50 years ago today, a curious little album called The Electric Light Orchestra debuted in stores across the UK. On the back cover of the album, founders Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, as well as drummer Bev Bevan, gazed down intently at a lightbulb. Their mission: to pick up where the Beatles had left off, to make a record for a new world that had been utterly changed by the Fab Four. Since then, the Electric Light Orchestra — or ELO for short — has dazzled, entertained, kept us company for half a century. And even though Wood left halfway through their second album, Lynne has gone above and beyond in carrying on the torch, his predilection for love, rain and twilight weaving itself into beautiful melodies and poignant lyrics that soundtrack so much of our lives even today. Just listen to “Livin’ Thing” or “Mr. Blue Sky” or “Don’t Bring Me Down” — chances are that you’ll go “oh hey, I know that song!” before the first chorus is even over, and have a massive, massive grin on your face.
Needless to say, I love the band. I love the way they bring out heartbreak and melancholia, but I also go weak for the absolutely sincere joy that pops up in their discography every now and then. I love the way they paint the future without it seeming too dated. I love the way that they made songs about telecommunications so damn effortless. And it’s a love shared by so many people — there’s a reason why so many soundtracks use ELO songs. But for some reason, Jeff Lynne and Columbia have been strangely quiet on the 50th anniversary celebrations — apart from a couple of online compilations “curated by Jeff himself”, nothing tangible has come of it. With that in mind, I figured I’d do my own bit to make sure that ELO isn’t going unnoticed on its golden anniversary, and provide a ranking to all FOURTEEN of their albums. And also I guess Xanadu.
So some parameters for this: this list goes through all fourteen-and-a-half albums that Jeff Lynne recorded under the ELO moniker. ELO Part II, that bastardized continuation set up in the 90s, will not be considered, nor will Lynne’s 1990 solo album Armchair Theatre be seen in this list (despite having basically the same backing band) because the ELO name was not attached anywhere. It’s his fault, don’t blame me. There will be very controversial choices, combined with some very expected choices: that’s the beauty of ELO, everyone has their own favourite period. And if you don’t agree with any of this, well, give me some time. I’m living in “Twilight”.
14. From Out of Nowhere (2019)
It’s rare for me to fall asleep listening to any album, but I actually fell asleep somewhere around the sixth song. In my defence, however, listening to ten variations of the same melody/drum track/lyrics will do that to you: this album, barring perhaps the jaunty concert anthem “Time of Our Life”, has endless versions of the exact same thing. If you asked a person in the street to describe a generic 70s rock tune, it would fit nine out of ten songs on this list. The title track distinguishes itself by falling back on a bit of nostalgia, the recurring ELO desire to “let me fly to a place that I love” — and by being the first thing we hear in this interminable album. Let’s hope that this isn’t the last thing Jeff Lynne has up his sleeve.
Favourite track: “From Out of Nowhere”
13. Secret Messages (1983)
By 1983 ELO’s moment in the spotlight was over: despite keeping up fully with the times on their previous album Time, they couldn’t wash off the stink of being a 70s band. Apparently the band was also eager to move onto other things: this was originally a double album because that would have fulfilled their contract with Jet Records. But did they really have to self-destruct with so many never-ending songs? Make no mistake, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King” and “Four Little Diamonds” (despite being a blatant re-tread of Discovery’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”) are extremely good, but it’s a long hard slog through side one before you even get to them, and any goodwill accumulated is swiftly undermined by the next dirge that cues up. You can hear the band losing interest, not knowing where to turn, and the result is an album that embodies the words “death knell”.
Favourite track: “Four Little Diamonds”
12. Eldorado: A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra (1974)
There is no doubt, first of all, that this is a competent album. The expert melding of flowing strings and steady drumbeats, particularly in the breathtakingly pretty “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”, shows that ELO knew what they were doing when they began to pivot towards pop. (That crash of drums at the beginning demonstrates that for all the attention I’m giving Jeff Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan deserves a bit of attention as well.) But then they blow it: torn between the desire to remain classical and the thirst for public recognition, they end up creating a bastard that achieves neither. To be specific, the parts don’t cohere well with one another: “Boy Blue”’s numerous false endings start and stop the song till you’re thoroughly irritated, and as for those people who hear the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” in the chorus of “Eldorado”, exactly what are you guys on and can I have some? As we’ll see soon, their prog rock offerings weren’t particularly good either, but we can only be thankful that the band decided to stick to one angle afterwards.
Favourite track: “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”
11. Alone in the Universe (2015)
After thirty years with only one forgotten album in between, the question that greeted the news of ELO’s return was: could this band, now basically Jeff Lynne’s solo outfit, still churn out amazing tunes almost half a century on? The answer seemed to be yes: opener “When I Was A Boy” is one of the most heartfelt tunes that Lynne has ever written, and the sublime “Love and Rain” is a brilliant feint at R&B that fully encapsulates that ELO mood better than any song he wrote in the 70s. And then the album slowly subsides into obsolescence, with a lot of pleasant rockers that just mark the passage of time. (A lot of critics I read seem to really like “One Step At A Time”, but it feels too much like a pastiche of an ELO disco hit to be truly great.) This would have been a decent effort if released by any up-and-coming mid-tier band; from Jeff Lynne, though, I expect better.
Favourite track: “Love and Rain”
10. The Electric Light Orchestra (1971)
Prog rock, with its infinite twists, has never been a favourite of mine, so I cannot say that I was ever going to like this album much. And indeed the overwhelming sense from ELO’s debut is confusion: this is a primarily classical album, with Roy Wood — in his sole outing as co-leader — and Lynne playing just about every instrument they can get their hands on (and almost forgetting to add guitars in the process). The result is a mixed bag: I have always found “10538 Overture” to be a rather overblown piece of work, and “The Battle of Marston Moor” is nigh-incomprehensible, an ASMR piece coming straight to you from 1644. But both of them were, even then, capable musicians, and they surprise you with the competence of their instrumentals: “First Movement”, for instance, is a perfectly lovely atmospheric piece. But it’s “Nellie Takes Her Bow” that stands out from the rabble: a ballad about the hidden pains of being an actress, it’s a taste of where Jeff Lynne’s true obsessions lay, and where ELO would go after Wood left the band halfway through their second album.
Favourite track: “Nellie Takes Her Bow”
9. ELO 2 (1973)
And speaking of that second album: having learned exactly nothing from the indifferent reviews for the band’s debut album, Jeff Lynne decided to make the songs even longer for their sophomore outing. There are a grand total of FIVE songs across this 41-minute album, a majority of which follow the formula “hazily murmur two verses and then break off for extended mishmash of classical instruments”. At this point, Lynne was still under the delusion that heavy distortion and showing off your cello skills made good music, which means that powerful songs like “Kuiama” are ruined by the insistent, rude intrusions of the orchestra. The exceptions: the stellar heartsick reminisce of “Momma”, and of course the excellent blend of Beethoven’s Fifth and Chuck Berry in “Roll Over Beethoven”, which gave the band their first bona fide hit. But in general, the album just goes to prove that the hazier the future is, the better it sounds.
Favourite track: “Momma”
8.5. Xanadu (1980)
There’s no question that Jeff Lynne knows how to do a banging disco tune, and perhaps it was his ability to reinvent the band that landed him the job of writing discofied songs for a big Hollywood musical. But by the time Xanadu came out in the summer of 1980, disco was on its way out, and nobody saw this movie. Which is perhaps for the best, because ELO’s work here somewhat misses the mark: to name just one example, “I’m Alive” is so irritating in its endless repetition of the title phrase that it’s all you can do not to shoot it dead. But a couple of gems save the project for me here: ELO’s duet with Olivia Newton-John “Xanadu” shimmers with warmth and ecstasy, creating an aural backdrop not even the noisy clatter of roller-skates can soil. But that’s nothing compared to “All Over the World”, an odyssey that truly kicks the blues away, that infects everything and everyone with its excitement and innate wonder. You listen to this, and all is forgiven — unless, of course, you watch the original scene the song soundtracks. (The acting is so, so bad.)
Favourite track: “All Over the World”
8. Face the Music (1975)
With their fifth album, ELO officially transitioned into writing pop songs — and like the earlier tryout Eldorado, it’s a bit hit or miss. Nothing on this album is bad, but there are stretches where you kind of wonder if Jeff Lynne was still trying to prove how prog rock he could be. I listen to songs like “Fire On High” and “Waterfall”, with their long extended stretches of ominous classical scratching, and I wish that Lynne (or, in a rare delegation of vocal duty, bassist Kelly Groucutt) would just get to the point. But the vocals are never anything less than lovely, and the songs fly by quicker than you’d expect it to. Highlights: the ambient “Strange Magic”, which has an amazingly lush and pretty wall of sound that you could remain in forever, and “Evil Woman”. Any album that has that stunning, adorably silly song in it can’t be THAT bad.
Favourite track: “Evil Woman”/ “Strange Magic” (switches almost every day…)
7. Balance of Power (1986)
Call me a sucker for synthesised bangers. A last-ditch attempt to revive their fortunes, ELO bashed this out in a couple of months and then had to wait a whole year while it was remixed to sound more “with it”. It’s a shame that none of it worked out, for this is one of the sleekest, most polished efforts that they had to offer. There are of course missteps: “Heaven Only Knows” and “Is It Alright” have almost laughable lyrics, and it doesn’t help that Lynne is delivering them in a really stilted fashion. (Consider: “you NEVER BElieved in yourSELF”.) But even in those songs, the contrast between the chirpy music and the depressing-as-all-hell lyrics is so stark as to become beautiful, and there are so many boppers here that it’s much better than its (erroneous) reputation as “contractual obligation album” deserves. Lynne does a passable Roy Orbison on “Endless Lies” (and is probably why he produced Orbison’s final album Mystery Girl), and as for “Calling America” … man, this one is a stone-cold ELO classic, the most underrated of all their singles. If only this had gotten more airplay, who knows what else they might have come up with?
Favourite track: “Calling America”
6. On the Third Day (1973, American release)
A prerequisite for placing ELO’s third album here is going for its American release, which included “Showdown” as an extra song on the end of side one. No less than John Lennon proclaimed ELO to be “sons of the Beatles” upon hearing this song, which must have been on George Harrison’s mind when he asked Lynne to produce his 1987 album Cloud Nine. But it’s not just that song that stuns with its classy proto-disco beat: “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” shows us Jeff Lynne’s glam rock side, which as always he delivers with aplomb and excess abandon (helped, of course, by Marc Bolan guesting on guitar). “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is the ultimate demonstration that classical and rock really can go together well. And if all else fails, there’s still “Oh No Not Susan”, which delivers an F-bomb with all the grace of an upper-class gentleman. Ralph Fiennes would have been proud.
Favourite track: “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”
5. Zoom (2001)
Most artists don’t put out records this great thirty years into their career, but Jeff Lynne isn’t just “most artists”. I was prepared to dislike this because “Alright” began so brashly — then a “Hold On Tight” reference popped up and I realised that it was foolish to resist its charms. From then on, Lynne skilfully works out a bunch of tunes that evoke the 70s while still being awesome on their own: some of these tunes were so good that he managed to get HALF the Beatles to play on his album. The heavily distorted “State of Mind” is going straight up there with the greats, and “Ordinary Dream” lives up to the two words of the title so much that the mundanity of that fantasy hurts. The only real dud on the album is “Melting in the Sun”, which leans too hard into the rock but features none of the delicate melodies (and is a worrying foretaste of the blander product he got up to in the 2010s) that mark an ELO masterwork. But other than that? Near perfection.
Favourite track: “Ordinary Dream”
4. Out of the Blue (1977)
According to the Guardian, people who only know ELO for their most famous hit are called “Bobby Blue Skies”. But there’s no shame in that, because “Mr. Blue Sky” is a classic by itself: joy in ELO songs always ends up compromised, so it’s a shocker to see them actually, genuinely celebrating the wonders of a sunny day. But that’s not the only pleasure available from this sprawling double album, written in just three weeks in a Swiss chalet: you get to hear whales blow, thunder and lightning, and even a tune set in the jungle that made me audibly laugh in the library the first time I heard it. If you’re looking for something more conventional, they’ve got you covered as well: “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, “Wild West Hero” and especially “Turn to Stone” are all tunes that can leave you star-, moon- and lovestruck for days on end. I can’t count the times I’ve listened to these songs, just so I can love them more. (And yes, I can rattle off that giddy string of words in that last one. I really am an incurable nerd.)
Favourite track: “Turn to Stone”
3. Discovery (1979)
Widely maligned as the album where ELO began “selling out”, where the orchestra began to fade and Jeff Lynne followed more pop trends, the very disco Discovery has gotten a bad rep in the ELO fandom for its saturation of four-on-the-floor beats. Let’s not forget, though, that 1979-1980 represented the height of Jeff Lynne’s powers: a lot of its singles reached the top ten, and the following year (as we have seen) gave him access to a big Hollywood musical. That delicate balance of commercialism and artistry is fully on show in Discovery, with “Last Train to London” stunning and “Confusion” demonstrating that he’s got that combination of synths and voice manipulation down pat. But “Don’t Bring Me Down” caps them all: a pulsating rocker that infects your mind with its unrelenting beat, it’s the first, best and ultimate example of what Jeff Lynne could do when tasked to deliver an earworm. It survives countless replays, and whenever I need me some confidence, I simply put this on and begin marching down the street.
Favourite track: “Don’t Bring Me Down”
2. A New World Record (1976)
What’s the most perfect three-song sequence you’ve ever heard on an album? Of all the ones I’ve heard so far, the first three songs on this album take the crown. (Close second: first three tracks of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.) From the moment the mothership descends on “Tightrope”, with a haunting soundscape that explodes into full Technicolor, they establish a direct line to your brain and your heart, then switch out sunny despair for shadowy melancholia with the second-to-none ballad “Telephone Line”, and THEN wrench you back in the other direction with the pure unadulterated joy-rocker that is “Rockaria!” A perfect triple punch, and that’s only most of side one: there’s still bangers like “Livin’ Thing” and melodramatic weepers like “Shangri-La” to get through. All of them are sensational. All of them feel like they’re way too short even though they’re four minutes on average. This was the first ELO album I listened to in full, and God knows how hooked I was after listening to this: they never came closer to revealing the infinite joy and sadness that awaits in the universe than they did on A New World Record. If you’re planning to start your own ELO odyssey, you could worse than to start here yourself.
Favourite track: “Telephone Line”
1. Time (1981)
Stories are difficult to tell when you’re bad at words. And Jeff Lynne, notoriously awkward and shy as he is, isn’t a great lyricist: lyrics like “I can see it very clearly, nothing’s really changed” demonstrate that he’s unlikely to join (close friend) Bob Dylan in the songwriting hall of fame anytime soon. And it speaks a lot about his limited creative powers that ELO’s other concept album looks very much like their first: a man dreams and travels into a distant land, where he finds the same melancholia and heartbreak waiting for him. It’s the same old story as Eldorado, the same old emotions he manipulates. The difference, of course, is that the result breaks your heart into a million tiny pieces this time.
It’s funny, really. This album is really just Jeff Lynne talking over and over about the loneliness of being stranded in the future. The songs aren’t even that much different: “Rain is Falling” is basically “Yours Truly, 2095” slowed down; “Here is the News” is “Ticket to the Moon” speeded up. But if you thought hearing variations of the same theme for almost three-quarters of an hour would deaden its effect, you’d be wrong. If anything, it amplifies that effect, keeps on pummelling your heart in the same consistent way, and never lets up. They all just seem to be one desolate, immense whole that shatters and mends your heart in 13 different ways, in ways that are potent and breathtaking and hopeful and soul-crushing and a million different adjectives that only undersell the effect these songs have on you.
I can’t stop loving it. Melancholia is a sensation that can never be encapsulated in full, but this comes so damn close. I love the way that Jeff Lynne just KNOWS, knows what it’s like to be an alien in a crowd, knows what it’s like to desperately desire human intimacy. But he also knows the flip-side — that feeling of blind hope, that thrill we get from surging onwards in search of something that will save us once and for all. So he describes that journey as best he can, and dresses it up in sparkling synths and pretty lights. The result is this collection of songs that just fit beautifully with each other. Jeff Lynne has albums where he depicts with stunning simplicity the emptiness of heartache, and he has albums full of bangers that you just can’t stop tapping your feet to. Time, however, is the only place where these two merge seamlessly, and it’s literally out of this world.
Every song on this album is perfect, and yet there are two I have to give special mention to. “Hold On Tight” is the one that everyone knows, the one that gets used in documentaries, the one that tells you that everything’s gonna be okay if you just have the willingness to dream. It’s not that simple, of course: there’s defeat and despair and so many depressing thoughts within the fabric of the melodies and the lyrics, and yet you still can’t help but stubbornly dream on. With its exquisite simplicity, it would beat out any other song — if not for the fact that at the other end of the album lies “Twilight”, a hectic rush of adrenaline that throws the roof wide open to reveal the gorgeous sun setting on the horizon, and the deep intoxicating colours of the night sky. A whole new world beckons behind those synths, those sighs, those scarlet lies. You listen to it, and you can only sit there in awe, waiting on edge for your heart to shatter. You know, after all, that it will be exciting.
Favourite track: “Twilight”