From Elvis in His Canon

Eric Wolfson on his favorite Elvis albums

Elvis has always had a precarious place in the rock and roll canon. Despite his massive influence, Elvis is usually left off those “Greatest Albums” lists, dismissed as a relic from the supposedly trivial era before the Beatles arrived. (Never mind that the Beatles would have never existed without Elvis.) And he is not alone. The same is true for his ’50s peers, as albums like Chuck Berry Is on Top, Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, Here’s Little Richard, Buddy Holly’s The “Chirping” Crickets, and Bo Diddley’s self-titled debut all hold their own against the greatest albums ever made.

But instead of broaching Elvis’s place in the rock and roll canon, I wanted to take a look at Elvis’s own canon. For unlike the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones, people rarely stop to consider his studio works as a unit. I’ve spent endless hours listening to and reviewing all 72 of Elvis’s official album releases of his lifetime (from March 1956 through mid-August 1977), in an attempt to determine the very best and most essential.

The complete article can be found on my From Elvis in Memphis website, but for those who need just the basics, I have a chronological listing of the ten albums to which I gave the highest rating of five stars. (And yes, From Elvis in Memphis is one of them.)

1. Elvis Presley [1956]

From the frenzied count-off of “Blue Suede Shoes” that starts it through the lopsided groove of “Money Honey” that closes it, Elvis Presley is Elvis’s finest album of the decade, as well as a strong contender for the strongest studio rock album of the decade, period. Sun outtakes like the stunning “Trying To Get To You” and the haunting “Blue Moon” sit comfortably next to raw rockabilly rave-ups like “I Got a Woman,” “One Sided Love Affair,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You).” Most songs feature the classic Sun Records trio—Elvis on acoustic guitar and vocals, Scotty Moore on electric lead, Bill Black on bass—tightened by D.J. Fontana on drums and rounded out by Floyd Cramer or Shorty Long on piano. This was hillbilly headed uptown and not looking back, even if the songs ran from pop to country to R&B. Quite simply, this was the purest rock and roll Elvis ever cut.

2. Elvis [1956]

With his debut a mix of new studio recordings and leftover Sun material, his follow-up, Elvis, was his first wholly major-label album. Whereas many hold that it beats Elvis Presley, I hear a slicker product. The music is still excellent, of course—“Love Me” was so good that it headlined the first EP to land on the singles chart, while songs like “Paralyzed” and “Anyplace Is Paradise” hinted at the weird new pop he would forge in the coming years. To my ears, it’s the one leftover from the Elvis Presley sessions, “So Glad You’re Mine” that nearly steals the show, while the 4-minute-plus country weeper “Old Shep” (the first song Elvis ever performed live as a kid) is his first schmaltz clunker. Still, the album holds up as an essential building-block of ’50s rock and roll.

3. Elvis’ Christmas Album [1957]

With Christmas records as an omnipresent pop-music rite of passage nowadays, it’s hard to realize just how revolutionary Elvis’ Christmas Album was. For the first time, a singer of rock & roll (that heathen garbage!) released an LP of songs for the most sacred day of the year. The menacing “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” (with the clincher line, “Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight!”) proved that Elvis could still rock with the best of them, while “Blue Christmas” became an instant-rock standard. Along with the first two songs on the second side (the “adult side”), beautiful readings of “O’ Little Town Of Bethlehem” & “Silent Night,” these became the core of Elvis’s Christmas canon, a budget reissue of which would become his biggest-selling album.

4. Elvis’ Golden Records [1958]

As the first major rocker, Elvis initiated many firsts—few finer than rock and roll’s first “greatest hits” album, Elvis’ Golden Records. Comprised of 14 charting single sides—9 of which were #1 hits—it was a perfect compliment in an era when singles were issued as separate entities from LPs. This was the cream of his first 8 singles for RCA. “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” & “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” were all cornerstones not only of Elvis’s career, but of the entire genre of rock and roll. Elvis would never be bigger or better than he was in the two years in which these songs were released. And with the Army knocking on his door just as this album hit the shops, it was the capstone to his crowning achievement.

5. Elvis Is Back! [1960]

Culled from his first post-Army recording sessions, Elvis Is Back! is a minor masterpiece–what it may lack in song-for-song quality, it more than makes up for in punch. Elvis is clearly ready to get down to business, and songs like “Make Me Know It,” “Fever,” “Thrill of Your Love,” and “Like A Baby” are overflowing with confidence, fervor, lust, and joy. Even a throwaway like “Girl of My Best Friend” is sung with enough conviction that compilers could include it on career-spanning retrospectives with a straight face. But all is just the build up to “Reconsider Baby,” four minutes of smoldering blues in which Elvis lets the double-sax solo of Boots Randolph steal the show. All told, Elvis Is Back! is a testimony to his promise, but unfortunately this promise would go largely unrealized for the next eight years.

6. His Hand in Mine [1960]

Elvis’s third (!) LP of new material in eight months time was also his first and finest album of sacred material. We can still hear the gloss and excitement of the post-Army burst, only this time it is refined on a dozen traditional gospel songs that speak to Elvis’s genius as a refined stylist. The title track & “Milky White Way” are smooth testimonies to faith, while “Joshua Fit The Battle” and “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” have a drive that come close to igniting a rock performance. In his youth, Elvis wanted nothing more than to sing in a gospel quartet, and here he is finally able to. He makes every second of music count, proving himself to be more than just an able interpreter of gospel material, but the finest white religious singer of his time.

7. ELVIS: NBC-TV Special [“The ’68 Comeback Special”] [1968]

The Promise is fulfilled. On December 3, 1968, Elvis Presley looked into television screens and sneered, “If you’re looking for trouble–you’ve come to the right place.” He then cut into his recent single “Guitar Man” and sang with all the fervor of a man who’s entire career depended on it. Because it did. “The ’68 Comeback Special” found Elvis in top form & brought him roaring back to the consciousness of rock music. He performed before a live audience for the first time in seven years, ripping through medleys of early hits, gospel, and Hollywood music. The best part was when he was reunited with his old bandmates for a laid-back sit-down concert that provided the basis for MTV Unplugged a generation later. This is the environment in which Elvis truly reclaimed his crown.

8. From Elvis in Memphis [1969]

His finest studio album. Still invigorated by “The ’68 Comeback Special,” Elvis united with producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studio to get down to work. The thrill can be heard everywhere. “I had to leave town for a little while—” he sings at the beginning of “Wearin’ That Loved on Look,” before launching into some blue-eyed soul that made you think he wasn’t singing to a girl, but to the rock community overall. “Only the Strong Survive” became one his most recognizable non-singles, “I’ll Hold You In My Heart” showed Elvis in untamed form, and “Long Black Limousine may just be his greatest recording, period, and everything ended with his first Top 5 Hit in five years, “In The Ghetto.” Along with the Sun recordings and early RCA sessions, this is as good as Elvis gets.

9. That’s The Way It Is [1970]

The quintessential Elvis album of the decade. Connected with his That’s The Way It Is film, it inaugurates his ’70s Vegas period, long before it would descend into drugs and self-parody. Most of it contains the cream of Elvis’s marathon sessions from earlier that year, such as the hit single “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and “I’ve Lost You.” About half the album is live and, as the founding Vegas document, it also marks the beginning of the Elvis schmaltz, in the over-the-top live renditions of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This is Elvis at the peak of what would prove to be his final incarnation: Mature, iconic, & still committed to proving he was the best there ever was.

10. The Sun Sessions [1976]

A long-overdue instant classic. For reasons unknown to anyone, it took 2 decades for someone at RCA to think to make a compilation of Elvis’s Sun recordings. The result is one of the most influential albums ever, landing #11 on Rolling Stone’s original 2003 list 500 Greatest Albums Of All-Time—despite being out of print for a generation. It features all ten of his epic Sun sides, the five Sun recordings that were snuck onto his debut album, plus an alternate take (the first of many, it turns out). Despite a quibble about the running order (why do some of the B-sides appear before their A-sides?), the closest thing I have to say in terms of criticism is the question of why it didn’t come sooner. But when listening to “That’s All Right,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Mystery Train,” and the rest, who cares, as long as it’s here to stay.

This concludes Eric’s takeover of the 33 1/3 blog. Hungry for more? Buy your copy of Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis today!

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