Since debuting as the hyperliterate, bespectacled nerd prince of the new wave era on 1977’s My Aim Is True, British singer/songwriter Declan MacManus has worn many musical guises, but always under his gaudy stage name Elvis Costello. Over half of his albums have been with the core backing trio of pianist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Bruce Thomas as The Attractions, or later as The Imposters with Davey Faragher on bass. But Costello’s omnivorous discography has also included a series of albums of rootsy Americana with producer T Bone Burnett, and collaborative projects with The Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, and even The Roots.
At 67 years old, Elvis Costello is still writing songs at a steady clip, and this month he released The Boy Named If, a lively concept album with The Imposters that resembles his ‘70s work more than anything he’s made in years. Setting aside compilations, live albums, and soundtrack work, there are about 31 studio albums in Costello’s dense, intimidating discography. So if you don’t know where to start, where to go next, or where to pick up from his early classics, we’ve ranked them all, including The Boy Named If.
31. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Momofuku (2008)
Elvis Costello named his 2008 album after Top Ramen founder Momofuku Ando, as a clever allusion to how quickly the album was cooked up. But Costello has thrown together some of his masterpieces at a breakneck pace, so it’s not fair to blame the quality of Momofuku on the speed at which it was created. It’s just not one of his better attempts at roots rock, although Dave Scher’s pedal steel on the opening track “No Hiding Place” is gorgeous. It’s a blast to hear Costello call out to his band in real-time, James Brown-style, to cue the bridge on “Flutter and Wow.” Momofuku was released shortly before my wedding, and was in my iPod rotation on a lovely and memorable honeymoon. However, I still find it hard to recall most of these songs beyond the singularly irritating “Mr. Feathers.”
30. Elvis Costello – Kojak Variety (1995)
Few songwriters as prolific as Elvis Costello have been equally voracious in recording cover songs. But Costello has only recorded two full-on covers albums. While 1981’s Almost Blue was a strong artistic statement, a full-on country album from an artist who was known for making new wave, 1995’s Kojak Variety suffers from a relative lack of identity. It’s Costello running through some of his favorites by American songwriters – plus one Kinks song – with the help of a few legendary session players, including Elvis Presley sidemen James Burton and Jerry Scheff. There are interesting curatorial moments – when Costello covers fellow songwriting giant Bob Dylan, he goes for an expressive rendition of relative obscurity, “I Threw It All Away” from Nashville Skyline. But Kojak Variety is an enjoyably inessential record that he could’ve made, more or less, at any other point in his career.
29. Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello – For The Stars (2001)
For Costello fans who treat his flirtations with classical music and chamber pop with suspicion, the Edison Award-winning For The Stars is probably the easiest album to skip. His co-star, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, sings most of the songs. It’s an eclectic mix of new Costello compositions, songs that had appeared on his other albums, and covers of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Tom Waits. Costello, leading the instrumental ensemble with Steve Nieve, only sings on a third of the 18 tracks, often only backing vocals.
28. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
On Elvis Costello’s ninth album in eight years, he was burnt out and depleted. Having given the album the most self-pitying title in his discography, Costello decided to retire and disband The Attractions. It didn’t last, of course – his retirement was even shorter than Jay-Z’s. The polished Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley production that had brought Costello renewed commercial success on Punch the Clock wilted with this more labored material. While the album is often more pleasant than its reputation suggests, Goodbye Cruel World doesn’t have enough personality to attract even the cult following that sometimes accompanies a great artist’s most famous failure.
27. Elvis Costello – Mighty Like A Rose (1991)
Elvis Costello strode into the ‘90s doing what had worked for him at the end of the ‘80s. Following his comeback album, Spike, with a similar hodgepodge of styles and collaborators, Mighty Like A Rose once again includes a couple of melodic tunes co-written with Paul McCartney and clattering Tom Waits-style tracks with Waits sideman Marc Ribot. “The Other Side of Summer,” sort of a seedy satirical version of a Beach Boys song, was Costello’s unlikely second No. 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. “The good songs are overblown tragedies, the bad ones overblown trifles,” Robert Christgau wrote of the album.
26. Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)
Of the three acoustic Elvis Costello albums produced by T Bone Burnett, this one is the weakest. But Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, oddly Costello’s highest-charting album in the U.S. since 1980, reignited his chemistry with Burnett. There’s a cozy warmth to the set, which features Emmylou Harris on backing harmonies. Costello has seldom repeated songs on multiple studio albums, but the All This Useless Beauty rocker “Complicated Shadows,” originally written with Johnny Cash in mind, is revisited with fiddle and mandolin on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
25. Elvis Costello – Il Sogno (2004)
Elvis Costello has released two albums in one year several times, but only once did he release two albums in one day. The albums that arrived on September 21, 2004 were polar opposites: Lost Highway released The Delivery Man, a rustic set of songs with The Imposters, while Deutsche Grammophon released Il Sogno, a ballet score he composed for the London Symphony Orchestra. Venturing even further into serious classical territory than The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello gives the LSO’s violins some sweetly sentimental melodies to play. But Il Sogno is at its most memorable when Costello’s rock’n’roll instincts shine through with the jumpy percussion on “Oberon and Titania” or John Harle’s tart saxophone solo on “Tormentress.”
24. Elvis Costello – North (2003)
Although Elvis Costello had already ventured far outside of rock by 2003, North prompted some of the sharpest backlash of his career. He released a well-received guitar-driven album a year earlier with When I Was Cruel, and then a lot happened in the space of a year: the end of his marriage to Cait O’Riordan, his union with Diana Krall, and an album reflecting on both events. It feels a bit on-the-nose that Costello would marry a famous Canadian jazz pianist and then make an album of jazzy piano ballads entitled North. Handling all the keys himself, he would be the first to admit that his playing lacks the beauty and color Steve Nieve usually brings to his songs. “Costello has eschewed all sense of melody or humor in favor of rambling, mock-jazz noodling,” wrote Hartley Goldstein in the Pitchfork review. Still, North is better than anyone wanted to admit at the time, at times achieving the hushed eloquence of Painted From Memory. It feels like a fairly immediate and vulnerable document of a major turning point in the songwriter’s life, the beginning of a relationship that seemed to finally mellow out a famously tortured artist.
23. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Punch the Clock (1983)
The title doesn’t inspire much confidence and Punch the Clock does sound like one of the few albums where Elvis Costello treated pop stardom more like a job than a calling. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, an English production team who were red hot following a string of hits with Madness and Dexys Midnight Runners. This seemed like a great match for The Attractions on paper, but the new wave gloss on Punch the Clock goes overboard at times. Still, “Everyday I Write the Book,” Costello’s first Top 40 hit in America, has an irresistible bounce. “Shipbuilding,” co-written with Langer and featuring a trumpet solo by jazz legend Chet Baker, is Costello’s response to the Falklands War and perhaps his greatest political song, a moment that transcends the album it appears on.
22. Elvis Costello – Hey Clockface (2020)
Hey Clockface was, like 1989’s Spike, pieced together from sessions in three different countries, with different one-off bands assembled for the occasion. One of those bands features California avant rock guitar wizard Nels Cline (Wilco, Mike Watt), an inspired choice for the lead guitarist role that is usually either occupied by Marc Ribot or unoccupied entirely, on Costello’s albums. It’s a wide-ranging and unforgivingly sequenced album that opens with an unpleasant stretch of spoken word vocals and splotchy drum machine experiments. But once it gets going, there are some great performances from jazzy, spontaneous ensembles that don’t quite sound like any previous Costello band.
21. Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet – The Juliet Letters (1993)
Of the albums where Elvis Costello ventures entirely outside the pop/rock world, his song cycle with the long-running British string ensemble The Brodsky Quartet is the best. Though his lyrics are inspired by Romeo and Juliet, Costello writes comfortably in modern diction instead of contorting himself into Shakespearean English. And the tight, economical sound of four instruments suits him almost as if he and the Attractions were playing violin, viola and cello.
20. Elvis Costello – National Ransom (2010)
Elvis Costello has never made back-to-back albums as similar as Secret, Profane & Sugarcane and its follow-up. National Ransom arrived 14 months later with the same dry T Bone Burnett production and similar Tony Millionaire cover art. But the larger ensemble, including the members of The Imposters, has a punchier sound, and you get the sense that Costello and Burnett knew they were on a roll, and had the ingredients for a bigger, better sequel.
19. Elvis Costello – Brutal Youth (1994)
Elvis Costello’s loudest album of the ‘90s, Brutal Youth doesn’t bill The Attractions on the cover art like his other records with the band. But five of the 15 tracks feature the full band, including bassist Bruce Thomas, who’d pissed off Costello with his catty 1990 road life memoir The Big Wheel. On other songs, Nick Lowe and Costello played bass. Lowe, who largely retired from producing after Blood & Chocolate, would’ve been a natural choice to helm Brutal Youth if nostalgia was the point of the album. But the job went to Mitchell Froom, who’d played keyboards on several Costello albums since King of America, and had become a high-demand Grammy-nominated producer in his own right. And the best thing about the album, besides an especially reflective and thoughtful set of lyrics, is hearing the familiar Attractions attack filtered through Froom’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic, Pete Thomas’s drums rendered as a metallic clang that bounces around every track. In the UK, Brutal Youth was Costello’s highest-charting album since Get Happy!!, and in America, “13 Steps Lead Down” was his final Modern Rock radio hit.
18. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – The Boy Named If (2022)
Elvis Costello’s The Boy Named If, is sort of a concept album about adolescence. So it’s fitting that it seems to look back at the sound of his earliest albums more than usual. Steve Nieve even employs the kind of trebly whirring organ tones that he favored in the late ‘70s. Nobody makes over 30 albums without repeating themselves a little, of course. Three consecutive song titles on The Boy Named If revisit a favorite theme of tying pleasure and pain together: “Mistook Me For A Friend,” “My Most Beautiful Mistake,” and “Magnificent Hurt.” The title track has a uniquely gnarled groove that suggests they still have some new tricks up their sleeve, with bassist Davey Faragher proving once again that he holds his own with the veterans. The Boy Named If is Costello’s third album in a row with Sebastian Krys, an Argentinian producer previously best known for working with Latin pop stars, who’s proven to be an unexpectedly perfect match.
17. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Almost Blue (1981)
Almost Blue is a fascinating early fusion of Costello’s personal vision and his aspirations to master a wide variety of genres. Making a pilgrimage to Nashville to record with George Jones producer Billy Sherrill, having made every previous album in the U.K. with Nick Lowe, Costello covered a dozen songs originally sung by Jones and other country stars. But he brought The Attractions (and John McFee, who’d played pedal steel on Costello’s earliest attempts at country songs), and put his own stamp on the material wherever possible, resisting the song selections and session musicians suggested by Sherrill. Almost Blue was ignored by the country music world, his lowest charting album in America at the time. But in the UK, where the original songs were relatively unknown, Costello’s cover of Jones’s “A Good Year For The Roses” was a major chart hit and Almost Blue became one of the best-selling albums of his career.
16. Elvis Costello – Spike (1989)
Before 1989, every Elvis Costello album had a unified sound and concept: the same personnel, the same studio, a strong aesthetic identity tying together the material. But when he signed a new contract with Warner Bros. for his first album in three years, Costello had the biggest recording budget he’d ever worked with, a backlog of ideas for several different albums, and the expanded running time afforded by CDs. So he packed everything into Spike, his first album to run over an hour-long, recording vastly different material with different ensembles in Hollywood, New Orleans, Dublin, and London. The big news, however, was Costello’s new writing partner Paul McCartney. Several of their collaborations wound up on Macca’s Flowers in the Dirt a few months later, but Spike’s lead single “Veronica” became the biggest Hot 100 hit of Costello’s career.
15. Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint – The River in Reverse (2006)
Allen Toussaint first recorded with Costello during the New Orleans sessions for Spike. Nearly two decades later, they reunited for the first major studio session to take place in the city following Hurricane Katrina, in which Toussaint had lost his home and studio. The River in Reverse features a few songs co-written by Costello and Toussaint, as well as renditions of decades-old Toussaint classics like “On Your Way Down” and “All These Things.” Of all of Costello’s collaborative albums, this is the one where his reverence for the other artist prevents him from bringing much new to the table or creating a true fusion of their styles, but they still sound great together.
14. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – When I Was Cruel (2002)
After periodically quarreling with Bruce Thomas over the course of a decade, Elvis Costello showed Thomas enough respect to change the name of the band upon replacing him. With Davey Faragher of Cracker now on bass, the band was dubbed The Imposters. The name works on multiple levels, as a preemptive bit of self-deprecation, a reference to the 1980 song “The Imposter,” and the alias Costello released a 1983 single under). But When I Was Cruel is a sprawling omnibus of divergent sounds in the tradition of Spike, with Imposters rockers alternating with some of Costello’s most inspired leaps into sampling and programmed beats.
13. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now (2018)
The five years before Look Now were the longest gap between Costello albums. While previous ‘comeback’ albums like Spike and When I Was Cruel were patchworks of different styles, Look Now manages to pull a diverse set of songs and collaborators into a cohesive whole. Costello co-wrote one song with Carole King and three with Burt Bacharach. There are tracks with brass and string sections, which probably helped Look Now win a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album over easy listening favorites like Michael Buble and Barba Streisand. But the Imposters play on every song of Look Now, and it sounds more like a rock quartet record than a sequel to Painted From Memory, with Steve Nieve’s piano and Mellotron beautifully coloring in songs like “Stripping Paper.”
12. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – All This Useless Beauty (1996)
All This Useless Beauty is a difficult album to categorize in Elvis Costello’s catalog. It was his last album with The Attractions, but not as uptempo as his other late-period albums with the band. With bassist Bruce Thomas permanently leaving the fold soon after, Costello supported the album with stripped-down duo performances with Steve Nieve. Beauty, once envisioned as a double album of songs Costello wrote for other artists, wound up as a simpler affair with 12 songs, half of which hadn’t been recorded by or pitched to other singers. Though it’s a reunion with Imperial Bedroom producer Geoff Emerick, it’s a far more modern and stylistically varied affair. Despite this muddled pedigree, however, All This Useless Beauty is a terrific set of songs, with a balance between rockers and ballads rarely found on his other albums.
11. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – The Delivery Man (2004)
The Imposters’ second album is their best, another pilgrimage to the American South (this time Oxford, Mississippi). Once again present are staples of Elvis Costello’s rootsy records like Emmylou Harris and pedal steel guitarist John McFee. But The Delivery Man is a very loud album of a four-piece band letting it rip, and it winds up sounding more like Blood & Chocolate than King of America. One of Costello’s favorite artists, Tom Waits, singled The Delivery Man out as a great album in 2005, praising its “grooves wide enough to put your foot in.”
10. Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost (2013)
A British rocker pushing 60 making an album with an American hip hop ensemble can be risky, but Elvis Costello and The Roots are more alike than they are different. Both Costello and Roots drummer/bandleader ?uestlove are astute students of pop music who are experts at mimicking other artists’ songs and sounds, but have charted resolutely unpredictable paths on their own albums. On Wise Up Ghost, The Roots provide Costello with their own spin on what he’s always depended on the Attractions or Imposters for a limber rhythm section and carnival of strange, lush textures. With a singer in front instead of an MC for once, the band was inspired to create some of their murkiest and most extravagantly textured funk since 1999’s Things Fall Apart. “Wise Up Ghost puts its pop-historical smarts to good use, improving on the backdrops for our would-be poet’s witty abstractions,” wrote Seth Colter Walls in his SPIN review of the album.
9. The Costello Show featuring The Attractions and the Confederates – King of America (1986)
After the low point of Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis Costello stepped away from the Attractions and began his first solo tours without a band. His opening act was a Texan named T Bone Burnett, who’d played guitar in Bob Dylan’s band and produced acclaimed albums for Los Lobos and Marshall Crenshaw. The tourmates quickly struck up a friendship, releasing a couple of songs together as The Coward Brothers. So Burnett produced Costello’s next album, a set of acoustic originals that was more like what would eventually be called alt-country than the Nashville classicism of Almost Blue.
8. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Trust (1981)
Other than This Year’s Model, Trust stands as the best pure showcase of The Attractions in the studio with Nick Lowe in the early days. There’s no overarching concept or genre exercise pulling them in one direction or another. Bruce Thomas’s bass dances all over “White Knuckles,” Pete Thomas fluidly negotiates the tightly coiled swing of “New Lace Sleeves,” and Steve Nieve makes “Clubland” sparkle and shine with some of his best piano accompaniment.
7. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – Painted From Memory (1998)
Even when he was an angry young new wave star in the late ‘70s, Elvis Costello was open about his love of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s pristine ‘60s pop songwriting, covering “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” in his earliest Attractions concerts. Costello was first brought together with his hero for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, penning “God Give Me Strength” for a film set against the backdrop of the Brill Building song factory where Bacharach got his start. Their intergenerational chemistry established, Costello and Bacharach wrote 11 more songs together that are just as moving, immaculately arranged, and beautifully sung. And 20 years into his career, “I Still Have That Other Girl” brought Costello his first Grammy.
6. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Get Happy!! (1980)
Get Happy!! was the first album Elvis Costello released after the 1979 incident in which he’d drunkenly referred to Ray Charles by a racial slur in an argument with Stephen Stills in an Ohio hotel bar. Even if, as Costello has said, he’d already planned by then to make his next album an homage to Stax and Motown hits of the ‘60s, it can’t help but exist in the shadow of that controversy. Unpleasant context aside, though, Get Happy!! is an incredible burst of energy, cramming 20 songs into a single LP, two covers amidst a flood of originals that attack the retro R&B aesthetic from every possible angle. The Attractions’ manic performances and some of Costello’s most deranged wordplay give the album a frenetic charge even beyond their other early albums.
5. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Armed Forces (1979)
Armed Forces represents Elvis Costello at the height of his commercial powers. But you can hear that he was already getting too cavalier with charged language on the album originally titled Emotional Fascism, which throws slurs into the lyrics of both “Sunday’s Best” and the album’s biggest hit, “Oliver’s Army” (in an interview this year, Costello announced he will no longer perform the latter, and discourages radio stations from playing it). Still, Armed Forces is a relentless display of the Attractions’ brilliance, particularly Bruce Thomas, whose creative basslines elevate both the pummeling “Goon Squad” and the tender “Party Girl.”
4. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Blood & Chocolate (1986)
Blood & Chocolate was the last time Elvis Costello would record with the Attractions for eight years. The band’s relationship had soured to the point that they recorded live in one room together, playing at concert volumes, in part to get the sessions over with more quickly. But the result is bombastic and a raw record of the band pounding away at simplistic riffs like “Uncomplicated,” unwittingly predicting the sound of ‘90s rock production at the height of the glossy ‘80s. The Attractions proved they were still capable of creating a subtle slow burn on the album’s centerpiece “I Want You,” a seven-minute song of infatuation with an unreliable narrator.
3. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Imperial Bedroom (1982)
After a few years of quickly bashing out albums with Nick Lowe, Imperial Bedroom was Elvis Costello’s first attempt at the kind of prolonged period of studio experimentation that the Beatles once indulged in. Fittingly, Costello’s producer for this adventure was Geoff Emerick, who’d engineered many of the Beatles’ later albums. From the jumpcut editing on “Man Out of Time” to the intricate, unorthodox orchestral arrangement on “…And In Every Home,” Imperial Bedroom is Elvis Costello’s trippiest, most impeccably detailed headphone record.
2. Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True (1977)
A 22-year-old Declan MacManus got a deal with the newly formed indie label Stiff Records and recorded his debut album on weekends and sick days while doing data entry at Elizabeth Arden cosmetics (the “vanity factory” immortalized in “I’m Not Angry”). He released his debut album under his audacious new stage name three weeks before Elvis Presley died, and if he’d never made anything after My Aim Is True, he’d still be a legend. Backed by the California country-rock band Clover, My Aim Is True has a jangly pub rock sound and Costello’s signature ballad “Alison.” But between the adenoidal sneer of his voice and the class-conscious bite of his lyrics, Elvis Costello managed to meet the moment in 1977 as punk rock was sweeping through London and making the old guard irrelevant.
1. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – This Year’s Model (1978)
Elvis Costello opens This Year’s Model a cappella, singing “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch” before his new backing band explodes behind him, as if shot out of a cannon. After recording his debut album with visiting American musicians, Elvis Costello needed to form a band of his own to tour with. He quickly found three guys who could make a jittery, overdriven sound that matched the neurotic spleen-venting of his lyrics and began filling setlists with sharper, faster new songs. From the pounding, anthemic “Pump It Up” to the tumbling reggae rhythms of “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea,” This Year’s Model minted a new sound that Costello proudly characterized as “spiky and sour” in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. He’s gone in a dozen different directions since This Year’s Model, but he’s never quite surpassed its inventive punch.
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