So many music fans today don’t own any Elvis albums. And if they do, it’s usually just a greatest hits collection or maybe a Christmas album. My guess is that most people just have no idea where to start. I’ve done the hard work, digging through his entire catalog, and these are the 5 essential studio albums that every true music fan should have in their collection.
Elvis’s greatest hits have been packaged and repackaged so many times over the years no one even realizes he made actual studio albums. Although he came up in the singles-driven era of the 1950s, Elvis was one of the pioneers of the “album.” Case in point, his debut album (1956’s “Elvis Presley”) was the first rock and roll LP to sell a million copies. This gave labels all the incentive they needed to put more money into album budgets, and not look at it merely as a collection of left over non-singles. One of the toughest things with Elvis’ catalog is just the sheer amount of hits packages, live albums, movie soundtracks, etc that you have to weed through to find the true albums. As a lifelong Elvis fan, occasionally calling myself an Elvis Apologist (the way CS Lewis called himself a “Christian Apologist”), I’ve gone through every nook and cranny of his catalog and these are the albums that I feel make him an important “album artist” in the way people more commonly refer to The Beatles, Stones, or Dylan. While he made a number of great movie soundtracks, gospel albums, and christmas albums – you won’t find any of that here. Here’s my brief synopsis of each album – listed in chronological order – along with a link to stream the album on Spotify.
1. Elvis Presley (1956)
You can’t go wrong with Elvis’ debut album. While this is a list of “studio albums,” this debut album is technically a collection. It combines previously unreleased songs from his prolific Sun Records years (1954-55) with fresh songs recorded in New York and a few in Nashville. The iconic album cover with the green and pink lettering has been parodied many times over the years, most famously with The Clash’s 1979 opus, London Calling. Key tracks: Blue Moon, Tryin’ to Get to You // Reissues include the essential singles from the sessions: Heartbreak Hotel, Lawdy Miss Clawdy and more.
2. Elvis (1956)
While this album doesn’t get talked about as much as his breakthrough album, I think it is a stronger album, and really his first start-to-finish studio album. With this album you start to hear the range of the material Elvis would continue pulling from throughout his career. Ballads, rockers, gospel, and pop. Key tracks: Love Me, Old Shep, Anyplace is Paradise, How’s the World Treating You // Reissues include the essential singles from the sessions: Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, Too Much and more.
3. Elvis is Back! (1960)
This might be his best album. Easily, it’s his best produced album. Elvis is Back! is top-to-bottom perfection. Elvis has a room full of Nashville’s cream of the crop, and his voice is in a very special place. He does some of his best dirty blues vocals (Reconsider Baby), as well as some of his sweetest pop vocals (Soldier Boy). He still had the swagger of the 50s, but with that post-Army maturity, before Hollywood whitewashed his soul for the next few years. Key tracks: Reconsider Baby, Like A Baby, Feels So Right, Fever // Reissues include the essential singles from the sessions: It’s Now Or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight, Mess of Blues and more.
4. From Elvis in Memphis (1969)
Many Elvis fans and music critics would argue that this is Elvis’ strongest studio album. When I first discovered the album behind his comeback singles (Suspicious Minds, In the Ghetto), I probably would have agreed. It’s a powerful collection of music. But trouble between Elvis’ manager Col Tom Parker and the album’s producer Chips Moman resulted in the album never getting properly finished by Chips, and the album ended up with a very uneven sound. The unfinished sound of some of the songs has a charming, almost demo/outtake quality, but it takes the listener out of the “studio album” mindset, and more into a distracting fly-on-the-wall of a session in progress. Had the album been finished to Chips Moman’s standards we could have a full album of Suspicious Minds-quality productions, but as it is, it is still the closest thing we have to a Memphis Soul album from Elvis at the peak of his “comeback” powers. There were so many songs recorded during these sessions, a second album from the material was released as Back in Memphis a year later. If your looking for a digital or CD reissue, look for a package that includes all the Back to Memphis tracks as well. Key tracks: Wearin’ that Loved On Look, Only the Strong Survive, Power of My Love, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road // Reissues include the singles from the sessions: Suspicious Minds, Don’t Cry Daddy, Kentucky Rain and more.
5. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) (1971)
One thing that mired many of Elvis’ studio albums was also one of the things Elvis fans love him for – his lack of discipline. I love that Elvis never wanted to sing in a vocal booth, never wanted to use headphones, always wanted to be in the middle of the room full of musicians. But this often led to many of his recordings sounding more like a killer jam session, and less like a well-crafted studio masterpiece. This album is no exception. Full of off-the-cuff sounding forays into country, folk, blues, and even bluegrass. I have to give them kudos for experimenting on an Elvis album, but clips of I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago weaving in and out between the songs really wears you out after a while, and contributes to the messiness already inherent in many of these performances. Reissues have remedied that problem, removing the song between tracks, and including it separately as a bonus track. Elvis Country is probably the peak of Elvis’ mature ’70s voice, and he still has a lot of that electric energy from his not-so-distant comeback. Sadly, after this album you hear him rapidly slow down and gradually lose his spark all together. Just like From Elvis in Memphis, the tracks from these “marathon Nashville sessions” ended up getting parceled out into two other albums – Love Letters from Elvis (1971), and the studio half of the soundtrack album That’s the Way It Is, which mixed live and studio recordings. There are reissues that combine all the tracks from these sessions into one package. Key tracks: Funny How Time Slips Away, I Really Don’t Want to Know, I Washed My Hands in the Muddy Water // Reissues include the singles from the sessions: It Ain’t No Big Thing (But it’s Growing) and more.
FURTHER LISTENING: If you wanna dig deeper check out these additional albums: How Great Thou Art (1967), Elvis ’68 Comeback (1968), Something For Everybody (1961), Pot Luck (1962), and any Sun Sessions collection will do.
My Elvis Playlist of personal favorites: