Icon: Elton John

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 09.25.13 in Icons

Hitting the charts in the wake of the Beatles’ 1970 split, right when both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died of overdoses and Jim Morrison wasn’t far behind, Elton John could only have launched his career at a time when pop stars could be virtuosos. From “Your Song” onward, he’s rendered his keyboards with a sophistication that eclipses all but the greatest classical pianists. His compositional gifts are nearly on the level of Burt Bacharach’s, but with greater versatility: From guitar-heavy rock to the most symphonic ballads, Elton can write it all. At the peak of his powers, his vocal skills have been nearly as diverse, and unlike most of singer-songwriter peers, he can be absolute dynamite onstage — Liberace, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard all wrapped into one rhinestone-encrusted, feather-besotted package.

On top of all that, throughout most of the ’70s he was ridiculously prolific, and although his pace has since slowed, Elton has maintained much of his monumental popularity for five decades. Although his increasingly traditional output suggests that, like most veteran rockers, he can’t be bothered with trends, Elton remains the superstar of his generation most keenly attuned to new artists and movements. After all these years in the spotlight, he remains more eager to spout off on the latest buzz acts than he is to talk about himself. He’s the only major pop composer besides Bacharach to let other lyricists — usually Bernie Taupin — speak through him.

And though he may be self-effacing, Elton is a gay ambassador to the straight world: He’s the homo in every homophobe’s record collection, the outsider who managed to get really, really inside. But, as with many mega-successful celebrities, he’s dealt with depression and addiction in a way that’s tangible in his work: Those two factors together have accounted for some spotty to downright terrible records. Not even Paul McCartney at his most pot-addled and domesticated has sunk as low as Victim of Love or Leather Jackets.

We prefer to judge him by his early-to-mid-’70s hot streak and by his 21st-century albums that quite consciously recall the timeless triumphs of that earlier era, but we’ve evaluated each of his 31 studio albums here, making note of buried treasure on otherwise shipwrecked records, and we wish you happy digging through a golden pop songbook that’s substantial in every sense of the word.

Captain Fantastic

Elton John

Elton John

The striking thing about Elton John's second album — his first to be released internationally, and the one that made him a rising star — is that it starts with two of Bernie Taupin's most straightforward early lyrics and is then followed by eight of his most cryptic. "Your Song" so captures the style of Elton's idol Leon Russell that it even mirrors the sentiments of Russell's similarly classic "A Song for You," which hadn't been released when this LP was recorded in January 1970; "I Need You to Turn To" swaps piano for harpsichord, but follows similarly in grateful, but relatively light, love mode.

The rest gets mighty heavy — not through rock's usual guitars, but with hugely heaving orchestration. Arranger Paul Buckmaster piles on severe strings, foreboding choirs and blaring horns that position the singer closer to his prog-rock contemporaries than "Your Song" suggests. Elton's Stones fixation gets blatant through his Jagger-esque delivery of "No Shoestrings on Louise," and there are similarly clamorous gospel cops on "Take Me to the Pilot" and "Border Song." Like his immediate predecessors in the Beatles, Elton proves himself a consummate magpie: His choice of chords and the way he structures his melodies is hugely sophisticated, yet as just as informed by American pop as it is by Bach. "Your Song" may have labeled Elton a softie, but the rest is much more Scott Walker than James Taylor.

Tumbleweed Connection

Elton John

Recorded a few months before the rising star first visited America, Elton John's second album of 1970 is nevertheless his most Americana-obsessed. It's his and Bernie Taupin's far-removed fantasy of the Ole West, full of swaggering cowboys, burning missions, and guns, guns, guns. The piano-pounding gospel of Elton John's churchiest cuts merges with C&W's weepy slide guitars, and Paul Buchmaster's orchestrations swap that album's sturm und drang for the pastoral lyricism of Aaron Copland. This is Elton posing as a country bumpkin.

But when he and Bernie do their version of Dylan and the Band, it's presented with the operatic drama of the Shangri-Las, and it's that duality that sets them apart from far more rootsy North American folkies. Like the album before it, nearly every cut here features a maple-thick melody, and the singing gets even better: Listen closely to the way he gently floats over that harp in his swooning "Come Down in Time" and you can hear years spent closely studying American soul stars like the Isley Brothers while playing in their English backing bands. Producer Gus Dudgeon's ornate sonics situate Elton as a serious artiste and the lyrics skew country, but behind that, the guy is pure R&B: There's no way an ordinary Brit rocker could pull off the falsetto flutters and sighs of "Where to Now St. Peter?," much less write them.

Madman Across The Water

Elton John

Where Tumbleweed Connection imagined vintage Americana from afar, Madman Across the Water, as its title suggests, documents contemporary America first-hand in the wake of Elton and Bernie's initial US tour with drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. So although Taupin is up to his usual surrealism in "Levon," he comes back down to earth for "Tiny Dancer" and "Holiday Inn," which chronicle life on the proverbial rock 'n' roll road. That experience is already showing up in Elton's vocals, which are now both more relaxed and more dexterous in the wake of his first major stage experience as a solo star.

The gap between the seriousness and introversion of Elton's albums and his growing reputation as rambunctious entertainer begins getting bridged with "Razor Face," a howling, Stones-y song so blatantly gay it's hard to believe that it sailed over most heads in 1971 just as David Bowie started bringing rock out of the closet. (Check out prog-rock kingpin Rick Wakeman wailing on that organ.)

There's more prog action than ever in Paul Buchmaster's opulent strings, which anticipate the cello-intensive bombast of early Electric Light Orchestra, particularly on the stormy title track. The tunes do get distinctly less catchy as the album progresses, though, and so for decades Madman was thought too orchestrated for its own good. But in 2000, Almost Famous revived "Tiny Dancer," which narrowly missed the US Top 40 in 1972, and justly repositioned this surging, swaying tribute to Californian women as one Elton's most sing-along-able and all-around greatest songs ever. Those same derided strings rightfully rule.

Honky Chateau

Elton John

Elton's fourth international album breaks significantly from its predecessors in two crucial ways: Arranger Paul Buckmaster and his massive orchestration of the last three albums are gone, replaced by Elton's far-leaner touring band, which for the first time plays throughout. This means symphonic balladry no longer largely defines Elton's universe, and it opens up space that starts getting filled in earthier and more diverse ways. Virtuoso jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty solos on "Mellow" and "Amy," but elsewhere strings are only implied — although you might swear you still hear them, particularly on "Rocket Man," thanks to the sustained notes of guitarist Davey Johnstone, ARP synth player David Hentschel, and the band's various ooohs and ahhhs.

The barrelhouse piano that punctuates the rollicking opening title cut shifts Elton's R&B background to the foreground. Most of Bernie's lyrics similarly grow more far more direct: Compare the metaphysics of "Levon" released only six months previous with the candidly sexy "Mellow." Elton's piano still rules, but there's a rock ensemble foundation to most cuts that wasn't there before, and the results are both looser and more rhythmic. Even the gospel that previously suggested fire and brimstone gets more uplifting in "Salvation." Generating two Top 10 hits, his first since "Your Song," Honky Château became Elton's earliest chart-topping album, and began his transformation from dark pop troubadour to rainbow-hued rock superstar.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Elton John

Elton John's presentation started getting more showbiz-zy on 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road with results that emphasized his and collaborator Bernie Taupin's simultaneous infatuation with popular culture and blindness to its limitations. Recorded and released later that same year, this filler-free double-album plays like one long, knowing, love letter to bygone Hollywood that's as flashy as it is passionate: Even the songs that aren't expressly about Marilyn Monroe and Roy Rogers feel as though they're presented in Technicolor and Cinemascope. As such, it's his most fully-realized record: This is Elton John at his Elton John-ny-est, a quintessential '70s tour de force that hasn't lost its luster.

As announced by the virtuosic 11-minute opener "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," the singer and his touring ensemble now roar like a genuine rock band. Elton goes glam and it suits him: Most Americans didn't know Slade, England's biggest band of 1973, but he makes their sound his own on "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" as nimbly as he draws from Alice Cooper ("All the Young Girls Love Alice"), the Stones ("Dirty Little Girl"), and other platform-booted peers, spectacularly summarized by "Bennie and the Jets," a pop chart-topper and an unexpected hit on R&B radio.

Elton's keyboards reach a new level of sophistication: Listen how he spins piano, electric piano and Mellotron into one swirling tornado of sound on "Grey Seal," a re-recorded early B-side transformed into a key cut. The rollercoaster momentum of this record is such that even relatively minor tracks like "This Song Has No Title" set up the album's multiple climaxes, and the breadth of reggae, music hall, country and other genres mutually flatter each other. Rock about rock is sometimes diverse, heartfelt or masterful, but rarely is it all that at once. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is pop culture reflecting on itself like a giant disco ball in a hall of mirrors.

Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy

Elton John

Having released four consecutive chart-topping albums, Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin stepped back to celebrate their personal bond. Written in the same order in which the songs appear on the album, their first new long-player of 1975 is directly autobiographical in a way most of the pair's '70s output is not. In contrast to the glitzy pop-rocking albums that preceded it, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is resolutely singer-songwriter-like — appropriate, given its subject. It's also Elton's most detailed recording: What it lacks in catchiness it compensates with care.

The album documents the pair's earliest unsuccessful years from 1967-69 before "Your Song" made Elton an apparent overnight success. Like much of Taupin's writing, it combines concrete references to actual people and places with allusion, and so their story gets told without giving too much away: The nearly seven-minute single "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is surely the only Top 10 hit in which an out gay man (singer Long John Baldry, the "sugar bear" to whom John supplied piano backing in the mid '60s) rescues a closeted gay friend (Elton) from committing suicide attempted to escape marriage. Delicate arrangements evoking the Beach Boys at their most ethereal fill the narrative's blanks: This is a nostalgic and loving rendering of innocence lost.

Rock of the Second-Besties

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player

Elton John

Despite the consistency of 1972's Honky Château, Elton's next album gets mighty mixed, both stylistically and qualitatively. This early-1973 release features what was then his most energetic material, as well as his slickest, and in each case that's both good and bad. Its first single, the Fonz-anticipating '50s corn of "Crocodile Rock," hasn't aged well, unlike its less-derivative and more rocking B-side, "Elderberry Wine." The second one, the impeccably-produced "Daniel," remains a definitive slice of breezy '70s smoothness that's one nautical reference away from inventing yacht rock.

Don't Shoot Me anticipates Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's eclecticism while suggesting Elton wasn't always ready to pull it off just yet. He's experimenting more vocally as the band ramps up its guitars and overall dexterity, yielding winners like the simultaneously bouncy yet yearning "Teacher I Need You" as well as misfires such as "Texan Love Song" — a convincing murderous redneck Elton is not.


Elton John

Having recorded his then-longest, most successful, and all-time best album, 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, in two weeks, Elton probably thought he could knock out the basics for its 1974 successor in nine days, and entrust longtime producer Gus Dudgeon to finish the rest while he and the band toured Japan. The result undeniably has its highlights: The hits, "The Bitch is Back" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," are quintessential Elton, and both "Pinky" and "Grimsby" suggest that the momentum gained with Goodbye would generate top-tier album tracks indefinitely.

But Caribou is sequentially and sonically top-heavy: Elton's sure hand with hooks soon falters, and the Tower of Power horns that help make "Bitch" such a blast get shrill elsewhere: "You're So Static" and "Stinker" are so treble-intensive that they nearly hurt. "Ticking" rambles on and on. Yet Elton's vocal talent rescues most of these lesser tracks: His star shone so blindingly at this point that few took notice that the songs themselves weren't always as bright.

Rock Of The Westies

Elton John

The extroverted counterpart to Elton's earlier album of 1975, his introspective Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Rock of the Westies is almost completely manic. Having dumped longtime drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, Elton flanks himself with a much larger and more aggressive ensemble for less-produced, nearly live spontaneity: The vocals are hoarse, and often unpolished. Elton's coke consumption started with Caribou, but here, for the first time, you can hear it.

Westies repeats the unevenness of that disc, but with all the great stuff conveniently sequenced on Side One and all the marginal, substandard tunes tracks dumped onto Side Two, starting with the Who-like but soon monotonous "Street Kids." Bernie Taupin's lyrics are also uncharacteristically direct: His "Island Girl" would rather turn tricks for the white dudes on 47th and Lex than bounce back to Jamaica, but his grim scenario is set to some the most jubilant sounds in his partner's catalog. This is the hard-rocking Elton who routinely dressed up as the Statue of Liberty for stadiums full of hit-pumped fans: It's kinda clownish, but, for the first half, mighty fun.

Blue Moves

Elton John

Having promoted multiple albums nearly each year since his 1970 breakthrough via ever-bigger tours, Elton was by mid-decade starting to seriously bug out. During "Elton Week" in Los Angeles 1975, he swallowed 60 Valium and jumped into a swimming pool; two days later he packed Dodger Stadium. Bernie Taupin had his own problems; his wife had hooked up with Elton's new bassist, and was divorcing him while this 1976 double-album was being created.

Shortly before its release, Elton did an infamous Rolling Stone interview where, after having played the night before what he thought would be his last concert for a very long time, possibly forever, he blurts out that he's bisexual. Some said this was the reason why Blue Moves didn't sell as well as Elton's previous blockbusters. More likely is the simple fact that much of it suggests a distinctly depressed Steely Dan album — not what the world was expecting on the heels of Elton's giddy Kiki Dee duet, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."

But for those willing to wade through jazz-fusion instrumentals, there's plenty of compelling stuff. Aside from characteristic ballads like the hit "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and the equally melodramatic "Tonight," excursions like "One Horse Town" fuse prog and disco while "Boogie Pilgrim" conjures Little Feat. At the album's core, tracks like "Between Seventeen and Twenty" bare an unmistakable elegiac tone, as if Taupin and John secretly yearned to kill off the old Elton. Right before the album's release, John fired the band. He wouldn't complete another full album with Bernie until 1983, or record with longtime producer Gus Dudgeon until 1985.

He’s Only the Piano Player

Empty Sky

Elton John

Released in the UK in mid 1969 and then finally issued in the US in early 1975 at the peak of his popularity, Elton's debut album suggests future pitfalls more than it points to impending success. There are a few strong melodies and commanding intros, but Elton hasn't found his voice yet — neither as singer nor as a recording artist. His delivery here is as folky and as tentative as the arrangements, which aren't played or produced particularly well: Even his pumping piano performance dwarfs next to his harpsichord renderings. The strings that will define his next few albums haven't yet arrived, but the initially hypnotic opening track is really, really long, and Bernie Taupin's obtuseness is already in full effect.

A Single Man

Elton John

After years of releasing new albums nearly every six months, Elton let two years pass between 1976's Blue Moves and his first disc without Bernie, producer Gus Dudgeon and most of his core players. Gone are the byzantine abstractions and dense arrangements that defined those collaborations. They're replaced by piano pop that's ostensibly pleasant but spiritually depressed. Both vocally and instrumentally, Elton isn't all there, and drab lyricist Gary Osborne can't compensate. He sounds comfiest on the least consequential material — gossamer ballad "Shooting Star" and weirdly cool and totally gay B-side bonus cut "Flinstone Boy," which sounds like the Scissor Sisters sounding like him.

The Complete Thom Bell Sessions

Elton John

Recorded in 1977, released as a three-song EP in 1979, and reissued as six-track album a decade later, Elton John's Philadelphia soul sessions are both not enough of a good thing and too much. Thom Bell, '70s R&B architect and writer and super-producer of most hits by the Delfonics, the Stylistics and the Spinners, gets yearning performances out of the star, while the sophisticated, string-dominated arrangements and insistent dancefloor rhythms make for a welcome break from the usual piano pumping, but most every cut vocally vamps on too long. The sleeper here is "Are You Ready for Love," which topped the UK charts in 2003 after finally becoming the club hit it was clearly destined to be.

Jump Up!

Elton John

Now producing a full Elton album, producer Chris Thomas manages to extract some passion from the singer with a sound not unlike Thomas's recent work with Pete Townshend, who guests on the particularly strum-my "Ball and Chain." Drawing from New Wave and trad-rock alike, 1982's Jump Up! sometimes foregrounds guitar and drums, yet the piano man manages to get a few good licks in on the should've-been single "Spiteful Child," his catchiest cut in years. Debuting the lower end of his vocal register and then dramatically crooning up the scale, "Blue Eyes" may be forgettable like much of the rest, but it's flattering in a Sinatra-eque way. The bigger hit, "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," evokes Barry Manilow more than it does its subject, the late John Lennon.

Sleeping With The Past

Elton John

As suggested by its title, Elton's final album of the '80s — his last before rehab — is rooted in his record collection: He and Bernie Taupin set out to create an album based on the sounds and sensibility of '60s R&B. But '89's Sleeping with the Past is also very much defined by '80s technology: Its primary instrument is the Fairlight CMI, a hugely expensive digital sampler favored by the Art of Noise, Peter Gabriel and other high-end dance acts and art-rockers of the era. Elton employs it ingeniously in "Durban Deep" to evoke the same dub reggae severity favored by the Clash; the result sounds far more like Sandinista! than anything by Lee "Scratch" Perry — and that's OK, but it grates over the album's course, ultimately chilling much of the songwriting's warmth. The deceptively civilized hit, "Sacrifice," nevertheless remains one of Elton's most enduring post-'70s ballads.

The Bitch is (Somewhat) Back

Too Low For Zero

Elton John

Decidedly out of fashion for the previous punk-centric period, Elton in 1983 — a year defined by British New Wave and the resurgence of African-American pop — once again feels far more contemporary; a status affirmed by producer Chris Thomas, who hooks him up with synths, Linn drums and some snapping '80s snares.

But the vibe is more retro: Elton reunites the old band and writes the entire set with Bernie Taupin, who pays him back with his two most memorable lyrics of the decade. "I'm Still Standing" revisits Motown with autobiographical and proud results, while "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" taps into the singer's melancholic streak far more effectively than the last few discs' maudlin ballads.

The familiar chemistry makes even the second half's filler agreeable. The closing album track "One More Arrow" yields another gay lyric of substance, and although the arrangement gets schmaltzy, Elton's falsetto-laced vocal does not.

Reg Strikes Back

Elton John

After 1986's Leather Jackets, the only way was up. The singer got throat surgery, and although his high notes are gone, so is some of the drug damage: 1988's Reg Strikes Back finds Elton once again in fighting spirit. Flaunting a fat hook, jaunty piano riffs, and a committed vocal, "I Don't Wanna Go on with You Like That" was a deserved smash, and Honky Château's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" gets a worthy sequel. That doesn't mean everything else works: Bernie's kitsch lyrics for "Japanese Hands" are as gauche as Davey Johnstone's power chords on "Goodbye Marlon Brando." The tunes aren't always here, but at least the singer seems more present.

The One

Elton John

In 1990, "Sacrifice" from 1989's Sleeping with the Past somehow became more popular in the UK than any of Elton's feted '70s hits. This breakup ballad set a dusky tone for his '90s output starting with 1992's The One, his first since undergoing treatment for multiple addictions.

It's also the first since the breakup of Bernie Taupin's second marriage, and it was dedicated to Vance Buck, a former lover and lasting friend of Elton's who died of AIDS a few days after its release. Sung from the perspective of a dying gay man who unexpectedly reconciles with his previously rejecting father, "The Last Song" is this album's unqualified knockout.

The other songs are considerably longer and slicker to lesser effect, but there’s the sense that everyone involved is now striving for something of substance. There's less mush, but also fewer hooks: The chorus of "On Dark Street" — a refinement of Sleeping with the Past's R&B nostalgia — is the one catchy bit.

Made In England

Elton John

In 1994, Elton released his ridiculously popular soundtrack to The Lion King, which, in the US, eventually outsold all but his first greatest hits album. That spectacular success affirmed the piano man's status as the world's most family-friendly gay celebrity.

Recorded in London at George Martin's AIR Studios, this 1995 disc was his well timed, credibility-rebuilding Britpop statement. Elton's dramatic ballads are now decidedly less forced: k.d. lang producer Greg Penny may be American, but he and returning string maestro Paul Buckmaster surround the singer in recognizably Anglo arrangements: Davey Johnstone's Beatles-y guitars offer a welcome antidote for the treacle tones of John's then-inescapable Disney smash "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." The brash and refreshingly rockin' title track is even more critical of its subject than Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

The Captain and the Kid

Songs From The West Coast

Elton John

Having realized at the dawning of the 21st century that he'd become famous for just about everything but his recent resolutely genteel pop, film and theater music, the mega-star has an epiphany: Why not make an old-fashioned Elton John album again? So, inspired by Ryan Adams's Heartbreaker, he records on analog tape and does without the usual vocal processing and synths. Instead, he enlists Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard as producer, and brings back both string arranger Paul Buckmaster and drummer Nigel Olsson.

The result ended Elton's record of having at least one single in the Top 100 for the last 31 years, but it marked the start of his artistic renaissance. Songs from the West Coast isn't a perfect album; in places it's almost too sincere. But when Bernie moves in the opposite direction, watch out: Elton sings "I Want Love" in a voice that's angry and burnt, and the jaded result is like John Lennon's "Imagine," but in reverse, as if it's the testimony of a man so damaged by life that he's lost the will or capacity to imagine love that's actually loving.

Peachtree Road

Elton John

The only Elton album that's solely self-produced, 2004's Peachtree Road is strikingly casual. Named after the street on which the singer owns an Atlanta home, it's considerably less heavy than its predecessor, 2001's Songs from the West Coast. Instead, it offers a breezy country feeling that suggests 1970's Tumbleweed Connection, but with lighter orchestrations and less wordplay.

Now that he's finally holding the reigns, Elton lets them slack: "Weight of the World" alludes to the fact that he's far happier now that the pressure of maintaining his three-decade radio-dominating streak is finally over. Even his vocals are far less fussy; in most cases, he seems to go with unpolished first takes, particularly on the brassy transsexual ode "They Call Her the Cat." Where there was once a control-crazed superstar, there's now a humble musician intent on simply satisfying himself and maybe his longtime fans. No classics here, but there's plenty of low-key pleasure.

The Captain and The Kid

Elton John

Whereas 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy recounted Elton John and Bernie Taupin's early pre-fame years together in late-'60s England, this 2006 sequel begins with their first US tour in 1970 and goes on to chronicle their rapid international ascent, decline and continuing partnership.

It's far more straightforward than Fantastic, both musically and lyrically: The continued presence of longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson emphasizes '70s grooves with rolling chords and shuffling rhythms, but John and Outkast producer Matt Still's production maintains the sonic realism of the piano man's post-millennial output: There's little of Gus Dudgeon's lushness, and no strings whatsoever.

But the lyrical candor charms: No longer coyly writing around what were, in 1975, Elton's open secrets, Taupin here lets down his guard about the groupies, drugs, conmen, lovers, losses and excesses that came with their stratospheric union. His partner similarly sings their shared story simply, and with kindness: Yesteryear's fireworks are no longer appropriate, nor necessary.

The Union

Elton John

Leon Russell watched Elton John make his US debut from the front of West Hollywood's famed Troubadour nightclub in the summer of 1970. Seeing his idol a few feet away blew Elton's mind, but not his cool — that Troubadour gig is one of rock's most legendary star-making shows.

Four decades later, the two piano men unite for a mutually autumnal career highlight. T Bone Burnett replaces John's band with heavy hitters — guitarist Marc Ribot, fellow star producer Don Was on bass, steel guitar maestro Robert Randolph, Beatle pal drummer Jim Keltner and Southern soul mainstay Booker T. Jones on organ — and the eerie results take Elton way beyond his Vegas comfort zone.

Russell sets a somber, yet darkly humorous tone with "If It Wasn't for Bad," but Elton and Bernie Taupin match his mettle with much of the rest, including the Civil War-themed "Gone to Shiloh" with Elton, Leon and Neil Young each singing a verse. The Ray Charles influence throughout is undeniable: The Union is akin to Daptone Records' vintage R&B recreations, but with Charles replacing James Brown as the guiding artistic light.

The Diving Board

Elton John

A new Elton album that sounds like an old Elton album is by now ancient news: The guy has been releasing implicitly nostalgic, explicitly self-referential discs for a dozen years. And although this is yet another installment in that series, The Diving Board deviates both from its relatively recent predecessors and his golden era output in ways both emotional and musical.

As its artwork and song titles like "My Quicksand" suggest, this is Elton at his most serious, like the world-weary elements of Blue Moves without comic relief, or The Big Picture without synths. Continuing the T Bone Burnett alliance that began with 2010's The Union, Elton generates beaucoup ballads here but few pop tunes: His keyboard melodies are consistently far more finessed than what he's singing. His voice is at its most ragged, but his classical piano work has rarely been better, and there's little to distract from those facts. Soul star Raphael Saadiq plays bass on some cuts, but you wouldn't know it without the credits, which also include Burnett regulars Jay Bellerose and Doyle Bramhall II, and veteran Motown percussionist Jack Ashford.

Although there are relatively simple declarations like "Can't Stay Alone Tonight," Bernie Taupin elsewhere reverts to wordy, allegorical fantasias, and so it's difficult to fathom if "Oscar Wilde Gets Out" is about the writer, or criminal injustice in general. Despite its skeletal sound, this is not at all a relaxed album. It's not always pleasant to hear the pair strain, but their effort is admirable: What superstars of their vintage and astronomical success try this hard?

Shoot Me!

Victim Of Love

Elton John

The problem isn't that Elton went disco — he'd been dabbling in it since "Philadelphia Freedom." The problem is his tangible lack of commitment to it. John doesn't write, play or produce anything on this deserved 1979 flop: He simply sings and, like everyone else here, he's on autopilot. Producer-songwriter Pete Bellotte repeats the rock-disco groove he helped create for Donna Summer's then-recent landmark Bad Girls with drummer Keith Forsey and keyboardist Thor Baldursson — both Summer vets — and studio cats like Toto's Steve Lukather. The crucial difference is that here everything is thoroughly clichéd: The opening Chuck Berry cover gets no better than Ethel Merman's infamously disastrous disco platter.

21 At 33

Elton John

A little L.A. disco lingers from 1979's no-no Victim of Love on 1980's 21 at 33, but this time, the results are more yacht club that dance club. The album's hit and by far the best thing here, "Little Jeannie," is essentially "Daniel" recast as a Michael McDonald jam. Particularly unsettling is "White Lady White Powder," one of three cuts co-written with Bernie Taupin. Delivering it like a bittersweet love song, Elton makes this cautionary cocaine confessional the most honest cut. That's sad.

The Fox

Elton John

There's a simple reason why much of 1981's dire Elton disc sounds just like 21 at 33, only worse: Half of it is that album's outtakes. Hot from his work with the Pretenders, Chris Thomas brings a New Wave flavor that would've clashed with the older cuts overseen by Kiki Dee producer Clive Franks had the material been more distinctive. The buried gem here is "Elton's Song." With lyrics by rocker Tom Robinson, who broke ground in 1978 with his own "Glad to Be Gay," it's sung from the perspective of a schoolboy besotted with a male classmate. Compare the realness and delicacy of this with everything else; it's from a different world completely, one in which the singer genuinely cares.

Breaking Hearts

Elton John

Despite the closing "Sad Songs (Say So Much)," another Elton classic during a decade skimpy with them, 1984's Breaking Hearts loses ground gained with the previous year's Too Low for Zero. The rockers ape ZZ Top's recently-updated boogie but typically grate: Anything that Elton needs to shout over brings out his coke-worn growl, which is here noticeably worse following his impulsive marriage to engineer Renate Blauel. The tunes fall from traditional to regimental, and producer Chris Thomas fails to divert from the band's punch-the-clock performance. Besides the single, only the stately title track piano ballad clicks.

Ice On Fire

Elton John

Producer Gus Dudgeon returns for Elton's 1985 flippant yet bland Ice on Fire, but only guitarist Davey Johnstone from the old band remains. The sound is indeed icy, no doubt a result of the era's new digital doo-dads, but there's not much fire: Armies of session players fill the spaces, yet only Wham! bassist Deon Estus and his twisty funk riffs win the war: Not even Queen's rhythm section can rescue the turgid "Too Young." George Michael's insanely squeaky falsetto is the best thing about the rambling faux-soul romp "Wrap Her Up." You know Elton's in serious trouble when even his camp falls flat.

Leather Jackets

Elton John

Could anything be more horrible than 1979's disco-by-numbers Victim of Love? An album bereft of hits or any redeeming features, 1986's Leather Jackets answers that question in the affirmative. At least that dud had distinctive players performing badly. This one has anonymous players performing badly, with Elton doing his Elvis-in-his-final-days impression. Producer Gus Dudgeon, who wisely made this his last studio collaboration with the singer, has gone public on Reg's nose candy consumption here, but really everything here seems coked-up. The star calls this album his worst. His writing partner believes that was yet to come.

The Big Picture

Elton John

On March 25, 1997, Elton turned 50. That summer, his friends Gianni Versace and Princess Diana both died. Released simultaneously with The Big Picture, Taupin's Di-inspired, George Martin-produced rewrite of "Candle in the Wind" became the best-selling single of all time. Its unabashedly romantic double A-side included here, "Something About the Way You Look Tonight," was even bigger on easy listening radio: It's the musical equivalent of a glisteningly gaudy Thomas Kinkade landscape.

As its title suggests, the album's meditation on maturing is hugely cinematic, yet it's also, to quote "Rocket Man," as cold as hell. Orchestral arranger Anne Dudley did fantastic work with ABC, Seal, and other Trevor Horn-produced acts, but the back-to-back ballads don't relent until the album's closer, "Wicked Dreams," and so her strings-plus-synths combo ultimately gets overwhelming. This is Taupin's least favorite of his albums with the star. It's not slight like much of their '80s output, and Elton sings it far better, but it sure is a slog.