Saturday, March 23, 2013

That Cat Named Hercules, Part II

And now the conclusion of my countdown of Elton John longplayers...

17) REG STRIKES BACK (1988) C+   Following EJ’s mid-‘80s Ice On Fire/Leather Jackets malaise and subsequent throat surgery, he re-emerged with Reg Strikes Back, sounding like his old self again on the hit single "I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That".  The album also featured the minor hit "A Word In Spanish" and the sequel "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters, Part II" as well as two fun cuts, the name-dropping "Goodbye Marlon Brando" ("Goodbye to Rocky V, VI, VII and VIII!" Elton sings) and a tribute to Brian Wilson, "Since God Invented Girls", which oddly coincided with the Beach Boys’ resurgence on the charts in the form of "Kokomo" in the fall of ’88. Hardly Elton’s greatest album ever, but not too shabby, either, and way better than his previous two.

16) ELTON JOHN (1970) B-   The biggest difference between Elton's debut LP Empty Sky and sophomore effort Elton John is the songs were a bit more memorable, and most of them were backed by conductor Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral arrangements. Elton and Bernie placed themselves on the map for good here with their stellar signature composition, the enduring (and endearing) "Your Song". "Take Me To The Pilot" is another landmark Elton track, in spite of Bernie’s obtuse lyrics. "Through the glass eye of your throne is the one danger zone" fits in the same vein as Kiss’ "Get up and get your grandma outta here…" (from "Deuce"): i.e., lyrics that SOUND really cool when you sing them, but don’t make a lick of sense!  "Sixty Years On" is dark and depressing, all about a lonely old man, "Border Song" takes on racism, and Elton takes a crack at Country music in "No Shoestrings On Louise" (or "Lou-WAYS" as he "sangs" it here). While not Elton’s true debut album, this is the snowball that started the avalanche…

15) CARIBOU (1974) B-   This record was the unfortunate victim of overly-high expectations and had the unenviable task of following one of the more mammoth and iconic albums in Rock history, thus it was unmercifully slagged by critics and fans alike. Honestly, anything Elton would’ve put out on the heels of Yellow Brick Road would’ve been viewed as a letdown (even say, Don’t Shoot Me or Honky Chateau), thus I have a soft spot for Caribou, and have always thought it got short-shrifted. It probably also didn’t help the perception of Caribou that the album’s cover photo and inside sleeve art/photography were extremely bland and Spartan compared to its elaborate above-and-beyond-the-call predecessor. But you certainly can’t fault its lead-off cut, "The Bitch Is Back", one of my all-time favorite songs by anyone, period (not just Elton), as I’ve always been keen on songs with profanity in them! The next track, a love song named "Pinky", is way more romantic than the overrated (in my opinion) "Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me", which yielded Caribou its biggest hit. Other tracks I liked include the rollicking "You’re So Static", which closed out Side 1 (back when albums had sides, remember, kids?) and "I’ve Seen The Saucers"—sort of "Rocket Man—Episode II", as well as the goofy "Solar Prestige A Gammon", a silly attempt at nonsense Italian-sounding lyrics (a la The Beatles’ "Sun King") that could pass as the backing track on some European TV deodorant commercial. Granted, there were clunkers on Caribou, namely "Stinker", (which lives up to its title while Elton tries to sing Da Blooz) and the hap-hazard "Grimsby", which could’ve stood a bit more fleshing out. Two other tracks from Caribou have resurfaced on Elton’s concert set list over the years, "Dixie Lily", a fun and twangy salute to the Mississippi Delta, and the poignant, chilling (and TOTALLY underrated) "Ticking", which closes the record. Featuring Elton soloing on piano, and a hint of Dave Hentschel’s synthesizer underneath, "Ticking" vividly captures the sad tale of a tortured soul who goes on a shooting spree that presages Columbine, Virginia Tech and the more recent Aurora and Sandy Hook tragedies. I still defend Caribou to this day—it could’ve been better, sure, but it isn’t nearly as bad as everyone thinks.

14) HERE AND THERE (1976) B- for the original (A for the 1995 re-issue)   Viewed by critics at the time as strictly a contractual obligation release in ‘76, Here And There was Elton’s first live concert album to feature his entire backing band, drummer Nigel Olsson, bassist Dee Murray, guitarist Davey Johnstone and percussionist Ray Cooper. And it’s pretty good stuff, for the most part. Side 1 (Here) features cuts from a May, 1974 London concert in front of the Royal Family and Side 2 (There) was recorded on Thanksgiving of ’74 in front of the Royal Crazies at Madison Square Garden in Gotham City. Although the recording is a bit flat-sounding (esp. on the MSG side), we get a fair taste of what Captain Fantastic sounded like performing his big hits in concert during his heyday. Too bad it was ONLY a taste. Imagine if they had fleshed things out and released a state-of-the-art double-live album in 1976 instead. I think it would’ve given Kiss Alive!, Bob Seger's Live Bullet and Frampton Comes Alive! a run for their money. Well, that wrong was partially righted 19 years later when Polygram re-issued H&T as an expanded double-CD with more tracks from both concerts, including the monumental three-song mini-set EJ played with John Lennon at The Garden ("Whatever Gets You Through The Night", "Lucy In The Sky" and "I Saw Her Standing There"), forever documenting what turned out to be the JL’s final performance on a concert stage. Other gems on the expanded version include "Grey Seal" from Yellow Brick Road, "Country Comfort" and "Burn Down The Mission" from Tumbleweed Connection and "You’re So Static" from Caribou (backed by the Muscle Shoals Horns) as well as classics which were omitted from the original vinyl release like "The Bitch Is Back", "Daniel" and "Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting". Hearing these makes me wish I’d been old enough to attended concerts (I was only ten at the time) so I could’ve seen and heard Elton in his prime.

13) TOO LOW FOR ZERO (1983) B-  Elton John completed the major comeback he embarked on in 1980 with 1983’s Too Low For Zero, which featured his biggest hits in over five years, the defiant declaration "I’m Still Standing" and the whimsical "I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues" (the videos for both of which turned out to be among his the best he’s ever done). The title track was also a minor hit, as was the rocking "Kiss The Bride", which even garnered some well-deserved airplay on Album Rock radio. Another cut I really liked is "Religion", which takes a little jab at the hypocrisy of people who are religious only when it’s convenient for them—"She’s a working girl who loves the Lord", "He still drinks, but he does believe…", etc. TLFZ also features a guest cameo appearance by Stevie Wonder on harmonica on "Cold As Christmas (In The Middle Of The Year)". Welcome back, Reg, we missed you!

12) JUMP UP! (1982) B-   Before that big comeback was complete, Elton took a major leap forward on 1982’s Jump Up!, which I remember slightly more fondly than Too Low, mostly because ’82 was the year I first saw EJ in concert, and he played numerous cuts from this one at Starlight Theater that night.  Jump Up! was also significant in that Elton righted a very egregious wrong by reuniting on record with his old rhythm section of Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray, whom he inexplicably jettisoned from the band in 1976—the biggest brain fart of E. John’s career this side of Victim Of Love, in my opinion. Guitarist Davey Johnstone returned as well for the subsequent tour ("after a little while playing with other biggies—like Meat Loaf," as Elton quipped onstage) and for the first time over six years, EJ put out a very focused and consistent effort here. Which is why I find Bernie Taupin’s 2010 comments on it rather baffling, as he called Jump Up! "one of our worst albums…it's a terrible, awful, disposable album, but it had 'Empty Garden' on it, so it's worth it for that one song." Then again, Taupin only co-wrote about half of this album with Elton, and apart from "Garden" and "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?", the weaker tracks were Bernie’s, while Gary Osborne co-authored the snappy opening cut "Dear John", the upbeat "Ball And Chain" (featuring one Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend guesting on acoustic guitar) and the sultry "Blue Eyes", a fine make-out song if there ever was one. "Empty Garden" was the centerpiece of the record, and was far and away the best and most poignant of all the John Lennon tribute songs, blowing away George Harrison’s "All Those Years Ago", Queen’s "Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)" and Paul McCartney’s "Here Today". Sorry Bernie, you’re full of shit—this was a damn good album.

[While I’m on the subject, I have a pet peeve about how on every Elton album since the mid-‘80s, their work is credited as "Music by Elton John/Lyrics by Taupin". That one-name crap sounds so damn snobby! Beethoven and Chopin might've gotten away with this, but you're still plain ol’ Bernie to me, Bud.  But I digress…]

11) TUMBLEWEED CONNECTION (1971) B-   Elton and Bernie continued with the highly-orchestral sound they utilized on the Elton John album, but made things a bit more up-tempo and even added some Country twang to create one of the more unconventional (and underrated) Rock albums of the early ‘70s. Olsson and Murray were now the official rhythm section on Tumbleweed, although session musicians were used throughout once again like on its predecessor, as was Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements. Backing vocals on some songs were provided by my girl Dusty Springfield, as well as prolific utility man Tony Burrows, whose lead voice appeared on hit singles throughout the early ‘70s by Edison Lighthouse, First Class, the Pipkins, White Plains and Brotherhood Of Man. The songs on TC are a bit more interesting than that the ones on Elton John, which is why I rated it higher, especially Side 2, which leads off with the underrated gem "Where To Now, St. Peter?", featuring one of my favorite Bernie lyrics "I may not be a Christian, but I’ve done all one man can…". Next up is a cult favorite amongst longtime EJ fans, "Love Song", written (and harmonized) by Lesley Duncan, and I’ve always wondered why this wasn’t a hit single—it would’ve been the logical follow-up to "Your Song". The somewhat trippy "Amoreena" follows, and then we’re treated to the pseudo sequel to "Sixty Years On" with "Talking Old Soldiers", where Elton half-sings/half-speaks both parts of a bar room conversation about not growing old gracefully and being forgotten. An early EJ classic, "Burn Down The Mission", climaxes the album with some rollicking piano-pounding following its mid-tempo verses and choruses. Oh, and Side 1 didn’t suck either, featuring songs about fathers and guns (one at the same time, "My Father’s Gun") as it explored Bernie’s infatuation with the American old West and the Confederacy. It was clear by this time that EJ and BT were well on their way…

10) MADE IN ENGLAND (1995) B   To date, this is the last really solid album from start-to-finish that Elton has put out (in my opinion), and it built upon the momentum created by his 1992 drug-free return to form, The One. Still stone-cold sober, our good Captain opens the proceedings with "Believe", a dramatic, epic-sounding song that harkens back to the days of "Levon" with its powerful orchestral arrangement. Next up, the title track is both proud and defiant, and more or less a sequel to 1983’s "I’m Still Standing", and I loved the positive attitude, not to mention Davey Johnstone’s guitar, which we hear quite a bit of throughout the album. While I could’ve done without Elton and Bernie’s rather pointless (and contrived) gambit of single-word titles on all the songs except "Made In England", there’s plenty of good stuff here, particularly "Pain", which sonically resembles the Stones’ "Happy", and features Elton conducting a musical interview with Pain itself ("What’s your name?"/"My name is Pain"…"How old are you?"/"Nineteen-hundred and 94 years…"). "Lies" takes inventory of who doesn’t tell the truth and why—"I’ve lied for a drug or two…"—and "Please" is one of EJ’s more underrated love songs. There are a couple of clunkers here, like "House" ("This is my house/This is my floor", etc.)—come on, Bernie, you’re better than this! Thankfully, he didn’t get to "This is my toilet." The closing cut, "Blessed" turned out to be a minor hit, but it served as an omen that Elton was about to slip back into comfortable rut territory again, and sure enough, he did so on his next album The Big Picture.

9) BREAKING HEARTS (1984) B   Elton’s ‘80s comeback continued with yet another solid effort in 1984, Breaking Hearts, which features the classic Elton John Band of Johnstone/Olsson/Murray one last time. "Restless" leads off and got a fair amount of airplay on Album Rock stations, and I can easily identify with the line, "Everybody’s searching for something that just…ain't…there" in terms of my personal life. "Who Wears These Shoes?" was a catchy single, and "Slow Down Georgie (She’s Poison)" could’ve been one too. The silliest track on BH was "Passengers" with its call-and-response mob vocals, but I always liked it. I especially liked two others that were opposite ends of the spectrum—"Li’l Frigerator", a punchy rocker that sounded even better live in concert in ’84, and "In Neon", a slow and dramatic ballad that should’ve been a hit. The song that WAS a big hit, "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" didn’t really honk my hooter that much, and really lost its luster with me when the Sasson jeans people commandeered the song for their TV commercials ("Sasson says so much"—oy!). Overall, though, Breaking Hearts is good stuff.

8) 11-17-70 (1971) B   Another EJ release the critics bashed (but since when do I care what they think?), this one makes my Top 10 on pure chutzpah alone. When Elton first hit this side of the Big Pond in late 1970, he toured only with Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray, almost two years before Davey Johnstone rounded out the classic Elton John Band. Piano, bass and drums made for an odd musical combo indeed, but this unlikely power trio somehow made it work (and STILL rocked out, no less) throughout that tour, including a stop at New York’s A&R Studios to play a live radio concert that went out nationwide on November 17, 1970. The Dynamic Trio almost brought the house down for the hundred or so assembled, playing nearly 90 minutes, half of which was included on this album that originally was never intended for release. Elton himself was loathe to put it out at the time (although he has since praised it in retrospect), but MCA/Uni Records was getting paranoid about bootlegs of the show reaching the market, so they released 11-17-70 (or 17-11-70, for those of you who drive on the wrong side of the road) in the spring of ’71, almost literally on the heels of Tumbleweed Connection and the Friends soundtrack and while "Your Song" was still hanging around the Top 40, creating a sudden glut of E. John product. Surprisingly, "Your Song" wasn’t included in 11-17-70, but the obscure "Bad Side Of The Moon" made up for that, as did "Can I Put You On?" (from Friends), and it blows its studio version away. So does "Sixty Years On", which I thought actually sounded more dramatic without the strings on the studio version. Humor was evident in EJ’s cover of the Stones’ "Honky Tonk Women" on Side 1, as well as Arthur Crudup’s "My Baby Left Me" sandwiched inside the medley on Side 2 that begins with a killer rendition of "Burn Down The Mission" and ends with The Beatles’ "Get Back". "Amoreena" was added as a bonus track to a CD re-issue in the mid-‘90s, but the rest of show has not been made available (to my knowledge). I’d love to hear the rest of it someday. It’s a fun show to listen to, and a crucial document of Mr. John’s early days—if he went down that well with an audience then, just imagine what adding a guitar player would do. Oh, wait, we don’t have to!

7) ROCK OF THE WESTIES (1975) B   According to the His Song book by Elizabeth Rosenthal, it seems that Elton and the boys were a little drunky-wunky and/or high on various substances at Colorado’s Caribou Ranch during the making of Westies, thus leading the author to declare it to be a substandard EJ album. I would beg to differ—not unlike Caribou, I think this one gets dissed far too much and I always liked it. If it’s true that the record was made under a cloud of drugs and booze, then it turned out amazingly well. Elton expressed a desire to work with other musicians at that point, hence his dim-witted (in my opinion) decision to dismiss Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray from the band. Nigel was looking to build a solo career at the time anyway, so it was no biggie for him, but Murray was understandably none too pleased at being kicked to the curb for no good reason. To replace them, Elton brought in drummer Roger Pope (who worked previously on Empty Sky, Elton John and Tumbleweed), and bassist Kenny Passarelli (who suddenly found himself unemployed when Joe Walsh joined The Eagles in late ’75) as his new rhythm section. Guitarist Caleb Quaye (also a previous contributor to Elton’s early records) and keyboardist James Newton Howard came aboard as well, joining holdovers Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper, and this lineup would return for Blue Moves before Elton again "split the band", as a certain song goes.

As for the album itself, like Captain Fantastic before it, Westies wasn’t chuck-full of hit singles, but I thought it had some fun stuff on it anyway. "Island Girl" actually did hit #1, but that had more to do with the inertia of Elton’s career than the merits of the song. It’s not a bad song at all, mind you, but hasn’t aged very well, and you don’t even hear it on Oldies stations anymore. The opening track, "Medley: Yell Help/Wednesday Night/Ugly", was rather oddball, but has its moments, as does "Dan Dare (Pilot Of The Future)" with its double-entendre lyric, "Holy Cow—my stars never saw a rocket that quite that size…" (silly Elton!). The next two tracks that finish out Side 1 are my favorites from ROTW, despite being polar opposites. "Grow Some Funk Of Your Own" features a snarly guitar riff and Ray Cooper on vibes and marimba throughout the end of this tale about a night of misadventure south of the border. Meanwhile perhaps the most underrated John-Taupin song ever, "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)", finds Elton wailing away in falsetto mode on some of Bernie’s most poignant and sad lyrics about a relationship turned sour ("Like a child when his toys have been stepped on/That’s how it all seems to me…"), while Davey’s beautifully weepy guitar solo further emphasizes the despair. Robert Ford, btw, is the man who shot legendary outlaw Jesse James, hence the title. Side 2 opens when one of Elton’s heavier tunes, "Street Kids", featuring his skittering keyboard flashes laid over Johnstone and Quaye’s guitar chords. "Hard Luck Story" is all about a frustrated working stiff and features backing vocals from Kiki Dee and company. "Feed Me" continues the general theme of desperation found on ‘Westies’ that "Robert Ford" initiates, and the album closes with the spirited (if not non-sensical) "Billy Bones And The White Bird". Critics were generally not keen to ‘Westies’, but it’s one of my favorites from Elton, thus it makes my Top 10.

6) THE ONE (1992) B+   After several years of inconsistent albums, drug abuse and throat issues, Elton Hercules John was born-again hard for easily his best studio album since his mid-’70s heyday, The One. Gone were any hints of a comfortable rut—each song sounded different from the others, as EJ rediscovered his musical scrotum and put out something truly memorable for a change. The sultry "Simple Life" kicks things off with a slinky bass groove (provided by future Who bassist Pino Palladino), and some fine harmonica as clean-and-sober, fit-and-trim Elton brings us up to speed on where his life was headed at that point. It’s not a bad make-out song, btw, and one almost wishes EJ had stretched this one out a bit longer than five minutes. The title track immediately follows, and is one of his best love songs ever. Eric Clapton makes a guest appearance on another of the album’s highlights, duetting on "Runaway Train", giving one of his better vocal efforts that I can recall. The twangy "Whitewash County" would’ve fit right in on Tumbleweed Connection (or maybe even the My Cousin Vinny soundtrack), as it takes a pot shot at redneck authority figure hypocrisy in that part of the U.S. where it’s "sticky as a chili-dog". The title subject of "Emily" is sort of a ’90s "Eleanor Rigby" (minus the cellos) and "The North" is a bit of an overlooked gem, all about how most everyone has vices they need to overcome. The album closes, appropriately, with the touching and poignant "The Last Song", all about a gay man dying of AIDS and reconciling with his estranged dad, and Bernie Taupin drives the point home with the line "I guess I misjudged love between a father and his son." Well done, indeed.

4) [Tie] HONKY CHATEAU (1972) A-   Elton John’s unprecedented mid-‘70s chart dominance truly began with Honky Chateau in the spring of ’72. This was also the first album on which the nucleus of Johnstone, Olsson and Murray played predominately, and HC of course includes the big hits "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man". Both great songs and among Elton’s most-beloved, but as good as those were, I’m even more partial to the "B-stuff" found on Honky, like "I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself", the funniest song I’ve ever heard about suicide (right up there with John Entwistle’s "Thinkin’ It Over" and Cheap Trick's "Auf Wiedersehen"), and the equally-funny and more-romping "Hercules", which closes the album ("Rich man, sweatin’ in a sauna bath/Poor boy, scrubbin’ in a tub…"). Elton continued to express his love for Country twang on "Slave", and followed it with the rocking "Amy", which features a guest appearance by Jean-Luc Ponty and his electric violin (I never knew there was such an animal), as does the mellow "Mellow" on Side One. The slower songs on this album actually work just as well as the rockers, with "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters" painting a rather bleak portrait of Gotham City as viewed through the eyes of a first-time visitor (B. Taupin, in this case) and the Gospel-tinged "Salvation" features some outstanding backing vocals. The avalanche had begun…

4) [Tie] MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER (1971) A-  Before Honky, there was Madman, which is every bit as good, but just didn’t sell quite as much. I couldn’t choose which one I like better, so it’s a flat-footed tie. MATW was the last time Elton relied heavily on Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral arrangements for a while, and this album wouldn’t have been as good without them. Elton also continued the new trend he initiated on Tumbleweed by including an elaborate lyric and photo booklet. As with Honky, you had the two big and well-loved Elton hits ("Levon" and "Tiny Dancer"), both of which I like as much as anyone, but it’s the B-stuff again that I like even more here. "Holiday Inn" may well be the penultimate Rock ‘N’ Roll road song ("Boston, at last, and the plane’s touchin’ down/From a terminal gate, to a black limousine …You ain’t seen nothin’, ‘till you been in a motel, baby, like a Holiday Inn…"). "HI" marked Davey Johnstone’s debut on an E. John record, playing mandolin on the track, and I love the way after the choruses how Buckmaster’s strings and Elton’s piano sound almost like on-coming semi-trucks passing by on the highway. The dramatic "Indian Sunet" opens Side Two with an epic tale of tragedy and further exploration of the American Old West, which fascinated Bernie Taupin no end. "Rotten Peaches" almost has you picturing Reg Dwight as some sort of fugitive from justice, and the haunting "All The Nasties" takes dead aim at music critics and journalists "But I know the way they want me in the way they publicize/If they could turn their focus off/To the image in their eyes/Maybe it would help them, help them understand…" And then of course, there's the brooding and spooky title track.  About the only track that didn’t work for me here was the brief postscript "Goodbye", which seemed like a throwaway afterthought a la The Beatles' "Her Majesty" on Abbey Road.

3) DON’T SHOOT ME, I’M ONLY THE PIANO PLAYER (1973) A   Possessing one of my favorite album titles and covers ever, this one rated high with me before I ever heard a note from it. Just as with Madman and Honky before it, the "B-stuff" is every bit as good as the "A-stuff" ("Crocodile Rock" and "Daniel"), and so much of this album is underrated, especially "Teacher, I Need You", "Elderberry Wine", "Midnight Creeper", "Have Mercy On The Criminal" and the closer "High-Flying Bird". Elton thought highly enough of these cuts to dust some of them off and play them in concert over the years, like "Teacher" in 1982, "Criminal" in 1986 and "High-Flying" in 2007—that shows how DEEP this man’s catalog goes. "Teacher" is the upbeat tale of a schoolboy crush on a hot teacher (I think we all had those at least once), while "Elderberry" is a fun salute to alcohol—the cause of (and solution to) all of life’s problems. In "Creeper", EJ does a little name-dropping ("Tina Turner gave me the highway blues…") and keeps his mind in the gutter throughout the track, which is one of the hornier Elton songs (musically, I mean) of all-time. "Criminal" begins with a dramatic orchestral flourish featuring some call-and-response between the strings and Elton’s piano before settling down to become a mid-tempo sequel to "Rotten Peaches", all about another convict on the lam. One of the prettiest and most moving songs Elton has ever done is "High-Flying Bird", all about grief and loss ("My high-flying bird has flown from out my arms…"), and it features some of the finest backing vocals ever from Davey, Dee and Nigel—I’m not sure why this song isn’t held in higher regard. The sitar-laden "Blues For Baby And Me" has actually grown on me over the years (even though I loathe sitars), as has "I’ll Be A Teenage Idol". About the only cut that didn’t work for me on Don’t Shoot Me is "Texan Love Song", which is anything but a love song. DSMIOTPP was released 40 years ago last month—amazing how fresh it still sounds today. But as good as it is, Elton’s next release was even better…

2) CAPTAIN FANTASTIC & THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY (1975) A   Not so long ago on MSNBC’s website, they had a feature called "The Worst Album By Great Artists" (or something like that), and Captain Fantastic was Elton’s entry for it. Then some fool writes three paragraphs of excrement about how bad it was. Surely, you jest. I have no doubt that person was born after the record came out and probably never even took the time to listen to it. True, CF&TBDC wasn’t chuck-full of hits like Mr. John’s previous efforts—only "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" charted—but it’s one of the most consistent albums Elton ever made, and is more enjoyable when listened to from start to finish, and it’s always been one of my favorites. Because it was an autobiographical concept album, for the first time, Elton and Bernie created songs together instead of their usual process of Taupin writing the lyrics first before handing them over to EJ to compose the music. It was also the final time we got to hear the Johnstone/Olsson/Murray/Cooper backing band at work prior to EJ’s super-mega brain-fart of splitting this prolific unit up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, dummy! Anyway, the album opens with the title track, which is alternately optimistic and foreboding at the same time ("We’ve thrown in the towel too many times/Out for the count, and then we’re down"..."From now on sonny, sonny, son—it’s a long and lonely climb…"). My favorite tracks from Captain include "Bitter Fingers", "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket", "Writing" and the poignant finale "Curtains", but honestly, there's not a bad one to be found here. Extra credit also goes for the elaborate cover painting (front and back) as well as the not one, but two full-color booklets that were enclosed in the package.

1) GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (1973) A+++  Anti-climactic, I know, since I gave this away in the intro, but this is the greatest Rock album I've ever heard, the reasons for which I cite here in a post I wrote in 2007.  Overall, a salute to Sir Elton from the middle-aged man in the 22nd row...