Inspiration is impossible to predict. Lyricist Bernie Taupin was tooling down an English road in the early ’70s when the opening lyrics to one of Elton John’s most enduring hits, "Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)," appeared fully formed in his brain.
“With ‘Rocket Man,’ the first two lines came to me when I was driving along, and by the time I’d gotten home, I’d written the song in my head,” Taupin told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I got inside and had to rush and write it all down before I’d forgotten it.”
Today, it seems impossible that anyone could forget a song like “Rocket Man,” one of the most enduring classics to come from the Taupin/John songwriting partnership. Released as the lead-off single from John’s 1972 album Honky Chateau, the song reached No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 6 on the U.S. charts. It arrived on the scene in a moment when the mere idea of “rocket men” had captured the popular imagination.
The U.S. landed its first manned mission to the moon in July of 1969, and the last landed back on Earth in December 1972. Within that timeframe came three iconic songs about traveling the stars: “Rocket Man,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Spaceman.” With Bowie’s song hitting first (just a scant 10 days before the actual moon landing), it’s been assumed that “Oddity” inspired Taupin’s bolt of inspiration while driving.
“People identify it, unfortunately, with David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’” Taupin said in an interview for John’s YouTube channel in 2016. “But it was actually inspired by a story by Ray Bradbury, from his book of science fiction short stories called The Illustrated Man. In that book, there was a story called ‘The Rocket Man,’ which was about how astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job. So I kind of took that idea and ran with that.”
As always, the musical portion came quickly for John, who spent January 1972 at the Chateau d’Herouville in France with Taupin and the band to cut Honky Chateau. Each morning, John would set up shop at a piano in the chateau’s breakfast space. In his room upstairs, Taupin would peck away at lyrics. The words would travel downstairs, and within 30 minutes, classics like “Rocket Man” would be complete. Later in the day, John would record with the band. The pair wrote nine songs in three days this way.
“We were all on the money musically and for me the music always comes first—the music can really express the inexpressible if you let it,” John told Mojo in 1997, about Honky Chateau. “It was a pretty easy song to write the melody to, because it’s a song about space, so it’s quite a spacious song.”
Like the rest of Honky Chateau, “Rocket Man” was recorded with the core of John’s touring band at the time, the first time he’d taken them into the studio as his core group of musicians. Previously, his label insisted on session players instead. Rounding out the rhythm section of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson would be versatile guitarist Davey Johnstone, just a fresh-faced kid of 20 when he played on Chateau. Johnstone would become a key member of John’s musical team, playing more than 2,000 shows with him and becoming his musical director.
“Space Oddity” is a staple on classic rock radio, and “Spaceman” has its fans, but “Rocket Man” seems like it will last forever. Why has “Rocket Man” endured when its space-themed musical peers have faded into comparative obscurity?
Maybe it’s the humanity in Taupin’s lyrics. Rather than focusing on the sci-fi trappings of space travel, he zeroes in on the mundane reality of a man who has to pack his bags, leave behind his family, and trek off into the inky void, as casually as one might grab a taxi into the city. Where Bowie aims for the surreal and Nilsson plays for laughs, Taupin finds a quiet loneliness in his “Rocket Man.”
That was cold comfort to Bowie, who was none too happy to see his re-released “Space Oddity” leapfrogged on the charts by “Rocket Man” in 1973. But it’s hard to feel too bad; as his wife Angie noted at the time, “Other people can sing about space travel, too.”
32: ‘Victim of Love’ (1979)
31. ‘Leather Jackets’ (1986)
Mix the blood of Emanuelle Lewis, the motor oil of a DeLorean and the last sip of a Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler, then pour the result into a vinyl press. You’ll end up with a copy of ‘Leather Jackets.’ There’s ’80s tunes that are great because they sound like the ’80s, and ’80s tunes that are just great songs with ’80s production. ‘Leather Jackets’ is the worst of the ’80s – awful songs with equally awful production, dripping with synths and electronic drums.
30. ‘Ice on Fire’ (1985)
John spent much of the ’80s putting out albums just as forgettable as this one. Occasionally they were outright terrible, and once in a great while, outright brilliant. ‘Ice On Fire’ is a delivery mechanism for two singles, "Nikita" and "Wrap Her Up." Truly disposable pop, from top to bottom.
29. ‘Rock of the Westies’ (1975)
‘Rock of the Westies’ is a massive stumble in the midst of John’s most brilliant period. Sheer burnout is the only explanation; John released 10 studio efforts between 1969 and 1976. It’s understandable that he’d eventually resort to such half-baked tunes as "I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)," a moldy retread of ‘Tumbleweed Connection’s’ western allusions; and "Island Girl," a mildly racist love romp about a woman who "wraps her legs around you like a well-worn tire." Yikes.
28. ‘Duets’ (1993)
A great idea on paper, 1993’s ‘Duets’ is a tough listen. There’s ill-advised pairings (Leonard Cohen, RuPaul), disappointing results (Gladys Knight produced by Stevie Wonder!) and a mess of competing production styles. There is, however, one completely unheralded gem, John’s duet with Tammy Wynette, "A Woman’s Needs." John does his best George Jones on a Bernie Taupin lyric that delivers Nashville schmaltz and tender emotion at the same time.
27. ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ (2016)
This album presents as an emotional bookend to 2013’s more meditative ‘The Diving Board’ but, like many sequels, something seems to be missing. Blame longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, whose efforts lack the kind of specificity to engage. And blame producer T Bone Burnett, who takes the air out of the proceedings with an overly sleek approach that focuses on separation more than earthy feel. The result is more light than heat.
26. ‘Jump Up!’ (1982)
‘Jump Up’ is another mostly forgettable ’80s effort except for the stone-cold classic "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," John and Taupin’s tribute to their good friend John Lennon, who died in 1980. That’s frustrating in its own way, since the song’s poignant beauty only underscores what John was still capable of creating. ‘Jump Up’ features John’s first work with lyricist Tim Rice, his collaborator on ‘The Lion King’ and the Broadway hit ‘Aida.’
25. ‘The One’ (1992)
John’s first album after achieving sobriety in 1990, ‘The One’ is a strange beast. From a commercial perspective, it cemented his transformation into an adult-contemporary superstar throughout the ’00s. Unfortunately, ‘The One’ might feature the worst production of John’s career; Chris Thomas renders the songs unlistenable beneath a layer of synthetic sounds. Which is a shame, because there is some good songwriting here, including the title track, "Runaway Train" (a duet with Eric Clapton), and the blue-eyed soul of "When a Woman Doesn’t Want You."
24. ‘The Big Picture’ (1997)
Thomas returned for ‘The Big Picture,’ and although the sounds of contemporary music had moved on in the five years since ‘The One,’ he relied on the same buttons and widgets that made his previous effort unbearable. Thankfully, the songs were better. The album’s biggest single, "The Way You Look Tonight," even approaches a clean, organic sound, another great John/Taupin soul song with organ from Paul Carrack.
23. ‘Reg Strikes Back’ (1988)
Maybe we’re being too hard on Chris Thomas; he did work on more than a few legendary albums in his day with a who’s who of rock royalty, including Roxy Music, the Pretenders and U2, and at least one legendary album for John (more on that later). On ‘Reg Strikes Back,’ he finds a decent balance between the analog and digital instrumentation; it’s too bad John and Taupin didn’t bring better tunes to the table. The first of a few "comeback" albums for the Rocket Man, it boasts a couple hit singles in "I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That" and "A Word in Spanish," but no real lost classics.
22. ‘The Fox’ (1981)
This is a record that earns some points for ambition. It falls during a bit of a "lost period" for the John/Taupin songwriting partnership, during which John experimented with other lyricists, most frequently Gary Osborne. There are some moments of lush instrumentation, effervescent pop, and raunchy funk. Opening side two, "Carla – Etude" is an orchestral movement that’s among the most beautiful melodies John has ever committed to tape, arranged by the great James Newton Howard. It doesn’t quite congeal into a standout effort, but at least the guy was trying.
21. ‘The Captain & the Kid’ (2006)
More points for ambition, especially at a moment when John’s ability to crack the charts was waning. John and Taupin developed ‘The Captain & the Kid’ as a sequel to 1975’s ‘Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy,’ chronicling the 30-odd years of their career since the release of that first autobiographical album. This follow-up effort lacks the hooks and clarity of the first volume; John’s songwriting style has become more free-form and Taupin’s lyrics are much harder to pin down. The album’s expressionistic songwriting can be evocative, but it’s not good storytelling.
20. ’21 at 33′ (1980)
After ‘Blue Moves,’ John began his period of wider collaboration with other lyricists. It led to an underrated career highlight, which you’ll read about shortly, and also gave us ’21 at 33,’ forming the midpoint of a mini-cycle that began with 1978’s ‘A Single Man’ and ended with a thud at 1982’s ‘Jump Up!’ Here John has a mixed bag of lyricists and the album reflects that; it never quite hangs together, but the highlights are pretty high, if perhaps forgotten by all but the most die hard fans. "Sartorial Eloquence" with Gary Osborne and "Two Rooms at the End of the World" were never singles but are great songs from a largely lost period of John’s career.
19. ‘Empty Sky’ (1969)
Though it wouldn’t see release in the U.S. until 1975, ‘Empty Sky’ is John’s true debut album, released in 1969 in the U.K. It’s strange many years later to hear flashes of the John/Taupin genius hidden within what’s essentially a bluesy psychedelic record. Throughout, John’s virtuoso piano playing remains a highlight, especially on "Skyline Pigeon," perhaps John and Taupin’s first timeless classic. John would re-record it as a b-side during the sessions for 1973’s ‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player,’ and it makes occasional appearances in his live set to this day.
18. ‘Sleeping With the Past’ (1989)
John’s final album before rehab is an homage and tribute to the vintage soul music that have influenced he and Taupin throughout their career. Unfortunately, they produced it in the late ’80s rather than the mid-’60s, resulting in a "tribute" where it can be hard to find the DNA of the classics they’re paying tribute to. The ’80s is a decade that could not end soon enough for Elton John.
17. ‘The Diving Board’ (2013)
You can hear John’s heart and soul on ‘The Diving Board,’ an album that sounds both deeply committed and completely disinterested in the listener’s reaction. This is a portrait of the artist as an old man, leaving aside the chase toward the biggest hooks, the brashest production, and the top of the pops for a singer-songwriter’s album in the truest sense of that term. It evokes not just John’s earliest records but the era in which they were created, when it was possible to make music outside the echo chamber of pop culture. It’s a challenging listen because it doesn’t rely on easy melodies to attach to the brain, but it’s worth engaging.
16. ‘Breaking Hearts’ (1984)
Unlike the parade of studio musicians, guest stars and musical associates that crowded many of John’s ’80s efforts, ‘Breaking Hearts’ is refreshing in its simplicity – just the classic combo of guitarist Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on bass, and Nigel Olsson on drums. As a result, there’s a cleaner sound and a focus on letting the songs breathe for some quality playing by all the musicians. John hasn’t always made records that sounded like the product of a sympathetic group of musicians, but here, he sounds like he’s actually playing with a band.
15. ‘The Union’ (2010)
Two piano legends sit down at dueling keyboards with T Bone Burnett behind the boards. If John’s collaboration with Leon Russell doesn’t quite match up to lofty expectations, it gets pretty damn close. There are beautiful, gritty moments throughout the album, but there may be too much reverence here for this long-awaited meeting of the masters. There’s precious few piano-stool-kicking moments of rock abandon; having said that, "Gone to Shiloh" is the best thing John and Taupin have written in at least a decade, maybe two or three.
14. ‘Songs from the West Coast’ (2001)
Hey, look, another Elton John comeback album! Produced by Madonna’s longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, ‘Songs From the West Coast’ returns John to a clean, organic sound, anchored by his stellar-as-always piano work and a strong suite of songs from John and Taupin. The guest list doesn’t hurt either: Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solos elevate the groove in "Dark Diamond" and Rufus Wainwright’s haunting background vocals lend a sad resignation to the album’s strongest cut, "American Triangle," a tribute to murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard.
13. ‘Blue Moves’ (1976)
A dark, beautiful, sprawling album, ‘Blue Moves’ defies easy categorization. It’s got no shortage of six and seven-minute epics featuring lush orchestration; it’s also got the intimate, sad single "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." There are tossed-off instrumentals and the sweeping "Tonight." Funk, pop, gospel, soul, jazz – it’s similar to the musical potpourri John compiled on 1973’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ but less accessible somehow, perhaps because it’s not as bright and nostalgic.
12. ‘Peachtree Road’ (2004)
The list of British rock stars obsessed with American roots and soul music is long; the Beatles loved Smokey Robinson and the Stones worshipped Muddy Waters. John’s own influences are in full flower on ‘Peachtree Road,’ a mint julep of an album steeped in the music of the American south. Gospel, soul, country and funk blend into a concoction that’s a soundtrack for sitting on the front porch on a humid afternoon with "nothing to do but swing in the breeze," as John sings on "Porch Swing in Tupelo." With his typical keen instincts, Taupin matches his words to John’s state of mind, with lyrics about leaving behind the recklessness of youth and embracing the comfort of mature love. A true unsung gem of a record.
11. ‘Madman Across the Water’ (1971)
That perfect piano, Elton’s tender, hesitating vocal and a steel guitar from the bleeding heart of Nashville. Then the drums, and you’re on the road with everyone you love, driving toward hope and connections and tomorrows. "Tiny Dancer" might be John and Taupin’s greatest musical achievement, and easily one of the greatest side one, track ones of all time. The rest of the record, which includes "Levon" and the title track, is pretty good too.
10. ‘Made In England’ (1995)
How did a record like ‘Made In England’ emerge from the midst of John’s most over-produced era? Between working with Chris Thomas on ‘The One’ and ‘The Big Picture,’ John connected with producer Greg Penny, known for his work with k.d. lang. The result is a clean, crisp suite of songs augmented by the swirling strings of arranger Paul Buckmaster and even George Martin, the legendary Beatles producer who provided arrangements for the track "Latitude." Don’t miss the underrated gem, "Please," a twangy brotherly love tune with a clever Taupin lyric.
9. ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ (1970)
Over the years, Taupin’s obsessions have become as large a part of Elton John’s albums as the pianist’s own outsized appetites. Lyrically, ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ focused on the America of the wild west and Civil War; musically, it sounds like a lost session from the Band. The album could have come off as a pastiche or swipe, but instead maintains its integrity, thanks largely to the committment of John’s vocals and the power of his backing combo. Taupin’s lyrics make good use of specific detail to lend authenticity to his tales of horse-drawn farmers and well-known guns.
8. ‘Honky Chateau’ (1972)
‘Honky Chateau’ finds John and Taupin at their most laconic and soulful. with a few moments of uptempo frivolity ("I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself," "Hercules"). But mostly there’s a lightness to the record that demand a tall glass of whiskey and a hammock in the backyard. Previous John efforts had a similar way with roots music but focused more on telling strange, dark tales. These are goofier lyrics and they bring out some of John’s most relaxed performances, vocally and on the keys.
7. ‘Elton John’ (1970)
The artist once known as Reginald Dwight didn’t quite emerge whole cloth from the obscurity of suburban London. It began here, with 1970’s ‘Elton John,’ his second album overall but the first to see widespread release outside England. This is a more tenative John, firmly cast in the early ’70s’ singer-songwriter mold, accompained by cello and harpsichord and his own plaintive piano. The record’s known mostly for "Your Song," the duo’s first hit and a legendary love song, but the chunky chords of "Take Me to the Pilot" and the sweeping strings of "The King Must Die" provide hints as to the musical journey that John and Taupin were just about to begin.
6. ‘A Single Man’ (1978)
One common complaint against John’s albums is that he doesn’t place his piano playing at the forefront. ‘A Single Man’ almost seems like a response to that criticism; most of the tracks open with just piano and vocal, with the rest of the band crashing in later. String sections are present but carefully implemented, generally more reserved than the Spectoresque approach on previous albums. There’s also some major changes in personnel, with new bandmates on the LP and most notably, a new lyricist in Gary Osborne. The overall effect is a fresh and invigorated John, showing off some of his strongest piano chops in years.
5. ‘Too Low for Zero’ (1983)
You’re thinking, "Seriously? Is ‘Too Low For Zero’ really better than some of the his classic ’70s LPs?" Hear us out. Yes, this is an ’80s record, and yes, it sounds like it. But there’s a deep, rich soul beneath the sheen and synths. This is a defiant album that also conveys a powerful sense of longing. It may be more pop than rock in places, but that doesn’t make the songwriting any less powerful. From "Cold as Christmas," a portrait of a couple drifting apart on a Carribean holiday, to "One More Arrow," a touching tribute to a deceased friend, this is a tender record about loss, despite the radio-ready hooks. "I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues" might be John’s greatest recorded vocal.
4. ‘Caribou’ (1974)
Completed in just over a week, ‘Caribou’ is Elton-John-as-product, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It opens and closes with two stone-cold classics in "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Between them you’ll find some of John’s better album cuts of the decade, including the twangy "Dixie Lily," the creepy mid-tempo ballad "I’ve Seen the Saucers" and "Ticking," the album’s closer, where John and Taupin stretch murderous tension over seven minutes of piano and words. It’s pure pop craftsmanship at its finest.
3. ‘Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player’ (1973)
Elton John’s second consecutive No. 1 album is a sampler of songwriting and production styles that foreshadows his masterful ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ which would see release just 10 months later. Phil Spectoresque flourishes, ’50s pop, Stax-like horn charts – John may have invented the mashup decades before it entered the zeitgeist. Full of aching ballads and toe-tapping rockers, this is John in his classic ’70s incarnation, one of the albums that fans and critics alike think back to when they remember his glory days.
2. ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ (1975)
One of the great attractions of the first five years of John’s career is that he seemed unable to do anything wrong. Everything he touched turns to gold records. It’s that level of confidence and talent that enables ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,’ a concept album that tells the story of John and Taupin’s early struggling years through an interconnected suite of 10 songs. The pair approach the story with Taupin’s typical irreverent sense of humor and John’s neverending gift for a hook. But the emotional climaxes here – "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," chronicling John’s attempted suicide; and "We All Fall in Love Sometimes," about the deep and platonic love between the two songwriters – reflect the care and feeling that went into this record. A terrific album by any measure, but arriving after years of exceptional albums from Elton John, it’s nothing short of astonishing.
1. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (1973)
In an era when Elton John could do no wrong, this was his greatest achievement. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is packed with some of John and Taupin’s greatest tunes, staples of classic rock playlists and John’s live set, including "Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting," the title cut, and of course, "Candle in the Wind." The album cuts could just as easily have found success as singles; this is an album with a deep bench of amazing tunes, from the smart-aleck mock-reggae of "Jamaican Jerk-Off" to the yearning country vibe of "Roy Rogers." John and his band slip in and out of genres and moods like chameleons, matching each song to a completely unique sonic experience that manages to feel cohesive. Flamboyant, clever, heartfelt, evocative and fun, this is Elton John’s finest moment.