It feels pretty pointless to recount Elton John’s achievements.
You know how many hits Elton John has had. You know which songs of his have entered the public lexicon. You know that, despite some very bumpy spots in his career, that he’s written some of the most enduring popular music of the late 20th century.
That’s why it’s hard to give a proper overview of a compilation like Greatest Hits 1970-2002, a comprehensive, two-disc set that seeks to collect John’s biggest hits in one place (a la The Beatles’ 1 or Elvis’, uh, 1) . It basically achieves its goal, occasionally overlooking lesser singles (his covers of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Pinball Wizard”) and the odd big single (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” should’ve been included) in favor of his biggest hits. What more is there to say?
Compilations like this do inevitably invite a bit of a reinvestigation of an artist’s work to see if their achievements truly matched their sales or media presence. In short it’s one of the first chances we get to view the artist from a historical perspective, where we can separate ourselves from a time when these songs were ubiquitous on pop radio and focus on what made them good.
And speaking as someone who admittedly loved Elton John as a kid—and when I say this, I mean that “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” was current at the time, not “Crocodile Rock”, though I loved both—but who strayed because EJ wasn’t cool enough or genuine enough as the indie rock that I fell in love with. After several years of listening to some decidedly pop-oriented acts, however, I’ve come to realize what I liked in Elton John (and Billy Joel, at that) the first time around and also how that childhood love for this music probably shaped my later tastes.
That said, I found some interesting things on my trip through these two discs. The main thing was that I “got” some of the mellower songs—like John’s ‘70s ballads—that I had previously dismissed as sappy, and I didn’t get some of the songs I loved when I was a kid. But in traversing the best moments of this set (which are mostly, though not entirely, on disc one), I understood where my love of pop music came from.
So where does Greatest Hits 1970-2002 take us? On the first disc, which focuses on John’s ‘70s output, we’re treated to out and out classics like “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song”—truly two of the best love songs, ever, period, by anyone—next to some of John’s more rock and roll moments like “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and “The Bitch Is Back”. Realistically, anyone with even a passing familiarity with classic rock radio or who was alive in the ‘70s will recognize all 17 of these songs. It’s hard—impossible, really—for me to judge them considering that anyone reading this article is certainly not only familiar with every cut but also has probably formed their own opinions. For what it’s worth, I was surprised by how much I loved much of this material. Most of the cuts are like long-lost friends I’d forgotten, and I’m glad I have them back again. If there’s a disappointment it’s that some of the songs that I used to love now sound dated and, well, bad, to put it bluntly. Why I ever thought the ridiculous “Crocodile Rock” was a quality piece of music is beyond me, and the similar “Honky Cat” is no better. But then, I’m sure many will disagree.
As is to be expected, the second disc is a much rougher ride. Realistically, the second half of this compilation does do a good job of accurately detailing Elton John’s career in the ‘80s and ‘90s: scattershot and oriented towards adult/contemporary radio. And of course that’s the problem. Like with the first disc, nearly all of these songs should be familiar to most. If not, it’s only because many of them didn’t endure—they weren’t as “classic” as his early material, and thus didn’t stay on the radio as long. What saves the second disc are the gems, the songs that are way, way better than you remembered them. “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That”, the one that an 8-year-old me used to like to dance around to, still holds a soft spot, of course. But if that song’s attempts at sounding current (it was as close to “dance pop” as John really got) weigh it down now, some of the songs from roughly the same period—like the positively classic “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” or “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”—stand out as tunes that transcend their time. Both realistically deserve to be regarded in the same class as much of the disc one material. As disc two wears on, the songs themselves, well, wear, with utter dreck like “Sacrifice” (with unsympathetic late ‘80s production, absolutely no hook, and a ridiculously saccharine lyric, it’s quite possibly the worst major Elton John hit), “The One”, and “Blessed” taking control. Even though John continued to sell records through the ‘90s, these songs serve as reminders as to why he began to lose ground in the court of public opinion.
When things wrap up, with two songs from Songs From the West Coast, an album that EJ has indicated may well be his last, we’re left on a somewhat brighter note. Its not that “I Want Love” or “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” are anything spectacular, but they’re significantly warmer and more genuine than much of his ‘90s output. They feel more akin to his ‘70s output, and they thankfully save the set from ending on a disappointing note.
Limited pressings of Greatest Hits 1970-2002 also come packaged with a four-track bonus CD, including alternate hit versions of songs already included on the main part of the compilation. It’s of negligible worth to casual fans, but Elton John diehards will want this version—it collects alternate versions of four of his biggest hits (only two of them are available on John’s other albums) like a live version of “Candle in the Wind” and the early ‘90s remake of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with George Michael. It’s the only real “bonus” given to fans—the booklet and essay included inside is of only marginal worth, especially since the liner notes read like a bad press release.
Do you need to own this compilation? The answer is an emphatic yes if you like the songs that I’ve mentioned here (and again, you’ve heard them all before), because this truly is the most comprehensive Elton John collection, covering his entire career in a single set. Until now the only way to collect his hits was through expensive import collections or by buying three one-volume sets, and those still left off at 1986. Now it’s all made available in one place cheaply and easily, and it’s hard to complain about that. The only major drawback isn’t in track selection—it’s in a good deal of the material itself—particularly the last 25%. Had John shown a greater mastery of quality control during that period, this set would be a knock-out, front to back, but now it merely stands as a very, very good but imperfect set of singles from one of the biggest popstars of the 20th century. I guess that’s not so bad.