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Declan “Elvis Costello” MacManus was by far the most literate and diverse of the “angry young man” songwriters emerging from England in the late 1970s, no small achievement in light of competition that included first-rate talents like Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, John Lydon, Shane MacGowan, and the Strummer/Jones pairing of the Clash. Elvis’s terrific 1977 debut came at the height of punk rock, and the ensuing series of masterworks that mark the astonishing early portion of his recording career overlapped with the punk outgrowth commonly referred to as New Wave. But while Costello was clearly influenced by (and had influence over) those movements, neither were ultimately enough to define or contain his potent and polygamous talents. Although he was indisputably young (23 when his debut was released) and angry (almost psychotically) at the beginning of his career, he also evinced from the beginning a more classicist sensibility and clear influences like the Band and Randy Newman, which set him worlds apart from the Kill Your Idols ethos of the Sex Pistols and their ilk. Costello’s most crucial early connection to the contemporary British music of the day was the proto-punk “pub rock” movement, championed by bands like Dr. Feelgood and Brinsley Schwarz, which shunned the excesses of prog-rock in the mid ’70s and sought a retreat to stripped-down basics. This connection brought Elvis into the company of his first producer and crucial collaborator Nick Lowe, a genius songwriter in his own regard, and just the right man to bring Costello’s bilious, brilliant, neo-Dylan tantrums to full boil.

And boy did they ever. The Lowe-produced five album run that began Costello’s career – from 1977′s My Aim Is True through 1981′s Trust – is a spirited, comedic, raging demonstration of talent and songcraft nearly the equal of any in rock history – perhaps only Dylan from ’64 -’68 or the Stones from ’68 -’72 ever put together more manic and brilliant music over such a sustained period of excellence. After successfully scuffling through his debut with what was essentially a pick up band[1] Costello set about forming the Attractions, a startlingly forceful gathering of precision musical assassins comprised of Steve Nieve on keys and piano, and Bruce and Pete Thomas on bass and drums, respectively. (As a rhythm section they shared a surname but were not actually brothers. Nevertheless they seemed to share a fraternal telepathy that elevated the songs to stratospheric heights.) This lineup remained largely stable throughout the ’80s, although deep personal divisions between Costello and Bruce Thomas eventually led to the bass player’s estrangement and a fitful, final parting in 1996.

From nearly the entire beginning of his career, Costello’s output has been marked by a tense duality between his inarguable genius for a certain kind of literate, melodic Beatles-esque pop and his profound curiosity and near Catholic embrace of popular music’s different forms. As a great lover of and curatorial expert on everything from modern jazz to early American country to baroque classical music, he has long strived to find ways to integrate these strands into his catalog, with laudable degrees of ambition, and varying degrees of success. Dating at least as far back as his half-successful 1981 Nashville-covers album Almost Blue, the creative restlessness has proven both a blessing and a curse for a songwriter capable of turning out unforgettable pop songs like ticker tape, but not always content to do so.

Consequentially, a close look at Costello’s voluminous and ever-growing catalog becomes increasingly an examination of how successfully or not he is able to integrate his outsize genius for songcraft into whatever whim of a genre exercise he is inclined to engage. This is not a bad thing, and in truth is an admirable one. Bob Dylan too has had dalliances with gospel, country, and showtune schmaltz. Miles Davis would invent entire genres, get bored of them, and start another new one from scratch. This is what geniuses do, when they are driven enough to challenge themselves constantly. It’s also what geniuses do that annoys us: publicly engaging with forms that don’t suit them, and seeming to ignore or disdain a natural talent any of the rest of us might kill to possess.

Though they would remain close confidantes and work together successfully on later records like Blood And Chocolate, it feels like the initial split from Nick Lowe as producer represents a signature moment in which Costello traded in his birthright as the greatest pop songwriter of his era for the kind of passport to genre tourism which has yielded comparatively uneven but occasionally thrilling results. In the direct aftermath, we had the lovely but staid Geoff Emerick-helmed Imperial Bedroom, the prototypically hectic Clive Langer-Alan Winstanley ’80s-style chaos of Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, and the quasi-rootsy brilliance of King Of America, with T-Bone Burnett at the controls. Some of this work ranks with and even exceeds the best of his early output, but the feeling that Costello lacked a strong sense of identity pervades this era. The cover of his fine 1989 release Spike, which features a grotesque caricature of the singer’s painted, disembodied head hung on a wall as so much mounted game, perhaps best exemplifies this reality. Beneath it reads the inscription: “The Beloved Entertainer.” The album cover is a poignant recognition that for all of his efforts to dazzle, seduce, and conscript the industry and his audience, the shoe was always on the other foot. It was he who was the quarry.

In recent years, Costello has taken on a sort of “World’s Coolest Grandfather” visage, as husband to the popular jazz singer Diana Krall, mellow host of the musical variety show Spectacle, and all-around emeritus expert and cheerleader for the best and most vital traditions of the last hundred years. As rock and rock roll third acts go, it’s a good and appropriate one, and he remains a touchstone and terrific asset to the culture. But something about the artist’s easygoing adulthood can occasionally occlude recollections of what once was.

The Elvis Costello of 1978 was a towering talent and vaguely monstrous figure, his sophomore album This Year’s Model, was a raging tour de force not so thematically distant from Yeezus. That version of Costello seethed utterly with sexual and social frustration, implicitly connecting his impotent rage to ineffectual civic leaders and an advertising culture that promoted a release from yearning through consumption. His targets were legion: friends, lovers, the media, politicians, models, himself. On the glam-quoting classic ”Pump It Up,” he rattled off a seemingly endless series of slights and desires, allowing that he will satiate himself at any cost, whether he needs it or not. Carnal and emotional excess is the closest the album’s narrator gets to real humanity, offering on the monstrous “Lipstick Vogue” that “Sometimes I feel just like a human being.” On the disquieting finale “Night Rally,” Costello’s deepest fears come to pass – positing late-’70s London as a kind of updated version of corrupt 1930s Berlin, a place where senseless indulgence will soon bring to bear fearful political consequences. Chillingly, he predicts that soon they will have us “singing in the showers.” For all of his subsequent accomplishments, this is the version of Elvis Costello that remains most indelible: the morally complicated, righteously angry, hugely indulgent, and utterly brilliant young artist of the late ’70s who appeared seemingly from nowhere and promptly became one of the most fascinating characters ever to emerge out of the rock tradition.

Next month, Costello will release a collaborative LP with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost, so to celebrate, we’ve counted down his massive catalog to date (leaving out, though, less-essential collaborations such as 2001′s For The Stars and 2004′s Il Sogno). Based on the forthcoming album’s first single, “Walk Uptown,” Costello’s aim remains true. We hope the same can be said of ours.

Start the Countdown here.

[1] Said pick up band was by and large the personnel of the erstwhile outfit Clover, a majority of whose members went on to become Huey Lewis and the News (Huey Lewis did not play on My Aim Is True, alas).

Comments (61)
  1. I agree with most of the list, but Get Happy is for me Costello’s masterpiece (followed closely by This Year’s Model).

  2. Being a die-hard Elvis fan, I was ready to hate this list before I even read it. But I’m in surprising agreement with a lot of it. However…

    I feel that Imperial Bedroom should be in the top five. But I love the fact that Get Happy and Trust (my two favorites) are near the top.

    Painted From Memory should be lower than North. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons between the two, and I just think North is a much stronger album. I realize Elvis is a Bacharach freak, but Burt’s unintentional cheesiness does not mesh well with Costello’s songwriting, resulting in a lot of awkward moments (although “The Sweetest Punch” is one of Elvis’ best songs of the 90s).

    “Little Atoms” is an undeniably beautiful song, but it’s marred by what I feel is the weakest lyric Elvis ever wrote: “And if you still don’t like my song then you can just go to hell / I don’t care if I’m right or wrong or if my typewriter can spell.” Ew. I cringe every time I hear that.

    Mighty Like a Rose gets way too much flak, in my opinion. I feel that it gets better with repeated listening. Sure, it has an overbearing “everything-including-the-kitchen-sink” production style, but putting anything below the awful Goodbye Cruel World seems wrong. I’ll take 25 keyboard players over Steve Nieve’s horrible Yamaha DX-7 any day.

  3. Peace, Love and Understanding was never on the original “Armed Forces”, only later re-issues. It was a Nick Lowe B-Side (American Squirm) credited to Nick Lowe and his Sound.

  4. Amazing. I basically agree with this list.

  5. By the way, the article’s description of Get Happy is the most amazingly accurate write-up of what I feel is probably my favorite album of all time. Nice job.

  6. I would probably put This Year’s Model over Armed Forces, but it is close. Other than that, I basically agree with this list, which is remarkable considering how much… stuff Elvis has put out.

  7. I also have no problem with this list. Although King of American might’ve jumped up a notch or two. The lyrical content on that album is so damn good.

  8. Totally agree on Trust. When I listen to that album, I always think, man, it’s so long and varied and GOOD. How come it isn’t as iconic as some of his other stuff?

  9. Nice job with the countdown, but the main article is rife with chronological inaccuracies…

    ” the initial 1983 split from Nick Lowe as producer” – In fact, Elvis made Lowe-less albums in 1981 (Almost Blue) and 1982 (Imperial Bedroom).

    “…deep personal divisions between Costello and Bruce Thomas eventually led to the bass player’s estrangement and a fitful, final parting in 1994.” – Bruce plays bass on “All This Useless Beauty,” the final album under the name Elvis Costello and the Attractions, which was released in 1996.

    “…his fine 1990 release Spike…” It was released in 1989. Your countdown segment actually got that one right, though.

  10. Mighty Like A Rose is in no way his worst album! And Imperial Bedroom should absolutely be top five. But I agree on most everything else. Glad to see Trust getting the love it deserves these days!

  11. Whoa this is a tough call.

    I love his first eleven albums (including Goodbye Cruel World…even though the production is very dated, I think a lot of the songs are great). The top 8 of this list could probably be put it any order and I wouldn’t argue though My Aim is True is still the one I reach for first but probably just because it was the first one i ever heard.

  12. I think a King Crimson list would be really awesome

  13. Picking Mighty Like A Rose as his worst album is a deliberately provocative choice, but I suppose that’s part of what makes lists like this enjoyable.

    Even taking a highly critical view of it, it’s hard to argue that Goodbye Cruel World has more great songs on it than MLAR does.

    I’d put “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4″, “So Like Candy”, “Georgie And Her Rival” and “Invasion Hit Parade” (just to name a handful) ahead of the standout tracks listed for GCW (“The Deportees Club” and “Peace In Our Time.”)

    I’d argue that MLAR (not Trust) is EC’s most underrated album.

    I think a big part of why it was disliked by many was that he grew that great big beard and wore sunglasses– if he’d made MLAR looking the way he did when Spike came out, I think it would have been celebrated as a return to the kind of angry songwriting of the early years mixed with some of the songwriting sophistication he’d picked up along the way.

  14. Really good job sorting all of this out.

    I’ve enjoyed almost all of his sidetracks into non-rock forms. They either point out his depth as a singer (where he is underrated) or his genius as a songwriter. I think in fact he stayed too long in the rock form, as the bottom quarter of your list shows.

    Thanks for calling out “Shipbuilding”, which was my gateway drug into Chet Baker.

    And, as if his own output isn’t enough, let’s not forget that he produced the epic “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” by The Pogues.

  15. This has motivated me to check out some of his “genre excursions” that I’ve stayed away from so I am very thankful for this list despite it being completely different to how I would rank the albums of his I own.

    Personally I’d have Imperial Bedrooms at the top, it’s as heartbreaking as Blood on the Tracks and Tunnel of Love but works on a different level to those considerably more earnest classics.

    Thanks for putting this together.

  16. your new slideshow format is tedious. having to click “more” on every single caption simply to reveal an extra line or two of text.

  17. I love love love Armed Forces. I do think My Aim Is True deserves to be higher, it’s a great album for getting into Costello and just has some of his most consistently brilliant songwriting.

  18. I think the top 10 is pretty much spot on…give or take.

  19. I’ve been hoping for this list and was very excited to see it authored by the Bracys – thank you for a typically fun and insightful read! It’s impossible to quibble here – I’m a Get Happy!! guy (like many of these readers), and agree with the earlier comment that the write up for GH!! is fantastically spot on. Trust is a sentimental fave (first EC LP bought) so love seeing it so high and above the head scratchingly revered Imperial Bedroom. I think Brutal Youth could be a notch or two higher, but no quibbling!! Great piece, thanks!

  20. The trip from angry young man to vaguely avuncular genre-tickler isn’t one that’s easily documented. The authors should be saluted for writing such a compelling travelogue. I offer them a tip of my fedora.

    Pardon the book-jacket blurbing, but this is the rare web piece that’s both comprehensive and right-tenored — the countdown isn’t a gimmick; it’s a steady march toward something inexorable.

    Which is to say that I agree with the #1 placement. “Armed Forces” is the summa of early Elvis, the place where punk and New Wave are so thoroughly blended that both descriptives lose whatever meaning they originally held. “Oh I just don’t know where to begin” is a prime expression of doubt amid thoroughly cocksure songwriting. No more childish posing on this record. We’ve matriculated to more consequential matters.

    I hear a similar pattern of progression with Vampire Weekend, but that’s a comment — indeed, an essay — for another time (and another author). Besides, Ezra Koenig, as talented a lyricist as he is, has yet to cut a gem as sparkling as “If you’re out of luck or out of work/We could send you to Johannesburg.” Costello is great at staying topical without losing ironic detachment. He’s really, really special.

    But I imagine you already knew that.

  21. I’ve only heard ‘This Year’s Model,’ so I’ll take this as a launchpad to explore Elvis’s catalog. According to Rob Sheffield, ‘Trust’ is the cream of the crop:

  22. I know some people are tired of seeing these lists, but I think they are amazing and I’ve learned a ton. As a music nerd, there is so much music out there that I mean to get to and never do. These lists help fix that.

  23. Trust and Imperial Bedroom are both way better than Armed Forces.

  24. My Aim Is True at number 6??! Bra…………….nah.

  25. I would put Brutal Youth and Imperial Bedroom closer to the top. Also, My Aim is True should be around 5th. Otherwise this list is decent.

  26. Shouldn’t “Taking Liberties” be in there somewhere? (“10 Bloody Marys and 10 How’s Your Fathers” in the UK). Even though they are all B-sides, I adore that collection.

  27. I was just listening to Mighty Like a Rose yesterday and thinking to myself how bad the album is as a whole, but how great some of the tracks on it are. At least three bona fide gems in “Other Side of Summer”, “So Like Candy” and “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4″. All are as good as anything he has ever done. No way it should be rated his worst album.

    I’ve long felt that Elvis’ shot at pop stardom killed one of his most productive songwriting periods, 1983-1984. If Elvis reads this, I’d like to make a plea for him (and the Imposters) to make an album called “Punch the World” (or “Goodbye Cruel Clock”), a proper re-recording of those two albums (or the best tracks from them). Anyone who saw his 1984 solo tour knows just how great those songs were when sung live and arranged properly. The demos from those releases show how great the material is.

    The four perfect albums are Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, King of America, and Imperial Bedroom. Trust, My Aim Is True, and This Year’s Model aren’t far behind. Throw in a Taking Liberties and I think you have the most productive, prolific 10-year period of the highest combo of quantity and quality of pop music ever from 1977 to 1986. Better production in 1983 and 1984 would have made this argument a slam dunk.

    And I love Painted from Memory.

  28. Stacking these recordings from worst to best is no easy feat since there are always at least moments of brilliance on each one and you can always rely on Elvis’ soul to shine through. My only disagreement is that I would have put ‘Punch the Clock’ much lower on the list [despite Chet Baker's involvement]. I thought ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ was much more personable and you can reach out and touch Elvis rather than it be behind a veneer of pop over-production that Clive and Allen put to that LP. And despite that I am a fan of both Clive Langer & the Boxes as well as Deaf School where that form of slick engineering is put to better use.
    Just one man’s humble opinion.

  29. This is both a great list and a fantastic overview of the most gifted singer-songwriter of the past 30 or so years. Only two real quibbles: I’d move This Year’s Model to number 1, Get Happy! to number 2, and I’d move Mighty Like a Rose more towards the middle if, for nothing else, “So Like Candy”, “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected”, “Hurry Down Doomsday”, and “Invasion Hit Parade”.

  30. My favourite three are This Years Model, My Aim Is True and Almost Blue

  31. Personally, I think that Imperial Bedroom should be much higher. It’s certainly not the most representative of his “sound”, but the songs are some of the best he’s ever recorded, plus it’s great to hear what he could do without Nick Lowe’s production. Beautiful but underrated, for sure.

  32. i may be biased, but armed forces was the album that turned my on to elvis. just couldn’t stop playing it. all these years later, i still believe it to be his masterpiece. elvis wqas God to me in ’78 and ’79. in 18 months he put out ‘my aim is true’, ‘armed forces’ , and’ ‘this year’s model’. that is staggering. not just for being prolific, but all three of those albums are brilliant. especially when stacked up against the other music of the era. my only knock is that ‘my aim is true’ should rank higher. it is the first punk-pop album and still the best of them.

  33. Wow, I really can’t agree with a lot of this. I mean if you only like his pop-wordplay phase then this is a good list, but I’d definitely rank Mighty Like A Rose waaay higher than Punch The Clock, and would rank When I Was Cruel up there pretty close to #1. Imperial Bedroom is definitely one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.

    The Bacharach stuff definitely belongs smack dab at the bottom, if you even want to acknowledge it.

    In all I find the list a bit more driven by sentimentality than true artistic merit. But thanks for creating it.

  34. Whether you agree with the “order” or not, any artist with 25 albums to his name that provoke such an interesting, varied and emotional discussion, is a force to be reckoned with. Each album brings a new flavour, a new talking point. With Elvis its always been this way. Long may it continue …

  35. The original fold-out origami sleeve of Armed Forces is a classic too

  36. Everyone will have their own worst to best.. Music is to subjective. It’s each individuals chose and those in this article in my opinion are not even close. I’ve been a fan since the late 70′s and its really not possible to name them in this type of order unless you went strictly by sales numbers….

  37. This list represents a very comprehensive and balanced view of the Costello catalogue. My own appreciation is a bit out of date as I’ve found diminishing returns on most of his post millennial albums (I don’t give them much replay, particularly compared to the earlier work), but I should probably catch up.

    I feel the top 6 order could probably argued very splitting hairs fashion. I don’t seem to love Get Happy! as much as others do, and really can’t conceive of a universe where it beats My Aim Is True (thought experiment, would Get Happy! have worked as a debut album?) — perhaps I need to reassess Get Happy! but at the time 20 tracks of similar short length, which I played on an endless auto reverse cassette repeat, got monotonous like a jukebox with the H button permanently jammed in. (maybe, for some people, that’s a good thing).

  38. This is a good list. I might have bumped Brutal Youth and Imperial Bedroom up a notch or two, but I was also very pleased to see King of America right where it belonged, at the top end of this list. Fun reading and a reminder that I haven’t listened to Get Happy! lately and must get on that immediately!

  39. I know lists are subjective, but this list is worthless. I mean, way off. EC’s top ten records all came out before 1990? Bzzzzt. Wrong. Goodbye Cruel World is not last on the list? Bzzzt. Wrong. All This Useless Beauty is not in the top ten? Bzzzt. Wrong. North is at 17? Bzzzt. Wrong. I think these two listened to the first five records religiously at one point and then sort of stopped paying attention. Whoever said it — Frank Zappa or EC — writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and this couple isn’t doing a pas de deux, they’re doing a pas de poo.

  40. Love that you put “Armed Forces” above “This Year’s Model” and “My Aim…”, thought I was alone in thinking it’s his best work.

    However, “The Delivery Man” is worth a top ten ranking, maybe #10 or #9. It was such a return to form for him: so much muscle from a good backing band and great lyrics.

  41. “Mighty Like A Rose” lower than “Kojak Variety” and “Almost Blue” – that’s not merely wrong, it’s also completely asinine. “Kojak Variety” features the same musicians as “Mighty Like A Rose” and was recorded at around the same time (1991), however it’s a fairly lacklustre and uninspired set of cover versions. By definition it can’t be better than an album of Costello originals performed by the same band.

  42. Having lived in London when Armed Forces came out, I am in complete agreement. EC’s best lp in rock’s greatest year. Also, does anybody else think This Year’s Model was done on speed? Just asking.

  43. FWIW I saw Elvis play at the Whisky a Go Go in LA @ 1978. it seemed like he had hired the Atractions about two days previous, and he was still calling out cord changes. A few months later he’d released This Year’s Model and came back and played shows at Milikin High and Hollywood High. Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille opened. Those shows were crazy, like something out of a Fifties Rock n Roll movie.

  44. Your top 10 is unimpeachable.

  45. Thanks for putting this list together—God knows, it’s no easy task. I have a slightly different take. I would place “My Aim Is True” (the U.S. release, which is the one I was exposed to) as #1 because it offers a wider range of Elvis’s styles, with straight-ahead punk rock energy on songs like “Blame it on Cane” and “Less Than Zero,” country with “Alison” (one of Elvis’s most covered tunes), a nod to Rock ‘n Roll roots with “Mystery Dance” and, of course, Reggae with “Watching the Detectives.” (Speaking of Reggae, although “Watching the Detectives” is Elvis’s only Reggae tune, you can’t deny Reggae and Ska’s influence over his work. The rapid fire lyrics and rhythms owe a lot to Ska. Surprised more hasn’t been written about this.) #2 would be “Imperial Bedroom.” It’s by far the most mature of his early albums. Some critics at the time of its release called it his masterpiece, and for good reason. The “sound” might not be quite as aggressive and raw as the earlier albums, but now, in perspective, we see an Elvis coming into his own. “Armed Forces” for all the reasons you’ve already stated is my #3. However, this is where we start to part ways. “Punch the Clock” comes in at #4. Sure, it’s a more commercial sound—that’s partially why I rank it so high. This was his breakthrough album that reached a wider audience while still remaining true to his style. The year this was released, it was all the rage in the clubs, with dance remixes of many of the tunes. You can’t deny the album’s impact on New Wave music. My #5 is “Trust.” For my money, the B side of “Trust” is one of the best set of seven songs you’ll ever come across in rock music (with the possible exception of “Fish ‘n Chip Paper”) period. It’s an exceptional accomplishment. At my #6 is “This Year’s Model.” #7 “Blood & Chocolate,” #8 “Juliet Letters”—a truly brave move on his part, which could have been a complete disaster, yet he pulls it off with spectacular results. Extremely tuneful, it’s Elvis’s first album in which his voice becomes the central focus. #9 “All this Useless Beauty”—like the title suggests, these are all vital songs in the Costello cannon. #10 “Kojak Variety.” I love this album for many reasons. There’s true energy and joy in the performances. The collection of songs is extremely entertaining. It pays homage to everything we love about the rock music idiom. And it’s Costello to the core. Frankly, I can’t think of a better cover album in the genre.

  46. Not including Taking Liberties? I realize it was mostly b-sides and unreleased material, but it was a) very similar to Get Happy! (which was among his best) and b) was awesome in it’s own right. Would probably land in the top 6 or 7 with most fans.

    Agree re Trust being an unappreciated masterpiece. Trust is the shadow of Imperial Bedroom.

  47. One of the most overrated artists of all time. The only thing he’s done with any true redeeming value is produce The Specials.

  48. My favorite EC ‘album’ is the bonus disc on Imperial Bedroom. I find this much better than the actual Imperial Bedroom, which I think was over-produced. Stripped down the songs sound much better.

  49. OMG. It’s not that hard:
    1. King Of America (no discussion possible)
    2. This Year’s Model (Armed Forces number 1: ha! This Year’s Model Lite)
    3. Imperial Bedroom
    Then you get in the murky business of rating the next batch of his truly great albums: Trust, My Aim Is True, The Juliet Letters, Get Happy!!, Blood & Chocolate, Armed Forces, The Delivery Man, Painted From Memory. And after that batch nobody really cares anymore until you need to name his worst: And calling Might Like A Rose his worst is just plain stupid. Always has been, always will be: Goodbye Cruel World.
    Now was that so hard?

  50. A “Elvis Albums From Worst To Best” (remove the Costello) would also be much appreciated.

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