It’s hard to believe that Elvis Costello has been making albums for 45 years. Since My Aim Is True hit record stores in 1977, Costello has consistently released music that touches on punk, new wave, soul, country, classical, and everything in between. His 32nd studio album, The Boy Named If, was released in January and has been getting some of his best reviews in years. While many of his albums – Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom, This Year’s Model – are regularly heralded as masterpieces, we teamed up to provide a list of ten albums that don’t get nearly the love they deserve. These albums may not be among Costello’s best, but they deserve your attention.
Almost Blue (1981)
Costello’s sixth album came with a sticker: “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offense to narrow-minded listeners.” This was a shock to Costello fans who may not have embraced country music and/or were looking forward to his typically brilliant songwriting. But Almost Blue is a well-intentioned, often highly enjoyable collection of 12 covers, ranging from Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and George Jones’ “A Good Year for the Roses” to lesser-known gems like “Success” (popularized by Loretta Lynn) and Gram Parsons’ “I’m Your Toy”. Costello’s love of the genre, combined with the dedicated performances of his backing band, the Attractions, make this a worthwhile listen and a charming change of pace. – Chris Ingalls
Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
Maybe it was the scraggly beard Costello sported on the album’s cover, but Mighty Like a Rose seemed like a bridge too far for many fans. His previous album, 1989’s Spike, saw him ditching the Attractions for a host of musicians ranging from Paul McCartney to Roger McGuinn to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, giving the album a ragtag, somewhat overstuffed feel. Mighty Like a Rose continued along that path. It may not have the lean approach of Armed Forces. Still, Mighty Like a Rose contains many inspired moments, particularly “So Like Candy”, the ballad he co-wrote with McCartney, in addition to the sunny, catchy “The Other Side of Summer” and gorgeous baroque pieces like “Harpie’s Bizarre” and “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4″. Costello was spreading his wings – fans needed to catch up or be left behind. – Chris Ingalls
The Juliet Letters (1993)
Letters have inspired all manner of songs, from Donovan’s trippy “Epistle to Dippy” to Victor Lundberg’s strident counter-counterculture protest “Open Letter to My Teenage Son”. Inspired by the idea of a professor in Verona, Italy, who answers letters addressed to “Juliet Capulet”, Costello and the Brodsky Quartet set out to create a song cycle based on letters. The resulting record, according to Costello in the liner notes, “is no more my stab at ‘classical music’ than it is the Brodsky Quartet’s first rock and roll album”. Think of it as Costello’s often-successful experiment with chamber pop, with the Brodskys acting as equal creative partners.
Highlights abound, including the catchy “I Almost Had a Weakness” and the stately “Jacksons, Monk and Row”. Lyrical themes encompass, among other things, love, greed, jealousy, family dynamics, and mortality. Lots and lots of mortality. The Juliet Letters ends on a somewhat positive note if only to point out that after we’re all gone, “The Birds Will Still Be Singing”. It’s excellent for the birds, I suppose. – Rich Wilhelm
Brutal Youth (1994)
After the classical experiment of The Juliet Letters – not to mention nearly eight years without the Attractions as his core band – Costello decided to go back to basics. Brutal Youth isn’t technically an “Elvis Costello and the Attractions” album, mainly because bassist Bruce Thomas – who at this point already had a strained relationship with Costello – only appears on five of the record’s 15 songs (Nick Lowe and Costello himself pick up the slack on the remaining tracks). With Mitchell Froom co-producing, Brutal Youth sees Costello bringing back some of the fire of the early days. There’s propulsive energy to tracks like “Pony St.”, “13 Steps Lead Down”, and “Just About Glad”, but the ballads and more reserved songs, like “You Tripped at Every Step” and “Favourite Hour” are also pretty terrific. On the verge of 40, Costello was maturing but still as loud and quick-witted as ever. – Chris Ingalls
Kojak Variety (1995)
Covers have always played a role in Costello’s career, evidenced by the Almost Blue album and many live versions of other people’s songs. Kojak Variety was his second covers record, released in 1995 but mentioned in the liner notes of The Juliet Letters in 1993. While they’re both covers albums, the similarity between Almost Blue and Kojak Variety ends there. Legendary and notorious Nashville producer Billy Sherrill twiddled the knobs on Almost Blue, which was a Costello and the Attractions record. Costello co-produced the far-looser Kojak Variety with Kevin Killen, featuring noted behind-the-scenes studio musicians like Jim Keltner, Larry Knechtel, Jerry Scheff, James Burton, and Marc Ribot.
Hearing these guys stretch out is a massive part of the fun inherent in Kojak Variety. Still, Costello’s song selection is inspired as well, with Costello covering songs by Bob Dylan (“I Threw It All Away”), Randy Newman (“I’ve Been Wrong Before”), Holland-Dozier-Holland (the Supremes’ “Remove This Doubt”), and Willie Dixon (“Hidden Charms”), among others. While Kojak Variety is a fun record, a heart of darkness beats throughout, notably when Costello concludes with an utterly mournful cover of the Kinks’ “Days”, leaving no doubt that the separation described in the song is permanent. – Rich Wilhelm
By 2003, Costello was in love again. His marriage to Cait O’Riordan was dissolving, but he was beginning a relationship with jazz musician Diana Krall. That appeared to have quite an effect on Costello, resulting in this intimate album of ballads and torch songs accompanied by piano and sumptuous strings (the record was released on the legendary Deutsche Grammophon label). While Painted From Memory, Costello’s 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, could almost be seen as a precursor to North, some of the badly dated adult contemporary touches that dot the former album are much less apparent on the latter. Old-school Elvis fans may have balked at this new direction, but Costello seems sharply focused, and the arrangements are impeccable, resulting in a delightful diversion that should not be overlooked. – Chris Ingalls
The Delivery Man (2004)
Much like the snarl of Brutal Youth coming on the heels of the classical-themed The Juliet Letters, Costello followed up his ballet Il Sogno with the raw blues of The Delivery Man, recorded in Mississippi and released on the roots-centric label Lost Highway. Hardly a meaningless genre exercise, The Delivery Man has Costello in rare form, resulting in his most inspired album since Spike. Costello’s guitars are loud, and the band sounds revitalized. Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams (the latter singing “There’s a Story in Your Voice” as a duet with Costello) are on board, as well as pedal steel guitarist John McFee (who also played on Almost Blue). The songs range from the bluesy gospel of “The Judgment” to the frenetic opening number “Button My Lip” to the gentle, impeccable “The Scarlet Tide” (his Oscar-nominated contribution to the Cold Mountain soundtrack). The Delivery Man may be the most underrated album in Costello’s discography, and the fact that he made it 27 years into his career speaks volumes. – Chris Ingalls
The River in Reverse (with Allen Toussaint ) (2006)
Some of the first studio sessions in the New Orleans area following the devastating Hurricane Katrina happened for the recording of this duo album with one of NOLA’s many resident musical geniuses, the great Allen Toussaint. Toussaint is a man worthy of high praise: after all, who else wrote songs covered by both Herb Alpert and Devo? Plus, he produced “Right Place, Wrong Time” by Dr. John and “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle. The River in Reverse features Costello singing several older Toussaint classics, with Toussaint playing piano and singing lead on his “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”.
But these vital renditions aren’t merely nostalgia exercises, especially since they’re matched on The River in Reverse with several new solid Costello/Toussaint collaborations and Costello’s powerful title track. Though Katrina was a motivating factor in making the album and casts a shadow over it, The River in Reverse is ultimately a celebration of survival, artistic collaboration, and some fine piano playing. – Rich Wilhelm
Like the instant noodles invented by Momofuku Ando, this quick ‘n’ dirty album might not be the most nutritious item in the Costello catalog. Still, if you’re looking for some manic pop thrills, Momofuku gets the job done. While The Juliet Letters and Wise Up Ghost are ambitious efforts that require the listener to focus closely on the work to gain an appreciation for it, Momofuku isn’t that kind of record. Recorded quickly in the winter of 2008, Momofuku has a dashed-off quality that sounds like it might have been produced in less time than it takes to listen to it. This slapdash aura could be a recipe for disaster, but it’s the secret charm of Momofuku.
The opening trio of songs “No Hiding Place”, “American Gangster Time”, and “Turpentine” feature clangy electric guitar, trashy keyboards, and cheesy backing vocals, and I sincerely mean all of that in the best way possible. Costello settles down and even throws in surprises (a touching love song, a track about Costello’s sons, and songs co-written by Rosanne Cash and Loretta Lynn!), but ends as he began with a noisy rocker called “Go Away”. And you will go away, but you’ll be craving Momofuku again before long. – Rich Wilhelm
Wise Up Ghost (with The Roots) (2013)
A collaboration with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost, is a challenging record, even for longtime Costello fans. The album was conceived when Roots leader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson hinted to Costello during a Tonight Show appearance that they ought to collaborate on an EP’s worth of material. Costello took the bait, and the project grew to become a complete album. Given Questlove and Costello’s reputation for being musical omnivores, no one could have known what to expect from Wise Up Ghost. Costello and the Roots opted for a ruthlessly-focused attack.
The opening track, “Walk Us Uptown”, established the compelling midtempo, rap-influenced foundation that would guide the album and culminate in the masterpiece title track, appearing late in the proceedings. Costello gleefully recycles old lyrics (Questlove clearly would have condoned bringing Costello’s “Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes” line back into action) throughout a menacing set of tunes that feels even more appropriately dystopian in 2022 than it did in 2013. As is true of The Juliet Letters, a faint wisp of hope that be detected in the album’s coda, “If I Could Believe”. The similar rhythmic feel of many songs might make listening to Wise Up Ghost in a single sitting feel like homework, but when you’re in the right frame of mind it’s a fascinating trip. – Rich Wilhelm