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Pop - Released January 1, 1969 | Virgin EMI

Although he had made a number of re-recordings of popular songs for a budget record label in the late '60s, Empty Sky was the first true solo album Elton John recorded after leaving Bluesology; it also marked the beginning of his long and fruitful collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Empty Sky is quite indicative of the post-Sgt. Pepper's era. With its ambitious arrangements and lyrics, it's clear that John and Taupin intended the album to be a major statement. Though it shows some signs of John's R&B roots, most of the album alternates between vaguely psychedelic rock and Taupin and John's burgeoning pop songcraft, capped off by a bizarre reprise of brief moments of all of the songs on the record. There aren't any forgotten gems on Empty Sky, but it does suggest John's potential. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1970 | Virgin EMI

Instead of repeating the formula that made Elton John a success, John and Bernie Taupin attempted their most ambitious record to date for the follow-up to their breakthrough. A loose concept album about the American West, Tumbleweed Connection emphasized the pretensions that always lay beneath their songcraft. Half of the songs don't follow conventional pop song structures; instead, they flow between verses and vague choruses. These experiments are remarkably successful, primarily because Taupin's lyrics are evocative and John's melodic sense is at its best. As should be expected for a concept album about the Wild West, the music draws from country and blues in equal measures, ranging from the bluesy choruses of "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun" and the modified country of "Country Comfort" to the gospel-inflected "Burn Down the Mission" and the rolling, soulful "Amoreena." Paul Buckmaster manages to write dramatic but appropriate string arrangements that accentuate the cinematic feel of the album. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1971 | Virgin EMI

The great thing about this early live record is its obscurity -- not just that this isn't one of his better-known records, but that the set list is a fanboy's dream, heavy on album tracks, covers, and the kinds of song that make Elton John's early work so individual. It's not just that there are no hits here, but it's that these six songs emphasize the spare, hard-rocking bluesy singer/songwriter that may not have written his own words, but always sang them with conviction and melodies that made them seem like his own. This may be a minor effort in his catalog, but that's part of its pleasure -- it's certainly a record from the time before Elton the superstar, as he tears through Tumbleweed Connection tracks prior to the record's release, does a phenomenal reworking of "Honky Tonk Women," hauls out B-sides like "Bad Side of the Moon," and gives a fierce, infectious performance. It's not essential for anyone but obsessives, but if you want any indication of what Elton sounded like prior to his big break, this is an excellent, even intoxicating, summary. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1971 | Virgin EMI

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Pop - Released January 1, 1972 | Virgin EMI

Considerably lighter than Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau is a rollicking collection of ballads, rockers, blues, country-rock, and soul songs. On paper, it reads like an eclectic mess, but it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote. The skittering boogie of "Honky Cat" and the light psychedelic pop of "Rocket Man" helped send Honky Chateau to the top of the charts, but what is truly impressive about the album is the depth of its material. From the surprisingly cynical and nasty "I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself" to the moving ballad "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," John is at the top of his form, crafting immaculate pop songs with memorable melodies and powerful hooks. While Taupin's lyrics aren't much more comprehensible than before, John delivers them with skill and passion, making them feel more substantial than they are. But what makes Honky Chateau a classic is the songcraft, and the way John ties disparate strands of roots music into distinctive and idiosyncratic pop -- it's one of the finest collections of mainstream singer/songwriter pop of the early '70s. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1973 | Virgin EMI

Elton John became a true superstar with 1972's Honky Chateau. He followed that album with Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, his most direct, pop-oriented album to date. Designed as a pastiche of classic and contemporary pop styles, the album almost sounds like an attempt to demonstrate the diversity of the John/Taupin team. Though the hits are remarkable -- "Daniel" is a moving ballad and "Crocodile Rock" is a sly take on '50s rock & roll -- the album is slightly uneven. Several of the album tracks, particularly the knowing "I'm Going to Be a Teenage Idol" and the rocking "Elderberry Wine," are as strong as anything John had recorded, but there are too many melodies that simply don't catch hold. Nevertheless, the singles were strong enough to keep the album at the top of the charts, and at its best, it is a very enjoyable piece of well-crafted pop/rock. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1974 | Virgin EMI

Glitzy showmanship is what fuels Caribou, a less successful album than its early-'70s predecessors. Though the shiny surface of the album is alluring, only a few tracks rank among John's best work. "The Bitch Is Back" is one of his best hard rock cuts and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" is one of his classic ballads, but the album tracks tend to be ridiculous filler on the order of "Solar Prestige a Gammon" or competent genre exercises like "You're So Static." There are a couple of exceptions -- "Pinky" is a fine ballad and "Dixie Lily" is an endearing stab at country -- but on the whole, Caribou is a disappointment. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1975 | Virgin EMI

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Pop - Released January 1, 1975 | Virgin EMI

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Pop - Released May 19, 1975 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

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Pop - Released January 1, 1976 | Virgin EMI

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Pop - Released January 1, 1976 | Virgin EMI

Although initially considered a contractually obligated release, when Here and There (1976) was upgraded in 1995 as part of Elton John's (piano/vocals) "Classic Years" catalog overhaul, it became the most definitive live document to date of his immortal '70s quintet that featured the pianist backed by Davey Johnstone (guitar/backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass/backing vocals), Nigel Olsson (drums), and Ray Cooper (percussion). What was originally a single vinyl long-player was expanded to nearly two hours and 20 minutes, spread over two CDs. The "Here" show was recorded at an Invalid Children's Aid Society Benefit at Royal Festival Hall in London on May 18, 1974. John begins with a pair of early solo numbers before being joined by the band for inspired readings of hits such as the rousing "Take Me to the Pilot" and "Crocodile Rock" as well as the equally integral deep cuts "Bad Side of the Moon" and a very special version of the ballad "Love Song" -- featuring a rare duet with the song's author and original co-vocalist Leslie Duncan (vocals). Another real treat is the funky and loose rendering of "Honky Cat" with some interesting interaction between John and Cooper. Six months later John and company hit Madison Square Garden in New York City for a series of shows over Thanksgiving weekend. In acknowledgement of a wager set forth between John and John Lennon that stated, if the duo's single "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" from Lennon's Walls and Bridges (1974) album topped the singles chart, Lennon would join Elton on-stage for a few numbers. Needless to say the song bound to the number one position, and the stage was literally set for the very first live appearance from Lennon in two years -- which would ironically and tragically likewise be the last he would ever give. Immediately differentiating the "There" show is the comparatively massive audience. This show is as much about spectacle (1974 style) as it is about music. Not that the music suffers in the least. Although John's voice has sounded better, the band are in top form as they rant and rave through the blistering "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" opener. Among the surprises are the romping live versions of "Grey Seal" and "You're So Static." However, the unmitigated highlight is Lennon's surprise three-song guest shot. Both legends perform their latest singles -- for Lennon it is the aforementioned "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" and for John it is the non-LP cover of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" -- both of which are quite powerful in terms of sheer vibe. Their finale of "I Saw Her Standing There" is ragged-but-right with Johnstone cleverly quoting "I Feel Fine" during the bridge from the verse to the chorus. While the remainder of the set hold its own, it pales in the wake of the preceding momentous performance. This should be considered essential listening for enthusiasts as well as curious music historians. © Lindsay Planer /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1979 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

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Pop - Released January 1, 1980 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

Elton John entered the second decade of his pop music career releasing his 21st long-player during the 33rd year of his life, hence the album's title. It also marked the tentative return of former writing partner Bernie Taupin after a four-year sabbatical. Although the reunion yielded a trio of tunes, "Chasing the Crown," "Two Rooms at the End of the World," and "White Lady White Powder," unfortunately they all suffer from the same nauseating disco vibe that made John's previous effort, 1979's Victim of Love, so thoroughly dismissible. However, the following year's 21 at 33 is far from a complete washout. Building on the strength of his relationship with Gary Osborne -- with whom John had created A Single Man (1978) -- the pair wrote the standouts "Dear God" and "Take Me Back" as well as the hit single "Little Jeannie." "Sartorial Eloquence" harks back to the classic "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," thanks to the all-star backing vocals from Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley as well as Toni Tennille, Bruce Johnston, and Peter Noone (from Herman's Hermits). Interestingly, John briefly reassembled his 1970s core band of Davey Johnstone (guitar), Dee Murray (bass), and Nigel Olsson (drums), although their contributions sound more like an afterthought when compared to those of studio stalwarts Richie Zito (guitar), Steve Lukather (guitar), Lenny Castro (percussion), and an all-star horn section of Chuck Findley (trumpet), Jim Horn (sax), and Jerry Hey (trumpet). The scattered nature and lack of cohesion on 21 at 33 would translate onto John's next few albums such as The Fox (1981) and Jump Up! (1982). Not until the full-fledged reunion with Taupin and backing quartet on Too Low for Zero (1983) would John begin to reestablish himself as a central pop music figure. © Lindsay Planer /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1981 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

The early '80s were not a particularly focused time in Elton John's career. The Fox (1981) is a reflection of the tentative regrouping that began on his previous effort, 21 at 33 (1979). In fact, a third of the material was left over from the same August 1979 sessions. This results in dithering musical styles and ultimately yields an uneven and at times somewhat dated sound. The reunion with Bernie Taupin (lyrics) that commenced on 21 at 33 is once again sparsely tapped. He contributes the tepid "Heels of the Wind" as well as "Just Like Belgium," which foreshadows the pair's future lightweight efforts such as "Nikita." Slightly more promising, however, is the midtempo rocker "Fascist Faces" -- which may well be a nod to David Bowie's infamous "Britain could benefit from a fascist leader" statement. The album's introspective title track instantly recalls the slightly bittersweet "Curtains" coda from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboys (1975). Gary Osborne and Elton John's collaborations were beginning to yield some impressive results, including "Heart in the Right Place" -- which could easily have been a follow-up to the slinky Caribou (1974) track "Stinker." The tender "Chloe" conclusion to the "Carla/Etude/Fanfare" medley became one of two tracks extracted as singles. The other, "Nobody Wins," sports a Euro-beat flavor and was adapted from a French techno-pop hit by Osborne and Jean-Paul Dreau. According to John, the dark and noir "Elton's Song" remains a favorite, and he very occasionally revives it for live performances. Although The Fox isn't a grand slam, it isn't exactly a bunt either. However, the incremental momentum would continue on the subsequent long-player, Jump Up! (1982), before culminating on his '80s breakthrough, Too Low for Zero (1983). © Lindsay Planer /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1982 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

Jump Up! (1982) was Elton John's first full LP to have been recorded in the 1980s, and is best remembered for including "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," John and lyricist Bernie Taupin's tribute to the their slain friend John Lennon. While the pair had been writing together again, albeit infrequently, since the late '70s, John continued to include material written with his primary non-Taupin collaborator, Gary Osborne. The latter team had previously scored big with "Little Jeannie" on John's 21 at 33 (1980), and to a lesser degree with the noir ballad "Chloe" from The Fox (1981). However, on Jump Up!, the quality of material ranges from the absurd and inane "I Am Your Robot" and the insipid breakup opener "Dear John" to the sublime beauty of "Blue Eyes" and the cathartic value of the aforementioned "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)." The dramatic "Legal Boys" is an understated masterpiece, marking the first public effort between John and Sir Tim Rice. The pair would garner Tony and Grammy awards 12 years later for their work on the original motion picture soundtrack to the animated feature film The Lion King (1994). John's backing band includes many of the same musicians who contributed to his most recent recordings. Representing the "classic" personnel are Dee Murray (bass) and post-Captain Fantastic (1975) recruit James Newton-Howard (keyboards). Fleshing out the core combo are studio guitarist extraordinaire Richie Zito and Toto drummer (and another highly regarded session heavy) Jeff Porcaro. Steve Holly, who worked with Wings as well as John circa A Single Man (1978), guests on the tracks "I Am Your Robot" and "Ball & Chain," the latter also featuring guest guitarist Pete Townshend. While far from a total washout, Jump Up! would remain tethered in the wake of the follow-up, Too Low for Zero (1983), marking a reunion between John and both his "classic" 1970s combo and Taupin. © Lindsay Planer /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1984 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

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Pop - Released January 1, 1986 | Virgin EMI

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Pop - Released January 1, 1989 | Virgin EMI

After dismissing his recently re-formed backing band and breaking off professional ties with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John sought Philly soul maestro Thom Bell in search of a fresh direction. However, John's brief foray into soul isn't as surprising or unusual as it might initially sound. In fact, two of John's biggest hits -- "Bennie and the Jets" as well the breezy four-on-the floor backbeat on "Philadelphia Freedom" -- also became crossover R&B smashes. Initially, John was not entirely pleased with the results and sat on the tapes for over a year before remixing the six completed songs in early 1979 for a summertime release. Ultimately, John chose half of the material that he and Bell had cut to be included on a three-song EP, which was led by the midtempo and ultimately danceable "Mama Can't Buy You Love." The two other sides -- "Are You Ready for Love" and "Three Way Love Affair" (which were issued on that June 1979 extended-play single) -- were likewise Bell creations and were augmented significantly by some of Philly's finest. Among them were Casey James (guitar), Leroy M. Bell (guitar), and Charles Collins (drums), strings and horns courtesy of none other than MFSB, and backing vocals from the one and only Spinners. When the CD version of that EP was issued, the other three previously unissued tunes documented during those sessions were released. Notable among them are a Taupin/John leftover titled "Nice and Slow" -- which Thom Bell also rearranged -- as well as a John ballad co-written with Gary Osborne titled "Shine On Through." This track would resurface as the leadoff track on John's A Single Man in a much more stark and moody musical setting. © Lindsay Planer /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1990 | Virgin EMI

This four-CD set has had a somewhat confused history, mostly owing to licensing changes and the mergers and acquisitions of various record labels. Prepared in the late '80s by MCA Records, which had the rights to Elton John's U.S. catalog, To Be Continued... marked a major improvement over the sound of his extant CDs of the period. But MCA's rights lapsed in the 1990s, and the Elton John catalog reverted to Polydor Records, which put it back out in upgraded editions on the Island Records label. This set was deleted by 1994, and was soon selling for serious amounts of money as a collector's item. Then, in 1999, MCA's parent company, Universal Music, bought Polydor, and suddenly this box reappeared. As to its virtues, the 68 songs here include all of the highlights of the first 25 years of Elton John's career -- not just the hits and the notable album tracks, but outtakes, unissued live tracks, and demos. Disc one opens with the first original song that Elton John ever recorded, a solo composition called "Come Back Baby," cut with Bluesology, his mid-'60s band, and also includes the solo demo of "Your Song" and a previously unissued outtake of "Gray Seal"; their presence alone ensures that most fans will regard this set as a must-own item. There's nothing quite as compelling as those early treasures, but disc two and disc three do pull together all of the essential sides from across ten years of history, including John's work with John Lennon, Kiki Dee, and France Gall, and includes a previously unissued live version of "I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)." Disc four, covering the years 1982-1990, is highlighted by the single mix of "Act of War," featuring Millie Jackson, and a previously unissued live version of "Carla Etude." The accompanying booklet includes some very interesting reminiscences by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but obviously not enough on the specific tracks -- the producers felt compelled to add in a free-standing sheet detailing recording dates and personnel. Astonishingly, the sound on this set has held up extremely well, despite its dating back to the 1990 -- one can hear Caleb Quaye and Les Thatcher's guitars cleanly on the outtake of "Gray Seal," and the piano, bass, and orchestra on "Friends" are close and vivid. And the more recent stuff sounds even better. It's a rare occurrence in pop music reissues, especially with all of the upgrades in sound, sources, and technology going on all of the time, but producer Andy McKaie built something to last with this box. © Bruce Eder /TiVo

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Elton John in the magazine