Born 25 March 1947, as Reginald Kenneth Dwight, Elton John is one of pop music great references. "I discovered Elton John in 1989. Over a decade after his commercial heyday. But better late than never. Besides, there was lots of music of his to discover. To this day, I keep discovering it." Elizabeth J. Rosenthal's passion for Elton is well-known. More than 70s concerts on her shoulders: "I act like a 13-year-old, climbing over seats to reach the stage at the appointed time". Her first book, "His Song: the Musical Journey of Elton John", was published in fall 2001 by Billboard Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, and its the most thorough biography of Elton John ever written.
Focused on Elton's music, we could find everything about concerts, albums, songs, projects, ... but without refusing Elton's personal life: his “coming out” as a bisexual man and, finally, as a gay man or his problems with drugs, alcohol, bulimia, and sexual addictions. It's not casual that "His Song" is the only John biography to be sold in the Elton John Store at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. Also, to date, it is the first Elton John biography to be sold in Russia. It's a book to be read twice or third times.
After graduating magna cum laude with a journalism degree from Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1982, Liz Rosenthal attended Rutgers-Camden School of Law, from which she graduated With Honors in 1985. Subsequently, she was admitted to the bars of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. For the past 20 years, Rosenthal has been a civil servant, writing regulations for New Jersey state government, testifying before the state legislature about pending legislation affecting the civil service system, and serving as liaison to the State Attorney General's Office.
Liz owns a blogsite on http://www.elizabethjrosenthal.com/ as well she has contributed to a variety of print publications and blogs.
Among them are the following:
“Elton John and Ray Cooper at the Royal Opera House.” Official Program of the Charity Concert in Aid of the Royal Academy of Music Organ Appeal 28 January 2011.
“Watching Sparrows, a DVD by Michael Male and Judy Fieth." Birdfellow.com, December 7, 2010.
Film Review - “Ghost Bird, [directed by] Scott Crocker.” Bird Watcher’s Digest, July/August 2010.
Book Review – “Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience by Jeremy Mynott.” Bird Watcher’s Digest, November/December 2009.
"Birding with Roger." Bird Watcher's Digest, July/August 2008.
“Foreword.” Essential Elton John: A Step-by-Step Breakdown of Elton John's Keyboard Styles and Techniques (Keyboard Signature Licks Series), Hal Leonard Corp., 2006.
So, let's see about Elizabeth's preferences. It's your turn, Liz:
When Miquel asked me to come up with Elton’s top 30 songs, I wondered, even beyond how I would choose them, how I would present them. Listing my favorites? Too difficult. Placing them in order of their importance to EJ’s career? Too subjective. Grouping them according to musical genre? Too technical. Selecting them based on their quirkiness? Too weird. I finally decided to go with a mixture of favorites, milestones, and quirky ditties, but offer them chronologically, in order of release – which would be easier for me, and easier for the reader, too. So here goes:
All Across the Havens: This 1968 composition briefly entered the world of music as a mere B-side to “Lady Samantha,” and then was quickly forgotten. “Havens” didn’t have the radio-friendly appeal of the A-side’s instantly hummable chorus, but it told you more about what Reg/Elton was capable of than many of his other early recordings. Classical leanings, jazz-rock iterations and touching balladry combine to make “Havens” Elton’s most interesting early song and evidence of what would make him one of popular music’s most significant artists for decades to come.
2. Border Song: Is it the fact that the great Aretha Franklin covered this song that makes it a notable one in EJ’s career? Partly. Or that Elton’s idol, Dusty Springfield, made a point of approaching him at the Top of the Pops to let him know how much she liked it? That, too. But this first single from Elton’s eponymous second album (1970), in attracting those stellar talents to Elton’s corner, served as an early indication of his affinity for, and aptitude in writing in the style of, African-American music - whether it was gospel, blues or R & B – or just getting real funky. True, EJ’s quintessentially Elton-y ballad, “Your Song,” provides hints of his fave music, too, but “Border Song” was full-throttle gospel. And there would be much more of this to come.
3. Amoreena: This album track from Tumbleweed Connection (1971) introduces the highly unusual sound of Live EJ. Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray, who had just become part of Elton’s live trio around the time of the song’s recording, support EJ’s funky, staccato piano phrasings the way they did in concert, with unobtrusively infectious accents. Despite Caleb Quaye’s studio guitar licks, it was obvious with this recording that EJ was entering uncharted waters. A piano-led rock trio in the time of the Guitar Gods? Yes – and it was about time, too!
4. Tiny Dancer: One of the most familiar songs in Elton’s back catalog, this album opener for Madman Across the Water (1971) has consistently performed live anthemic duties for EJ without ever achieving commercial success in its own right. Footage exists of our bright-eyed, polka-dot-shirt-wearing, 24-year-old prodigy seated at his mythic, white upright piano (pictured on the reverse of the 1975 U.S. issue of Empty Sky), announcing that he’d just put to music some lyrics that Taupin handed him called “Tiny Dancer.” Since the words mention “ballerina,” modestly advises the former Reg, he knew the song would be “slow,” not “fast.” And then he starts playing it. Shivers run down one’s spine. Really, young fella? Wasn’t there a little more to say about the songwriting process than that? “Tiny Dancer” is more mid-tempo than slow, and could be described as containing two distinct “movements,” the pretty, music box movement and the graver movement of declarative singing and staccato chords. While Taupin now insists that he wrote the words as a general homage to the enchanting young women of southern California, statements more contemporaneous with the birth of the song, not to mention physical evidence like the printed dedication of the lyrics to first wife Maxine, suggest otherwise.
5. Rocket Man: The first giant hit for EJ after “Your Song,” it didn’t take long for the title of this sparkling number from Honky Chateau (1972) to become one of Elton’s alternate monikers and for the song itself to become a beloved in-concert sing-along moment. It’s rarely been out of the set list and has enjoyed different musical dressings over the years, as Elton, with or without band, transformed it into psychedelia, gospel call-and-response, fierce blues, or an opportunity for extended introspection. David Bowie thought the song was a rip-off of his own “Space Oddity,” but, as he must have eventually realized, the idea of space travel is not copyrightable. And, musically, “Rocket Man” couldn’t differ more from Bowie’s song.
6. Crocodile Rock: It’s Elton’s first U.S. number one, but hardly his best song. Oh, sure, this universally popular tune from Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player (1973) is lots of fun. Elton brings down the house with it at every concert these days. And what else could he have done with it? Taupin’s lyrics ooze nostalgia for rock ‘n roll’s seminal days. Plus, “Crocodile Rock” does showcase EJ’s remarkable facility with just about any sort of music out there (with the exception, perhaps, of “world music”). If, somehow, his musical knowledge could be downloaded onto a memory stick, it might serve as a better indicator of where we’ve come musically than anything else you could put in a time capsule. It’s too bad that rock snobs still point to “Crocodile Rock” as the final nail-in-the-coffin of EJ’s “credibility” as an artist.
7. Bennie and the Jets: Is this number one smash hit from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) Elton’s best song ever? One is often tempted to say “yes.” Regardless, there may be no better example in the entire Elton John canon of his ridiculous originality than this blend of syncopated jazz, classical march, and a certain R & B sensibility that made black radio embrace it and opened the door for his Soul Train appearance. In concert, “Bennie” has assumed at least as many new identities as “Rocket Man” has, as EJ stretches it into kaleidoscopic ragtime, a boogie woogie romp, or big band bombast. But no matter what Elton does with it, audiences lap it up with glee and abandon.
8. Pinball Wizard: You’re right. Elton and Bernie didn’t write this one. It’s Pete Townsend’s baby. But it was an enormous U.S. radio hit around the time the movie Tommy was released (1975), when Elton was on top of the world. More important, it’s exhibit number one in the case for Elton as possibly the top cover artist of all time, not so much in quantity of songs covered, but in quality of interpretation. (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”? Forget the Beatles. Elton put it on the musical map. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”? EJ’s live rendition, for piano and voice alone, introduces a completely different song than the one Marvin Gaye made famous. And the beat goes on.) The original recording of “Pinball Wizard” by The Who sounds positively skeletal, barely finished, almost demo-ish, compared to EJ’s version. You couldn’t have predicted what EJ would find in the song and pull out of it, but when he revealed his discoveries with this extended, piano-based rock band extravaganza, you would have thought that it was his song all along.
9. Tell Me When the Whistle Blows: Along with “(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket,” “Whistle Blows” sticks out on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) as atypical for an album filled with quasi-classical and introspective folk ruminations. The lyrical subject matter may be about a young Taupin’s longing for the Lincolnshire countryside as he rides a train home, but you wouldn’t know it from how it sounds. What is special about “Whistle Blows” is that it provides another panel for the long, colorful quilt of EJ-kissed R & B numbers that have decorated his career from nearly the beginning to the present day. It is also another station stop in the R & B subgenre known as The Sound of Philadelphia, which Elton had celebrated with “Philadelphia Freedom” the same summer he’d recorded “Whistle Blows” and which preceded the release of the Captain Fantastic album as a gargantuan U.S. number one single.
10. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart: What a fun, fun U.S. number one – and his first U.K. chart-topper! It’s kind of silly, an impression not lessened by the daffy promotional video EJ did with Kiki Dee. In it, they spend the entire time clowning around, with EJ resembling a clown in one of his trademark 1976 leisure suits of oversized lapels and pinched shoulders, as he lip syncs, “When I was down, I was your clown!” For years, “Don’t Go Breaking” seemed more like a mere guilty pleasure than a tune worthy of respect – until EJ re-recorded it with RuPaul for his 1993 Duets album. What an abomination. Suddenly, the true brilliance of this disarming ditty’s original rendition shone for all to see. Elton’s cheery piano chords, James Newton Howard’s sweet string arrangement, and the amusing stutter of Caleb Quaye’s guitar parts come to the fore as the 1976 duet partners made the most of their irresistible chemistry.
11. Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word: Some people may be asking by now, “But what about EJ’s ballads? You haven’t mentioned any of them!” Oops – sorry! But, quite fittingly, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” is the next song on this list. Elton has gotten a lot of “stick” (as he himself might say) for a proliferation of balladry in recent years, which the stone-hearted often describe as “sappy.” But the truth is that Elton’s been the King (or Queen) of Ballads since he first burst on the scene as a wildly talented, pasty-faced, little troll. (“Pasty-faced, little troll” is how EJ saw himself back when he still had a luxuriant mop of strawberry-blonde hair framing his face, albeit with a receding hairline.) No one is better at writing or singing a ballad than Elton. It’s a scientific fact. And “Sorry Seems,” from the underrated Blue Moves (1976), is among his most excruciatingly beautiful songs, with a French-flavored ambience that naturally made him a big star in France.
12. Elton’s Song: And now we come to that period in EJ’s career in which he has seemingly been abandoned by most of his fans, all because he said he was bisexual. He did have a number-three hit with “Little Jeannie” in 1980, but this was atypical for a time when nothing much else had been going right, whether it was MCA Records allowing “Song for Guy” to wither on the Hot 100 vine for lack of promotion, or the release of EJ’s first and thankfully only disco album, Victim of Love (1979), which did not deserve to do well and didn’t. Elton hadn’t really been writing much with Taupin, who had come out with a barely listenable solo album (He Who Rides the Tiger) and had taken to collaborating on a whole LP with Alice Cooper, as well as on individual songs with an oddly diverse pop music roster that included Rod Stewart, Melissa Manchester and Cher. “Elton’s Song” is one of the little-known results of a pairing with Tom Robinson, an openly gay but relatively minor figure in British rock, a track that epitomizes the lonely feeling – almost one of banishment – permeating The Fox (1981), the album on which it appears. This tune of spare instrumentation tells of the unrequited love of a gay teen. Despite its name, the song was actually personal to Robinson, not Elton, but EJ seems to have found it personally meaningful; the song has occasionally appeared in solo set lists.
13. I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues: Say what you will about Elton’s 80s output, but some of his most memorable and enduring music has emerged from that decade, including this major hit from Too Low for Zero (1983), an underappreciated but very solid (and, at times, adventurous) work that marked the full-time return of the EJ-BT songwriting partnership. “The Blues” may not really be the blues, as a humorless rock critic once sniffed, but isn’t that one of this song’s charms? Elton is often at his best when the music is, at first blush, ill-matched to the lyrics. What we have here is a mid-tempo ballad with rolling piano licks, punctuating chord changes and a rollicking melody that doesn’t fit into any particular musical genre. Plus, nowadays, it’s a gospelly and, yes, bluesy, full-on rocker in concert and always one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night.
14. Nikita: Here is another one of those ballads (from Ice on Fire ) that only Elton can produce, along the lines of “Daniel” but with, perhaps, a greater degree of sophistication and slightly less wistfulness. A more mature Taupin is at his best here in this Cold War love song: “Hey, Nikita, is it cold/In your little corner of the world/…/Oh, I saw you by the wall/ Ten of your tin soldiers in a row/With eyes that looked like ice on fire/The human heart a captive in the snow.” Russell Mulcahy directed one of Elton’s most romantic videos to go along with it. Our Pinner native plays the western photographer who breaks through the line of Soviet guards to court a lovely woman with a man’s name.
15. Candle in the Wind (live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra): Late 1986 was an emotional and dramatic time for Elton and everyone associated with him. His voice had been deteriorating for some months due to growths on his vocal cords that would only be discovered at the end of the year. Still, he toured the U.S. and then headed for Australia. There, he and his band would join up with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for 27 dates in which the second half of each show featured a number of songs with their original orchestrations and some others with new ones for the occasion. If only EJ’s voice would hold up. But it couldn’t, and generally didn’t. Yet he went on with just about every concert, like the genuine trouper he was, dressed in spikes or feathers or halos for the rock band portion but all spiffed up in his Mozart costume during the orchestral part. The music was so rich and moving that it wasn’t that hard for listeners to get past a voice that often went mute but, even when audible, sounded painfully strained and lacked any capacity for modulation. Somehow, a defining version of “Candle in the Wind” emerged from those fearful nights, a solo interpretation (despite the single being plugged as with the orchestra) and the jewel of the album, Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1987). This “Candle” served as EJ’s live guide until recently. Now he performs a rendition with the band that more closely approximates the original 1973 recording.
16. Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters Part 2: This follow-up to the “Mona Lisas” of Honky Chateau gets no respect from anybody. Even Elton’s most devoted fans turn their noses up at it. It’s not clear why, although “Part 2” has the misfortune of appearing on an album, Reg Strikes Back (1988), which is generally disregarded by everyone. Presumably, just being associated with this album – which, if you listen to it without a jaundiced ear, has a lot going for it melodically and lyrically – is enough to brand a song a substandard EJ effort. It probably doesn’t help that “Part 2” is named after one of Elton’s most revered ballads. But here’s a thought. Why not listen to it without focusing on the name? Allow it its own identity, and you might be surprised at what you find.
17. Blue Avenue: The closing song on Sleeping with the Past (1989), the first EJ album offering a deliberately cohesive theme since Captain Fantastic, sticks out for what it doesn’t do, and what it doesn’t do is stick with the album’s theme. The other nine songs evoke the late 50s, early 60s, sepia-tinted R & B scene. But “Blue Avenue” isn’t the blues any more than “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” is the blues. Instead, “Blue Avenue” is one of those irksome Elton John ballads – you know, the kind that only he can write and record. There’s nothing much you can do with those things except sit back, close your eyes, and slowly give way to the deceptively understated emotion of the melody and lyrics. You’ve had chances like this throughout EJ’s career, and will continue to, with songs like “Blessed” (1995), “Original Sin” (2001), “The Bridge” (2006) and “The Best Part of the Day” (2010), and on and on into the future.
18. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me (live duet with George Michael): This one-off single hasn’t worn well. When it first hit the radio airwaves toward the end of 1991, the experience of hearing the shrill-voiced George Michael announce, mid-song, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!” was nigh on thrilling. Not only was one of EJ’s greatest songs being covered by a contemporary singer-songwriter who was at the peak of his popularity, but Elton was getting some high-profile props, audible for all to hear, with every FM spin! And what fantastic timing, too, coming as it did on the heels of the well-regarded EJ/BT tribute album, Two Rooms. Reaching number one on the U.S. Hot 100 also worked as an ideal lead-in to EJ’s first single from his first studio album in three years, The One (1992). But now, after the passage of what feels like eons, listening to the duet again thrills less than it grates – on the ear. While Elton provides a reflective, mature performance with his continually evolving voice, his junior singing partner leaps toward one too many histrionic tricks from the Mariah Carey vocal grab-bag. Oh, well. It’s the thought that counts.
19. The One: Speaking of “The One,” it takes that welcome introductory boost from the George Michael duet to become another of Elton’s career anthems. On occasion, if a gossip columnist doesn’t feel like referring to him as the Rocket Man or Captain Fantastic, Elton might find himself dubbed The One, which is not a bad thing to be. Every person would like to be recognized for his or her singularity. From the album of the same name, “The One,” though a love song, also suggests spiritual rebirth, if of the semi-secular kind. At the time of the single’s release in late spring 1992, EJ was nearly two years out of rehab (for alcohol, drugs, bulimia and a sex addiction). He’d shed the cynicism borne of years of misbehavior. During his time off between rehab and releasing a new album his new outlook spurred a belated AIDS activism. Along with friends in his adopted home of Atlanta, he personally visited AIDS patients and provided them with things they needed. He’d lost a ton of weight and sported a beautiful new hair weave, and looked youthful, peaceful, refreshed and very fit. “The One” thus marked a new era for Elton, one which continues to this day.
20. Man: “I’m a man, I’m a man/I know what it feels like/Yeah!/I’m a man/Workin’ on the livin’ part of life.” Presumably Taupin was writing about himself. But Elton, being an independent thinker, reinterpreted it as a song about being a gay man. This isn’t the song that everyone points to when they declare Made in England (1995) EJ’s best album since the 70s. In fact, “Man” has been habitually overlooked by fans, whether they love the Made in England album or not. It’s a gospel number and features Elton’s most demanding, muscular vocal up to that time. “Man” thus marked a new era in his singing, in which he offers his impressive diaphragm one of the most prominent seats at the EJ vocal table. Although he’s never played it live, it’s never too late. And his current, powerful voice is more than up to the task.
21. Wake Up Wendy: This is Elton’s contribution to Chef Aid (1998), the fake live concert album in fictional support of the musically-inclined character on TV’s South Park known as Chef who needs to raise funds for a legal battle against a thieving record company. A rough, tough, funky track, it recalls “Live EJ” much more than “Album EJ,” although that’s been changing in recent years with piano-led, bluesy pleasures like “Just Like Noah’s Ark” (2006) and “Mexican Vacation” (2013). Will much time pass before “Wake Up Wendy” receives a new lease on life? Or will it remain forgotten, long after all of the world’s Chef Aid CDs have crumbled to dust? This is one EJ song that his naysayers, who dumbly accuse him of being a boring MOR guy, need to hear.
22. My Strongest Suit: One of Elton’s most exciting qualities is his musically contradictory nature. One minute he’s a Shockin’ Crocodile Rocker, the next he is consumed with sadness and pleading for the sun to not go down on him. One day he’s abusing his falsetto over island girls, the next he struggles to utter the hardest word (“sorry”) in falsetto or otherwise. “My Strongest Suit,” one in a wonderful collection of songs making up the Broadway production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (2000), is one of those infuriating numbers that both highlights and obscures Elton’s musical mind. It’s sassy and silly, a disco theme for Elton’s love of high fashion, bling, and expensive floral arrangements. Actually, it was written as a vehicle for Princess Amneris to express her joy during the carefree days before she found herself in a love triangle with Prince Radames, her betrothed, and the noble slave, Aida. But the point is that no other number in the entire musical is as overtly camp or upbeat as “My Strongest Suit.” Other songs – “How I Know You,” “Not Me,” “I Know the Truth” – reach a sublimity that most composers only dream of attaining.
23. Birds: Songs from the West Coast (2001) is cited by many fans as EJ’s greatest latter-day work. The presence of Paul Buckmaster orchestral arrangements on several tracks probably contributes to this viewpoint. Certainly, the strings on “Mansfield” and “The Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes” harken back to the days of Tumbleweed and Madman and accentuate the beauty and drama of Elton’s melodies. But whenever you’ve got Buckmaster strings on an album you automatically notice how structured the affected songs are and how loose the other ones sound. Compare the un-arranged “Amoreena,” with EJ and his band mates enjoying the space to play around, with the heavily-arranged “Burn Down the Mission,” which, for a near-rocker, sounds almost straitjacketed. Then think how “Mission” has sounded live. Let’s return for a moment to December 1970 in Santa Monica, and a concert at the Civic Center with a young phenom called Elton John whose legal name is still Reg Dwight. It’s late in the show, and time for an extended “Burn Down the Mission.” Wearing purple tights and winged boots, 23-year-old EJ is making the audience crazy as he tosses his head wildly, leaps in the air and executes handstands, all while pulverizing the keys. Nigel and Dee flow along with their freewheeling beats. What people hear here is a far cry from the stately, mid-tempo “Mission,” backed by dreamy strings, that concludes Tumbleweed. Over 20 years later, “Birds,” with its loose vibe and ringing, dexterous chords, is of a piece with the liberated stuff one finds when orchestrations are absent. (It’s true that one could make the same argument about those of EJ’s albums that are heavy on the synths, most notably The One and The Big Picture , but the subject here is orchestrations, and the rules – bestowed upon humanity by angry gods – are that an entry on a list of Elton John songs can’t have more than one subject at a time.)
24. Little Peace: Why couldn’t this B-side to “Answer in the Sky” have been included on Peachtree Road (2004)? What is more, why doesn’t anybody else ever wonder about this? Both questions may be unanswerable, more suited to philosophical investigation at the university level than in an informal, internet discussion. But if one must answer the unanswerable, it might as well be here. Look, friends – there is nothing about “A Little Peace,” not its hip-shakin’, funk-blues piano chords, not Elton’s sly, throaty vocal, not the driving beat, not the Voice of Atlanta Choir’s pious chants, that would disqualify it from being on an Elton John album. Plus, it fits right in with Peachtree Road’s mostly gospel and R & B numbers. If one were to omit a song from the album to make room for “A Little Peace,” it should probably be “Too Many Tears,” which is very Elton-y and atmospheric without being particularly soulful.
25. The Letter (Mum’s Letter, Billy’s reply): This is one of those exquisite EJ ballads, intimate and reflective, sorrowful and loving, that can set your breast to heaving and your nose to sniffling. You can experience these feelings by seeing Billy Elliot: The Musical, which opened on London’s West End in 2005 and is still going strong nine years later (it was also fairly successful on Broadway, where it opened in 2008 and enjoyed a healthy, three-year run). But if you can’t fly out to London or catch a Billy Elliot touring company locally, you can hear it on the London cast recording, a special edition of which also includes EJ’s polished demos for “The Letter,” “Electricity” and “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.” As one would imagine, Elton’s own renderings are vastly superior to those of the cast.
26. I Want More: So Bernie Taupin finally gets in with EJ on a Broadway musical, and what happens? It flops – badly! Lestat (2006) lasted only 39 performances, an ignominious result for a good idea that, for all of its earnest intentions, didn’t gel. The music is not to be blamed. The story, adapted from some of Anne Rice’s vampire novels, failed to capture their eerie intensity. The first half was bleak, dreary, ponderous; the second half often lively, funny, poignant. The emotional gap between halves was confusing; the improbability of the show’s premise resisted the necessary fantastical leap of imagination. In short, Elton and Bernie’s songs needed a much better launching pad than this to reach audiences. “I Want More” is a standout among a collection of gripping songs that runs the gamut from funeral dirge to tragicomical anthems. In it, young Claudia, who is “made” undead by her bloodsucking guardians, gets into trouble with them for drinking of the fluids of the residential staff. She angrily accuses them of hypocrisy: “Did I rock the family boat by dining on the help?…Thanks to you, things I do verge on the obscene.” The melody seethes and soars as Claudia remonstrates. This number was worth the price of admission all by itself.
27. And the House Fell Down: Elton and Bernie’s follow-up to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy flopped almost as badly as Lestat. This album’s fate was an even more unjust result than Lestat’s failure. It appeared to be disinterest by the record company that caused the premature demise of The Captain and the Kid (2006) and a brilliant, autobiographical effort sank into oblivion with seeming permanency. EJ was so distressed by its commercial failure that he began dropping song after song from the concert set list during the course of that autumn, until only two were left. But “And the House Fell Down” never got a live hearing. This song chronicles Elton’s dark days of drug dependency and is, by turns, funny and slightly creepy, cleverly recalling a hit from the era, “I’m Still Standing,” while avoiding its replication. Elton’s gritty vocal on this is probably the most enjoyable of the CD and his “Perils of Pauline”-style playing the most entertaining.
28. Hey Ahab: And now we come to Elton’s “pass it forward” album and the birth of one of his most aggressive rockers. It all started with EJ reestablishing contact with his late 60s, early 70s idol, Leon Russell, and brainstorming their collaboration on an album. EJ recruited in-demand, acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett to helm the project, eventually titled The Union (2010). The Pinner native and his long-time associate Johnny Barbis managed to resuscitate Leon’s career and, in so doing, EJ applied a salve to his own guilty heart. While his star had shone brighter and brighter in the 70s, dimming only slightly with the years until an overdue refueling following rehab, Leon’s flickered, darkened, and stayed dark – until now. On The Union, idolater and idol wrote songs separately or together, with or without Taupin, dueting and dueling on piano, or provided backing or harmony vocals. The last track, though, “In the Hands of Angels,” was completely Leon’s, a thank-you to his friend for caring and pulling him out of obscurity. They toured together in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011, showcasing almost all of the songs from the album, to the delight of fans of both men. “Hey Ahab,” a tough, bluesy bruiser and a thrilling product of the sessions, became all the more so in concert, and has stayed in the set list to this day.
29. Dream # 3: The Diving Board (2013) may be one of EJ’s most controversial albums, because it has divided his fan base so markedly. Many are outraged that, for the second time in a row, the band was left off the album. Many also express disappointment in its lack of pop songs, or a full rock sound, or a lush, 70s motif. Still other fans have wholeheartedly embraced this daring, T Bone-produced venture, as ambitious and off-kilter as Blue Moves, but much more scaled down, with just piano, bass and drums and the odd guitar, cello or horn. The Diving Board contains three, brief piano instrumentals, too, the most eye-opening being “Dream # 3,” which finds EJ in full Keith Jarrett mode, albeit a Keith Jarrett with EJ’s sense of melody, chord crescendos and decrescendos, and full-bodied approach to playing that swings and sways.
30. Voyeur: The Diving Board is such an unusual album, such a welcome departure from anything EJ and Taupin have ever done before, that it deserves a second entry on this Top 30 list. But “Voyeur” would make the cut regardless of the quality of the other songs, because it is that astonishingly incredible. What is it about this song that is so gripping? It seems to have a lot of what makes Elton’s music worth exploring, only more so: a modern jazz feel, a mysterious melody, infectious harmonies, and building drama. Taupin’s inspired lyrics certainly don’t hurt: “Through a curtain blowing back against the rain/Through the crack in a door that heaves with pain/And through every gap that gives away some secret in the dark/I'll come away with something to keep you in my heart.” As the song reaches the end, the last seconds of EJ’s melodic, leather-lunged holler of the track’s title trails off and leaves the listener with one nagging thought: “I Want More!”
Pictures courtesy of Liz Rosenthal