For decades the King of Rock and Roll needed no introduction. Elvis was indeed everywhere, even after his untimely death, staying in the public eye through imitators, oldies radio, repackages, and rumors of a still-living Elvis Presley visiting a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Last summer’s Baz Luhrmann biopic, Elvis, revived Presley’s legacy and introduced him to new generations of would-be fans. But since he released dozens of albums in his lifetime and there’ve been countless compilations and reissues over the years, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by Presley’s discography (recently deceased chart historian Joel Whitburn named Presley as the number one artist in Billboard history, with over 160 singles on the charts over the years). To help both newcomers and longtime fans navigate that extensive catalog, The A.V. Club has whittled down the King’s daunting discography to 30 essential tunes, listed here in chronological order. Use this list as a guide through one of the monumental catalogs in popular music.
That’s All Right (1954)
The single that started it all. At the end of a long, frustrating session at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, Elvis Presley decided to blow off some steam by turning Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s slow blues “That’s All Right, Mama” into a jumping country number. Banging out the rhythm on his acoustic guitar, he was joined by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, the trio finally falling into a rhythm together. Their spontaneous joy is palpable and that sense of discovery makes the record still seem alive.
Baby’s Let’s Play House (1955)
“Baby Let’s Play House” is the rawest of Elvis Presley’s Sun singles, a record where his sexuality is pushed to center stage. Elvis struts, stuttering his opening salvo of “baby” not as a joke, but as a taunt. His voice rockets from the depths into a keening falsetto, with Presley running through his range as if he can barely contain his own wild spirit. Behind him, Scotty Moore spins out fleet-fingered solos while Bill Black digs deep into a bass groove, playing with increasing confidence.
Mystery Train (1955)
Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” was cool and easy, a record with a relaxed groove. There’s not much relaxed about Elvis Presley’s cover version. While Scotty Moore and Bill Black create a propulsive rhythm that uncannily mimics the sound of a locomotive, Presley laments his long gone baby, singing in a high, lonesome falsetto. The stark setting and plaintive wail make “Mystery Train” seem haunted in a tantalizing way.
Heartbreak Hotel (1956)
“Heartbreak Hotel” was Elvis Presley’s first single for RCA Records and the difference is immediately apparent. Where the slapback echo on his Sun singles seemed homey and intimate, the reverb on Presley’s voice on “Heartbreak Hotel” seems bottomless, a good fit for the lonesomeness at the heart of the song. The arrangement here is subtly but notably fleshed out, with Floyd Cramer tinkling the ivories and drummer D.J. Fontana providing a relaxed groove, elements that give “Heartbreak Hotel” a fuller feel than anything Elvis released on Sun.
Don’t Be Cruel (1956)
With its bopping chorus and chipper backing vocals, “Don’t Be Cruel” was the lightest song Elvis Presley had released to this point, a record where he found a way to nudge rock & roll in a pop direction. A lot of the cheerfulness is due to the harmonies of the Jordanaires, a vocal quartet who would wind up supporting Elvis throughout his career; they make the tune seem light and effervescent. Presley plays the part of a teen idol here, asking his object of affection not to break his heart—an attitude that’s a far cry from “Baby Let’s Play House.”
Hound Dog (1956)
Maybe the lyrics of “Hound Dog” don’t make as much sense coming from Elvis Presley as they did from Big Mama Thornton, the blues belter who originally cut the tune back in 1953. In her version, Thornton was scolding a no-count man who wouldn’t leave her alone, a scenario that simply wouldn’t suit Elvis. Presley turned the song into a bit of a lark, treating its canine subject literally. Perhaps it was played for laughs, but the intended humor was undercut by the grit and grind in Presley’s voice: this wasn’t a blues, it was rock and roll.
Blue Suede Shoes (1956)
Elvis Presley cut “Blue Suede Shoes” mere months after Carl Perkins released the original version. Presley had to be persuaded to record the song as he didn’t want to step on the toes of a fellow Sun Records alumni. Then, Perkins suffered an auto accident while his version was on the charts. Presley’s cover channeled some significant royalties toward Perkins at a time of need and it arguably became associated with Elvis, not Carl. That could be because Presley’s version is in some ways a better record than Perkins, benefitting from the loose swagger of Elvis’ performance.
Love Me Tender (1956)
A love song so sensitive it seems to quiver, “Love Me Tender” was built upon an adaptation of a melody from an old Civil War ballad—which was appropriate, considering how the tune served as the title song for a Civil War melodrama that became Elvis Presley’s motion picture debut. Presley didn’t work with his regular band here. “Love Me Tender” was cut with studio musicians accustomed to movie work, so the song is smoother than most Presley songs of its vintage and Elvis flourishes in this setting, wrenching all the romance out of its sweet melody. Despite the track’s polished feel, it’s full of life, thanks to Presley, who sings like an unaffected teen idol.
Love Me (1956)
Where “Love Me Tender” reflected the innocence of puppy love, “Love Me” is a carnal cry of desperation. The slow-burner is an ideal showcase for Presley’s dramatic ballad style and it left a lasting impression on Robert Plant. The Led Zeppelin vocalist recalled that after spending 90 minutes with Elvis, he was walking away when Presley “swung ‘round the door frame, looking quite pleased with himself, and started singing that song: ‘Treat me like a fool…” I turned around and did Elvis right back at him. We stood there, singing to each other.”
All Shook Up (1957)
Another Elvis Presley classic penned by the great Otis Blackwell, “All Shook Up” is a kissing cousin to “Don’t Be Cruel.” Like that other Blackwell tune, “All Shook Up” is an ebullient little pop tune given a lift by the harmonies of the Jordanaires. Presley came up with the title phrase, then Blackwell created the indelible lyrical and musical hooks, keeping the tune as light and effervescent as soda pop.
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
From a certain perspective, “Jailhouse Rock” is indeed reminiscent of the smart, funny songs Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote for the Coasters. It’s filled with characters like Spider Murphy and Shifty Henry, all dancing in the cell block to the “Jailhouse Rock.” What keeps the record from drifting into novelty territory is the wallop of the rhythm and Presley’s sneer. Elvis isn’t singing this as a joke, he’s wailing away, making “Jailhouse Rock” one of his greatest records: it feels like rebellion incarnate.
Blue Christmas (1957)
Elvis Presley dominated pop culture in 1957 which meant there was one thing he needed to do before the year was out: he needed to have a holiday album ready in time for the Christmas season. At the center of Elvis’ Christmas Album was “Blue Christmas,” a song that honky tonk singer Ernest Tubb turned into a hit in 1949. Presley brought the blues to “Blue Christmas,” giving the verses a measure of palpable grit while the Jordanaires provide extraordinary, almost ethereal texture. Elvis cut a lot of Christmas material over the years but he never topped this: no wonder it’s a holiday perennial.
Hard Headed Woman (1958)
Part of the King Creole soundtrack, “Hard Headed Woman” is one of the hardest-hitting singles Elvis Presley released on RCA during the ’50s. “Hard Headed Woman” packs taut, twangy guitar lines and smears of Dixieland horns but, as always, it’s Elvis himself who drives the song. He pushes and punches the lyrics, helping the single feel almost unhinged in its forward momentum.
One Night (1958)
Smiley Lewis cut the Dave Bartholomew & Pearl King song “One Night” in 1956, singing its original lyric of “one night of sin is what I’m now paying for.” The next year, Elvis Presley cut a version of “One Night” with those original lyrics but RCA was skittish about having their star singing about sin. Presley tinkered with the words, winding up with “One night with you is what I’m now praying for,” but he still sang the song as if he was wracked with regret. The result is arguably Presley’s best blues-based performance of the ’50s.
Stuck on You (1960)
Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army in 1958. During his two years in the service, he cut the occasional session, while RCA cycled through material they had in the can, so he never was off the charts while he was stationed in Germany. Presley was discharged in March 1960 and rapidly recorded “Stuck On You,” which RCA rushed onto the market. It wasn’t a defiant comeback, it was a bright, poppy song in the vein of “All Shook Up.” What makes “Stuck On You Work” is Presley’s easy touch: he keeps things light and sweet, a mood that turns out to be quite appealing.
Are You Lonesome Tonight (1960)
A revival of an old standard from the 1920s, Elvis Presley recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” at the suggestion of his manager Colonel Tom Parker. While the Colonel would tightly control Presley’s publishing, he didn’t make it a habit to tell Elvis what songs to sing. Parker made an exception for “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” as it was one of his wife’s favorite tunes. Elvis struggled to find the right approach to the song, winding up with a version with a spoken-word bridge that manages to seem sincere, not corny. Based on the finished record, you’d never know Presley had difficulty with the song: he’s earnest and emotional, delivering these old sentiments as if they were new.
Can’t Help Falling in Love (1961)
Taken from the soundtrack of Blue Hawaii, “Can’t Help Falling In Love” does lightly echo its Pacific origins. Along with the breeziness in its rhythm, percussion tinkles like windchimes and there’s a crying steel guitar that suggests Hawaii, not Nashville. All of this is attractive flair on an earnest, open-hearted love song, a tune that turned into one of Presley’s standards. In addition to reaching No. 1, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” provided Elvis with his closing number at his concerts throughout the ’70s.
Little Sister (1961)
One of Elvis Presley’s great rockabilly singles, “Little Sister” is leaner and harder than most of the material he recorded in the early 1960s. It doesn’t sound spartan like the Sun sessions: it’s robust, bursting with guitars and deploying the Jordanaires quite judiciously. Perhaps it’s not quite as wild as his earliest RCA rockers but it benefits from Presley’s relaxed swagger: he’s comfortable in his skin and that gives “Little Sister” an assured charm.
Follow That Dream (1962)
There’s a cinematic buoyancy to “Follow That Dream,” an infectious optimism, and that’s by design. The song served as the title track to a 1962 film where Elvis Presley was part of a wandering family who follows their dream right to Florida, where they wind up stranded after their car breaks down. Heard apart from the confines of the film, “Follow That Dream” seems stirring, even inspirational, an exhortation to chase your muse wherever she may take you.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
A bustling ode to the city of sin, “Viva Las Vegas” captures the exuberance of the Vegas strip and none of its decadence. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman fill the song with images of bright lights, roulette wheels, pretty women and cards, setting their good times to an exuberant bossa nova beat. Elvis sells the glamor and drama so effectively that “Viva Las Vegas” wound up outlasting its accompanying movie. Plenty of bands have covered it over the years and it’s effectively the unofficial theme song for Sin City.
Tomorrow is a Long Time (1966)
A welcome oddity among Elvis Presley’s mid-’60s records, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” finds the king of rock & roll tackling one of the weightiest songwriters of the time: Bob Dylan. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” has one of Dylan’s lovelier melodies and Presley sings it sweetly, but the striking thing about his version—included on the soundtrack to Spinout—is that he turns it into a lazy blues that crawls out for over a mesmerizing five minutes, an eternity on Elvis records. It’s a rare opportunity to hear Presley leading a band through a sophisticated jam.
U.S. Male (1968)
Along with “Guitar Man,” another Jerry Reed original Elvis Presley cut earlier in 1968, “U.S. Male” provides the first concrete evidence that Presley was shaking off his mid-’60s doldrums and was ready to sink his teeth into sexier adult material. Reed’s song is filled with puns and jokes, japes that sound like threats when delivered by the randy, jealous Elvis. Presley isn’t the only full-blooded thing about “U.S. Male,” either: Jerry Reed himself picks guitar on this version, giving the track a lively, earthy vibe that’s distinct from the polished music Elvis was making in the middle of the decade.
If I Can Dream (1968)
Loosely inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Elvis Presley cut “If I Can Dream” two months after King’s assassination. The song was designed as the rousing closer to Presley’s televised 1968 comeback special and served as a summation of what Elvis intended to present on the show. Here, Presley wasn’t singing frivolities, he was addressing social issues in a mature fashion, marrying his love of gospel and pop in a grand fashion. It’s an unusually stirring performance from Presley, a melodramatic yet utterly earnest plea for understanding and love.
In the Ghetto (1969)
Buoyed by the reception to his 1968 comeback special, Elvis Presley returned to the Billboard Top Ten in 1968 with “In The Ghetto.” It was the first time he’d appeared in the upper reaches of the chart since 1965, but he really hadn’t been a regular presence since before the Beatles invaded America in 1964. “In the Ghetto” changed all that, putting Presley back in the center of popular music. While the socially conscious Mac Davis song flirts with mawkishness, there’s an inherent drama to Chips Moman’s lush production, one that suits Presley’s generous performance.
Wearin’ That Loved On Look (1969)
Elvis Presley was many things throughout the years but he was never placed in the position of being the one cheated upon. That’s the striking thing about the Dallas Frazier and A.L. Owens song that opens up From Elvis In Memphis, which is often considered Presley’s greatest album: it captures a Presley who has been wronged and who is unafraid to wear his scars openly. When combined with the deeply soulful production from Chips Moman, the lyrical theme of “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” essentially announces the arrival of a mature, middle-aged Presley.
Suspicious Minds (1969)
A close relative to “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “Suspicious Minds” teems with paranoia and jealousy. Throughout its intense four minutes, Presley seems physically pained to be in the position of doubting the fidelity of his lover. “Suspicious Minds” deservedly reached the top of the Billboard charts and, in some respects, it’s his finest single. Certainly, it’s one of his best-produced records, every element underscoring the pain at the heart of the song. The remarkable thing about “Suspicious Minds” is how it seems to operate at a constant crescendo: even its slow bridge builds tension, pointing the way to emotional catharsis.
Kentucky Rain (1970)
Blessed with a cinematic production from Chips Moman—the plucked strings replicate the pitter-patter of drizzling rain—”Kentucky Rain” is the apotheosis of Elvis Presley’s country-soul at the dawn of the ’70s. It’s as reliant on its accouterments—the backing vocals, the horns, the orchestral sweep—as it is on its groove, and Presley’s urgent delivery is part of that tapestry, helping to build and push the drama.
An American Trilogy (1972)
Mickey Newbury conceived “An American Trilogy” as a commentary on the United States at the dawn of the ’70s, turning three Civil War-era songs—”Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials,” tunes associated with the South, the Union Army, and African Americans, respectively—into a stirring medley. Presley delivered Newbury’s epic with a showbiz flair, turning it into a rousing routine in his ’70s concerts.
Burning Love (1972)
The gaudy gospel-inflected rhythms of “Burning Love” epitomizes the tacky charms of the jumpsuited Elvis Presley: it’s over-the-top and unconcerned with matters of taste, benefitting from its unabashed kitsch. Underneath that glitz, Presley is as committed as ever, singing the song with gusto and good humor. It’s little wonder this became a hit—the last Top Ten entry in Presley’s lifetime. His passion is evident and infectious.
A Little Less Conversation (1968/2002)
Treated as an amiable throwaway featured on the film Live A Little, Love a Little—one of the last movies Elvis made before his 1968 comeback—”A Little Less Conversation” was rejiggered and remixed by Dutch DJ Junkie XL after its appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. The remix makes hay out of the chicken-scratch guitar and horns, then buries Elvis underneath block-rocking beats. It helped bring Elvis back into the Top Ten—the final time, as of this writing—but it also put the spotlight on the appealing casualness of the original. Presley had a knack for turning a perfunctory product into gems and that’s certainly the case here: whether heard in its original version or remix, it’s hard not to be charmed by Elvis.