artists to release albums in which they duet with a range of other singers. This was Elton's attempt. Interesting selection of singers, including  k.d. lang, PM Dawn, Little Richard, and Leonard Cohen.
This is likeable and listenable, and a blessed relief from listening to the same old same old same old same old plodding songs that Elton churned out over the years. What is really brought home on this album is that Elton isn't really a good singer, his voice is pleasant, homely and warm, and that's what works on the ballads, and he is able to raise his voice to do competent pub rockers.

Rating: 4 1/2
AllMusic


The Lion King  (Soundtrack - 1994)

Elton only supplied four songs, the bulk of the soundtrack was done by Hans Zimmer, but two of those songs are Circle of Life, and Can You Feel the Love Tonight, which have very evocative melodies. The lyrics are more polished than Bernie's, though pretty much in the same area - superficial, but effective. This is not my style of music, and at times I find the songs cringe-worthy, but also, at times, I find them very moving and effective.

Rating: 5


Made in England  (1995)

Elton kept trying to resurrect his early 1970s sound by returning to musicians he had used back then. Though the end result here is essentially more of the same 80s and 90s empty melodies. It is pleasant enough, and there is a feeling of genuine warmth, but its little better than average.

Rating: 3
AllMusic


The Big Picture  (1997)

Slips back to the same old stuff. "Something About The Way You Look Tonight" is the best offering, and it's full of the same musical lines he's done before. And the lyrics are trite. And, as with much of their stuff, it's a little less than whatever they're copying. - in this case one of the sources is likely to be "Wonderful Tonight" by Clapton.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


"Candle In The Wind"   (1997)
Elton's finest moment.
Rating: 8



With or without the big name stars this is still same old same old.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


The Muse  (Soundtrack - 1999)

It's a light and pleasant soundtrack, and works quite well - but it is a soundtrack, not something you would sit down and listen to at home. There are samples in the AllMusic review.

Rating: 2
AllMusic


The Road to El Dorado  (Soundtrack - 2000)

A trait of Elton John is his attempts to redo something that worked rather than moving on and trying something new. Through much of the 80s he was trying to recapture his early 70s work. Through the 90s he was trying to recapture the Lion King. Here's another attempt, and another failure. It's competent, but uninspired and dull.

Rating: 2
AllMusic

Elton John One Night Only – The Greatest Hits 
(Live - 2000)

A great selection of his hits, all sung live. Sounds like a good idea.. But no - the performance is dreadful. The way he ruins the old favourites makes you wince. You're seriously better off not listening to this. Credit for them being catchy songs and all, but that's it. No credit for anything else.

Rating: 1 1/2
AllMusic


Songs From The West Coast  (2001)

The warm country feel of the opening song grabs you. This is another attempt by Elton to recapture his critically acclaimed early 70s sound. For all his money, fame, and commercial success, you feel that he really wants to be accepted as a real artist. Commercial success is fickle and often temporary, but great art lives on. This is not great art, but there's a genuine warmth here that is very attractive, and very reminiscent of Tumbleweed Connection - for me, Elton's best album.

Rating: 3 1/2
AllMusic


Peachtree Road  (2004)

As with Songs From The West Coast, there is warm, mature feel about this. It harks back to Tumbleweed and Elton John, but is informed by Elton's achievements since. It lacks the enthusiasm, charm, and magic of those early recordings, but is still a very attractive listen, and while there's nothing great here, and the ambition is very limited, it does suggest that there may have been an alternative path for Elton, in which instead of being the world's most popular camp middle of the road performer, he may have been the world's most popular singer-songwriter.

Rating: 4
AllMusic

Captain and The Kid  (2006)

Competent but unexciting. On the whole better than the majority of Elton's output, but still fairly weak.

Rating: 3
AllMusic


The Union  (2010)

A collaboration with the wonderful and underrated Leon Russell.  I like this. And the more I listen the more I like it.

Rating: 5 1/2
AllMusic


The Diving Board  (2013)

My original intention was to survey all Elton's releases, but from some point in the late 90s I have been skipping compilations, live albums and soundtracks such as Gnomeo & Juliet, and oddities such as the Pnau.remix album. Which brings us quickly to Elton's final proper album. I love the cover photo, which was shot by Tim Barber at a remote and secret diving location that he claims to have forgotten. The album is, as usual for Elton, pleasant and competent enough, but the songs don't really stick out as anything special.

Rating: 2 1/2
AllMusic


Conclusion

Elton John isn't a great musician. He plods at his piano, knocking out the melody in a brute percussive manner. He's a pub pianist rather than a concert pianist. He hits the piano keys too sharply and strongly to get any subtly or beauty out of the instrument. His voice has a homely feel which is a large part of his charm. He isn't a great singer, and conveys the words rather than the emotions, doing little with his voice, but that limitation and simplicity is part of the charm and appeal. It's like he's your best friend singing - there's a down to earth familiarity and lack of artifice about him. He can churn out pleasant tunes, and sometimes finds an evocative melody. Bernie's lyrics are part of the appeal, because, like Elton himself, they are a little clumsy. Elton isn't a great pianist or singer, but he is workmanlike, and has an honest appeal. Just as Elton's thick fingers are a little too percussive on the keys and don't fly, so Bernie's lyrics don't always fly - being limited in grace and language and in depth. It's a good marriage though - the sum being greater than the parts. In essence, Elton is a phenomenally  popular middle of the road pop musician largely due to his homely style. I suspect his appeal will be transient as there are few of his songs with the depth to sustain popularity over time, and there's little there of interest for music historians to write about. But he has had some great moments. I love "Your Song", I like Tumbleweed Connection. I think the two songs for the Lion King are very effective, if not my style. And regardless of anyone's opinion of Elton, choosing to sing a revised version of "Candle In The Wind" for Princess Diana's funeral, was intensely moving and iconic.

Voice
I think Elton's voice is key to his success and popularity. It's a warm, homely voice. It's friendly and endearing and honest. It makes the songs familiar to the point of intimacy. It's not a great voice, nor is it flexible. He makes it work on rockers by belting it out, though it's on ballads that it displays its real strengths with a delivery that is clear, and feels genuine. It's not particularly expressive or emotional, so he cannot add depth or bring out significance, but put the right lyric with the voice, and it can be warmly eloquent, as on "Daniel", "Candle In The Wind", and "Your Song".
7/10

Image
Elton doesn't have a good look, or good style, but he is endearing. He's the boy next door. He's your cousin, nephew, your best friend's mate that everyone likes. He's like a Labrador puppy. We warm to him, and want him to succeed. He seems honest and genuine and up front. He's non-threatening - he's not arrogant, not intellectual, not clever, not aggressive, not good looking, nor stylish (much as he'd like to be). He's a lad who makes good-time rocking pub music and everyday ballads that are simple but endearing. We liked it when he was flamboyant in the Seventies, and we warmed to his concerns with his hair, and his struggles with coming to terms with his homosexuality. These aspects made him more colourful than just the boy next door, yet also kept him vulnerable and real.
5/10

Lyrics
Elton doesn't write his own lyrics, but he does choose them. They are not strong, but their simple earnestness can at times, when combined with Elton's warm voice, be elevated into something that seems almost profound.
5/10

Music
Good, professional, unambitious music; mostly tin pan alley. Nothing wrong with the music. But nothing special either. It works. It's good. That's enough.
5/10

Impact/Influence
He's part of the furniture. No impact or influence as such. Just someone who has seemingly always been there since the early 70s.
3/10

Importance
None, Just a popular, pleasant, and likeable pop star.
2/10

Popularity
He is one of the best selling artists of all time - he's in the top 5 or 7. He's had a string of number 1 albums and singles in America (where he is particularly popular). He has been continuously successful since "Your Song" in 1970.
10/10

Legacy
I don't think he has a legacy - he is a competent and popular musician, but there appears to be little sustainable or memorable about what he has done - apart from "Your Song" and "Candle In The Wind". Hugely popular though he has been, it is possible that he will gradually fade with time.
1/10

Star quality
With his homely boy-next-door feel he doesn't strike one initially as someone with star quality, but he has a comfortable confidence on stage, demonstrated magnificently when he sang "Candle In The Wind" live for the funeral of Princess Diana, and his flamboyant dress sense in the Seventies drew attention, as did his extravagant parties and spending, so it balances slightly in favour of the star quality.
6/10

Emotional appeal
His ballads are warm and appealing, but most of his output is superficial pop.
4/10

Total: 48/100



Best of Elton John
Tumbleweed Connection
"Your Song"
"Candle In The Wind 1997"

Rolling Stone: 10 Best Albums
UCR: All Albums Ranked
BestEverAlbums




Links

* EltonJohn.com
* EltonDaily fan site
* EltonFan fan site
* EltonJohnWorld fan site
* AllMusic
* Wikipedia

Discography


Kitchen Table Music Blogs
Best Of The Best

1 comment:

  1. Looking through this today, and I think I've been a little mean on Mr John. No, he's not Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, but he doesn't set out to be. He's an entertainer who writes some of the most popular tunes in the world. I think I need to go through this again to treat him more fairly....

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