Friday, February 27, 2015

Elvis Presley: The Complete Discography.

For the past 5 months or so, I've been listening to nothing but Elvis Presley. I have literally uploaded his entire discography onto my iPhone & have kept it in constant rotation. I've lapped up the '50s rockabilly sides, white-knuckled it through the mid-'60s soundtracks LPs, reveled in the late-'60s comeback recordings, & basked in the glow of his '70s icon era. It has not only given me a sense of pleasure, but a decent feeling of honest work being done.

I worry that such time might be wasted if not documented in some form, which is the reason for the piece that follows. For the first (& probably only) time in my life, I am in a place to review every single album Elvis released in his lifetime. Given the relative lack of Elvis album-focused online content (most lists are based around singles), I figured it might be a nice exercise, as well as proof that these past few months haven't been spent in vain.

So what follows is a review of every album that Elvis released in his lifetime. To go beyond his lifetime seemed to get too messy; perhaps I will visit various facets of his output in the future (such as boxed sets, or thematic releases). For now though, I will consider his living canon--the complete discography of Elvis Aron Presley.

The rankings use the standard Rolling Stone/ five-star system:

***** = Classic
**** = Great
*** = Good
** = Fair
* = Poor

Of Elvis's official releases (72 by my count!), I wanted to find out which ones were truly essential. Here's what I found.

The 1950s.

Elvis Presley [RCA, 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 the strongest studio rock album of the decade, period. Sun outtakes like the stunning "Trying To Get To You" & the haunting "Blue Moon" sit comfortably next to raw rockabilly rave-ups like "I Got A Woman," "One Sided Love Affair," & "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down & Cry (Over You)." Most songs feature the classic Sun Records trio--Elvis on acoustic guitar & vocals, Scotty Moore on electric lead, Bill Black on bass--tightened by D.J. Fontana on drums & rounded out by Floyd Cramer & Shorty Long on piano. This was hillbilly headed uptown & not looking back, even if the songs ran from pop to country to R&B. Quite simply, this was the purest rock & roll Elvis ever cut.

Elvis [RCA, 1956] *****

With his debut a mix of new studio recordings & 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 became the first EP to land on the singles chart, while songs like "Paralyzed" & "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 & roll.

Loving You [RCA, 1957] ***1/2

Elvis's first full-length soundtrack LP was one of the best, but sadly that speaks more of how bad things would get than the inherent quality of this one. Side 1 pretty much kicks--especially the opening quartet of "Mean Woman Blues," "Teddy Bear," "Loving You," & "Got A Lot O' Livin' To Do"--but things slow down a bit on the other. In hindsight, Side 2 seems to try to sell Elvis as a mainstream crooner, complete with a Cole Porter standard ("True Love"). The verdict is no shocker: The rock side wins out. If only it would mark his final foray into middle-of-the-road pop.

Elvis' Christmas Album [RCA, 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 2 songs on the second side (it appears that like Loving You, Side 2 was the "adult side"), beautiful readings of "O' Little Town Of Bethlehem" & "Silent Night," these became the core of Elvis' Christmas canon, a budget reissue of which would become his biggest-selling album, a rare Diamond Seller Platinum hit of 10 million strong & counting.

Elvis' Golden Records [RCA, 1958] *****

As the first major rocker, Elvis initiated many firsts--few finer than rock & 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 & roll. My slight quibble with song list--I would've preferred the B-sides "I Was The One" & "My Baby Left Me" over the weaker (& weaker-charting) "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" & "Any Way You Want Me"--is a mere formality when faced with the music. Elvis would never be bigger or better than he was in the 2 years in which these songs were released. & with the Army knocking on his door just as this album hit the shops, it would also serve as a capstone to his crowning artistic achievement.

King Creole [RCA, 1958] ***1/2

His finest film to receive a full soundtrack (oddly, the two other contenders for this title--Jailhouse Rock & Viva Las Vegas--were only issued as EPs), King Creole had some solid rock (the title track, "Hard Headed Woman," & "Trouble," which was so badass that it was used to open his comeback special a decade later), a decent ballad or two, & some movie filler. Like Loving You, it's a masterpiece compared to what would come later (entire albums of movie filler), but still not up to the quality of the one-two punch of Elvis Presley & Elvis.

For LP Fans Only [RCA, 1959] ****

While Elvis was in the Army, RCA released this & its follow-up, A Date With Elvis, as a stopgap containing almost all of the material that had not already been issued on LP. But these are not mere leftovers. For over a decade, these LPs were the only place to get Elvis's Sun singles, as this one contains the epic "That's All Right" & "Mystery Train" among others. It also collects the B-sides that didn't make Elvis' Golden Records ("I Was The One," "My Baby Left Me," & "Playing For Keeps"), as well as the non-hit "Lawdy Miss Clawdy"/"Shake Rattle & Roll" single from 1956. Although a longer time would have been better (there are only 10 songs here), it's hard to find fault with this material of Elvis in his mid-'50s pre-Army prime.

A Date With Elvis [RCA, 1959] **** 

The follow-up to For LP Fans Only collecting material that had not already been issued on LP. Like its companion, the music here is near flawless--especially the first side of "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," "Young & Beautiful," "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," "Milkcow Blues Boogie," & "Baby, Let's Play House"--which collected more Sun sides with tracks from the Jailhouse Rock EP. If the second side isn't quite as strong, it's only because that's a hard running order to top. Also with only 10 tracks, it feels a bit short, especially when you consider that RCA only needed one more track from Elvis's Sun singles ("I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine"), the Love Me Tender EP ("Let Me"), & the Jailhouse Rock EP ("Don't Leave Me Now") to get every song Elvis released in the 1950s on an LP. Why not pick one more song (say "Trying To Get With You," which would've been his 6th Sun single) & make both this & For LP Fans Only an even 12 songs each?

50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: Elvis' Gold Records -- Volume 2 [RCA, 1959] ****

A classic album title & jacket (the gold lame suit!) with quality music, namely the 5 A-sides & B-sides of his 1958 & 1959 singles--including the lovely "Don't," the epic "One Night," the manic "Big Hunk O' Love," the underrated "I Beg Of You," & the stunning "(Now & Then There's) A Fool Such As I"--minus "Hard Headed Woman" & "Don't Ask Me Why," which had already been issued on King Creole. Docked a star for not including the latter single anyway, which would've brought up its paltry running time of 22 minutes.

The 1960s.

Elvis Is Back! [RCA, 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, & songs like "Make Me Know It," "Fever," "Thrill Of Your Love," & "Like A Baby" are overflowing with confidence, fervor, lust, & 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," 4 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 promise, but unfortunately its promise would go largely unrealized for the next 8 years.

G.I. Blues [RCA, 1960] ***

Elvis's first post-Army full-length movie soundtrack finds him in fine form following the release of Elvis Is Back!, if on a noticeably slighter selection of songs. For the first time, hokey movie tunes find their way into the mix--shticky numbers like "Frankfort Special" & the title track--while the remaining ballads, like "Pocketful Of Rainbows," are at once ably rendered yet instantly forgettable. Only on "Wooden Heart" does Elvis find real conviction, which although it was little known on this side of the Atlantic, went on to become a #1 UK hit for 6 weeks overseas. The half-English half-German song is either a masterpiece or an embarrassment depending on who you ask. I hear it as the musical equivalent of selling soap--& proof that Elvis could sell a freezer to an Eskimo.

His Hand In Mine [RCA, 1960] *****

Elvis's third (!) LP of new material in 8 months time was also his first & finest album of sacred material. We can still hear the gloss & 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" & "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, & 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.

Something For Everybody [RCA, 1961] **1/2

With a bland title & an even blander album cover (which looks remarkably like a back cover), the mediocrity of his studio material sets in. Side 1 is the softer ballad side, highlighted by "There's Always Me," which is pretty good until you realize it's a rewrite of "Don't Leave Me Now." The singing is lovely on all of the material, but when did lovely become acceptable in rock? Do not listen to while operating heavy machinery. Side 2 is the rock side, highlighted by "I Want You With Me," which is pretty good until you realize it's a rewrite of "Ain't That Loving You Baby." It all kicks in an early-'60s Roy Orbison-style rock (more "Working For The Man" than "Oh, Pretty Woman"), which it turns out no one could pull off except for Roy Orbison--not even Elvis. Granted, anything after Elvis Is Back! is going to pale in terms of sheer excitement, but this album sounds like warm milk on a warm day. In the psychedelic doldrums of 1967, "There's Always Me" backed by "Judy" would be released as a single; the songs hit #56 & #78, respectively. 'Nuff said.

Blue Hawaii [RCA, 1961] **1/2

After the more "serious" roles of Flaming Star & Wild In The Country, Blue Hawaii was the first of Elvis's "formula" films--i.e., Elvis plays some form of a semi-employed drifter who sings lotsa songs, attracts lotsa girls, & gets into a fight somewhere along the way--& was such a smash it set the course for the remainder of the decade in Hollywood. As a result, its soundtrack would become Elvis's biggest-selling LP of his lifetime, but this speaks more to the fact that it was the easiest way to get the song "Can't Help Falling In Love" than it being a decent album in its own right. Indeed, "Ito Eats" is the first of the truly awful Elvis songs (once compiled on the classic bootleg Elvis's Greatest Shit!!) & "Rock-A-Hula Baby" & "Beach Boy Blues" weren't much better. It probably would've been graded harsher, if it weren't for its historical significance & the presence of "Can't Help Falling In Love"--as well as the fact "Hawaiian Wedding Song" was a sentimental favorite in the Presley Family & "Rock-A-Hula Baby" is a personal guilty pleasure.

Pot Luck [RCA 1962] *** 

A perfectly-fine-if-not-fantastic studio album that spawned the near-hits "Kiss Me Quick," "(Such An) Easy Question," & "I'm Yours" as well as having some interesting set pieces like "Suspicion" (which was a hit for every Elvis sound-alike of this era) & "That's Someone You Never Forget" (a rare Elvis co-write that was reportedly about his beloved late mother). Some songs like "Steppin' Out Of Line" are actually quite decent, but there's not enough of them to carry it through for the casual listener. & if there was any wonder whether Elvis's heart was really in the proceedings, this would be his last non-compilation, non-soundtrack, non-gospel LP until 1969.

Girls! Girls! Girls! [RCA, 1962] **

A mediocre soundtrack, saved by "Return To Sender." As will soon happen, the very worst music--in this case "Song Of The Shrimp" & "The Walls Have Ears"--will prove more memorable & interesting than all of the forgettable things around it. Regardless, I hear an inkling of commitment that would soon vanish, which seems to say: "Maybe if I do a good job on these songs, I'll finally get a serious role next." In other words, hope. But it was not to be. All anchored by the title track, a song that may have worked for The Coasters, but sounded stupid in the hands of The King.

It Happened At The World's Fair [RCA, 1963] *1/2

Another ho-hum soundtrack whose near-hit single--the #11 "One Broken Heart For Sale"/"They Remind Me Too Much Of You"--was the first Elvis RCA single to not make the Top Ten since 1956 & a harbinger of the dark days to come. At its hardest, the album is as menacing as a Pat Boone record; at its softest, it could pass for a music box in a 5-year-old girl's bedroom. Despite a decent start with "Beyond The Bend" & "Relax," Elvis soon sings about rollerskating ("Take Me To The Fair") & hopping on one foot ("How Would You Like To Be"), as well as some place called "Cotton Candy Land." All told, it's perfectly disposable pop, apparently intended for a 3-6 week shelf life.

Elvis' Golden Records Volume 3 [RCA, 1963] ****1/2

A fine collection of the single side of Elvis's post-Army explosion--"Stuck On You," "It's Now Or Never," & "Are You Lonesome Tonight"--alongside other hits ("Surrender," "Good Luck Charm") & worthy B-sides ("Fame & Fortune," "Little Sister"). Docked half a star for not including "Can't Help Falling In Love," as it was (1) soundtrack material & (2) already had been issued on the (gack!) Blue Hawaii LP. Too bad--in today's non-segregated world of single & LP tracks, it's sorely missed. Also missed: "A Mess Of Blues" (the killer B-side of "It's Now Or Never"), which got put on the dreadful 4th volume. But that's a whole other story... 

Fun In Acapulco [RCA LP, 1963] **

The last Elvis soundtrack LP that was redeemed by a worthy (Top 10) single, in this case "Bossa Nova Baby." Meanwhile, much of the rest chronicles the Mexican experience with all of the cultural nuance of a Speedy Gonzales cartoon. Elvis gives "El Toro" & "You Can't Say No In Acapulco" more care than they deserve, but ultimately, any inherent promise the album holds is undone by 9 words: "(There's) No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car." Once again, the worst stuff is the most interesting, & even then, it could get kinda dull: "Bullfighter Was A Lady"? Gracias, para no gracias.

Kissin' Cousins [RCA LP, 1964] **

Figures that the best song connected to the project--"It Hurts Me," the B-side of the incest-celebrating lead single "Kissin' Cousins"--was left off the soundtrack album. But even with its hokey backwoods shtick that makes Beverly Hillbillies look like Faulkner, there are some decent songs ("(It's A) Long Lonely Highway"), some near-misses ("Anyone (Could Fall In Love With You)"), & some just plain weird junk ("Smokey Mountain Boy," "Barefoot Ballad"). Released the same month that The Beatles had the Top 5 positions on the Billboard Charts--LPs like this was the reason why.

Roustabout [RCA, 1964] *

The first truly-dreadful, nothing-can-redeem-it soundtrack. With were no hit singles to help it out (hey, even "Kissin' Cousins" hit #12), it was just a 22-minute wasteland. Only "Little Egypt" (Elvis's second late-period Coasters cover in 2 years) begins to sound interesting (it would be reprised in the '68 Comeback Special), while songs like "Poison Ivy League" must be heard to be believed. Roustabout also marks the point at which the songs become pun-tacular; just listen to "Carny Town," which brags about a 2-headed cow ("& that's no bull!") & a sword-swallower ("he's just about the sharpest guy in town!"). Yikes. Oddly, the LP managed to hit #1 on the US charts in the first full year of American Beatlemania; tellingly, it would be his last #1 album until 1973's Aloha From Hawaii.

Girl Happy [RCA, 1965] *

A series of one-note shtick songs--the college name-dropping "Startin' Tonight," the whistle bait-celebrating "Wolf Call," the hotel room ode "Do Not Disturb"--that all come & go in about a minute & a half before making way for the next one. A pathetic title track, a lead single called "Do The Clam," & something called "Fort Lauderdale Chamber Of Commerce." You can't make this shit up. All of which makes the tender reading of "Puppet On A String" all the more remarkable.

Elvis For Everyone [RCA, 1965] **

Not enough songs for a new non-soundtrack studio album? How about a bunch of leftover tracks, some of which are over a decade old? Actually, the 1954 cut, a Sun Records outtake "Tomorrow Night," would be the best thing on here...if only they hadn't buried it under 1965 overdub production values. SPOILER ALERT: This Elvis is NOT for everyone. It's mostly just boring.

Harum Scarum [RCA, 1965] *

The soundtrack to what is often considered his stupidest movie. Like Roustabout, no lead single was even attempted. After all, what could it be? "Harem Holiday"? "Go East--Young Man"? "Shake That Tambourine"? It's hard to pick when you have songs with lyrics that boast "Persian rugs to enhance your floor," all with Arabian flute touches to remind you that we're in the Middle East this time, & not [fill in the blank of Elvis's last movie locale]. (They ended up reaching back to Girl Happy's "Puppet On A String" for the single, which reached a respectable #14 in the weeks just as The Beatles' Rubber Soul changed everything.) & just to mock us for wasting our time listening to this album, the last cut is called "Wisdom Of The Ages."

Frankie & Johnny [RCA, 1966] *

Elvis as a riverboat gambler in the 1890s, who nonetheless sings songs laden with Dixieland Jazz flourishes from a quarter century later. The best/worst part is picturing "Look Out Broadway," where Elvis sings with Ellie May Clampett (Donna Douglas), Col. Potter (Harry Morgan), & the hot lady who Dick Van Dyke thinks is innocent in the episode where he falls out of the jury box (Sue Ane Langdon). With a touch of the Showboat vibe, it's the most musical-y of Elvis's musicals, although anything with a song called "Petunia The Gardener's Daughter" should be approached with extreme caution. Not to be confused with the Al Pacino/Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle some 30 years later.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style [RCA, 1966] *

The nadir of Elvis' Hollywood years--& soundtracks. With a whopping 3 cuts featured on Elvis' Greatest Shit!! ("Queenie Wahine's Papaya," "Scratch My Back," & "Datin'") & a fourth that should've been ("Dog's Life"), this is as bad as it gets. It's all from a movie that's so bad, most Elvis diehard fans admit to not being able to get through it. As Dave Marsh wrote in his review of it from his classic Rock Lists: "Sometimes you had to wonder why Elvis didn't just quit. When he got around to recycling Blue Hawaii, as he did here, you realized (if you had any brains not turned to mush by what had come before) that he already had: F-"

Spinout [RCA, 1966] ***1/2

Being Elvis's best soundtrack is akin to being the prettiest girl in an ugly girl contest, but Spinout is a decent addition to the Elvis canon. The title track, "Stop, Look & Listen," & "Adam & Evil" all rocked with more abandon than Elvis had shown in years. Defenders of Elvis's movies has always argued that they should be compared to those '60s beach movies (as opposed to Oscar-winning films), but Spinout is the only soundtrack that sounds like a fun beach movie--if not the best beach movie ever. & as a bonus, a few non-movie-related studio tracks were thrown in at the end, including 2 of Elvis' finest recordings of the decade: An all-too-rare Dylan cover ("Tomorrow Is A Long Time") & one of the fiercest R&B covers he would ever cut ("Down In The Alley"). For the first time, a shift in quality & commitment for the better can be heard, which eventually exploded in The '68 Comeback Special.

How Great Thou Art [RCA, 1967] ****1/2
Side 1 was the Christian music (read: white) & Side 2 was the gospel music (read: black). Side 1 boasted the epic title track, which many consider the finest sacred song Elvis would ever record. Side 2 was the hot stuff, as Elvis threw material out the window to cut loose on traditional songs like "So High," "By & By," & "Run On," all of which could turn the coldest heart into a foot-tapping believer. The album netted Elvis his first of the three competitive Grammys he won in his career, all of which were for Gospel recordings. & just for good measure, the album ends with his sole mid-'60s Top 10 hit, the transcendent "Crying In The Chapel," which was unbelievably left off of his first gospel LP, His Hand In Mine. That album's loss is this album's gain.

Double Trouble [RCA, 1967] **

After the breakthrough of Spinout, Elvis's soundtracks sound more alive & rocking, but unfortunately remain bogged down by insipid material. Case in point: This collection of music, which after the promising title track & the somewhat decent lead single ("Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On)"), devolves into standard movie shtick, this time backed by what sound like open auditions to play on Frank Sinatra's latest album. "I Love Only One Girl" is an annoying port-to-port shanty, but it's Elvis's infamous take on "Old MacDonald" that is easily the single worst song to make an original soundtrack LP. Elvis only recorded it on the condition that it would never be released--fooled again!

Clambake [RCA, 1967] **

Another mostly-rotten soundtrack, redeemed by lead single "Big Boss Man" backed by "You Don't Know Me" & its follow-up "Guitar Man" (unfortunately, the latter's fine flip--"Hi-Heeled Sneakers"--wouldn't appear on an LP until 1980). "Big Boss Man" & "Guitar Man" sound like a dry run for The Comeback Special, but on Clambake, they were the exceptions. The rest is mostly embarrassing relics from the twilight of the beach-movie era: The title track rivals "Do The Clam" for the worst song about clams ever recorded, "Who Needs Money" is a dumb duet that falls apart without the movie's visuals (though it no doubt was still bad even with them), & the cloying kids sing-along (complete with kids singing along) "Confidence" is so catchy, it will get stuck in your head after only one refrain. Even the deep cuts that are generally respected by critics, such as "Singing Tree," are boring. I mean, the song is called Singing Tree.

Elvis' Gold Records Volume 4 [RCA, 1968] *1/2 

The worst compilation of Elvis's lifetime. Again adhering strictly to the whole no-reissuing-any-tracks-that-have-already-appeared-on-an-LP, the compilers of this collection found themselves stuck. With only 1 legitimate hit that had not previously issued on an album--"Devil In Disguise," which hit #3--other signature hits like "Return To Sender" (#2), "Bossa Nova Baby" (#8), "Crying In The Chapel" (#3) were exempt, as well as lesser-hits like "Kissin' Cousins" (#12), "(Such An) Easy Question" (#11), & "Puppet On A String" (#14). So what's left? B-sides ("Witchcraft"), second-string cuts that should've gone on Elvis' Gold Records Volume 3 ("Mess Of Blues"), & even lesser hits ("What'd I Say")! If you weren't already into Elvis, the likes of "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello" wasn't going to win any converts. The only place it works is with the lovely B-side to Kissin' Cousins," "It Hurts Me," & not much else. Worst part: They somehow left off "Viva Las Vegas," which wouldn't be issued on an album for another 3 years.

Speedway [RCA, 1968] **

Finally, somebody upstairs at RCA got the memo--Elvis's soundtracks were delivering diminishing returns because (Spinout notwithstanding) they SUCKED! Speedway did so poorly at the box office & the LP did so poorly on the charts (#82 without anything close to a bullet) that it would be his last narrative picture soundtrack, & would remain out-of-print for decades. With a mediocre lead single ("Your Time Hasn't Come Yet Baby") & a flip that should've been the A-side ("Let Yourself Go," the best thing on the album), there was little else to keep one's attention: A throwaway duet with Nancy Sinatra ("There Ain't Nothing Like A Song"), a stupid lullaby ("Five Sleepy Heads"), & one last entry for the Bad Elvis canon ("He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad"). In other words, an appropriately unworthy end to an unworthy era.

Singer Presents Elvis Singing Flaming Star & Others [RCA Camden, 1968] *1/2

Someone at RCA noticed that 1961's "Flaming Star" had never been issued on an LP & clearly couldn't get any sleep about it. So what to do? Fill it out with 8 old & new unreleased tracks & release it as an exclusive through the Singer Sewing Machine Company to help promote the comeback special they were bankrolling the following month. (It would receive a wide release in 1969 as the first issue of the RCA Camden budget label.) Despite a few recent songs that showed Elvis warming up to the newer material (such as his cover of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," the only Elvis song to use the word "Vietnam"), it was basically a waste except for "Tiger Man," culled from the yet-to-be-aired sit-down concerts of The Comeback Special. Somehow, it was the first live performance of Elvis that RCA ever released.

Elvis: NBC-TV Special [RCA, 1968] *****

The Promise is fulfilled. On December 3, 1968, Elvis Presley looked into television screens across the country & sneered, "If you're looking for trouble--you've come to the right place." He then cut into his recent single "Guitar Man" & sang with all the fervor of a man who's entire career depended on it. Because, in no small way, it did. The Singer Christmas Special (soon to be known as "The '68 Comeback Special"), found Elvis in top form & brought him roaring back to the consciousness of rock music. Never had a full special featured only one performer, but Elvis used his time well. He performed before a live audience for the first time in 7 years, ripping through his early hits. He sang a medley of gospel songs backed by a full choir. & best of all, he was reunited with his old bandmates for a laid-back sit-down concert that provided the basis for MTV Unplugged a generation later. It was in this environment that Elvis truly reclaimed his crown. He tore into "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," jammed "Baby What Do You Want Me To Do," & brought a truly menacing power to "One Night." & it all ended on the perfect note, the inspiring "If I Can Dream" (inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), which may just be Elvis's greatest vocal performance. Those who heard it made no mistake--here was The King, back to reclaim his crown.

From Elvis In Memphis [RCA, 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. For the first time in years, he was choosing the material himself & working with a producer who wasn't afraid to challenge him if he missed a note or went off-key. 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 funk 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 & the loose jam of "I'll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Arms)" (recorded around 3:00 AM at the end of a long session), showed Elvis in magical form, driving the song back into another soaring bridge. But best of all was "Long Black Limousine," which for my money is Elvis' greatest recording, period. Like "Mystery Train," it was about a dead girl in a black vehicle, but was a tale of love & fame & regret that found Elvis turning the tables around to himself & rewriting his own history. Everything ended with his first Top 10 Hit in 5 years, the classic "In The Ghetto." Along the way, there is pop, rock, blues, & country, & much, much more. Along with the Sun recordings & early RCA sessions, this is as good as Elvis gets--which is to say, this is as good as American music gets.

From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis [RCA, 1969] ****

Elvis's first 2-record set (although it would soon be divided into 2 different albums)! The first marks Elvis's triumphant return to Las Vegas after bombing there over a decade earlier. While some rank it among his finest live work, I don't hear it, despite a very engaged performance featuring lovely surprises like "My Babe." At any rate, the original versions of all the songs are vastly superior, & as a live document, it has long been eclipsed by the likes of On Stage & Aloha From Hawaii. The better disc is the second one, which collects leftover tracks from the From Elvis In Memphis sessions. "Inherit The Wind" & "Without Love (There Is Nothing)" hold their own with anything on the earlier album, while the B-side "You'll Think Of Me" features one of the pretties melodies Elvis would ever sing. But best of all is a sprawling take on "Stranger In My Own Hometown," which told the story of Elvis's comeback best of all.

The 1970s.

Let's Be Friends [RCA Camden, 1970] *

Elvis's first release of the new decade was a budget-issue bunt. Much like the Flaming Star album, it was a mix of leftover music, mostly originating from his final feature films that didn't have their own releases--hence the 2 title tracks for Stay Away Joe & Change Of Habit, plus an additional song from each, the lovely "Let's Forget About The Stars" & the awful "Have A Happy," respectively. Other than that, there is a leftover track from the From Elvis In Memphis sessions (a rare bum track from those recordings, "I'll Be There") & an 8-year-old song called "Mama" that runs for an entire minute. "Change Of Habit" is a solid, if dated, tune, but it's hardly worth the price of admission, budget issue or no budget issue.

On Stage [RCA, 1970] ****

Elvis' first real album of the '70s was tellingly a live album. Elvis didn't release a live album until 1969 (the Vegas half of the From Memphis To Vegas set), but would release nearly 1 a year for the rest of his life. On Stage is one of the best, capturing him at the top of his late-period game before his live shows had devolved into one long empty gesture, broken up by greatest-hits medleys. "The Wonder Of You" was a worthy single (& one of his last US Top 10 Hits), showing a commitment to the material that would soon wane in a matter of months. Elsewhere, "See See Rider" & "Polk Salad Annie" make their debut as live set pieces--both often performed, but each never bettered than they appear here. Some of the music, like his versions of "Sweet Caroline" & "Yesterday" haven't aged particularly well, but a rollicking take on the country weeper "Release Me" & a stirring finale of "Let It Be Me" more than makes up for them. All this, & "Walk A Mile In My Shoes," which plays like a memoir at the dawn of his final decade.

Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits, Volume 1 [RCA, 1970] ****1/2

Rock music's first legend releases rock music's first serious boxed set collection, some 50 tracks spread generously across 4 LPs. Nearly all of the essential hits are here--"Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," "Stuck On You," "It's Now Or Never," "Are You Lonesome Tonight," "Can't Help Falling In Love," "Good Luck Charm," "Return To Sender," "Crying In The Chapel," & "In The Ghetto," among countless others, 4 of which--"Viva Las Vegas," "Suspicious Minds," "Don't Cry Daddy," & "Kentucky Rain"--make their LP debut here. Docked 1/2 a star for somehow omitting the smash hits "One Night" & "Marie's The Name (Of His Latest Flame)."

Almost In Love [RCA Camden, 1970] *** 

A budget-line issue that included previously issued music that had (mostly) only been available on singles. Comprised of movie music & B-sides, it serves as an alternative history of Elvis's comeback era. Once you get past the Burt Bacharach wanna-be "Almost In Love" opener, it's all pretty good & pretty interesting: Elvis's sole psychedelic cut "Edge Of Reality," the hard-rocking "Little Less Conversation" & "Rubberneckin'" (both of which were so hot they became released as remixes in the new millennium), & the fine Top 40 singles "Clean Up Your Own Back Yard" & "U.S. Male," the former of which has been unfairly ostracized as a "movie track" in the comeback story.

Elvis' Christmas Album [Reissue] [RCA Camden, 1970] ****

The best-selling album of Elvis's career. With Elvis's original Christmas album out of print, RCA put out this budget edition in its place. Whereas the original had 8 Christmas songs along with the 4 tracks from his gospel EP Peace In The Valley, this reissue scrapped the latter & replaced them with the 1966 stand-alone single "If Every Day Was Like Christmas" & the family-oriented 1970 B-side "Mama Liked The Roses." The result is a shorter but more focused Christmas album. It was also a huge seller--this is the edition that has become a rare Diamond-level Platinum seller with over 10 million units moved. When most people think of "Elvis's Christmas Album," it's this one--with "Blue Christmas" moved up to the opening track"--that they're thinking of.

Elvis: That's The Way It Is [RCA, 1970] *****

The quintessential Elvis album of the decade. Connected with the That's The Way It Is film, it's not exactly a soundtrack, but features some of the same songs. More importantly, it inaugurates his 70's Vegas period, long before it would descend into drugs & 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" & the affecting "20 Days & 20 Nights" & "How The Web Was Woven." About half of the album is live, including a few songs that would have been better served in the studio versions released as singles ("Patch It Up" & "I've Lost You"). As the founding Vegas document, this album also marks the beginning of the Elvis schmaltz, in the over-the-top live renditions of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" & "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Many swear by its opening cut, the live "I Just Can't Help Believin'," but for me, the real treasure is in the less-heralded studio recordings like the sublime "Mary In The Morning." Either way, you get 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.

Elvis Country: I'm 10,000 Years Old [RCA, 1971] ****

This would be Elvis's finest album of the decade, but unfortunately it's undone by it's attempt to be a "concept album." The 12 songs are linked by snippets of the traditional "I Was Born 10 Thousand Years Ago" such that no song ends without fading into at least a few seconds of that song. As a result, no song begins or ends cleanly. It's too bad, because this contains some amazing material: The slow, brooding build of "Tomorrow Never Comes," the down-home stomp of "Little Cabin Home On The Hill," the transcendent "Funny How Time Slips Away," the searing "I Really Don't Want to Know." Along the way, there's hillbilly standards, rockabilly rave-ups, Nashville sound pop, & crooning weepers, in covers that run the gamut from Willie Nelson to Anne Murray to Bill Monroe to Jerry Lee Lewis. But best of all is an epic version of Bob Wills' "Faded Love," which is the great lost Elvis classic of the decade. Once you hear it, you will forget anyone else ever cut it. It's driving, passionate, & thrilling--in other words, just like the rest of this album--& country music overall--at its best. & if you can find the songs reissued outside of this album without "I Was Born 10 Thousand Years Ago" weaving in & out--as they all were on the Essential 70's Masters: Walk A Mile In My Shoes & should've been but WEREN'T on the album's Legacy double-disc reissue--it'll sound even better.

You'll Never Walk Alone [RCA Camden, 1971] ***

A budget issue of gospel songs that collected all of Elvis's sacred music that hadn't appeared yet on an LP--a single ("You'll Never Walk Alone"/"We Call On Him"), an EP track ("Sing You Children"), & the entire Peace In The Valley EP (which had been issued on the then-out-of-print Elvis' Christmas Album)--along with 2 new songs, the excellent "Who Am I" from the From Elvis In Memphis sessions, & the upbeat movie track "Let Us Pray." Although it's a mish-mosh of time periods, it holds together well, & runs for nearly a half hour even though it only has 9 songs. Kept long in print, it became one of Elvis's best-sellers of the decade, eventually going triple Platinum.

Love Letters From Elvis [RCA, 1971] **

There were 2 kind of Elvis albums that RCA released in the 1970s. The first was the normal cohesive album of material, like That's The Way It Is or Elvis Country. The other was leftovers from the more coherent albums' sessions, buttressed with other leftover songs or singles, some of which were 3 or 4 years old. Love Letters From Elvis is the first of these latter albums, all of which sound like the leftovers that they are. There are some decent rockers ("Cindy Cindy"), some horrible schmaltz ("This Is Our Dance"), & some recent single sides (such as "Life," the strangest A-side Elvis released in the decade). The bad stuff is worth sitting through to get to "It Ain't No Big Thing (But It's Growing)," an outtake from Elvis Country that features a startlingly realized vocal. "You're losing interest, in me," Elvis sings, before offhandedly smacking the inside of his mouth as though from boredom. "It ain't no big thing..." Was Elvis singing to a girl, his audience, or himself?

C'mon Everybody [RCA Camden, 1971] *1/2

A budget album collecting half of the material that had only been previously available on Elvis's '60s movies EPs (the songs from Follow That Dream, Kid Galahad, Viva Las Vegas, & Easy Come, Easy Go). The other half would be collected on I Got Lucky. Of the 2 sets, this is easily the better one, containing the better & more recognizable songs--namely, "Follow That Dream" & "King Of The Whole Wide World." Still, nothing you should feel the need to run out & buy.

The Other Sides: Worldwide Gold Award Hits, Vol. 2 [RCA 1971] ***

A sequel to the previous year's trailblazing boxed set, collecting B-sides, plus some recent hits ("The Wonder Of You," "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," "I've Lost You," "I Really Don't Want To Know"), & a few songs that were astonishingly left off the first set ("Love Me," "One Night," "I Need Your Love Tonight," "(Marie's The Name Of) His Latest Flame"). The problem is that, unlike the first volume, for every great B-side ("My Baby Left Me"), there's a clunker ("Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello"). Furthermore, the original version throws all chronology out the window, leading to a confounding listening experience that lacks the shape of its companion volume. The more recent CD reissues have corrected this, but as excellent as some of this music is, it's hard to hear it as anything but what it is--Elvis's Gold Award Hits...Part 2.

I Got Lucky [RCA Camden, 1971] *

The companion volume to C'mon Everybody collecting the remainder of the Follow That Dream, Kid Galahad, Viva Las Vegas, & Easy Come, Easy Go EPs. Only the best song on the album is the only one not to come from these EPs. Since Easy Come, Easy Go's religious "Sing You Children Sing" was already issued on You'll Never Walk Alone, it is replaced by the delightful B-side "Fools Fall In Love," which blows away the rest of this album. So what are we left with? As the more famous songs already included C'mon Everybody, we get instantly-forgettable tracks like "What A Wonderful Life," "Riding The Rainbow," & "Love Machine." Notable for being the only place where you could get "Yoga Is As Yoga Does" for years, my pick for Elvis's worst song.

Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas [RCA, 1971] ***1/2

Considering RCA's ability to take any mildly popular part of Elvis & ram it into the ground, it's shocking that he didn't get around to recording a follow-up Christmas album until over a decade after the classic Elvis' Christmas Album. This is a very good & rewarding album too, perhaps the most underrated of his career. "O Come All Ye Faithful" is at once holy & funky, "The First Noel" is beautiful, "Winter Wonderland" closes with a ridiculous Elvis vamp. The order of "It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)," "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day," & "If I Get Home On Christmas Day" is either a half-baked attempted a concept album or just really lazy programming. Either way, the music is fully realized & the melodies are solid. But it's the drawn-out 6 minutes of dirty blues, "Merry Christmas Baby," that gets all of the attention, proving that, even in the gloss of the '70s, Elvis could kick out some hard blues when he still felt inspired--even in the middle of a Christmas album.

Elvis Now [RCA, 1972] **

A collection of good-to-fair recent recordings, filled out with a few leftovers (despite the title). Among the former are both sides of the single "Until It's Time For You To Go" & "We Can Make The Morning," religious songs "Miracle Of The Rosary" & "Put Your Hand In The Hand," & covers of "Early Mornin' Rain" & "Fools Rush In"; among the latter are his embarrassing reading of "Hey Jude" (one of his very worst recordings, despite originating from the From Elvis In Memphis sessions) & "I Was Born About 10 Thousand Years Ago" (A.K.A. That Song That Plays Throughout Elvis Country). All put together, it was Elvis Presley, MOR.

He Touched Me [RCA, 1972] ***1/2

Elvis's third & final gospel LP of his lifetime, & the most contemporary of the 3. Here one could find the passion conspicuously missing from the likes of Love Letters From Elvis & Elvis Now, as songs here featured Elvis reaching deep into his soul to deliver fine sacred performances. He Touched Me provided a wide variety of gospel music as Elvis Country had done for country music, from the very old (the old hymn "Amazing Grace") to the very modern (the rocking "Seeing Is Believing"); from the very produced (the stunning title track) to the very loose (The Dixie Hummingbirds-style "Bosom Of Abraham"). The finale, "Reach Out To Jesus," ended the album on a high note with one of the finest religious performances Elvis ever recorded. He Touched Me would become one of Elvis's few Platinum albums of the decade, as well as what earned him his second Grammy.

Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden [RCA, 1972] ***

Elvis's grand return to New York City is apparently one of rock's Ya-Had-To-Be-There moments. Despite overwhelming praise from the media & rave reviews from a virtual who's who of rock royalty in attendance, this is a perfectly-fine-if-not-great live album, some 20 tracks crammed onto a single LP. What we do get is the first Elvis record to use his now-iconic "Introduction: Also Sprach Zarathustra" 2001: A Space Odyssey theme music, as well as a general sense of what Elvis sounded like on a good night, running through the hits. The non-hit new tracks are interesting--the tongue-in-cheek "Never Been To Spain," the epic "Impossible Dream," & the heartfelt "For The Good Times"--& speak to the never-completed Standing Room Only LP that would've collected this music along with the soon-to-be released "Burning Love." But alas, like so much of Elvis, it was not meant to be.

Elvis Sings Hits From His Movies, Volume 1 [RCA Camden, 1972] *

A completely pointless collection. Despite its title, no real hits--of the few songs on here that were actually issued as singles, none made higher than #38 on the pop charts--& the remaining album tracks contained "Confidence" & "Old MacDonald," 2 of the worst songs he ever recorded. It says something when the 2 best songs of the lot--"Guitar Man" & "Big Boss Man''--technically weren't even movie songs, they were non-movie bonus tracks used to fill up a movie album.

Aloha From Hawaii [RCA, 1973] ****

The first television special to be broadcast around-the-world, Aloha From Hawaii found Elvis in top form & resulted in what is easily his finest live album. Despite promising to deliver all the old hits (& reviewers who seem to think he does), outside of some raw takes on "Blue Suede Shoes," "Hound Dog," "Love Me," "Big Hunk O' Love," "Suspicious Minds," & "Can't Help Falling In Love"--by my count, roughly 1 quarter of the double-LP set--most of the concert is deeper cuts & newer songs. This is by no means a bad thing. He takes on classic R&B ("See See Rider"), The Beatles ("Something"), & God ("You Gave Me A Mountain"), before scoring a hit with the sexiest thing James Taylor ever wrote ("Steamroller Blues"). But most surprising is Elvis's introduction of the saddest song he's ever heard, which turns out to be a lovely reading of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." & then, not missing a beat, he kicks it into a reeling "I Can't Stop Loving You." With 4 years left to go, this was his career's worthy final milestone.

Burning Love & Hits From His Movies, Volume 2 [RCA Camden, 1972] *

You really have to hand it to the Colonel--he never missed a trick. When "Burning Love" became a smash hit but there wasn't an album ready to go with it, he released this, bragging that it was the first time that a major rock single was issued on a budget collection. As such, it is made with seeming contempt & a sick pleasure for Elvis's foreign language songs (though not even this is consistent); none of these songs were hits, let alone even issued as singles. It is rather a new single sitting on a pile of 5- to 10-year-old leftovers that sound like they were assembled at random by a blind guy. Still, powered by "Burning Love" it sold--eventually going double Platinum--which is probably all the Colonel really cared about all along.

Separate Ways [RCA Camden, 1973] *

Another hit single (this time "Separate Ways" backed by "Always On My Mind"), another album of old tracks assembled at random to go with it. At least this time any pretense of "hits" was dropped, as the album now dips into the random non-hit regular album tracks instead of random non-hit movie album tracks. If only the label had waited a minute to complete the abandoned Standing Room Only album, which would have collected the "Burning Love" & "Separate Ways" single with a bunch of other contemporary new live & studio material, all of which was far better than this, if not a late-period Elvis classic in & of itself.

Elvis [Fool] [RCA, 1973] *

Despite the twin peaks of his Madison Square Garden concert in 1972 & his Aloha From Hawaii concert in 1973--not to mention the huge hit "Burning Love" in between--Elvis didn't seem very interested in going into the recording studio to do anything to capitalize on his recent successes. As a result, we get the lazily-titled album Elvis--generally referred to as "Fool" (after its first cut) to differentiate from his second LP in 1956. It is an appropriate title. Although "Fool" was the most recent song on the album, it was already well over a year old. The other "recent" songs--"Where Do I Go From Here," "Love Me The Life I Lead," & "It's Impossible"--add nothing to the Elvis canon but ill-conceived syrupy schmaltz. What's left is "Fool," an unfinished B-side that aims to be so much more than it is, a sentimental "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen," & a jam on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's All Right," which would've been much better if Elvis had bothered to learn the words. Besides that, there's not much else.

Raised On Rock [RCA, 1973] *

Elvis's worst studio album. Despite being recorded at Stax (mostly), Raised On Rock finds Elvis at an artistic low. Quite simply, nothing on the album works. The title track (& lead single) is one of the strangest things he ever cut, as it told the story of a young kid growing up on rock music (including "Hound Dog"), despite the fact that Elvis was already a grown-up creating this music when the singer was young. It's like John Lennon singing a song about growing up listening to Revolver. Everything else sounds flat, & indeed, Elvis had a heard time getting into these sessions, with at least some of the music being recorded separately without him there live. The disconnect can be felt in "Find Out What's Happening" & "Girl Of Mine," while "Three Corn Patches" was the last & least Leiber & Stoller song Elvis ever cut. Only the songs Elvis recorded on his own--"Are You Sincere" & "I Miss You"--begin to work, but they're not enough to carry the LP.

Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 1 [RCA, 1974] ****

A woefully long out-of-print compilation that trailblazed the concept of making a career review by mixing hits with previously unreleased material. Legendary rock critic Greil Marcus has championed this record, claiming it is the only single place where you can find the entire arc of Elvis's career: The early Sun material ("That's All Right"), the breakout hits ("Heartbreak Hotel, "Don't Be Cruel"), the post-Army caricatured sound ("(Now & Then There's) A Fool Suck As I"), the Hollywood junk ("Tonight's So Right For Love"), before ending with his concert closer, "Can't Help Falling In Love. Scattered throughout are 3 blazing tracks from "The '68 Comeback Special" "sit-down" concert, with "Trying To Get To You" stealing the show. As you have no doubt already noted, the '70s were a bad time for Elvis compilations; consider this one of the rare exceptions.

Good Times [RCA, 1974] ***

The start of Elvis's classic (& underrated) late period. Elvis returns to Stax Studio & gets it right (mostly), from the stunning ballad "Loving You" to the appropriately over-the-top "My Boy" (one of his final Top 20 pop hits). The lead single, "I've Got A Thing About You Baby" always sounded to me like a rewrite of "Yoga Is As Yoga Does," the latter of which is easily Elvis's worst song; meanwhile it's flipside, "Take Good Care Of Her," is too maudlin to land. But the hot religious funk of "I Got A Feelin' In My Body" & the revival tent-celebrating "Talk About The Good Times" work well, as does the closing ballad "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues." Overall, Good Times signals a shift in Elvis's album-making--his final LPs would be largely comprised of country music, with a few rockers, a gospel song or 2, & an occasional oldie thrown in for good measure. As such, it chronicles Elvis's range (as well as just how much he felt at home with country), & works as a solid template for the twilight of his career.

Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis [RCA, 1974] **

Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis was Elvis's 5th live album in 6 years, & the first not to build on the momentum of the series (Vegas! Madison Square Garden! Broadcast Around The World!), although it tried by being his live return to Memphis. Most hold that his rehearsal concerts from a few nights earlier top this one, & whether that's true or not, this is his weakest live album. The embarrassing stage banter in the first half alone should've automatically disqualified it from being release (but alas, embarrassing stage banter would soon prove to be an entity worthy in & of itself, as evidenced by the next release...). That's not to say it doesn't have its high points. He brings back his old Sun recording "Trying To Get To You" & early RCA sides "My Baby Left Me" & "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," cuts a version of Olivia Newton-John's "Let Me Be There" that rocks so hard it would get revived to his final LP, & delivers a version of "How Great Thou Art" that would earn him his third & final competitive Grammy of his lifetime. Still, the album is more sloppy than exciting, & speaks more to the decline in quality that was taking place at the time. Is that why this was the only album released in his lifetime not to feature his face on the cover?

Having Fun With Elvis On Stage [RCA, 1974] *
Problem: The Colonel wants more money, but he can't get 100% profit on anything with music on it. Solution: He sidesteps this technicality by piecing together snippets of Elvis talking between his songs, to be hawked at concerts like snake oil. The result is "A TALKING ONLY ALBUM" that is Elvis's (if not rock music's) worst album ever created. Oddly, at a running time of well over 40 minutes, it was longer than most of the other records Elvis released in this period. Still, the length only makes it that much more unbearable, even as a curiosity. But thanks to the magic of the Internet & the sick minds at Mental Floss, we don't have to. Check out their definitive play-by-play chronicle here. Long out-of-print, & for good reason.

Promised Land [RCA, 1975] ****

Elvis's last great studio album. The title track (& lead single) was his last truly classic recording, but it's just the tip of iceberg. "There's A Honky Tonk Angel (Who'll Take Me Back In)" is one his finest country ballads, "Help Me" is one of his best mainstream religious songs, "Love Song Of The Year" is among his best later-period pop songs. For the final time, an entire album of Elvis's congeals, mixing the rock, pop, country, & religious, with performances that hold up to repeated listenings. "Your Love's Been A Long Time Coming" is a rollicking ode to a lover, while the closer "You Asked Me To" is a nice slice of down-home honky-tonk. Also featuring the funky exercise in paranoia, "If You Talk In Your Sleep," one of his final Top 20 pop hits. A rare intersection of decent material & commitment on Elvis's part in the '70s recording studio.

Pure Gold [RCA, 1975] **

Yet another strange budget-priced collection, this time issued by the main RCA label as part of their then-current "Pure Gold" series; yet another Elvis album with a live picture of him in front of a black cover. The concept of this one is irresistible--10 tracks of Elvis, pure gold--but once again, it is a flawed execution. A little over half is right-on--"Kentucky Rain," "Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," "In The Ghetto," "Love Me Tender"--the remainder is odd (if fine) album cut choices, as well as the recent recording "It's Impossible" (which would've sounded more at home on the lost Standing Room Only album), perhaps a comment on the album itself: How does one choose only 10 songs of Elvis's pure gold? It's impossible. Still, the price was right & the concept was close enough, & it went on to become double-Platinum.

Elvis Today [RCA, 1975] ***

The underrated follow-up to Promised Land, with more than a few great songs. The lead single "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" was one of Elvis's last great revival rockers & his version of Faye Adams' 1952 "Shake A Hand" is one of his finest oldies covers. "Pieces Of My Life" is a decent country weeper & "Bringin' It Back" is an underrated rocker, while his version of "I Can Help" is one of most-realized late-period performances (complete with the lyric change inviting listeners to "Have a laugh on me"). Only the maudlin "& I Love You So" & the sexist "A Woman Without Love" keep this from being a great album (& I even don't mind the gusto that Elvis throws into The Pointer Sisters' "Fairytale," a song he always felt like he could relate to). As it is, it's a minor classic in the Elvis canon. 

Double Dynamite! [Pickwick, 1975] *

In 1975, the budget label Pickwick acquired the rights to RCA's budget label Camden, including that label's 9 budget Elvis albums. Apparently to celebrate, Pickwick wasted no time & issued this double-album set of the best of these budget albums, which as notes, makes this a compilation of a compilation. (Its 18 tracks also run 46 minutes, meaning that it could also have been put on a single LP.) As such, there's a surprising amount of classics--"Burning Love," "Follow That Dream," "Rubberneckin'," "Big Boss Man"--if none of it exactly top-shelf. Still, with dreary music like "Old Shep" & "Mama" thrown in too, it ultimately sounds a pointless as you think such a "collection of a collection" would. Docked to 1 star based on concept (or lack thereof) alone.

Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 2 [RCA, 1976] ***

Another mix of hits-&-history, notable for being the first time that Elvis's official first professional recording, "Harbor Lights," was issued. This alone was worth the price of admission, & it more than cancelled out the other "new" song on the album, something called "Cane & A High Starched Collar" from the film Flaming Star. For the rest, there were some hits, both in familiar form ("Jailhouse Rock") & alternate takes ("I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"), but it was "The '68 Comeback Special" sit-down songs that again stole the show ("Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do"). With the latter followed by "How Great Thou Art" & "If I Can Dream," you had a perfect ending, even if the rest was less than perfect.

The Sun Sessions [RCA, 1975] *****

The final classic album released in Elvis's lifetime. 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 an impressive #11 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All-Time despite being out of print for a generation. Although it has since been usurped by the Sunrise double compilation, The Sun Sessions is still the sentimental favorite. It features all 10 of his epic Sun sides, the 5 Sun recordings that were snuck onto Elvis's debut album, & an alternate take (the first of dozens that would crop up over the years). There's nothing to fault with the music, although it's too bad they didn't also put on "Harbor Lights," "Tomorrow Night," the slow version of "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," & "When It Rains It Really Pours" to round it out to an even 20 songs that contain every master Elvis cut at the label. This, with a minor quibble about the running order (why do "Good Rockin' Tonight" & "Baby, Let's Play House" appear after their respective B-sides "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine" & "I'm Left, You're Right She's Gone"?), is the closest thing I have to say in terms of criticism, except for 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," & the rest, who cares, as long as it's here to stay.

From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee [RCA, 1976] **

By the end, Elvis was so disinterested RCA literally set up a recording studio in the basement of Graceland so that all he had to do was go downstairs to make a new record. Elvis usually opted to stay in his bedroom. This, his final full studio album, was the fruit of the labor, or lack thereof. Oddly featuring a cover of him onstage with the misleading "Recorded Live" under the title, it was a weird package (especially when you consider his last live album, Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis, featured the front of Graceland). Aside from the stellar single "Hurt," a revival that found Elvis mixing oldies with Pavarotti, backed by "For The Heart," a great rocker from the same guy who wrote "Burning Love," there is little here of any lasting quality. Just check out the epically wrong take on "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" that reinvents it as an exercise in soft funk or "Last Farewell," a fascinatingly bad marriage of '70s production values with a wanna-be folk sea shanty. A rare place the promise is kept though, is Elvis's stark reading of "Danny Boy," which finds him in beautiful & heartfelt late-period form.

Frankie & Johnny [Reissue] [Pickwick, 1976] *

For their second compilation after acquiring the rights to Elvis's music, the budget label Pickwick made the bizarre choice to reissue Frankie & Johnny, throwing a recent picture of Elvis on the cover & shaving it down from 12 to 9 tracks. Spoiler alert: Even with 3 of the worst songs missing ("Chesay," "Look Out Broadway," & "Everybody Come Aboard"), it still sucks.

Welcome To My World [RCA, 1977] **

The final compilation to be released in Elvis's lifetime, Welcome To My World was a collection of his country material, spanning 3 decades, with one previously unreleased track--a version of "I Can't Stop Loving You" that was recorded at Elvis's afternoon concert at Madison Square Garden--that closed the album. While somewhat uneven, it's nice to hear the live versions his country songs (the thrilling "Release Me," from 1970; the lovely "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," from 1973) alongside his studio work (the sublime "Gentle On My Mind" from 1969). Later collections would do an even better, more thorough job blending the 2, but this makes an interesting, if unessential, starting point.

Moody Blue [RCA, 1977] ***1/2

Elvis's final (mostly) studio album. Released 1 month before his death, Moody Blue was an average-turned-huge seller when the news of Elvis's demise broke. It was an interesting final statement. Opening with an operatic live version of "Unchained Melody" that featured Elvis on piano, he does a solid reading of Oliva Newton-John's "If You Love Me (Let Me Know)," mugs his way through & "Little Darlin'," before getting to the first studio cut, the country weeper "He'll Have To Go." To close out the first side is another Oliva Newton-John song, "Let Me Be There," lifted from Live On Stage In Memphis to fill out this record. The second side comprises his final studio recordings: The decent but unworthy final hit, "Way Down," & it's lovely B-side, a version of Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love." The title track is a solid mainstream country rocker & its flip, a cover of George Jones' "She Still Thinks I Care" gets a nice treatment. But most interesting of all, at least to my ears, is the closer, "It's Easy For You," in which Elvis sings about throwing it all away. Part fine performance, part pop machine product, part throwaway joke, Moody Blue was a fitting close to a uneven decade.

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& that's the complete list of albums released during Elvis's lifetime. That said, there were a few songs that fell through the cracks, which are not represented in the above LPs:

"Don't Leave Me Now" (version from the Jailhouse Rock EP, 1957)
"Come What May" (single B-side to "Love Letters," 1966)
"Hi-Heeled Sneakers" (single B-side to "Guitar Man," 1968)
"Rags To Riches" (single A-side, 1971)
"I'm Leavin'" (single A-side, 1971)
"Where Did They Go Lord" (B-side to "Rags To Riches," 1971)
"It's Only Love" (single A-side, 1972)
"Sound Of Your Cry" (B-side to "It's Only Love", 1971)
"The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face" (B-side to "An American Trilogy, 1972)

Of these, only "Don't Leave Me Now," "Hi-Heeled Sneakers," & "I'm Leavin'" are truly essential & worth seeking out.

All have been subsequently released & are best heard on their respective "Essential Masters" decade boxed sets.

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As for the albums, of the 72 released in Elvis's lifetime, it appears that we are left with 10 that are truly essential, which I've ranked from most to least essential, just for you:

1. Elvis' Golden Records [1958] *****
2. The Sun Sessions [1976] *****
3. From Elvis In Memphis [1969] *****
4. Elvis Presley [1956] *****
5. Elvis: NBC-TV Special [1968] *****
6. Elvis Is Back! [1960] *****
7. Elvis [1956] *****
8. Elvis: That's The Way It Is [1970] *****
9. Elvis' Christmas Album [1957] *****
10. His Hand In Mine [1960] *****

All are best heard on modern single-disc reissues that collect the surrounding hit singles that were usually left off the LPs.

Now you know where to start. But if you're anything like me, the real trick is figuring out where to end.