Elvis Costello Albums From Worst To Best

Keith Morris/Redferns/Getty Images

Elvis Costello Albums From Worst To Best

Keith Morris/Redferns/Getty Images

We’re refreshing and revising our old Counting Down lists to make room for new albums and insights that have come along since their initial publication. Our first ranking of Elvis Costello’s albums from worst to best originally ran on August 9, 2013. Read the new version here.

Costello's ill-fated 1991 release brings to bear all of the worst aspects of his occasionally dilettantish approach. The ostensibly "pro-environment" themes of lead-off track "The Other Side Of Summer" fizz out amongst the unconvincing Beach Boys pastiche, while other weak tracks like "Sweet Pear" suggest a dearth of inspiration deeply uncommon to the artist's typical mile a minute creativity. It's not all bad – the agreeable "So Like Candy" is a fun bit of pop classicism composed with Paul McCartney – but in general ham-handed production and subpar songwriting rule the day on one of Costello's least ingratiating efforts.
Elvis is a notoriously astute critic of his own music, and those who have bought the Ryko (and later Rhino) reissues of his work might have found themselves greeted in the liner notes with the following quote from the artist himself: "Congratulations, you have just purchased our worst album!" It's an honest assessment and perhaps a true one, but belies the few moments of exceptional brilliance on an otherwise moribund release: the hard-won menace of "The Deportees Club" and the even more hard-won humanity of "Peace In Our Time." Still this is Costello at his must incongruent in terms of sound and vision. Following a brilliant run, a radical rethink was in order.
A functional placeholder yielding several worthy tracks in spite of its modest ambitions, Kojak Variety is a covers album that manages to feature Costello's special capacity for synthesizing different forms into a coherent and consistently enjoyable release. Running the gamut from a winning version of Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms" to a memorable live take on the Kinks' "Days," the album proves as pleasantly diverting as it is inconsequential.
A back-to-basics record filled with upbeat rock songs and angry tirades, Momofuku is a pleasing palate cleanser that never quite reaches the urgency of Costello's earlier work. There is a laudable and undeniable toughness to tunes like "American Gangster Time" and "Stella Hurt," but these tracks are replete with the sort of stultifying riff-rocking common to '70s bands like Free and Bachman Turner Overdrive. The material deserves better – it is worlds apart from the inventive sonic launching pad of the early Attractions. On Momofuku, the conviction is welcome even as the songs and arrangements are regrettably absent.
The 2009 T-Bone Burnett produced Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is evidence of the ongoing relevance of Costello as a top songwriter, even as he has evolved his career into full on raconteur mode – as television host, football analyst, and bon-vivant. Songs like the tough-minded "Complicated Shadows" and the yearning Gram Parson-style "Hidden Shame" are living testaments to Costello's continued relevance as a creative force. While occasionally embarrassing digressions persist, as on the tortured oral-sex metaphors of the title track, the walkaway impression is of an ace songwriter still very much near the height of his power.
Given Costello's longstanding affection for the music of New Orleans, it seems almost inevitable that he would eventually collaborate with Crescent City legend Alan Toussaint on a collection of swampland-tinged soul, Cajun music, and R&B. The fact that the partnership occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina lends a certain poignancy to the occasion, but certainly the atmosphere is not funereal. Opener "On Your Way Down" is all energetic funk, while the straight gospel of "The Sharpest Thorn" entrusts a higher power to sort out the bedlam. Here, Toussaint and company make quality bedfellows for Elvis's Bayou ambitions.
A no-holds-barred excursion into rollicking folk, neo-bluegrass, and ersatz-rockabilly, National Ransom distinguishes itself from recent predecessors by sheer dint of the quality of the material, which ranges from the stunning pop moves of "The Spell That You Cast" to the stripped-down comi-tragedy of "A Slow Drag With Josephine." Like Tom Waits, Costello is able to parlay his remarkable mastery of the various forms of 20th century music into something distinct and original.
Consisting largely of songs written for other artists, All This Useless Beauty is yet another showcase for Costello's startling facility to write comfortably in practically any idiom. Standouts include the "The Other End Of The Telescope," co-written by and originally intended for Aimee Mann, and "Little Atoms," one of Costello's best ever originals that he performed to great effect during a legendary guest appearance on The Larry Sanders Show. The collection is a bit of an incoherent hodgepodge, but it's a fun one, containing enough hidden gems to make for a winning listen.
Appearing after the charming but mainly inessential Kojak Variety and the weird but frequently moving Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory, North felt like a true window into Costello's soul – a surprisingly convincing collection of original piano ballads, arranged in the manner of his onetime studio mate and profound influence Chet Baker. Tracks like "Fallen" and "When Did I Start Dreaming" are evidence of Costello's unique capacity for seamlessly wedding timeless traditions to modern sentiments. Under-appreciated at the time of its release, there is a good chance that North will be regarded more favorably going forward.
Elvis's 21st album, The Delivery Man, is the sort of hard-won retrenchment that only the legendary amongst us earn. While he might have seemed a bit passive on recent releases, this is a record of tough and purposeful rock and soul – from the slow-burning standout "Country Darkness" to the sterling rock duet "There's A Story In Your Voice" featuring Lucinda Williams. A hard-edged album that makes good on its title's promise: When the mood strikes him, Costello can still deliver the goods.
The first studio LP with new backing band the Imposters (all of the core members of the Attractions, less Bruce Thomas) was advertised as E.C.'s "first loud album since 199?." When I Was Cruel does live up to such billing, an energized affair that indicated that Costello's rock and roll acumen had not dulled, his explorations into the softer side of the songwriter notwithstanding. Costello's not trying to trick anyone here – album opener "45" is an unsubtle acknowledgement of the frontman's age at that time, and he tells us that it was easier when he was cruel on the noir-ish title track – he's also made the point that he can still bring a lot of heat to the proceedings.
When Costello released this 1981 covers collection of country standards, he warned listeners that it might provoke some violent reactions – likely because it was such a tremendous departure from his earlier body of work. Instead, Almost Blue actually couldn't be more anodyne. Working with legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, Elvis and co. delivered an album's worth of serviceable renditions of some truly great songs, but by and large the results feel relatively perfunctory. What Almost Blue does cause the listener to do, however, is realize that as a singer, Costello's got decent range and can render some charming performances – his cover of Jerry Chestnut's "A Good Year For The Roses" is a real standout – and this record serves as the first evidence that Costello's gifts could (and would) expand beyond his rock and roll horizons.
On The Juliet Letters, Costello elected to dispense with the more customary rock-band lineup and instead secured the talents of the Brodsky Quartet, a modern and innovative – but more or less traditionally "classical" – string ensemble. The result was an album of chamber pop premised on a series of letters to Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet. The outcome is nothing less than interesting – not everything works completely, but there are some genuinely high highs. "I Almost Had A Weakness" ranks with the best of Costello's pop hits and is gracefully abetted by the lovely, lyrical string lines. "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" is light, funny, and show-tuney in the best possible way, while "Jacksons, Monk & Rowe" is a straightforward gem. Juliet Letters might not be for every listener and is definitely not the record to recommend for someone looking to "get into" Costello, but the performances are peerless, thoughtful, and often quite affecting.
It sounds like a treacherous enough notion – Costello pairs with the towering icon of softie schmaltz Burt Bacharach on a song cycle concerning a doomed romance, all set to the elaborate horns and strings arrangements Bacharach first made famous with Dionne Warwick in the '60s and '70s. We've now come about as far from the Sex Pistols as the logical mind would allow for. In something like a shocking upset of the odds, Painted From Memory works like gangbusters, yielding some of the most poignant work of Costello's career on tracks like the woe-begotten "This House Is Empty Now" and the downright harrowing album closer "God Give Me Strength." If Costello occasionally overrates his own capacity as a torch singer – the tricky key changes and time signatures have a way of showcasing inherent vocal limitations – the artist more than makes up for it by passionately committing to this dark, adventurous material. A surprise triumph.
Reuniting with the Attractions for the first time in almost ten years, Brutal Youth is a valiant effort at capturing some of the old magic. And while the players may be a little longer in the tooth, the resulting performances are still fiery. Single "13 Steps Lead Down" is a great showcase of the band and its frontman, while the raw and complicated "20% Amnesia" is a force of nature, and album opener "Pony Street" gallops along, fueled by Steve Nieve's propulsive keyboard lines. As Costello albums go, this one might feel derivative of the artist's best work, but that's an awfully high bar, and the best moments on Brutal Youth often vault over it.
Following a bare-knuckled label fight and myriad personal anxieties regarding the direction of his career, Costello came out swinging with both fists on the outstanding Spike, an exciting amalgam of pure pop, blue-eyed soul, and theatrical experimentation that became his best-selling record in years. The hit, abetted by MTV and college radio, was "Veronica" – a gorgeous three-minute lament concerning an old lady facing the terrible rigors of dementia. Other highlights include the self-effacing, Van Morrison-influenced "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and the lacerating Andrew Lloyd Webber pisstake "God's Comic." Not all of the material is platinum-grade on Spike, but there is enough happening to acknowledge that the genius in question is still in residence.
Seeking to reverse flagging album sales, Costello recruited the production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were fresh off a run of charting hits for the band Madness. The pairing proves a strange and largely dissonant one, with Langer and Winstanley's claustrophobic horns and countless overdubs only serving to up the ante on the Attractions' already frenetic flailing. This leads to some moments of genuine excitement – album opener "Let Them All Talk" is a gloriously demented thrill ride/headache – and Costello's material overall is mostly good to excellent. Nevertheless, over the course of thirteen tracks, the overwhelming sonics become fatiguing. One of the albums' few deep breaths is the lovely "Shipbuilding," a powerful anti-war ballad featuring a gorgeous solo from the legendary trumpeter/crooner Chet Baker, shortly before his death.
Costello's second album of 1986 finds him reunited with both the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe, following the roots rock enterprise King Of America. The resultant tour-de-force is one of the artist's best and surliest rock albums, commencing with the caveman stomp of "Uncomplicated" and winding its way through sneering gems like "I Hope You're Happy Now" and "Blue Chair," and seething menacingly on the slow-burning "I Want You" and "Battered Old Bird." It's not all great – the ersatz Dylan of "Tokyo Storm Warning" outstays its welcome over the course of its six and a half minutes – but on balance this is a terrific pub-rocking gut punch of a record.
It is questionable whether Costello really needed to update his sound following the startling run of greatness that comprised his first five albums of original material, but by 1982's Imperial Bedroom, he was feeling ambitious, and recruited legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to bring new approaches to the studio. The resulting album benefits not so much from Emerick's studio wizardry – indeed the fussiness can be distracting at times – but instead from the immense quality of Costello's songs, including uptempo masterpieces like "The Loved Ones," "Man Out Of Time," and "Beyond Belief," and affecting character studies "The Long Honeymoon" and "Shabby Doll" (containing the singer's priceless self assessment: "Being what you might call a whore/ always worked for me before.") Imperial Bedroom is one of several releases by the artist that belongs in any discerning rock music fan's collection.
Costello's auspicious debut immediately signals the arrival of a major-league talent – loaded up with classics like the caustic stomp of "Miracle Man," the Byrds-like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," and malevolent noir of "Watching The Detectives." As a songwriter he seems to have appeared fully formed – trotting out brilliantly literate tunes filled with aphorisms and quoting a wide range of musical influences ranging from roots music to reggae. In reality, Costello had been honing his craft and steadily improving for years before My Aim Is True, as documented on the excellent bonus tracks available on the reissue, but the effect at the time was that of a weirdly named genius stepping forward out of anonymity to blusteringly announce that he was the future. One of rock music's great opening salvos.
Probably Costello's most underrated album, Trust is sophisticated and varied, and something of a deep breath following the heedless rush of the records that had proceeded it. Having said that, this remarkable collection of songs represents yet another high water mark in the early career of a young songwriting juggernaut seemingly incapable of anything less than brilliance. An aura of dark malevolence and violence pervades Trust, even as it backs off a bit sonically from the amphetamine-driven insanity of Get Happy. Opener "Clubland" is a jaunty look at the seedier side of London nightlife, while tracks like "White Knuckles," "Watch Your Step," and the unforgettable "You'll Never Be A Man" all make explicit references to various levels of masochism and physical cruelty toward others. The Attractions are lively and inventive, with Steve Nieve's piano in particular benefiting from the extra space, proving as valuable to the songs as Nicky Hopkins once was to the Rolling Stones. Trust is a dark and brooding masterpiece that would serve as the final chapter of the artist's remarkable first act.
King Of America is by far the most successful of Costello's pointed genre excursions, a detour into roots music and country that plays to his great strengths as a lyricist and storyteller. Abetted by the able production of T-Bone Burnett and a fine band of veteran country players dubbed the Confederates, Costello renders a top-flight set of songs full of aphorism and fine melody. Opener "Brilliant Mistake" sets the table for the torrent of excellence to follow, mocking both the media ("She said that she was working for the ABC news/ It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use") and his own image ("I was a fine idea at the time/ Now I'm a brilliant mistake"). From there, highlights abound – from the rollicking death-by-hangover of "The Big Light" to the wondrous torch ballad "Indoor Fireworks" to the harrowing finale "Sleep Of The Just," a tale of rape and its aftermath. Best of all is "Suit Of Lights," a marvelously comic and confessional dissertation of Costello's life as an ambivalent artist, featuring the Bartlett's-worthy observation: "It's the force of habit/ if it moves then you fuck it/ if it doesn't move you stab it." King Of America is the sound of a mature Costello at ease with his gifts and firing on all cylinders.
There is nothing else like Get Happy!! in the history of rock and roll, 20 near-perfect melodic confections packed together in a dizzying stream of wordplay and melody, none lasting longer than three minutes and 36 seconds. Ostensibly an attempt at capturing the joyous reverie of Motown and Stax/Atlantic records, Get Happy!! ends up sounding nothing whatsoever like that, instead manifesting a manic, coked-up, and vaguely psychotic sound all its own – even outstanding covers of the soul classics "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "I Stand Accused" get steamrolled into the Attractions' antic whirlwind. All of this could have made for a deeply unpleasant listen, but remarkably, the opposite is the case – Costello has arrived at this party with a stunning group of songs, stuffing them so full of startling progressions and laugh-out-loud punch lines that the effect of the album is levitating and addictive. Highlights like "The Imposter" (containing the chilling mind fuck of an admission "When I said that I was lying/ I might have been lying") and the "Temptation" make it evident that there is no need for Costello to extend these songs past three minutes – no pop songwriter has provided so efficient and complete an experience since the Beatles circa Hard Days Night. Even the ballads, including the lovely and vaguely psychedelic "New Amsterdam" and the brilliant, heart-on-sleeve confessional "Motel Matches," roll by feverishly. Nobody else other than the Attractions circa 1980 could have made this record, and nobody should ever try. Get Happy!! is the sort of bizarre genius that cannot be replicated.
Costello's debut, My Aim Is True, had been brilliant enough, suffering only slightly from the impersonal and occasionally perfunctory work of his for-hire backing band. For his second album, he set out to solve that problem and put together the Attractions, which more than did the trick. From the muscular opening of the brilliant "No Action" it is apparent that we are in the presence of a true musical powerhouse, every bit the equal of their contemporaries the Clash. The result is a blitzkrieg of biting, flawless rock and roll, veritably spilling over with biting putdowns, harassing come-ons, and a kind of clear-eyed paranoia about the truth and consequences of impending stardom. This is Costello as both fearful talent and tactless bully: "If I'm going to go down/ You're gonna go with me," he taunts on "Hand In Hand" – and that is arguably one of the record's love songs. On the cruelly baiting "This Year's Girl," he mocks the vapidity of the fashion industry, even while confessing his desire to have a pin-up model all to himself: "broken/ with her mouth wide open." One of the rock tradition's most bitter heel turns, This Year's Model is an incredible display of focused talent and the unique capacity for a genius to make unpalatable vulgarities go down like so much poisoned sugar.
Originally titled "Emotional Fascism," Costello's third album and the follow up to the indisputably great This Year's Model brings the musical and thematic theses of his early work to its logical conclusions. From the beginning, the artist seemed to regard the fault lines between romantic, creative, and political treachery as porous, frequently describing romantic situations in terms of political totalitarianism, and vice versa. Having experienced the rise of Thatcherism in England and with the political right in a similar ascent in the United States, and in the throes of a doomed romance with the model and society maven Bebe Buell, Armed Forces is the record on which Costello's head basically explodes. "Well I just don't know where to begin," he sings on the first line of the album, on the classic opener "Accidents Will Happen," and then proceeds to spend the ensuing 36 minutes making clever, wry, caustic, and desperate observations on everything from the evils of colonialism to the sanctity of true love. While the lyrics are filled with anxiety and foreboding, the music is a study in contrast – bright and attractive, filled with ingenious up-tempo melodies, inventive synths, and big-hook, major-key sing-alongs. But the things we are singing along to! Amongst countless other human atrocities: lovebirds portrayed as two little Hitlers fighting for control; a chemistry class obsessed with human garbage and "the final solution"; an admission that the singer would like to chop off someone's head and watch it roll into a basket. Music this frightening should perhaps not be allowed to be so catchy. By the end, Costello even seems to have exhausted himself, ceding the writing on the final track, and instead recording a pitch-perfect cover of producer Nick Lowe's classic "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love And Understanding)?" Lowe had originally penned the track as a kind of lark – a sarcastic take on trite hippy sentiments. Coming at the end of Armed Forces, the track is transformed utterly into a desperate howl of the deepest conviction. Having so thoroughly detailed a world of cruelty and corruption, even Costello needs a little reassurance.

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