Ranking Elvis Costello’s albums

First published Sept. 2013

Music website Stereogum recently turned its “best-to-worst” albums list toward one of my favorite performers, Elvis Costello.

From the first time I heard Costello, I was taken in. I remember at one point thinking, “Wow, this guy is angrier than me.” (It was kind of like watching the film “Wag the Dog.” I watched that and thought, “Wow, this film is more cynical than me. I didn’t think that was possible.”)

It’s been years since Costello really rocked my world. But for the first five years he was around, I didn’t think he ever made a misstep, and even deep into the 80s (and a couple of times since), I thought he was easily and comfortably among the best in the game, and in the conversation for among the best ever.

I disagreed with a number of Stereogum’s rankings, and found myself making my own list. So over the next two days, I’ll go bottom to top ranking Costello’s albums.

I’ll also list where Stereogum had the album. And I’m adding in three albums, one of which will show up on tomorrow’s list. Stereogum ignored “Taking Liberties” and “Out of Our Idiot,” which I understand – they’re compilations, collecting some of the “extra” cuts that didn’t make albums from a couple of stretches early in his career. While they’re not “albums” in a traditional sense, they were important in their time.

Stereogum also ignored “My Flame Burns Blue,” a live album with new (to Costello) songs and dramatic re-workings of older songs.

Bottom to top:

28. (17) North (2003)
27. (22) Momofuku (2008)
26. (16) The Delivery Man (2004)
25. (19) National Ransom (2010)
24. (21) Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009)
23. (23) Kojak Variety (1995)
Clearly, I’ve lost my way with Costello since the turn of the century. That’s not to say there aren’t some gems here – the re-working of “Complicated Shadows” on “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” is haunting. But I’m not really sure what he’s trying to accomplish anymore, and his music and lyrics have become simply too dense for me to dig into. It didn’t used to be like this.

22. (13) The Juliet Letters (1993)
I was excited to follow Costello into classical or baroque music. He’d helped me learn to appreciate other genres earlier in his career – I wouldn’t have gotten to Gram Parsons as soon as I did but for Costello’s allegiance and recording some Parsons songs in his “Almost Blue” period. But this struck me as too mannered, and not at all memorable.

21. (18) All This Useless Beauty (1996)
20. (12) Painted From Memory (1998)
19. (11) Brutal Youth (1994)
18. (15) When I Was Cruel (2002)
Another confusing stretch, reuniting with original backing band The Attractions and a collaboration with legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach. These aren’t BAD albums, they’re just often scattered and unfocused.

17. (NA) My Flame Burns Blue (2004)
A jazz-based live album that made me think Costello was about to head off in a fascinating new direction. But much like Paul McCartney, Costello was just style-hopping here.

16. (10) Spike (1989)
I didn’t agree with the praise this received at the time. I remember writing a friend a letter at the time (that’s how old this album is) that I found the disc so dense, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it weighed twice as much as any other CD in my collection. I found it largely (and sadly) impenetrable.

15. (24) Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
Certainly a disappointment upon its release – Costello’s liner notes to the 1995 reissue on Rykodisc say, “Congratulations! You just bought the worst album of my career.” And yeah, it’s not very good. But it does have the Daryl Hall duet “The Only Flame in Town,” which is a nice pop song, and “Inch By Inch,” which turned menacing when he’d strip it down for concert performances.

14. (14) Almost Blue (1981)
A covers album, of influential country songs. The eye-opener is the first song, Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do?),” taken at breakneck speed, and double-tracked live. Hilarious. The rest is more traditional, and it earned its cover sticker. Mine said, “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.”

13. (NA) Out of Our Idiot (1987)
Costello’s second compilation of songs previously available as B-sides or on soundtrack albums, and a couple of unreleased alternate versions. The highlights include the fantastic up-tempo “Blue Chair” and the shoulda-been-a-huge-single “From Head to Toe,” a Smokey Robinson cover.

12. (20) The River in Reverse (2006)
A collaboration with Allen Toussaint consisting largely of Toussaint songs, but Costello gets involved enough so it feels like his own album. The Toussaint-Costello “The Sharpest Thorn” is his best song of this century.

11. (5) Trust (1981)
A handful of brilliant tunes (“Watch Your Step,” “Strict Time”) make this work, but this is the first album where he showed, for better and for worse, signs of wanting something more than being the angry young punk.

10. (25) Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
I strongly disagree with the accepted wisdom that calls this a weak album. It features some of Costello’s work with Paul McCartney (especially the heart-wrenching “So Like Candy”), and his Beach Boys-ish “The Other Side of Summer,” one of his most subversive tunes.

9. (9) Punch the Clock (1983)
Another point at which he went in an interesting direction. This features a horn section, bringing a different color to his pop songs. “Pills and Soap” was a striking protest song, and “Let Them All Talk” was unlike anything he’d done, especially the 12-inch remix.

8. (1) Armed Forces (1979)
I definitely understand this better now than I did when it came out. It’s a decidedly British album, with songs about racial and political issues that were thick with references I couldn’t understand without Google, which was still a long ways away.

7. (6) My Aim is True (1977)
Every teenage boy needs to hear “Mystery Dance,” and sing along at the top of their lungs. There are so many ideas in this, his debut, it’s staggering. My devotion to this album was such that I was buying copies because of cover color variations, not caring if they were collectible – they were just COOL.

6. (8) Blood and Chocolate (1986)
His second album released in 1986 – “King of America” came out in February, this in September. After some stylistic departures, this featured a full and top-functioning Attractions doing a straight-forward rock and roll album. It was recorded live, and has a fantastic immediate feel.

5. (NA) Taking Liberties (1980)
Costello’s second 20-track album of the year (“Get Happy!!” was the first), this collected B-sides and a handful of unreleased tracks and showed Costello at his greatest. “Big Tears” and “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” have enormous guitar sounds. The alternate versions of “Get Happy!!” tracks are fascinating. And his reading of “My Funny Valentine” showed there was way more there than any of us thought.

4. (4) King of America (1986)
These days, we’d call this a folk album, or Americana. He was using members of Elvis Presley’s TCB band, and he was writing bleak songs about infidelity, loss and the end of his first marriage. “The Big Light” is fantastic rockabilly that would make that other Elvis proud, and “American Without Tears” is one of his five greatest sets of lyrics.

3. (7) Imperial Bedroom (1982)
This album is all over the place, with some outrageous Beatles ripoffs (check the horns on “…And In Every Home” and the phased vocals on “You Little Fool”), Dylan-esque wordplay (“Beyond Belief”), musical terror (“Shabby Doll”) and the brilliant 1-2 punch on side two of “Human Hands” and his classic “Kid About It.” Billed at the time as a masterpiece, that’s hard to counter-argue.

2. (2) This Year’s Model (1978)
From both of the covers (the US and UK releases used different photos from the same session) to the odd inner package (which featured low-res photos from his controversial “Saturday Night Live” appearance), this was where Costello showed he meant business. If he’d only ever released “Radio Radio” and “Pump It Up,” he’d still be the stuff of legend.

1. (3) Get Happy!! (1980)
Working manically and stylistically working his way through his 1960s R&B record collection, Costello laid out a brilliant package of music and lyrics. I could be forgiven for thinking at the time that Costello would forever be releasing 20 songs a year, and they would all be good. “Riot Act” has some of the greatest lyrics he ever composed: “You can make me a matter of fact or a villain in a million/No slip of the tongue is gonna keep me civilian.”


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