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 song-writer 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.
I’ve been covering Costello’s first ten years, and it’s 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. I’m aware that I’m unconventional in my picks – a lot of people favour the first three albums, particularly This Year’s Model, but I tend to prefer the early 1980s where he became more diverse and sophisticated.
I’ve only covered Costello’s first ten years; I have the impression that music making became less effortless for him after that. 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”).
#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 here – ‘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 and the simple pop approach, which 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. Enjoyable but inessential.
#8 – King Of America (1986)
Costello teamed up with T-Bone Burnett, and recorded his first album without The Attractions since My Aim Is True, with a stripped back album with Americana influences. There’s brilliant material here, 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 (1978)
I know 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.
#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’ bass lines shine. Not all the tracks are winners, but there are plenty of highlights, like the opening ‘Love For Tender’ and the acoustic ‘New Amsterdam’.
#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’.
#4 – Blood & Chocolate (1986)
After an album apart, Costello reconvened The Attractions for a project that was recorded in 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’.
#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.
#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’.
#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?