Elton John's Essential Albums

A guide to his best and most overlooked LPs – from glitter-rock hits to yellow-brick ballads and beyond

Rob Sheffield surveys the highlights of Elton John's sprawling discography. Credit: Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Newscom/Zuma

Oh, but he's weird and he's wonderful. Elton John has spent 50 glorious years building one of the strangest songbooks in music – there isn't a pop trend this genius hasn't pillaged at least once. He's ruled the radio since the 1970s, crooning sensitive ballads, filthy glam-rockers and everything in between. Someone in your town is karaoke-ing "Bennie and the Jets" right now. But his hits are just the beginning. He's made albums that hold up as timeless masterworks. He's also made flops so obscure nobody has ever played them twice, including Elton himself. So here's a map to his yellow brick road, from the classics to the underrated deep cuts.

Must-Haves

Honky Château (1972)
Elton John had already scored a few hits as a mild-mannered piano man, but Honky Château was the breakthrough where he learned to rock. He banged out the songs in a week, with his lyrical wingman Bernie Taupin. For anyone else, this could have been a greatest-hits album – the New Orleans boogie of "Honky Cat," the country-rock strut of "Hercules," the slow-burn grooves of "Mellow" or "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." One morning during the sessions, Taupin came down to the breakfast table with a stack of lyrics he'd dashed off overnight. Elton picked one – "Oh, I quite like this" – sat at the piano and wrote a tune in 10 minutes, ready to record by the time the band finished eating. The result: "Rocket Man," the space ballad beloved by everyone, except maybe David Bowie. Honky Château was where this guy truly turned into the Elton the world has treasured ever since.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Captain Fantastic was on a historic roll – his life blew up into a glitter cyclone of spangled glasses, sex, drugs, electric boots and mohair suits. It's a miracle he had time to write at all – yet he and Taupin were cranking out gems so fast, they needed a double-album shrine to hold them. Hence Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton's most grandiose and ridiculous manifesto, indulging all his kinkiest stylistic whims and decadent fantasies, recorded in a French castle. He goes full glam for the Side Three trilogy about dangerous women: "Dirty Little Girl," "Sweet Painted Lady" and "All The Young Girls Love Alice." He goes hard in the 11-minute progfest "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" and the leather-boy rumble "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." And he reaches his gender-bending zenith with "Bennie and the Jets," the b-b-b-brilliant stomp that got him on Soul Train.

Greatest Hits, Volume II (1977)
This was no random cash-in product – Elton was always a true-blue pop fan before he was anything else, so he treated his hits collections as a crucial part of his statement. This one was an iconic Seventies artifact, right down to the cover photo of Elton playing a late-night game of cricket. It has his gaudiest singles: "The Bitch Is Back," "Island Girl," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and his wacko remake of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," featuring the world's cokiest xylophone solo. There's also "Philadelphia Freedom," written for tennis champ Billie Jean King and named after her team. When he first played it for King, he said, "Hear the beat? That's when you get mad on the court." Since they both eventually came out of the closet, "Philadelphia Freedom" came to seem like a poignantly coded ode to the hopes and dreams of 1970s gay kids – and a Number One smash.

Songs From the West Coast (2001)
Elton spent the Nineties as a cherished show-biz institution, always game for a Disney soundtrack or fashion gala – but paying less and less attention to his actual music. So it was a shock to hear him get back to where he once belonged on Songs from the West Coast – for the first time in 25 years, he decided to make a bona fide Elton John album. It was worth waiting for – he and Taupin regained their hunger as a songwriting team, with weathered tales like "The Emperor's New Clothes." He entered a new phase – no longer worrying about hit singles, he only bothers releasing albums when he cares about the tunes, which is why his recent work has been so strong. This bitch was most certainly back.

Further Listening

Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Elton and Bernie were obsessed with The Band – that was practically a requirement for English rock stars in 1970. They tried to make their own version of Music From Big Pink with Tumbleweed Connection, a Wild West fantasy that only could have been dreamed up by two London boys who'd never set foot on American soil. Elton even wears a string tie in the inner sleeve. (You know things are crazy when Elton's stealing fashion moves from Garth Hudson.) The rootsy concept comes to life in "Where to Now St. Peter?" and "Country Comfort," which Rod Stewart had already defined that year on Gasoline Alley. The high point: "Amoreena," which was never a hit but reached cinema immortality in the opening scene of the Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon, setting the hungover Seventies vibe.

Madman Across the Water (1971)
Part of the magic of ballads like "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer" is the actual piano Elton was playing – the legendary Bechstein grand at London's Trident Studios. It's the most famous piano in rock history – the same one you hear on the Beatles' "Hey Jude," Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and David Bowie's "Life On Mars?" It really flatters Elton's melodies here, as he and Bernie get far out with "Razor Face" and "Holiday Inn." So what is "Levon" about? Elton has no idea. "Part of the enjoyment and mystique of our thing is we've never collaborated," he explained a few years ago. "I'd never ask Bernie what it means." (For the record, Bernie swears it has nothing to do with Levon Helm – he just likes the name.)

Caribou (1974)
"The act is going to become a little more Liberace-ized," Elton announced in Rolling Stone. "I'd like to have nine pianos onstage, a cascade of pianos, and make my entrance like that." He wasn't kidding. For his next album, crashed out in nine days, Elton upped the already-lofty candelabra ante with "The Bitch Is Back" and the UFO-dazed "I've Seen the Saucers." Caribou also has the delicate valentine "Pinky" – but Elton made no apologies for turning on the glitz. "I don't like to look at groups who come out standing looking like they've just been drowning at Big Sur for five years. I could never go onstage in denims."

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
Elton made history with this autobiographical concept album – the first record ever to debut on the Billboard charts at Number One. (He duplicated the feat four months later with Rock of the Westies; Stevie Wonder did it the next year with Songs in the Key of Life.) Not bad for his most defiantly un-pop statement – all late-night melodrama, with "Curtains" as a final word. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" sure didn't seem radio-friendly – nearly seven minutes of morbid angst and butterfly symbolism. But it was so undeniable it became a smash anyway, especially for the moment when he shouts, "It's four o'clock in the morning, dammit, listen to me good!"

The Union (2010)
A labor-of-love duet with one of his Sixties heroes, Leon Russell, capping a career that just ended with Russell's death in November. One of Elton's formative early experiences was spotting Russell in the audience at an L.A. gig. "I slept and drank Leon Russell," he said in 1973. "I regarded him as some kind of god. ... I figured, this was it, he's going to tie me up in a chair and whip me and say, 'Listen here, you bastard, this is how you play the piano,' but he was nice instead. It was like a schoolboy's fantasies coming true." Elton got to pay back the favor 40 years later with The Union, tracking down his now-obscure idol and coaxing him back into the studio. "Going to Shiloh" stands as a tribute to them both.

Going Deeper

Elton John (1970)
He was still finding his voice as a buttoned-down singer-songwriter – on the cover he's a polite schoolboy hiding in the shadows, rather than the showman he quickly became. It gave him his first hit with "Your Song," but highlights like "Take Me to the Pilot" and "The King Must Die" show his still-developing weirdo side. "No Shoestrings on Louise" is an explicit Mick Jagger parody, yet the gospel-blues piano raunch is so convincing, it might have helped inspire the ballads on Side Two of Exile on Main Street.

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973)
As Elton said at the time, "I always think of it as Elton John's disposable album." He meant that as a compliment – Don't Shoot Me is pure razzle-dazzle, or as he put it, "a very happy album, very ultra-pop." He scored his first Number One with the sock-hop romp "Crocodile Rock," but got sentimental with tearjerkers like "High Flying Bird." "Daniel," a tale of brotherly love, was used memorably by Martin Scorsese in a car-radio scene from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Elton shuddered at the idea of anyone taking it seriously: "I wouldn't like in 15 years' time to be still playing 'Crocodile Rock.'" But as he has spent his career proving, disposable can also be classic.

Rock of the Westies (1975)
Elton was coasting on sheer adrenaline at this point, rocking harder than ever – although calling one of these songs "Street Kids" might have been pushing it. "A lot of critics said it didn't have much depth to it and probably it doesn't have much depth to it," he admitted back then. But who needs depth when you've got "Island Girl," a chart-topping ode to a six-foot-three sex machine who will "wrap her legs around you like a well-worn tire"? There's only one ballad on Westies, yet what a ballad: "I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)," not just his best Western but a breakup lament that should have been a hit. His next album was a crashing bummer – the career-freezing mess Blue Moves – so Westies served as a farewell to the first golden era.

Jump Up! (1982)
"I suppose you could blame it on narcotics," Bernie Taupin recently told Rolling Stone. Well put, Bernie. Elton's New Wave album is his weirdest ever, and that's saying something – trying to break out of a sales slump while fried out of his mind, Elton shamelessly plundered every trend out there. Jump Up! has his touching Lennon tribute "Empty Garden," but also his bonkers synth-pop Bowie clone "I Am Your Robot." ("She's got a subtle touch on the silver key to a clockwork heart," oh dear.) Taupin calls it "one of those batch of albums when we were really not stellar and on the top of our game. I'd rather not think back on some of that stuff." Sorry Bernie – Jump Up! stands as proof these two could write great tunes even when they were hitting rock bottom.

Too Low for Zero (1983)
Elton came back strong as an elder statesman with Too Low for Zero – he won over the New Romantic kids with "I'm Still Standing," a pansexual MTV hit where he frolics on the French Rivieria with an army of naked gay clowns, including future Dancing with the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli. (He's the leather-thonged doorman Elton tips with a fistful of glitter.) He went hair metal in "Kiss the Bride" and crooned one of his finest ballads, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," rolling like thunder under the covers to a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. After Too Low for Zero, Elton would never face another serious popularity drought – though his creative inspiration would wax and wane.

The One (1992)
Elton's first post-rehab album set him up as a Nineties rock elder statesman, ready to go conquer Broadway with The Lion King. The highlights: "Runaway Train," his rhinestone blues duet with Eric Clapton (from the Lethal Weapon 3 soundtrack), and the Pet Shop Boys–style mirror-ball hymn "Simple Life."

Duets (1993)
One thing about Elton never changes – he's a fan who keeps up with the new breed as well as old faves. So it makes sense his best Nineties album was Duets, teaming up with his idols (Little Richard, Tammy Wynette) and pals (Kiki Dee, Stevie Wonder). He and RuPaul sashay through a comic version of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," while George Michael goes down on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." But the unlikely highlight comes when Elton joins none other than Leonard Cohen for the country ballad "Born to Lose." These two have chemistry for days, especially when Cohen rasps, "Born to lose, and now, Elton, I'm losin' you." Captain Fantastic, meet the Chelsea Hotel.

Wonderful Crazy Night (2016)
After a half-century in the game, Elton can still bring it in style, with a band full of old mates like guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson. He and Taupin pen upbeat chestnuts like "The Open Chord" and "In the Name of You," while "I've Got 2 Wings" is another bluesy roots move. And true to form, Elton officially began writing the songs in the car on the way to the studio. Here's to 50 years of winging it.

Loose Glitter – Standouts From John's Less-Memorable Albums

"Way to Blue" (demo, 1968)
Just starting out, he cut this demo for a fellow struggling songwriter named Nick Drake. Within a few years, Elton was a jet-set star while Drake died in obscurity – though songs like this made him a posthumous legend.

"I Saw Her Standing There" with John Lennon (B side, 1975)
At his Thanksgiving 1974 show in New York, he stunned the crowd by bringing out a friend – John Lennon, who hadn't stepped onstage in years. They dueted on what John introduced as "a number of an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul" – sadly, the last public concert performance of his lifetime.

"Mama Can't Buy You Love" (single, 1979)
Like the Bowie of Young Americans, Elton fled to Philly in search of soul. He collaborated with R&B master Thom Bell for his biggest and best hit in years – a career peak for both men.

"Little Jeannie" (from 21 at 33, 1980)
A summer jam with the daffy chorus, "I want you to be my acrobat." Why was Elton in such rough shape? Let's just say the album had a song called "White Lady White Powder."

"Elton's Song" (from The Fox, 1981)
A surprisingly stark confessional about growing up gay. The lyrics came from U.K. punk-rocker Tom Robinson, who wrote out-and-proud songs like "Glad to Be Gay."

"Wrap Her Up" (from Ice on Fire, 1985)
If you ever wonder exactly how insane the Eighties were: Elton sang this lascivious ode to hetero sex as a duet with, of all people, George Michael. They pant about their urge to bone Marilyn Monroe, Joan Collins, Grace Jones and Kiki Dee. Naturally it was a huge MTV hit.

"Please" (from Made in England, 1995)
Right after hitting the jackpot with The Lion King, he celebrated with this wry guitar-chiming ode to midlife love.

"They Call Her the Cat" (from Peachtree Road, 2004)
He serenades his adopted hometown Atlanta with a Dixie-fried ode to a trans Delta diva: "She's got hips like Mick, she's a Rolling Stone/Never seen a woman shake like that."

"Postcards From Richard Nixon" (from The Captain and the Kid, 2006)
Thirty years after Captain Fantastic, Elton and Bernie picked up the story on this sequel. It has this superb portrait of 1970s California, where "our heroes led us by the hand/Through Brian Wilson's promised land."

"Oscar Wilde Gets Out" (from The Diving Board, 2013)
A song that had to happen someday – an elegiac tribute from one great English queen to another. 

Hear Elton John discuss his recording process in a new animated video.