Elvis Costello Albums: Ranked from Worst To Best (The First Ten Years)

He scored a recording contract in 1977 as the punk and new wave movements opened the doors for fresh artists, but Elvis Costello 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, an album of mainstream 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 is music-making became less effortless. He was also largely without the nimble Attractions, one of the greatest backing bands in rock music, 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”).

Elvis Costello Albums (1977-1986) Ranked

#11 – Goodbye Cruel World

1984
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.” I also have the impression that it’s a weaker version of 1984’s Punch The Clock.


#10 – Punch The Clock

1984
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 both 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 and robs Costello of his usual depth.


#9 – Almost Blue

1981
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.


elvis-costello-king-of-america

#8 – King Of America

1986
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.


elvis-costello-this-years-model

#7 – This Year’s Model

1978
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.


elvis-costello-get-happy

#6 – Get Happy!!

1980
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’.


elvis-costello-my-aim-is-true

#5 – My Aim Is True

1977
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’.


elvis-costello-blood-and-chocolate

#4 – Blood & Chocolate

1986
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. There are plenty of intense rockers, although the centrepiece is the hypnotic, quiet desperation of ‘I Want You’.


elvis-costello-trust

#3 – Trust

1981
Trust is the most eclectic album from Costello’s early career, taking on board influences from other new-wave artists. It ends limply, but otherwise 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.


elvis-costello-armed-forces

#2 – Armed Forces

1979
On Armed Forces, Costello tempered the anger of This Year’s Model with hooks, creating an album of urgent, 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’.


elvis-costello-imperial-bedroom

#1 – Imperial Bedroom

1982
Costello teamed up with Beatles’ engineer for an album that recalled the Fab Four’s studio-based albums of the mid-1960s. Even though there are a lot of genuine contenders for 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 albums?

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29 Comments

  1. I only know two Elvis Costello albums… Armed Forces and The Delivery Man. So, just the one from this list, then… and it’s a good ‘un.

      • Yeah, I do believe I’ll delve deeper. In fact, this post is exactly what I need as a guide, so cheers!

        I really like The Delivery Man. There’s a strong Americana vibe to it, which made it really easy for me to access it.

  2. #7,5,4,2,1 are all on the 1001 list (as is his 1994 album) – I found of the 6 I’ve heard, he’s consistently good-very good. the debut’s probably my #1, but imperial bedroom’s not far off!

  3. I’m a big Costello fan. I did a two-part series on him a while ago, got exactly four comments. I was starting to think people had forgotten about him. As to my favorites, yes I’d say ‘This Year’s Model,’ (‘Lipstick Vogue’ is an awesome example of Pete Thomas’ drumming), ‘My Aim is True,’ and then ‘Armed Forces, (‘Oliver’s Army’ one of the best songs of all time.) As to the rest on your list, I think I know songs from most of them but not the entire album. Like a lot of artists who are around for a long time, I tend to dip in and out. As for a great post-1986 album, may I humbly submit ‘Spike (The Beloved Entertainer.) This is the one that has two songs on which he collaborated with McCartney, ‘Veronica’ and ‘Pads, Paws, and Claws.’ McCartney plays bass on (at least) ‘Veronica.’ Roger McGuinn is on this album, Chrissy Hynde, Nick Lowe – a cast of thousands. A lot of good, weird, interesting stuff like an anti-death penalty song (‘Let Him Dangle’) and conversely, a venomous tune wishing for the death of Margaret Thatcher (‘Tramp the Dirt Down.’) Fun for the whole family!

    • I think sometimes his name is intrinsically funny – I remember members of my Grade 8 class (a couple of whom have gone on to become locally famous New Zealand musicians) making fun of him along with flares and sideburns.

      I’ve already checked out a little bit of Spike – it’s obviously the next album I’m missing, as I was intrigued after reading about ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’. Probably would make sense to check it out sometime – I never saw those later Costello albums in used bins, while I scooped up nice deluxe versions of Trust, Almost Blue, and Imperial Bedroom for cheap. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. You said you were going to do it and you did. Lots to digest. I’ll pop over to your reviews later. I stuck with EC for his first 16 albums (I counted). I didn’t sour on him just thought there might be some other people making good sounds. There was a lot of hype (CB avoids it like the plague) when he first came around. Bottom line for me is that this guy pumped out quality album after quality album. The last two that I bought, Kojak Variety and Brutal Youth I listened to a lot. If I was going to grab an album off your list right now I think it would be King of America or Punch the Clock or …

    • Costello was actually pretty easy – I’ve owned most of those albums for years, Blood + Chocolate was the only one I really had to get up to speed on. I’m kind of surprised he was hyped in the US – seems like the kind of very British artist who’d struggle to get much attention.

      • No, he was really strong here when he first hit these shores. Critics hyped him and he lived up to the hype. Springsteen loved his stuff and if you read Elvis’ autobiography – which I have – they’ve actually been friends going back to the late Seventies early Eighties. I’d say today, though, he’s remembered by those of us who dug him greatly but I don’t think a lot of people who came along later know him. He even makes a point in his book about when he played at Woodstock ’99. Some girl said, “I don’t even know who this guy is.”

        • He has remained part of the critics’ canon though – he has six albums in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die book, and he’s rated 13th greatest album artist of all time on the review aggregator site Acclaimed Music:

          1 The Beatles
          2 Bob Dylan
          3 The Rolling Stones
          4 David Bowie
          5 Miles Davis
          6 Neil Young
          7 Bruce Springsteen
          8 Radiohead
          9 R.E.M.
          10 Led Zeppelin
          11 The Who
          12 The Velvet Underground
          13 Elvis Costello
          14 Pink Floyd
          15 Prince
          16 Tom Waits
          17 Van Morrison
          18 U2
          19 The Beach Boys
          20 Jimi Hendrix

      • Mainstream media always lumps music into categories, new wave, punk, country etc … Angry young man bullshit. I had a buddy that I trusted on his tastes and he turned me onto ‘My Aim is True’. I was sold instantly. Plus it was the era of disco if i recall and other music that I didn’t dig. Elvis was certainly alternative. I’ll drop a comment on your reviews.

  5. My favorite 5 albums by Elvis Costello are:
    Armed Forces, This Year’s Model, Trust, Imperial Bedroom and My Aim is True. I think they have the catchiest melodies mixed with a good bit of intricate arrangements in the later selections and his voice compliments the songs best in these. His lyrics and delivery are also the most resonant with me in these songs with no dips into darkness or assuming a country or Americanized sound. I prefer his Englishness expression and the irony and playfulness mixed with a kind of youthful urgency and keenness of social observation based on a critique of political intrigue and self a tongue and cheek self criticism.

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