When I was a kid, Elvis Presley was my mother's favorite singer and he remains one of the very few artists who has been there through every phase of my evolving musical taste. So I try to pay him some respect each January 8th and August 16th by writing a piece about him. Nearly every music writer has, at some time or another weighed in on Elvis's musical and cultural impact, including myself. You can even find on this site an unfinished series of articles about his comeback.
That's all well and good and I have every intention of finishing the series at some point, but a lot of people are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. These folks are wrong, but I understand where they come from. For most of us, Elvis's music has always been a part of our lives, whether we're fans or not. We've all heard the big hits and we're far enough removed from their release that we often forget their impact. In short, Elvis, much like Dolly Parton, is seen today as more of a pop culture cornerstone than as a serious recording artist.
Before I continue I want to get one thing out of the way. On every article I've ever written on Elvis Presley, some readers have tried to undermine his influence by saying that he never wrote a single song. First of all, they are wrong; he wrote two ("You'll Be Gone" and "That's Someone You'll Never Forget"). Secondly, there has always been and always will be three types of recording artists: interpretive singers who perform only the works of others, singer-songwriters who perform only material they've written, and folks like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash who represent the best of both worlds. None of these three groups are inherently better or worse than another. Elvis sang "Tomorrow is a Long Time" better than Dylan and Dylan agreed.
Anyhow, today I want to present a guide to those who have never given Elvis Presley a serious chance or only know him by his hits. These are what I feel are his top five albums. Picking up any of these will tell you exactly what the fuss is all about.
As a rule, I'm very traditional in what I define as an album. Many would say that Elvis's recordings on Sun Records are the best of his career. While this may be true (I'd actually put them in second or third place), he never released an album on the label and any albums featuring this material were compiled long after the recordings themselves. Nevertheless, Elvis at Sun is probably the best single-disc compilation of the Sun recordings.
Now on with the list.
1. From Elvis In Memphis (1969)
This was the first album made after the '68 Comeback Special and it featured the finest recordings of his career. Produced by Chips Moman (who later went on to work with Willie and Waylon) and featuring a band composed of the sort of Memphis session men who put Southern soul on the map, this is Elvis at his most raw. His voice is rough and the songs are the polar opposites of the movie soundtracks he was doing just a year prior.
You all know "In the Ghetto," but the real highlights of this album are "Wearin' that Loved On Look," "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road," and "Long Black Limousine," which is probably the best performance of his entire career. If you buy just one album on the list, make it this one.
2. Elvis Is Back! (1960)
His first comeback album, preceding From Elvis in Memphis by nine years. This one, recorded upon his discharge from the United States Army has a much more polished sound, but nonetheless finds him diving into some of the best blues and R&B material of his career with songs like "Fever," "Dirty Dirty Feeling" and "Like a Baby." The album's other tracks, though, are pure pop tunes like "The Girl of My Best Friend." Elvis demonstrates here that he was indeed back and that he was a master of both styles.
3. Elvis (1956)
His second LP, but the first not to be thrown together from hit singles and Sun outtakes. This album is exhibit A in the case for Elvis being the King of Rock 'n' Roll, featuring the mixture of uptempo rockabilly and sparse ballads that would become his signature for the next 21 years.
4. Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) (1971)
This album wasn't as successful as it should have been in it's day, but it is a fine example of Elvis's country influences and his very broad definition of what country music is. Throughout the 12 songs here, he covers everrybody from Bob Wills and Bill Monroe, to Eddy Arnold, to Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Nelson, putting his own unmistakable stamp on each.
5. From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976)
This is the most depressing album Elvis ever released, but based on where his life was at the time (less than a year before his death) and how well he pulls it off, he gets a pass. His nearly operatic rendition of "Hurt" that opens the album is one of the two or three best vocal performances of his career and it sets the tone for the entire album, which features just one rock number. His version of "Danny Boy," found on this album, may also be the best version of that oft-recorded song. He would release one more album, but this one still serves as a farewell album to rival the best of Johnny Cash's work with Rick Rubin.
So there's my list. Start with these, but don't end there. You probably won't want most of the soundtrack albums, but other than that nearly every album will be worth your time.