He scored a recording contract in 1977, as the punk and new wave movements opened the doors for fresh artists. Elvis Costello, however, was actually a highly literate and sophisticated songwriter who had little in common with punk’s untrained approach. But he did share punk’s aggression; paired with backing band The Attractions, who came on board for 1978’s This Year’s Model, his early albums bristled with angry energy.
Costello took a left turn with the R&B of 1980’s Get Happy!!, which signalled a restless innovator with a broad range of interests. Soon it became almost impossible to predict what he’d do next; an album of country covers was followed by an album of Beatlesesque pop.
Costello’s first ten years is an impressive run that puts him among the greats of pop music – you could make a case for most of the 11 studio albums he released during this fertile period as his best. Many fans favour the first three albums, particularly This Year’s Model, but I prefer the early 1980s where he became more diverse and sophisticated.
I’ve only covered Costello’s first ten years, after which his music-making became less effortless. He was also largely his nimble backing band, The Attractions, after a feud with virtuoso bass player Bruce Thomas; Thomas wrote a book of thinly disguised anecdotes about The Attractions’ life on the road (Costello is referred to as “the singer”). The remaining Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, have continued to work with Costello.
Elvis Costello Albums (1977-1986) Ranked
#11 Goodbye Cruel World
I’ve never heard Goodbye Cruel World, but I’m happy to heed Costello’s advice; the reissue’s liner notes state “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album.” Again produced by Langer and Winstanley, I’ve always assumed that it’s a weaker version of 1983’s Punch The Clock.
#10 Punch The Clock
There are some standout songs on Punch The Clock – ‘Every Day I Write The Book’ was Costello’s only top 40 hit in the US, while ‘Pills and Soap’ and ‘Shipbuilding’ are excellent songs, both critical of Margaret Thatcher. But I can’t get past the dated production job from Langer and Winstanley. The straightforward pop approach sidelines The Attractions’ aggression and robs Costello of his usual depth.
#9 Almost Blue
Costello took The Attractions to Nashville and recorded a set of country covers. Costello’s voice suits the material, and it demonstrates his genuine love of country, but it doesn’t add enough to the originals to measure up to Costello’s brilliant run of original material. Almost Blue is enjoyable but inessential.
#8 King Of America
Costello teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett and recorded his first album without The Attractions since My Aim Is True. King of America is a stripped-down record with Americana influences. There’s brilliant material, particularly the closing run of songs ‘Jack of All Parades’, ‘Suit Of Lights’, and ‘Sleep of the Just’, but it runs a little long and could have used a trim.
#7 This Year’s Model
I’m aware that this is a provocative placing, but I’ve never connected to This Year’s Model. It’s often cited as Costello’s finest achievement, and it’s a blast of raw, angry energy. Despite some great songs, like ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ and ‘Little Triggers’, the tunes aren’t as memorable as on his other early albums. Steve Nieve’s heavy use of the Vox Continental organ isn’t my favourite texture.
#6 Get Happy!!
Get Happy!! is Costello’s first foray into a guise album, exploring R&B. Cramming 20 tracks into 48 minutes, it’s fast-paced, and Bruce Thomas’ basslines shine. Not all of the plethora of tracks are winners, but there are plenty of highlights, like the opening ‘Love For Tender’ and the acoustic ‘New Amsterdam’. The latter features some of Costello’s best wordplay – “I speak double dutch/With a real double duchess”.
#5 My Aim Is True
Elvis Costello’s debut album features a great batch of songs, but generic backing from Clover. Costello was often compared to Buddy Holly in his early career, and it’s most apparent here; there are great, stripped-down, hook-laden songs like the tender ‘Alison’ and the reggae of ‘Watching The Detectives’.
#4 Blood & Chocolate
After an album apart, Costello reconvened The Attractions for a project that was recorded in the studio at full volume, successfully recapturing the intensity of his early work. Blood & Chocolate features a parade of enjoyably intense rockers, although the centrepiece is the hypnotic, quiet desperation of ‘I Want You’.
Trust is the most eclectic album from Costello’s early career, taking on board influences from other new-wave artists. It ends limply, but before that features some of my all-time favourite Costello songs. The stunning band interplay of ‘New Lace Sleeves’ and the contemptuous groove of ‘You’ll Never Be A Man’ are among many highlights here.
#2 Armed Forces
On Armed Forces, Costello tempered the anger of This Year’s Model with hooks, creating an album of urgent yet sophisticated pop. There are plenty of irresistible tracks, like the opening ‘Accidents Will Happen’ and the cover of producer Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding’.
#1 Imperial Bedroom
Costello teamed up with Beatles’ engineer for Imperial Bedroom, an album that recalled the Fab Four’s studio-based albums of the mid-1960s. Opener ‘Beyond Belief’ builds impressively, while he’s often both sophisticated and catchy, like ‘You Little Fool’ and ‘Man Out Of Time’ Even though there are a lot of genuine contenders for the title of best album from Costello’s early catalogue, Imperial Bedroom is the best setting for Costello’s harmonically sophisticated songs to shine, energetic and layered.
Do you have a favourite Elvis Costello album? Am I missing out on any great post-1986 records?
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