Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Elton John Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Empty Sky (1969, DJM; first released in the U.S. in 1975 on MCA)

D –

John’s first album honestly doesn’t have anything to recommend it. John and lyricist Bernie Taupin have really yet to master the art of writing songs, and the set of tunes here is easily one of their least memorable. The album-opening title cut does hint at John’s potential, but at over eight minutes, it’s just too long to make any seismic impression. The catchiest song here is easily the ballad “Skyline Pigeon,” but it’s arranged horribly, played on a harpsichord, of all instruments, which just doesn’t fit the song at all, and there’s a far superior studio version of the song on the flip side of the 1972 hit “Daniel.” The album also ends with a really strange montage of snippets from all the songs you’ve previously heard; rather than making an artistic statement of any sort, the coda just seems creepy. This is definitely one to avoid.

Elton John (1970, Uni)

B –

John’s self-titled sophomore album is a much, much stronger outing than his debut. There’s still a little too much filler, but John and Taupin are finally starting to figure out how to write solid songs. The opening cut, the ballad and modern-day standard “Your Song,” still remains one of John’s loveliest and most popular tunes, while the gospel-infused “Border Song,” packs some serious emotional punch and would be covered by – and become a Top 40 hit for – no less than the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. The non-singles are much more hit-and-miss, but there are still some gems hidden in there, namely the gospel-tinged “Take Me to the Pilot” and the pleading “I Need You to Turn To.” The 1996 CD reissue adds the fantastic B-side “Bad Side of the Moon.”

Tumbleweed Connection (1971, Uni)

A +

It lacks any radio hits that might be familiar to your average casual fan, but Elton’s third full-length, a concept album of sorts about the Wild West, is his first truly great album, captivating from start to finish, boasting rollicking boogie-rock tunes (“Ballad of a Well-Known Gun”), gorgeous love ballads (“Come Down in Time,” the Lesley Duncan duet “Love Song”), chilling psychedelic-rock (“Where to Now St. Peter”), rustic anthems (“Country Comfort”), and gospel epics (“Burn Down the Mission”), all executed with equal skill. Even though there are no hit singles here (although “Amoreena” made it into the opening sequence of the film classic Dog Day Afternoon), the songs are much more catchy than you might expect, and you’re likely to come back to the album repeatedly just as much for individual songs as to listen to and appreciate the disc in full.

Friends (1971, Paramount)

B –
 
This album isn’t a proper Elton John album per se; instead, it’s a soundtrack to a very obscure movie of the same name about two young teenagers who cross paths and decide to run away and play house, starting a family in the process, before police track them down and the two are forced to return to their respective homes. The movie itself is terrible, but the soundtrack is legitimately good. While half of it consists of instrumental score music you’re not likely to come back to all that often (though the lush orchestrations are quite lovely), the vocal cuts here are nearly just as moving as the best cuts on Tumbleweed Connection. The dramatic title cut would actually be a minor Top 40 hit for Elton, and the ballad “Seasons” remains one of Elton’s greatest lost songs. The bouncy, more R&B-tinged “Honey Roll” is fun, and the rollicking “Can I Put You On” is one of Elton’s better epic rockers from his first three years as a recording artist. It’s never been released on CD by itself (though you can find all of the tracks on the Rare Masters boxed set), but it’s worth seeking out on vinyl.

Madman Across the Water (1971, Uni)

A –

It’s a mildly overrated album, if only because the second side is rather uneven, but Elton’s fourth proper studio album is another great outing. While nothing on here made the Top Twenty, the disc contains two Elton standards that are inescapable on classic-rock radio, the epic ballad “Tiny Dancer” (which you may be surprised to learn only actually made it to #41) and the gospel-fused Top 40 hit “Levon.” There are also a small handful of fairly good album cuts, including “Indian Sunset,” the country-tinged “Holiday Inn,” and especially the great, haunting, epic title track, which isn’t one of John’s more obviously commercial tunes but has a melody that worms its way into your ears nonetheless and boasts some phenomenal lead guitar work from guest musician Chris Spedding. (An equally great alternate version featuring Mick Ronson on guitar can be found as a bonus track on the 1995 CD reissue of Tumbleweed Connection.)

Honky Chateau (1972, Uni)

A

Elton’s first album to feature his first-rate touring band (Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on bass, and the wildly underrated Nigel Olssson on drums), Chateau might be Elton’s best album yet and certainly his most playful to this point. The album opens in stellar fashion with the jittery New Orleans-tinged boogie of “Honky Cat” and features a second Top 40 hit in the timeless and haunting ballad “Rocket Man” (which boasts one of the greatest opening lines in all of classic-rock in “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight / Zero hour, 9 A.M. / and I’m gonna be high as a kite by then”). What’s most amazing is the high quality of the non-singles here, especially the addictively catchy and bouncy “Hercules,” and the jaw-dropping ballad “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which might very well be Elton’s most underrated song.

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973, MCA)

A +

Elton’s most consistently strong album since Tumbleweed Connection, the hooks on this disc simply never stop. The album kicks off in grand fashion with the mellotron-and-Fender-Rhodes-powered classic “Daniel,” which is followed by one great, catchy album track after another, from the rollicking “Teacher I Need You,” the funky “Elderberry Wine” (easily one of the most insanely catchy Elton John songs to never get released as a single) and the devastatingly pretty ballad “Blues for Baby and Me,” to the epic “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” the witty “I’m Going to Be a Teenage Idol,” and the snide country pastiche “Texan Love Song.” It’s very seldom that you run into an album where the best song and biggest hit is placed in the second-to-last slot on the disc, but it’s exactly there where Elton drops what has become one of his signature tunes, the ‘50s-rock-and-roll-tinged “Crocodile Rock.” It’s a slight shame that Elton didn’t include his re-recording of “Skyline Pigeon” from the same sessions at the end of the original album in place of “High Flying Bird,” but it does show up as a bonus cut on the 1996 CD reissue.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973, MCA)

A

A slightly overrated album, critics tend to fawn quite a bit over this double album, which is mostly deserved, but bear in mind that this is also a fairly edgy album for its time and one which has quite a few cuts that never would have passed the muster at radio back then, so this isn’t quite as commercial an album as Don’t Shoot Me was. Still, it’s a great, great album, boasting three Top 40 hits in the dramatic balladry of the iconic title track with its memorably garbled and often-misinterpreted lyric (I can’t be the only kid who used to think that Elton was singing about
the cat that peed in your penthouse,” but I was almost certainly the only one who thought he was singing Back to get Hall and Oates out in the woods / To back me on Honky Chateau”), the cryptic and faux-live staccato stomp of “Bennie and the Jets,” and the manic rocker “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (my own personal all-time favorite Elton song), boasting some seriously furious performances from Davey Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums. The non-singles are a much more mixed bag, but catchy cuts like the studio version of “Candle in the Wind” (which would, of course, become a Top 40 hit twice in future decades, once as a live recording and the other as a posthumous tribute to Princess Di), the monster epic “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the lovely “Harmony,” the jittery “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll),” the tropical-flavored “Jamaica Jerk-Off” and the bouncy “Grey Seal” all help to make the album seem worth its two-disc running time.

Caribou (1974, MCA)

B –

A huge step back in quality from the prior five proper studio albums, Caribou was clearly a rushed effort and ends up being Elton’s least successful outing since his self-titled effort. He and his band still sound great, and the production is fine as well, but the set of songs is wildly inconsistent and Elton reaches a new nadir on the completely nonsensical “Solar Prestige a Gammon.” There are a couple great overlooked album cuts here, though, namely the gorgeous lilting balladry of “Pinky” (which could have easily been a hit had it been issued as a single) and the album-closing epic “Ticking” (just listen to Elton’s clever and chilling cascading piano notes on the line “they pumped you full of rifle shells”), and there are also two major Top Ten hits here in the campy strut of “The Bitch Is Back” and the powerful ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (featuring Toni Tennille and Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston on backing vocals).