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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Elton John Albums

Your picks include ‘Madman Across the Water,’ ’17-11-70′ and ‘Too Low For Zero’

Weekend Rock Elton John

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

Picking Elton John's single greatest album is no easy task. The man worked like a maniac in the early 1970s, releasing 10 albums between 1970 and 1976. Those were his golden years, but he kept going and managed more than a few true creative comebacks in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. With the release of his new LP The Diving Board coming up, we asked our readers to vote for their favorite Elton John album. Click through to see the results.

By ANDY GREENE

Elton John Rock of the Westies

Courtesy of Polydor Records

9. ‘Rock of the Westies’

The public was starting to get a little sick of Elton John by late 1975. He had absolutely dominated the radio and pop charts over the previous half-decade, but keeping up that pace was ultimately impossible. Rock of the Westies did hit Number One and the single "Island Girl" was a big hit but, clearly, this was the start of a downward trajectory. Elton came out of the closet the following year (at a time when virtually no pop stars were out) and sales declined even further. Rock of the Westies is an often-overlooked LP, but it has stood up very well, particularly the tragic ballad "I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford." If more than one percent of the public had heard of Robert Ford, it might have been a hit. 

Elton John

Courtesy of Uni Records

8. ‘Elton John’

Rarely has any artist taken a quantum leap between their first and second LPs quite like Elton John. 1969's Empty Sky has some nice moments but, just 10 months later, he dropped Elton John on the world. With help from producer Gus Dudgeon and composer Paul Bucmaster, John crafted a masterpiece. Tracks like "Border Song," "Sixty Years On" and his breakthrough single "Your Song" are some of the best works of his career.

The timing was also impeccable. The Beatles broke up the very week the album hit shelves. People were ready for a new rock god, and Elton was more than happy to take the job. Also, look at the cover photo: it's the final image of a pre-fame Elton. He has a terrible haircut, bad skin and unfashionable glasses. He'd never again look like that.

Elton John 17 11 70

Courtesy of Polydor Records

7. ’17-11-70′ 

Few rock stars have ever had a year quite as memorable as Elton John did in 1970. He started it a complete unknown and by the end, he was a global superstar with two of the best rock albums of the decade under his best. He'd also transformed into a powerhouse live act, backed only by bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. They didn't have a guitarist, creating plenty of space for Elton to take lead on the piano. It's a huge, powerful sound and their debut at the Troubadour on August 25th, 1970 created shockwaves all through Los Angeles.

It's easy to understand why when you hear this radio broadcast (released in 1971) from a New York station. The strings and lush arrangements are stripped from the songs, but they've never sounded nearly as intense or alive. This is Elton's Live at Leeds or Live at the Apollo. He did a lot of great shows after this, but this is the peak. 

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player Elton John

Courtesy of MCA Records

6. ‘Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player’

Just six months after wrapping work on Honky Château, Elton John returned to the Château d'Hérouville in France to cut another album. Songs were pouring out of Elton and Bernie Taupin at this point, and radio was playing their music constantly. The Beatles were long over, Bob Dylan was in hiding and CSNY were burned out. A lot of mainstream music was very lame, and it would have been a lot worse without Elton John.

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player was another masterpiece. Paul Buckmaster came back to put down strings on the epics "Have Mercy on the Criminal" and "Blues for My Baby and Me," while "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock" were made for the radio. It was a perfect balance between light and heavy.

Elton John Hotel Chateau

Courtesy of Polydor Records

5. ‘Honky Château’

Elton John was a proven commodity when he began work on Honky Château in early 1972, so his label finally handed him creative freedom. His first act was to toss out the studio pros they forced onto his earlier albums. He replaced them with his touring band and they settled into a historic château in France and cut Elton's most rocking album to date. Big hits like "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man" are best remembered from the disc, but deeper cuts like "Mellow" and "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" are even better. It's ten songs, and all of them are great. This was the transformation of Elton from a gentle singer/songwriter into a legit rock star. 

Elton John Tumbleweed Connection

Courtesy of Mercury Records

4. ‘Tumbleweed Connection’

Elton John and Bernie Taupin had yet to step foot on American soil when they cut Tumbleweed Connection in early 1970, but they'd watched enough westerns and listened to Music From Big Pink enough times to have a pretty good idea of what it was like over here. Recorded before Elton John was even in stores, The Tumbleweed Connection is a loose concept album about the American West. We meet a boastful cowboy, a vengeful Confederate soldier, proud farmers and a depressed old soldier. There wasn't a single hit on the album, and it briefly seemed like a disappointing follow-up to Elton John – but over time, the album revealed itself to be Elton and Bernie working at the absolute peak of their abilities.

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy Elton John

Courtesy of MCA Records

3. ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’

Elton and Bernie's partnership was less than a decade old in 1975, but they were already looking back at their pre-fame days of struggle with a powerful sense of nostalgia. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was recorded during the peak of Elton's fame, but he wanted to make a concept record about that early period. Much to their label's chagrin, they made virtually no effort to write radio-friendly songs, though the lone single "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" did become a hit.

The album takes the listener on a journey to late-1960s England, when a struggling piano player met an equally struggling songwriter. They were cold, hungry and occasionally even suicidal but, in the end, they discovered that their love for each other and their music would be their salvation. "We wrote it and I played it," Elton sings on "We All Fall in Love Sometimes." "Something happened/ It's so strange, this feeling." 

Madman Across the Water Elton John

Courtesy of Polydor Records

2. ‘Madman Across the Water’

Elton and Bernie don't get enough credit for writing truly weird songs. The title track of Madman Across the Water is a quasi-prog-rock song written from the perspective of a psychopath in an asylum. "Levon" is one of their best sing-along songs, but what does it mean? We've listened to it 10,000 times and still couldn't tell you. And who is this Razor Face character? None of this really matters, though. Madman Across the Water has some of Elton's most enduring works, including "Tiny Dancer," a song that seems to become more beloved with each passing decade. It's impossible to listen to it without smiling. "Indian Sunset" seems like the greatest song that Neil Young never wrote, and "Holiday Inn" makes the discount hotel chain seem like a paradise. 

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John

Courtesy of Mercury Records

1. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road almost seems like a greatest-hits album. This 1973 double LP has "Candle in the Wind," "Bennie and the Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." This was Elton at the peak of his popularity, when every kid on your street (and their parents) absolutely adored him. But even at his most commercial, he still released songs like "All the Girls Love Alice," the crazy tale of a dead 16-year-old lesbian prostitute with "a simple case of Momma-doesn't-love-me blues." The album kicks off with "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," a song so prog-tastic that even Dream Theater covers it. The album is all over the place style-wise, but every bit of it works. It hit shelves just three years after "Your Song" hit radio, but this was still the apex of Elton-mania. He's been a superstar for nearly 45 years, but this was the peak. 

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