Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Elton John Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975, MCA)

A +

A fine recovery from Caribou, Captain Fantastic is both Elton’s most personal record yet and the closest thing he’s made to a concept album since Tumbleweed Connection. For that reason, it works well on both a song-by-song basis and as an album piece. Though there was only one hit here – the intense ballad “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” boasting some nice, muscular-yet-restrained drumming from Olsson – the surrounding album cuts also have their share of the pop hooks we’ve come to expect from Elton and songs like the singalong “Bitter Fingers,” the R&B-infused “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” and “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows,” the stuttering “Better Off Dead,” the soulful “Writing,” and the heavily autobiographical title cut are all quite memorable. It’s unfortunately the last album Elton made that could truly be called a masterpiece, but then, this would have been an awfully hard album to top, Bernie Taupin truly outdoing himself here as a lyricist.

Rock of the Westies (1975, MCA)

B

Even Elton himself dismissed this album as little more than a way of breaking in his new band (he had recently let Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson go, recruiting a new cast of musicians that included synthesizer player and future movie-score composer James Newton-Howard), but it’s a much better disc than either he or critics tend to give it credit for, even it’s far from being the piece of art that Captain Fantastic was. The album’s biggest failing is simply that it’s very front-loaded, all the best songs showing up on Side One. The delightful (if a little too politically incorrect to go down nearly as well if it were released today) Number One hit “Island Girl” is the most recognizable tune here, and both sides of the double-sided Top Twenty hit “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” b/w “I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)” are here as well. “Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)” is a throwaway, but a fun one, while the album-opening medley of the songs “Yell Help,” “Wednesday Night,” and “Ugly” is also quite fun and clever (particularly in the way the songs overlap with each other), and the medley’s false ending and subsequent disco-styled breakdown (ushered in by some cool synth licks from Newton-Howard) demands repeated listens. The second side isn’t quite as memorable, but there’s nothing embarrassing here, either, and the album is arguably a slight smidgen better than the more-famous Caribou.

Blue Moves (1976, MCA)

C + 

Like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Blue Moves is a double album, and it’s got a fair amount of catchy material – singles and non-singles alike – but unlike the former album, there’s nothing here that’s exactly a knockout cut or sure-fire hit, either. The most famous song here is the Top Ten ballad “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” which is a lovely song but comes across a bit too maudlin in its production to be as great a single as it should have been. The unusually jazz-tinged “Idol” is the biggest eye-opener here, while “If There’s a God in Heaven,” “Shoulder Holster,” “Boogie Pilgrim,” “Between Seventeen and Twenty” and “Cage the Songbird” (featuring Graham Nash and David Crosby on harmonies) are the catchiest and most memorable album cuts. The album’s most fun moment, though, is easily the album-closing freak-out jam of the disco-boogie-oriented “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance),” which is admittedly lyrically slight but is musically one of Elton’s most wildly underrated Top 40 hits.

A Single Man (1978, MCA)

C –

Elton’s first album without Bernie Taupin providing the lyrics finds him working instead with Gary Osborne. The two would write better songs together in the future, but there’s very little chemistry here (although this would be the first album where Elton wrote music first and then had lyrics added to it, rather than trying to compose music to fit lyrics, which is the way he had always worked with Taupin, so maybe Elton was just out of his element.) Strangely enough, the biggest hit from the album in the U.K. would be the piano instrumental “Song for Guy,” which is lovely but not exactly obvious hit material, either. There’s only one Top 40 hit, the sadly long-forgotten bouncy gospel-tinged pop of “Part-Time Love,” but it’s a great one and remains one of Elton’s most underrated singles, but aside from that song and “Song for Guy,” none of the melodies really take hold and the songs just don’t stick in your head the way Elton songs usually do.

Victim of Love (1979, MCA)

D + 

Easily the worst thing he’s made since Empty Sky, Victim of Love is a full-blown foray into disco music helmed by Donna Summer co-producer/co-writer Pete Bellotte. Elton’s sole role in the album is as vocalist, leaving all the songwriting and keyboard duties to others, making this a particularly atypical Elton outing. Basically, this just sounds like a Donna Summer album with Elton singing the vocals, which not surprisingly sounds extremely silly and ill-fitting most of the time. Elton reaches a new career nadir here on the cringe-inducing disco reworking of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” but the album is partially redeemed by the half-decent “Spotlight” and the title track, a minor now-forgotten Top 40 hit. Neither song is a must-own, but they’re somewhat refreshing bright spots on what’s otherwise easily Elton’s worst album of the Seventies. 

21 at 33 (1980, MCA)

B –  

It’s not exactly a return to form, but 21 at33 is Elton’s best outing since Blue Moves. Thankfully abandoning the disco excursions of Victim of Love, Elton returns to the somewhat subdued pop of A Single Man here, but with a noticeably better set of songs than that album had. Bernie Taupin even returns as lyricist for the catchy tunes “Two Rooms at the End of the World” and “White Lady, White Powder.”  “Dear God” is pretty, and “Sartorial Eloquence (Don’t Ya Wanna Play This Game No More),” the lyrics of which were penned by British new-wave artist Tom Robinson of “2-4-6-8 Motorway” fame, would become a minor Top 40 hit. The album also sports Elton’s biggest hit in four years with the hook-heavy mellow balladry of the Top Three smash “Little Jeannie.”

The Fox (1981, Geffen)

C

Elton’s first album for Geffen Records after spending the previous twelve years with the Uni/MCA organization, half of The Fox ironically consists of leftovers from the recording sessions for Elton’s last MCA album, 21 at 33. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that these songs aren’t nearly as catchy as those from the last album, and the album sold poorly by Elton’s standards. “Nobody Wins,” one of the few Elton John singles that he had no hand in writing, was a minor Top 40 hit, but it’s not particularly memorable, though the album’s other Top 40 hit, the mellow ballad “Chloe” is extremely lovely and boasts a fairly catchy melody. Of the remaining cuts, the ones that work best are the ones that find Elton collaborating again with Bernie Taupin, such as “Fascist Faces” and “Just Like Belgium.”

Jump Up! (1982, Geffen)

A –

Working with a rotating lineup of lyricists ranging from old partner Bernie Taupin to Broadway giant Tim Rice, Elton’s second outing for Geffen is far stronger than his first, highlighted by two truly first-rate Top 40 hits, the posthumous John Lennon tribute “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” (co-penned with Taupin) and the melodically-complex cocktail-lounge jazz-pop of “Blue Eyes,” easily one of the most wildly underrated ballads John’s ever composed and truly a must-own song for Elton fans. The surrounding cuts are nearly just as fun, especially the stomping album opener “Dear John,” the breezy, handclap-laden “Ball & Chain” (featuring Pete Townshend on guitar), “Spiteful Child,” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” Elton would top this album his next time out, but this remains his second-best album of the Eighties. 

Too Low for Zero (1983, Geffen)

A

Working exclusively with Taupin for the first time since 1976’s Blue Moves, and also once again employing the top-notch backing band of his glory days (Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray, and Nigel Olsson), Too Low for Zero is easily Elton’s best album since 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Whereas most of his post-Rock of the Westies albums suffered from sounding somewhat weary, here, Elton sounds more refreshed than he has in at least eight years, both as a performer and as a songwriter, and the more up-tempo material here actually seems born more out of excitement and inspiration rather than obligation. There are two instantly-recognizable hits here, the deliriously happy and bouncy “I’m Still Standing” and the Top Ten hit “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” which sports a killer harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, as well as a third, sadly-now-forgotten Top 40 hit, the fun, muscular rocker “Kiss the Bride.” What truly makes this Elton’s best outing in eight years is the strength and the memorable melodies of the surrounding album cuts, be it the witty commentary of “Religion,” the devastatingly gorgeous failed-marriage ballad “Cold As Christmas (in the Middle of the Year)”, or the sunny acoustic pop of “Crystal.”