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My 10 Favorite Elvis Costello Albums
ELVIS COSTELLO is my favorite musician of all-time and because of his large, vast and unbelievably rich discography, it’s difficult to even choose 10 favorite albums. However, here’s my definitive list, for now at least. This is in honor of the vinyl release of his new album Momofuku, which came out this past Tuesday. The CD release will follow on May 6th.
Any of his first five albums as well as 1982’s Imperial Bedroom could all be considered some of my favorite albums of all-time. So why am I picking his fourth album from 1980? Well simply put, I’ve played it more than any of his other albums over the years. It’s got it all. Twenty (expanded to thirty one and then fifty on subsequent reissues) short, sharp songs that rock, roll, swing and chronicle dysfunctional relationships in the most lyrically astute way possible. You know the phrase “more hooks than a tackle box”? It was invented for records like this one, though there’s so much crammed in here that it takes a while to process it all. Furthermore, it isn’t his Motown/Stax album, though those influences are prominent on some of the songs, notably on the Motown-inflected “King Horse,” “High Fidelity” and “Men Called Uncle” and on the Stax-inspired “Tempation” or the loosely AL GREEN-inspired “Opportunity”. However, the cover of “I Stand Accused” and some of the other tracks here, much like many of the tunes on 1978’s This Year’s Model, owe just as much to mid ‘60s “Beat” music as well.
Yes in many ways this is ELVIS COSTELLO’s Sgt. Pepper and not just because BEATLES engineer GEOFF EMERICK produced it and because of the studio trickery involved on some of the tracks here. A marked departure from everything that had come before, his seventh album also set the stage for much of the music he’d make in the decades to come, when he’s combined upbeat rock and roll with sophisticated balladry not too far removed from COLE PORTER or IRA GERSHWIN. However, only ”...And In Every Home” truly sounds like The Beatles. Nonetheless, this is the ballad-heavy Costello at his absolute, heartbreaking best. It should also be noted that many of the lyrics are also much more straightforward and less full of clever puns than on previous records, thus adding to this record’s heart-on-sleeve delivery.
1981’s Trust, his fifth album, always get short shrift from critics and some fans. To be completely fair, in some respects it’s a jumbled mess with Costello genre-hopping at will. A combination of leftover songs that had their origins in the mid ‘70s (“New Lace Sleeves” and “Different Finger”), rhythmic compositions that feel more like sketches (“Lovers’ Walk” and “Strict Time”) and then new compositions, it isn’t Costello’s strongest set of songs from a purely compositional point-of-view. However, the playing of his excellent backing band THE ATTRACTIONS is arguably at its absolute peak here (just check out BRUCE THOMAS’ bass playing on “New Lace Sleeves”) and he was on such a roll that he could still put songs as devastating as “You’ll Never Be a Man” and “White Knuckles” on this record as mere afterthoughts.
This Year’s Model
The record most likely to be cited as the more casual fan’s favorite, it holds a special place in my heart not only because it rocks like a grenade, but because it’s the album that made me a fan for life. Everyone knows “Pump It Up” and “Radio Radio” (included on the U.S. version after he performed it in an impromptu version on Saturday Night Live), but check out “Little Triggers” and “Living in Paradise” if you’re not familiar with this album’s deep cuts.
My Aim is True
One of the greatest debuts in rock and roll history, this 1977 classic is the only record in his canon that features backing from the San Francisco based band CLOVER, giving it more of a country and folk-rock record than most of his subsequent records with The Attractions.
Possibly my least favorite of his first five albums, it’s only fault is that it’s surrounded by even better company both in terms of what came before and what came afterwards (at least up to 1982). Nevertheless, this is a more European influenced album than any of those and the influence of artists like ABBA (check out STEVE NIEVE’s amazing piano playing on “Oliver’s Army”) and Berlin-era DAVID BOWIE is definitely apparent here. Lyrically, it’s more explicitly political than many of his other albums as well, as songs like “Oliver’s Army,” “Senior Service” and “Goon Squad” show.
Blood and Chocolate
At the time of its release in 1986, this (as well as his previous album, the acoustic-flavored King of America) was considered a “comeback” album after 1983’s Punch the Clock and 1984’s much-derided Goodbye Cruel World. Listening to it now, though, it’s just a balls-to-the-wall rock and roll record with some great ballads thrown in as well. More importantly, though, the increased presence of Costello’s guitar on these tracks is indicative of how subsequent “rock” albums like 1994’s Brutal Youth and 2002’s When I Was Cruel would sound.
King of America
Although I love this album, I don’t rate it as highly as many others. Possibly this is because the Attractions are only on one track (the indispensable “Suit of Lights”). In many ways, this is a true Costello “solo” album in that there’s a different band playing on virtually every track. In that way, it reminds me of THE REPLACEMENTS’ swan song All Shook Down, which was really PAUL WESTERBERG’s first solo album in all but name. It’s a diverse collection as well, with everything from the folk-flavored “Little Palaces” to the rockabilly rush of “Glitter Gulch” and “The Big Light” included. For me, though, it’s all about “Jack of All Parades”, perhaps my favorite song of his and one of my favorite songs by anyone. Weighing the relative merits of fame on one hand and love on the other, it (like many of the other songs on here) was inspired by his then new relationship with former POGUES bassist CAIT O’RIORDAN.
When I Was Cruel, Brutal Youth, All This Useless Beauty (tie)
It’s very difficult for me to choose which one I like best out of these three albums. When 2002’s When I Was Cruel came out, I thought it was easily his best album since at least 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, 1994’s Brutal Youth or even Blood and Chocolate. All of these albums are really good, if not quite on the level of the outright classics of most of his output from 1977 to 1986.
A much misunderstood oddity at the time of its release in 1981, in retrospect this should be considered ground zero for the alt-country movement. Sure some of the performances are a bit stilted (mainly due to the tension between the band and producer BILLY SHERRILL), but overall this is a strong collection of covers that showcase the influence of GRAM PARSONS, GEORGE JONES, LORETTA LYNN and others on Costello’s music. It’s also a much stronger collection than 1995’s Kojak Variety, his other collection of cover songs.
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