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.

Declan “Elvis Costello” MacManus was by far the most successful of the “angry young man” songwriters to emerge from England in the late 1970s, no small achievement in light of competition that included first-rate talents like Wreckless Eric, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, John Lydon, and the Strummer/Jones pairing of the Clash. Costello’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 overlap 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 start 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* 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 the 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.

Consequently, 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 & 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 short-lived musical variety show Spectacle, and all-around emeritus expert and cheerleader for the best and most vital traditions of the past 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, best exemplified by his sophomore album This Year’s Model, a raging tour-de-force not so thematically distant from 2020’s RTJ4. That version of Costello seethed utterly with societal and class 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 rattles 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:” “Sometimes I feel just like a human being.” For all of his subsequent accomplishments, this is the version of Elvis Costello that remains most indelible: the morally complicated, righteously angry, hugely brilliant enfant-terrible who appeared seemingly from London’s endless parade and became one of the most singular figures in the rock tradition. He’s been a timeless man and a man out of time. He is, as Ray Davies once put it, one of the survivors.

Note: The following ranking of Elvis Costello albums is the carefully curated findings of multiple credentialed Rockologists. Any deviations in the findings by the commentariat will exist in direct contradiction to credible Rockologists. Do not re-rank recklessly!!

*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).

28

Mighty Like A Rose (1991)

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.

27

Wise Up Ghost (2013)

This extended jam session with the Roots is yet another in a lengthy list of Costello collaborations that ratifies his versatility and peerless aesthetics, but often sounds like it was more fun to record then it is to actually listen to. Obviously, the talent on hand is superlative and the effort is clear enough: Costello rants his dyspeptic lyrics over the Roots’ endless supply of supple grooves, with the forcefulness of a Benzedrine-addled Beat poet but also all of the finesse. The net effect is challenging and certain tracks recall nothing so much as Roland Kirk’s most avant-garde work, but the overall impression is of a potentially dynamic collaboration which might have benefitted from a rethink.

26

Goodbye Cruel World (1984)

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 most incongruent in terms of sound and vision.

25

Hey Clockface (2020)

On his 31st and most recent LP Hey Clockface, 66-year old Costello is a man operating unconstrained by genre or expectation, and it sounds like it. Opening track “Revolution #49” is – no kidding – a two minute and forty second spoken word piece, accompanied by what sounds like Arabic instrumentation. Whereas 2018’s charming Look Now hinted at an embryonic pub rock P.G. Wodehouse, Hey Clockface is more exotic in approach and esoteric in presentation, like a riff on Burroughs in Tangier. As ever, the highs are high: the excellent out-of-time-and-place ballad “I Do (Zula’s Song)” would sit comfortably on Tom Waits’ outré masterpiece Swordfishtrombones while the ersatz Dixieland of the title track is just weird enough to be delightful. But the overall effect is one of Costello tinkering endlessly with the machinery of his talent and trying maybe a bit too hard to wring a novel notion from a vernacular of rock music he clearly feels tired of. A note of caution: With an artist so consistently in front of the curve, it can be an exquisite challenge for the normally talented like us to know how this music will age in time. In twenty years it could be an infamous comedy to have ranked his latest record so low.

24

Kojak Variety (1995)

A functional placeholder yielding several worthy tracks in spite of its modest ambitions, Kojak Variety 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 largely inconsequential.

23

Momofuku (2008)

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-era 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 regrettably linger in absentia.

22

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)

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 all around bon-vivant. Songs like the tough minded “Complicated Shadows” and the yearning Gram Parsons’-style “Hidden Shame” are living testaments to Costello’s continued creative force. While occasionally embarrassing digressions persist, as on the tortured oral sex metaphors of “Sulphur To Sugarcane,” the major takeaway is of an ace songwriter trying to wrestle his talents to the ground and settling for a hard-fought draw.

21

The River In Reverse (2006)

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’ Bayou ambitions.

20

National Ransom (2010)

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 comic-tragedy of “A Slow Drag With Josephine.” Like Dylan in his later years, Costello is able to parlay his remarkable mastery of the various forms of 20th century music into something distinct and original.

19

All This Useless Beauty (1996)

Consisting of songs largely 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 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.

18

Almost Blue (1981)

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 could hardly be more anodyne – hardly the sort of thing that would upset anybody. Working with legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, Elvis and company delivered an album’s worth of serviceable renditions of some truly great songs, with the results feeling surprisingly perfunctory. Almost Blue does highlight Costello’s growing strengths as a singer, as on a standout cover of Jerry Chestnut’s “A Good Year For The Roses.” A tentative dry run for the creative exertions which would eventually carry him far beyond his bash and pop beginnings.

17

North (2003)

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 one-time 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. Underappreciated at the time of its release, there is a good chance that North will be regarded more favorably going forward.

16

The Delivery Man (2004)

Elvis’ 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 which makes good on the title’s promise: When the mood strikes him, Costello can still deliver the goods.

15

Look Now (2018)

Not so much an update of Imperial Bedroom as a spiritual sequel to Costello’s smooth and haunting 1998 Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory, 2018’s Look Now reunites him with the Imposters for the first time on record since 2008 to quite good effect. This is Costello in jaunty, wordy chamber music mode, sounding all the more affecting for the shadow of age which is reflected in the LPs ruminative tone and the scrappy rasp of the vocals. Highlights include the Band-by-way-of-Hollies opener “Under Lime,” the wryly decrepit Motown-moves of “Dishonor The Stars,” and a fascinating rescued collaboration with Carole King, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” which highlights the strengths of both geniuses. A strong entry into the Costello catalog and a promising sign for his late-period output.

14

When I Was Cruel (2002)

The first studio LP with new backing band the Imposters (all of the core members of the Attractions, less Bruce Thomas) was advertised as EC’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. Costello’s not trying to trick anyone here – album opener “45” is an unsubtle acknowledgement of the frontman’s age at that time – and the various dub and light jazz excursions are concessions to his evolved tastes. But when he sings “it was so much easier when I was cruel,” it is with the recidivist smirk of the only-partially reformed. As the great, stomping rocker “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)” ably demonstrates, there is plenty of poison left in that pen.

13

The Juliet Letters (1993)

On The Juliet Letters, Costello elected to dispense with rock & roll altogether 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 premise is pretty outlandish, but the outcome is surprisingly intriguing. “I Almost Had A Weakness” ranks with the best of Costello’s confections 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 entry point for someone looking to “get into” Costello, but the performances are idiosyncratic, thoughtful, and often quite affecting.

12

Painted From Memory (1998)

It sounds like a treacherous enough notion – Costello pairs with the towering icon of softcore schmaltz Burt Bacharach on a song cycle concerning a doomed romance, all set to the sort of 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.

11

Brutal Youth (1994)

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.

10

Spike (1989)

Following a bare-knuckled label fight and a myriad of 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 piss-take “God’s Comic.” Not all of the material is platinum-grade on Spike, but there is enough happening to acknowledge that “The Beloved Entertainer” with his head mounted on the cover remains one of the world’s finest.

09

Punch The Clock (1983)

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 often dissonant one, with Langer and Winstanley’s claustrophobic horns and countless overdubs 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-cum-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 album’s few deep breaths is the lovely “Shipbuilding,” a powerful anti-war ballad featuring a gorgeous solo from the legendary, troubled trumpeter Chet Baker, shortly before his death.

08

Blood & Chocolate (1986)

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.

07

Imperial Bedroom (1982)

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 restless and recruited legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to bring new approaches to the studio. The resulting album benefits not so much from Emerick’s 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 belong in any discerning rock music fan’s collection.

06

My Aim Is True (1977)

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 the 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 for years before My Aim Is True, as documented on the excellent bonus tracks available on the various reissues, but the impression on arrival was of a weirdly named genius stepping forward out of anonymity to noisily proclaim the future. One of rock music’s great opening salvos.

05

Trust (1981)

Probably Costello’s most underrated album, Trust is sophisticated and varied, and something of a deep breath following the heedless rush of the records which had preceded it. It’s a remarkable collection of songs which represents yet another highwater mark in the early career of a young juggernaut seemingly incapable of anything less than brilliance. An aura of dark menace 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 cruelty. 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 to the artist’s remarkable first act.

04

King Of America (1986)

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’s 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.” Best of all is “Suit Of Lights,” a marvelously comic and confessional dissertation of his 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.

03

Get Happy!! (1980)

There is nothing else like Get Happy!! in the history of rock and roll. Twenty near-perfect melodic confections packed together in a dizzying stream of wordplay and melody, none lasting longer than three minutes and thirty-six 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 punchlines 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 “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 Day’s 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 all strong medicine and weapons-grade hooks.

02

This Year's Model (1978)

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 tantrum “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 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 vapid stupidity of the fashion industry, even while confessing his manic desire to be a R&R pin-up model himself. One of the rock traditions most bitter heel turns, This Year’s Model is an incredible display of focused talent and the unique capacity to make unpalatable vulgarities go down like so much poisoned sugar.

01

Armed Forces (1979)

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 domestic situations in terms of totalitarianism. Having experienced the rise of Thatcherism in England while in the throes of intense personal chaos, Armed Forces is the record on which Costello’s head basically explodes. “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin…” he sings on the first line of 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, replete with ingenious uptempo melodies, inventive synths, and big-hook, major-key sing-alongs. But the things we are singing along to! Lovebirds as twinned-Hitlers jousting for control, a chemistry class obsessed with human garbage and “the final solution,” chopped-off heads rolling into baskets – music this frightening should perhaps not be allowed to be so ingratiating. By the end, Costello even seems to have exhausted himself. His pitch-perfect cover of producer Nick Lowe’s classic “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love And Understanding)?” transforms the light sarcasm of the original into an existential 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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