It’s not untoward to ask exactly who the intended audience of an Elton John compilation is in 2017. The British piano pop legend has been releasing music for more than 50 years now, and has enjoyed a run of success that began early in the ’70s and has yet to entirely let up. And in that time, there have been plenty of collections for fans of all stripes. His very first greatest hits album topped both the U.S. and U.K. charts in 1974 and prompted a sequel only three years later (and a third a decade after that, in 1987). 1990 saw the release of the double-disc The Very Best of Elton John in Europe and, just a month later in America, the four-disc box set To Be Continued…; two years later, owing to a re-shuffling of master ownership, MCA Records issued in America Greatest Hits 1976-1986, essentially supplanting Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (both of which went double platinum). The dawn of a new century (and more hits) necessitated both 2002’s double-disc Greatest Hits 1970-2002 and 2007’s Rocket Man: Number Ones (or The Definitive Hits, depending on where you’re from). All that product, chronicling the better part of 30 studio albums, several soundtracks and an immeasurable effect on popular music.
With a CV of compilations like that, the latest one, this year’s Diamonds (Rocket/Virgin/UMC 00602557681901) could seem positive overkill. A celebration of John’s half-century partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, Diamonds (available as a 2CD or 2LP “highlights” set or a 3CD box) only expands the reach of Greatest Hits 1970-2002 by four studio albums – up to last year’s Wonderful Crazy Night. But a superior presentation and a solid mix of both familiar hits and lesser-heard (if not necessarily rare) tracks really does make this the one to beat.
Diamonds starts not necessarily at the beginning of Elton John’s story, either as Reggie Dwight, the organist of British R&B combo Bluesology, or as Elton John, nascent session singer and struggling songwriter who found a solid writing partner in Bernie Taupin (but not a crystallized sound) on debut LP Empty Sky (1969). Instead, it begins when Elton’s journey kicked into overdrive with the gorgeous ballad “Your Song.” More than 45 years of radio play can’t diminish this recording: its just-off-kilter-enough verse-verse-chorus structure, the simple joys of production by Gus Dudgeon and string arrangement by the late, great Paul Buckmaster…and of course, Elton’s simple, romantic, sincere vocal.
“Your Song” and the following five tracks on Diamonds (“Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time,” “Honky Cat,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel”) encapsulate this first phase of John’s hitmaking days: solid pop-rock, with tinges of folk and country – strong songs, nearly all hits – but, for whatever reason, not enough to attain superstar commercial mass. (Of those six, “Tiny Dancer” didn’t even reach the Top 40 on either side of the Atlantic, only getting a boost from its appearance in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in 2001.) From there, though, Disc 1 crackles with the familiar energy of Elton’s rock and roll imperial phase: the rock and glam influences are pushed to the fore, the band (fully crystallized since 1972 and including guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olson) is in perfect step and the songs sear into your ear like the perfect steak. All are Top 10 hits coming from blockbuster albums (Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies, both released within a five-month span of 1975, became the first and second albums to top the Billboard 200 in their first weeks of release – a marvel, considering the very analog process of determining a chart-topper before the SoundScan era.) The stomp, flash and shimmer of sides like “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Bennie and The Jets,” “The Bitch is Back,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Island Girl” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” are as strong as ever on Diamonds, and traveling through this dizzying run of hits still feels as revitalizing as it’s always been.
Moving to Disc 2 of the set, Diamonds showcases Elton less as conqueror and more as survivor, weathering changing sounds, styles, tastes and personal struggles (not only substance abuse but vocal issues resulting in surgery that dramatically changed the timbre of his singing voice) to arrive back on top, making hits for himself, branching out into soundtrack work and comfortably embracing icon status while managing to stay off his laurels. Here, accommodating the breadth of that narrative – the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and present decade – could get tricky. After all, Disc 1 only addressed a full decade of hits, and could do so in its sleep. (Indeed, 15 of the 17 tracks on the first part of Diamonds appeared on the first disc of Greatest Hits 1970-2002; the other two, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and 1980 hit “Little Jeannie,” opened that collection’s second disc.) But Diamonds ducks and weaves through this period ably; while the style may have changed (thanks largely to producer Chris Thomas and a bevy of electronic piano sounds), the latter half of Diamonds proves Elton’s still the same guy you loved a decade before.
Here, we enjoy the first of a few small surprises: the torch song “Blue Eyes,” a hit not included on recent American compilations, is here. So is the live version of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” from 1991, a duet between the sorely missed George Michael and Elton. And four of the last five tracks on Disc 2 have never appeared on any recent compilation: the Thom Bell-produced 1979 single “Are You Ready for Love” (a belated U.K. No. 1 hit in 2003); “Electricity,” an original from Billy Elliott: The Musical; “Home Again,” from the underrated The Diving Board (2013) and the upbeat “Looking Up” from 2016’s Wonderful Crazy Night. This leaves room for familiar pleasures: the Elton-for-the-’80s declaration “I’m Still Standing,” the timeless “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (bolstered, as always, by Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo), the ballads “Nikita” and “Sacrifice,” the pleading “I Want Love,” and, of course, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life,” the blockbuster hits from Disney’s 1994 masterpiece The Lion King. (Placing “Circle of Life” at the end of the disc muddles chronology, but it’s an effective closing statement.)
The deluxe edition’s third disc features another 17 of Elton’s personally selected favorites, and many of them are as essential as anything that appears on the first disc. From the stirring opener, the 1972 B-side version of Empty Sky cut “Skyline Pigeon” cut with the full band and Paul Buckmaster’s strings, to imperial covers of The Beatles (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” featuring John Lennon himself on guitar) and The Who (“Pinball Wizard,” from the band’s film version of Tommy); underrated cuts (quirky disco cut “Victim of Love,” ’80s rocker “Kiss the Bride”), underrated hits (“The One,” “Believe”), collaborations (from the Bacharach-Bayer Sager composition “That’s What Friends Are For,” recorded with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight to benefit AIDS charities; to the title track of PNAU’s sorely underrated vintage 2012 mash-up record Good Morning to the Night) and, in time for the holiday season, the immortal “Step Into Christmas” (a prime example of the good things that can happen when artists with distinct styles take on Christmas their way).
If another 17 songs don’t entice you on the deluxe edition, the packaging should: housed in a lidded box of equal size to Elton’s deluxe Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the deluxe Diamonds features a neat little pocket of prints featuring Elton’s various looks through the years (augmented with bursts of color throughout) as well as a fantastic hardcover book of liner notes. You’ve got great track-by-track notes by Daryl Easlea, images of picture sleeves for each track, detailed single release and chart info, and personal notes by Elton and Bernie bookending the set.
When you’ve released this many collections in your career (and have enough hits to justify most of them!), it’s hard to imagine your latest being your greatest – but Diamonds really fits the bill of “if you had just one…” Beyond the great material we’ve fallen in love with many, many times over, it’s packaged in a way that does Elton John’s legacy justice. Put simply: you won’t mind – it’s wonderful to have Diamonds in your world.