In celebration of his 85th birthday, we give the Elvis Presley discography a fresh overview for a new American decade
Elvis Presley would’ve turned 85 today, had he not shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 42 on August 16, 1977.
Over the course of a recording career that lasted 23 years, he released 69 albums (including greatest hits and budget albums). You could pick up every master recording released during his lifetime in one fell swoop by purchasing the 2016 box set The Album Collection — but what if you’d like to be more selective? What are the most important albums that helped define this monumental career?
Here, in celebration of his birthday, we run down key releases in the King’s catalogue:
Sun Records Elvis
AUDIO: Elvis Presley The Complete Sun Sessions
You can’t overstate the importance of the five singles Elvis released on Sun Records in 1954 and 1955, that guaranteed him a place in rock history. The innovation was there on his very first single, with Elvis taking Arthur Crudup’s bluesy “That’s All Right” and adding some country swing, then injecting a touch of R&B rhythm to Bill Monroe’s country tune “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip side; the other Sun tracks are equally exciting. The first album to bring all the Sun Records songs together was The Sun Sessions (1976). Later sets like Sunrise (1999) and A Boy From Tupelo (2017) include outtakes and the four private recordings Elvis made at Sun before he was signed by the label.
AUDIO: Elvis Presley 1956
Elvis Presley (1956) is one of rock’s classic debut albums; even the much copied cover art is iconic. The record gets off to a roaring start with an exhilarating cover of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” drops in a little Ray Charles (“I Got a Woman”), gets playful (“Money Honey,” “One-Sided Love Affair”), and shows off Elvis’ penchant for ballads (“I’m Counting on You”). The 2011 “Legacy Edition” reissue also includes his second album, Elvis, and related singles.
Elvis returned from the army determined to show how much he’d developed as a vocalist, and Elvis Is Back! (1960) fully lives up to that promise. He evinced a confident new maturity as he tackled a range of material, including a sizzling “Fever,” pop treats like Otis Blackwell’s “Make Me Know It,” and masterful performances on blues numbers like “It Feels So Right” and “Reconsider Baby.” The 2011 “Legacy Edition” reissue also includes the subsequent album Something For Everybody, and related singles.
In 1969, Elvis recorded in the Memphis for the first time since the 1950s, heading for American Sound Studios, where acts like Dusty Springfield, the Box Tops, and Wilson Pickett had recorded hits produced by the studio’s owner, Lincoln “Chips” Moman. The result was two exquisite records: From Elvis in Memphis (1969) and Back In Memphis (1969), undeniably Elvis’ finest post-army albums. These soulful records are filled with songs that address life’s sorrows as well as its joys: “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “Long Black Limousine,” “Stranger in My Own Hometown,” “In the Ghetto.” The 2009 “Legacy Edition” reissue of From Elvis in Memphis also includes Back In Memphis and related singles; American Sound 1969 (2019) features a wealth of outtakes.
Still riding high on his recent newfound successes, Elvis Country (1970) showed the musical direction Elvis would take in the new decade. Though he’d always recorded country songs, the genre would now start to predominate in his work, his albums charting higher on the country charts than the pop charts. This record is something of a concept album, with the song “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” used as a linking track; other highlights include “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “The Fool,” and a rollicking “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water.” The 2012 “Legacy Edition” reissue includes the subsequent album Love Letters From Elvis and related singles.
By 1976, Elvis couldn’t be bothered with going to the studio anymore. In desperation, RCA sent a recording truck to his home, Graceland, where he recorded a total of 16 tracks in February and October, his final sessions. The songs were spread over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976) and Moody Blue (1977), the albums padded out with live tracks. Elvis could still rouse himself for dramatic numbers like “Hurt,” “Danny Boy,” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” ringing the emotion out of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” while “Moody Blue” was a toe-tapping single. All the masters are on the Way Down in the Jungle Room (2016) set, which has a revelatory second disc of the songs without the schmaltzy overdubs, revealing what a strong singer Elvis remained, until the end.
VIDEO: Elvis Presley performing “Crawfish” from the film King Creole
Elvis made 31 feature films, most accompanied by a soundtrack LP or EP. King Creole, the last film Elvis made before entering the army, is one of the best; fittingly, as the film was Elvis’ own favorite of his movies. There’s the steamy “Trouble,” the sweet “Lover Doll,” the raucous “Hard Headed Woman” — heck, even a lesser track like “Crawfish” has an insinuating charm. This is what his film career could’ve been.
Post-army, Blue Hawaii is the most representational of his 1960s film experience, and the majority of the songs are worth listening to — something that wouldn’t always be the case. Standouts are the timeless “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the light pop of “Rock-a-Hula Baby,” the Hawaiian flavored “Ku-U-I-Po-I,” and the title track. Even curmudgeonly Elvis biographer Albert Goldman was moved to write, “Blue Hawaii is the best of the post army Presley film scores; of the worst, one is not obliged to speak, if only out of respect for the dead.”
AUDIO: Elvis As Recorded At MSG (full album)
The 1968 television special Elvis put Elvis in front of a live audience for the first time in seven years, and showed that with the right material he was still a powerful cultural force to be reckoned with. He’s on fire in “One Night” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and the studio numbers (the “Trouble”-“Guitar Man” medley, “If I Can Dream”) are just as potent. You really owe it to yourself to spring for The Complete ’68 Comeback Special (2008) box, which has the original album and all four of the live performances taped for the show.
The 1969-1970 era was a time when Elvis enjoyed performing live, before touring became as much of a grind as the movies had been. Elvis in Person at the International Hotel was first released in 1969 in the double album set From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis, then as a stand alone album the following year, and captures a live Elvis at his most manic; the 2019 box Live 1969 presents 11 shows from the ’69 Vegas season. That’s The Way It Is (1970) was drawn from Elvis’ third Las Vegas season, and repositioned Elvis away from his signature hits, focusing on contemporary material like “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”; there have since been 2 CD, 3 CD, and 8 CD/2 DVD editions of the album.
Though it wasn’t quite the worldwide broadcast that the hype contended (just six Pacific Rim countries that saw the concert when it aired live), Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite (1973) was the last landmark concert of Elvis’ career. There’s the classic intro (Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” segues into “See See Rider”), the extravagant numbers Elvis favored (“My Way,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You”), a sweet tribute (Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You”; the concert raised money for his cancer fund), a showstopper (“American Trilogy”), and the signature song (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”). Perhaps the quintessential ’70s Elvis concert. The 2013 “Legacy Edition” reissue includes the dress rehearsal concert as well.
Greatest Hits Elvis
AUDIO: Elvis Presley The 50 Greatest Hits
Elvis’ albums rarely featured his hit singles, making his greatest hits collections a must. During his lifetime, the most comprehensive release was Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits (1970), though you miss out on a smattering of post-1970 hits. Among posthumous releases, the best collection remains The 50 Greatest Hits (2000). All killer, no filler.
AUDIO: Elvis Presley Ultimate Gospel (full album)
Elvis liked to say that he knew “practically every religious song that’s ever been written,” so it’s no surprise that his religious recordings feature some of his most heartfelt work (and the only recordings for which he received Grammy awards during his lifetime). Elvis released three religious albums, the best of which is His Hand in Mine (1960), with great renditions of “I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs,” a lively “Swing Down Sweet Chariot,” and a rousing “Working on the Building,” where Elvis drops from a lead singer to a backing vocalist by the end. All of his religious albums (which include How Great Thou Art  and He Touched Me ) are in the set I Believe: The Gospel Masters (2009).
AUDIO: Elvis’ Christmas Album (full album)
Elvis released two holiday albums, with Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957) being the stronger record. Irving Berlin was scandalized that Presley dared to cover “White Christmas” — for shame, Irving! Other highlights include “Blue Christmas” and a terrifically raw performance of Leiber & Stoller’s “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” Elvis Christmas (2006) includes both his holiday albums (the other one being Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas ), while the 2 CD Christmas Peace (2003) adds the single “If Every Day Could Be Like Christmas.”