King of Rock and Roll or not, Elvis Presley's CD output is, thanks to RCA, a frustrating mess. Although Elvis recorded several great LPs in his lifetime, his output became so overwhelmed by bad artistic choices, greed, and outright neglect that finding the best Elvis music usually means picking through thousands of compilations. Fortunately, I’ve just done that for you. While this is far from a complete list of worthwhile Elvis recordings, it does represent the cream of the crop.
1) Sunrise (1999)
The first records Elvis made at the Sun label - recordings that changed the history of the world in a very real way - have been repackaged endless times by RCA, but this 2-CD set remains the best of the lot, divided into one disc for his legendary masters and a second for rarities. The first CD will help neophytes understand why he gained such staggering popularity, but the second will help veteran fans track his progress as an entertainer.
2) The Top Ten Hits (1987)
Yes, 2002's "30 #1 hits" was a great collection. But it was also a bit brief, curtailing the breadth of both Elvis' popularity and his amazing talent. If you or someone you love knows of the King but doesn't know much about him, this is the place to start; yes, the remastering quality isn't as good as later technology would allow, but neophytes likely won't notice, and much of Elvis' best work was produced rather simply, anyway.
3) From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60's Masters (1993)
There's a reason that the first box set in this reissue series featured the complete Fifties masters, while this one contains only the "essential" Sixties masters - to say that Elvis' music became erratic in his second decade is an understatement. However, there's still a great deal of classic music here, which is why even five CDs aren't too many. The remastering is exquisite, and there are plenty of pleasant surprises, even if the no-soundtrack rule means some of his bigger hits are missing.
4) Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential 70's Masters (1995)
If Elvis' Sixties output was wobbly, his Seventies recordings are off the track entirely - or so goes the conventional wisdom. Fact is, this is also the decade of "Burning Love" and "Kentucky Rain," and while you may have to be a hardcore fan of the King to want 120 of his ‘70s recordings, spread out over five CDs, the man did record a LOT, even in the midst of his dissolution. Meaning you may be pleasantly surprised at what's here, including an entire disc of live highlights!
5) From Elvis In Memphis (1969)
As mentioned earlier, Elvis cut some great albums in his original heyday. But those were cobbled from different sessions with different musicians - this, his post-comeback statement of intent, is perhaps the only Elvis album that establishes a consistant mood and sound throughout. The quality is excellent, as well, with Elvis moving away from pop and back to rock, blues, and soul: if you love the Elvis of "In The Ghetto," this is the one for you. A triumphant homecoming in many ways.
6) Tiger Man (1998)
The King's 1968 "comeback" TV special was a miracle to behold for Elvis fans, but it also found him hampered by overdone pop arrangements on many of his classic hits. The real revelation was the semi-unplugged set he did with his classic early touring band, but only three songs from that session made it to the special, and the complete set was never released officially on CD. Until 1998, that is. This is some of the best work of Elvis' career, even if he does goof off a lot between songs.
7) Elvis: That's The Way It Is (1970)
Some folks really do prefer Fat Elvis to Thin Elvis, and not just in a camp way, either. This remains the best document of the King's Seventies live recordings, a time when glitter and bombast ruled, but the music here, if you give it half a chance, is quite excellent (and much better than in his later, declining years). This is Elvis the Showman at the peak of his power.
8) Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) (1970)
A companion piece of sorts to "From Elvis In Memphis," this remains the King's only original straight country album, and it's a revelation - although Elvis incorporated the style into most of what he recorded, he was never reverent enough to tackle C&W head on. He does that here, displaying his usual interpretive skills as well as an archivist's taste that not many of his fans give him credit for. It's only a dozen tracks, but that's all the space he needs.
9) Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Songs (1994)
Most folks don't know much about Elvis' gospel music oeuvre, although (or perhaps because) it was the music he played most often when NOT in front of an audience. However, the gospel sides he did cut are some of Elvis' most personal and intimate moments, and they give an insight to the man that much of his pop hits do not. There are several gospel compilations out there for Elvis fans, but this one does the best job of balancing affordability and thoroughness.
10) If Every Day Was Like Christmas (1994)
The King cut one classic Christmas album in 1957 ("A Christmas Album"), as all artists attempted to do in those days. This CD, however, also adds several other Yuletide tracks to those LP tracks, resulting in the ultimate holiday compilation for Presley fans. "Blus Christmas" is only the beginning.