Tuesday, March 21, 2017

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Electric Light Orchestra

The Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO if you prefer, was pretty much a 1970s phenomenon, even though they released albums into 1986 in their first incarnation, and have “regrouped” (which is to say, leader Jeff Lynne decided to revive the name) a couple of times since then.  The original goal of the band was to emulate the Beatles’ sound with strings.  Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne were the band’s leaders, but Wood dropped out after one album (oops), so Lynne became the mastermind.  And they had a lot of hits twenty top 20 hits in the United Kingdom, and 15 in the United States. 

Although their albums sold quite well – in the United States, three studio albums went gold and three went platinum – they’re primarily known today as a singles band.  Their music will still make you smile as you hear them on streaming or classic rock/oldies radio.  I was a fan in the 1970s and 1980s, but I tried listening to their three-CD box set Flashback the other day (which runs over three and a half hours), and it was a struggle.  To me, this was because Lynne lost his touch as time went along (I would argue Time was his last gasp, and based on the liner notes in the box set, he doesn’t necessarily disagree), the band got rid of the strings and used synths to keep up with trends (and the synths haven’t aged well), and they got lazy (their 1983 hit “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King” is a blatant rewrite of “Hold On Tight,” and its attempts to be retro in 1983 just leave it nowhere today).  They were always a tough fit – too experimental (early on) for pure pop fans, but too commercial for prog rock fans.  In any case, I think you’re better off with a one-disc set to start.

All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra (2005)

This isn’t perfect – “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” is inexplicably left off, along with the lesser 1986 hit “Calling America,” while “Alright,” from the 2001 “reunion” Zoom is included, even though it barely charted in the U.K. and not at all in the U.S.  But it’s got everything else (including “All Over the World,” obviously – up until this point the Xanadu singles were resolutely ignored on ELO best-ofs; too bad “Xanadu” is the Jeff Lynne solo remake rather than the original), and at $6.99 for the one-disc package on Amazon it’s plenty cheap (the download is $9.49).

Olé ELO (1976) – get it, kids?  It’s a palindrome!  Anyway, this is a bit of a strange one – apparently, this was to be a promo-only album to go to U.S. radio stations, but after copies started appearing in record stores (I can’t see how Jet/United Artists didn’t think that would happen, which makes me suspicious of the whole story), they made it a regular release.  It’s heavy on songs from the first few albums (which weren’t as big hits in the States), but it’s still got three top 10 hits.  If you’re a vinyl collector, try to find the original issue, which includes full-length versions of “Kuiama” and “Roll Over Beethoven” (of course, since that version clocks in at 49:22 total, you’re probably sacrificing a little fidelity); later reissues (and, inexplicably, the CD) use shorter versions.  $6.99 for the compact disc on Amazon, not available for download.

ELO’s Greatest Hits (1979) – this may have been a big middle finger to United Artists records – Jet (ELO’s label) abruptly switched the distribution of their product to Columbia from UA the year before, after the latter allowed copies of Out of the Blue which had been previously rejected for manufacturing quality reasons out on the marketplace.  (I have one of those copies – I remember being stunned when Korvette’s was selling a double vinyl album for $3.99 in 1979 – and it seemed fine to me, although I probably haven’t played it in over 20 years.)  Anyway, this covers all the hits from On the Third Day to Out of the Blue (the 1979 hits on Discovery weren’t included, since that album was still on the charts).  I have this on vinyl, but it was gifted to me from the unsold items at a stoop/moving sale, so I don’t think I’ve played it in a long time, if ever.  $6.99 for the compact disc, not available for download.  I’d probably pick this up before Olé ELO, but neither of them are complete.  Note a second volume was released in 1992 everywhere except the United States.

Afterglow (1990) – poorly chosen box set from the days when labels were still trying to figure them out.  A bunch of B-sides and tracks deleted from Secret Messages, which apparently Jeff Lynne originally conceived as a double album, are added here, while “The Diary of Horace Wimp,” “Confusion,” and “Last Train to London” (all top 10 hits in the U.K.; the latter two were top 40 hits in the United States) and all of the Xanadu singles are left off.  This will be a recurring issue throughout; I’m guessing it was licensing issues, as Xanadu was on MCA (Olivia Newton-John’s label at the time), and ELO’s catalogue is now completely with Sony.  Out of print but not particularly expensive if you want to buy a used copy on line; not available for download.

Strange Magic: The Best of Electric Light Orchestra (1995) – two-disc set; I have no idea why Sony didn’t want to release a single disc at this point.  A little short (it clocks in at 120 minutes, leaving 40 minutes of unused disc space), and missing “The Diary of Horace Wimp” and the Xanadu singles again.  Amazon has one new copy left at $49.99; don’t be a sucker.  Unavailable for download.

Flashback (2000) – another box set (I don’t know whether Sony did this to fix the problems from the previous one, or because they’d get the uberfans to buy two of them).  Jeff Lynne’s solo rerecording of “Xanadu” is here (showing he’s lost much of his upper register, which isn’t unusual for male singers as they age); I guessing he didn’t want to pay any fees to Olivia Newton-John for the original version.  Most of the other hits are here except the other Xanadu singles.  I have this, but I bought it in 2002 before there were better options, and it was marked down significantly – this isn’t a particularly good choice unless you’re a big fan.  $39.76 on Amazon, not available for download.

Playlist: The Very Best of the Electric Light Orchestra (2008) – this was original released in 2003 as a single-disc entry as part of Sony’s Essential series, but at some point they decided ELO was worthy of a two-disc version and dumped this down to the budget-line Playlist series.  Which is a great deal for consumers – unlike most entries in the Playlist series, there’s no fluff here.  Every song hit Top 40, and with the exception of the Xanadu singles, this represents ELO’s top hits in the States in their entirety – no curious omissions.  There are a couple of single edits, but if you can find it – it’s not available for download – it’s a bargain.  $4.99 on Amazon, which means it’s probably the same price or a buck more at truck stops.

The Essential Electric Light Orchestra (2011) – another nifty entry in the Essentials series, and give Sony credit:  they’ve done a much, much better jobs with these backlist packages than their counterparts at UMG.  The only chart hits missing from this set (including the Xanadu hits, apart from the inevitable title track remake), either in the U.S. or the U.K., are “Daybreaker” (#87 in the U.S. in 1974) and “Getting to the Point” (#97 in the U.K. in 1986).  This would easily get my recommendation except, for whatever reason, it’s not available for download on Amazon (it’s a slightly overpriced $14.99 on iTunes, but everything on iTunes is a little more expensive, or so it seems).  The two-disc set is $11.19 on Amazon; I’ll have to keep an eye out for this in used record stores.

Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra (2012) – the short review:  rerecordings.  The longer review:  Jeff Lynne decided today’s technology would allow him to make better versions of the old hits, so he went to a different label (Frontiers, which has become the home of many classic rock stars – maybe they give a better royalty rate or something), and poof, a whole new album.  I’ve listened to a couple of them, and my initial reactions are 1) his voice is okay, but the high parts are a bit of a struggle, 2) on the songs where the orchestras didn’t play a key role, the songs sound nearly like the originals, 3) on the songs where the orchestras were important, well, you miss them.  This may be making Jeff Lynne more money, but I don’t think he’s struggling, and you don’t need to line his pockets.  $9.49 for the download on Amazon; it looks like the vinyl and CD versions are either out of print or the stock is very low.

There are also some multidisc packages from Sony that reissue the original albums with bonus tracks included (all on CD only, although the individual albums are surely available for download at a higher price).  The largest of these is The Classic Albums Collection, which includes all the studio albums and bonus tracks for $60.89 (for that price, it’s easy to skip a box set like Flashback).  I would go for Electric Light Orchestra Original Album Classics – for $18.60 you get On the Third Day, Face the Music, A New World Record, Discovery, and Time – just buy Out of the Blue separately for $4.99 (as a double vinyl album turned into a single CD, there’s no room for bonus tracks), and that may be all the ELO you’ll ever need.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... The Commodores

Here’s the big issue with this band.  They started out as a funk band (you really must hear “Slippery When Wet” or “Machine Gun” to understand what I mean), but Motown kept releasing a Lionel Richie ballad as a single every time a new album came out.  And those became hits – of the nine top 10 pop hits the group racked up with Lionel Richie as a member, seven of them were his ballads (the exceptions were “Brick House” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”).  This was unfair to both Richie and the group – not everything he wrote was a slow song (he collaborated with the full group on “Brick House” and “Too Hot Ta Trot,” and cowrote “Fancy Dancer” with bass player Ronald LaPread and “Flying High” with Thomas McClary), and it gave the public a one-sided idea of what they were about.

I’m not saying I don’t like Richie’s ballads – “Easy,” “Sweet Love,” and “Sail On” are all great songs.  (On the other hand, I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing “Three Times a Lady” again.)  But I’m saying it’s very different hearing them on the albums (there were two at the most per album) as opposed to a hits set – obviously, the Richie ballads can take up a lot of space on a poorly-chosen best-of.  So, for this review, I am introducing the Lionel Richie Ballad Percentage, or LRBP.  This will indicate what percentage of the songs on the album are Lionel Richie hit ballads (the seven listed above).  I would recommend avoiding anything with a percentage larger than 40 percent.  And if you’re a Richie fanatic, you have options as well, as you’ll see.

Commodores Gold

I hate to recommend a two-CD set for a band that had 17 top 40 hits, but there’s a reason for that.  There are a few hits sets that use the single edits of the band’s songs, this one doesn’t.  (That’s great for the funk workouts, but you may wish you had the short version of “Three Times a Lady,” given the one here runs 6:42.)  Anyway, all of the hits are here – including the ones after Richie went solo (“Nightshift,” of course, but even such really minor hits as “Painted Picture” and “Goin’ to the Bank”).  $13.49 for the download and $15.96 for the two discs on Amazon.  I don’t have this, but the liner notes for UMG’s Gold series have generally been okay; unfortunately, the label has done a pretty slipshod job of keeping the series readily available for the public (as opposed to Sony’s Essential series, which they’ve promoted quite well), so keep an eye out.  LRBP:  21.2 percent.

Here are the others (links go to the Wikipedia entries):

The Commodores Greatest Hits
(1978) – a Christmas release after “Three Times a Lady” became a big hit that summer.  Pretty representative selection of the group’s hits to that point.  It looks like they used all single edits, except for “Three Times a Lady” (ugh).  This appears to be totally out of print, although you can probably find it in used record stores.  LRBP:  40 percent.

All the Great Hits (1982) – somebody at Motown must have wanted to make sure the band’s name was still out there after Richie went solo and had a big hit solo album (his first release, Lionel Richie, had three top 10 hits).  Commendable, but this ain’t the way to go. Four songs repeated from Greatest Hits, four that had become hits since then (“Sail On,” “Still,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” “Oh No”), and two new songs without Richie, neither of which broke the top 40.  Out of print on disc, but available for download at $6.99 – I’d probably spend more money or go for one of the group’s studio albums first.  LRBP:  60 percent.

Anthology (1983) – I have this on vinyl, and honestly, it could be better – it cuts off after 1979’s Midnight Magic, which means their final two studio albums with Richie (1980’s Heroes and 1981’s In the Pocket, which together had the top 40 hits “Old Fashion Girl,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” and “Oh No”) aren’t represented, even though they’d clearly been out for awhile.  However, this version was only released on vinyl (so it’s obviously out of print) – Motown tended to reuse the word “Anthology” for different configurations; there are three different configurations of The Commodores Anthology, so I’ll have to list all three here.  Single edits only.  LRBP:  28.6 percent.

All the Great Love Songs (1992) – gee, wouldn’t this band be great if all that nasty funk wasn’t around?  The answer is right here.  LRBP:  50 percent.  $9.49 for the download on Amazon, the disc is out of print (thank goodness).

Commodores Hits, Vol. I (1992) and Commodores Hits, Vol. II (1992) – I’m grouping these together to say they’re rerecordings.  After Lionel Richie left in 1982, one by one the other guys dropped out (Thomas McClary in 1984, Ronald LaPread in 1986, Milan Williams in 1989).  They continued to record (“Nightshift” was a big hit in 1985), but since 1990 or so it’s been original members William King and Walter Orange, plus James “J.D.” Nicholas as lead singer since 1984, and presumably some other unnamed musicians.  They still tour today (their tour dates are on The Commodores website), but in the early 1990s, they decided to rerecord their hits on their own label, with Nicholas subbing for Richie (who handled most of the vocals in the glory years along with Orange).  I haven’t heard any of these, but you don’t really want the rerecordings if you’re only buying one album by the band.  These are both on Amazon, but avoid them.

Anthology (1995) – 39 songs on two discs, so if you want to hear the group’s changes over the years, you’ve come to the right place.  (On the other hand, nearly half of the second disc is taken up with the various post-Richie configurations, so beware.)  Single versions only, of course.  Completely out of print, and it may not be particularly easy to find.  LRBP:  17.9 percent, although there may be a few more of his songs that weren’t hits lurking within.

Motown Legends: The Commodores (1996) – another budget release before UMG bought out Motown.  It’s not really a hits set (a few songs weren’t even released as singles), and as a result it gives an inaccurate picture of the group in the opposite direction:  the LRBP here is 18.2 percent.  Still in print per Amazon at $4.99, but I have a feeling they’re clearing out inventory.  No download available.

The Ultimate Collection (1997) – not quite; “Sail On” and “Oh No” are left off.  Most of the other songs are hits (the exception:  Richie’s early “Girl, I Think the World of You”), but how do you release a greatest-hits set and leave off two top five hits?  It clocks in at 74:21; this might have been a time to use a few single edits to get everything in.  LRBP:  33.3 percent.  $7.39 for the disc on Amazon, no download available.

20th Century Masters: The Best of The Commodores - The Millennium Collection (1999) – I’ve mentioned in other entries I’m not a fan of this series; it’s Universal Music Group’s budget line, and they’re usually no more than 12 songs, even for bands from the 1950s and 1960s when the longest song you’d ever hear was three minutes, tops.  This one ain’t so bad, since they used the album versions; it clocks in at around 54:15, which isn’t a ridiculous length for a single CD.  However, the LRBP is an almost intolerable 63.6 percent, so most of those long versions are Richie’s ballads.  $4.99 for the disc (look for it in stores or truck stops when you’re driving), a pointless $8.99 for the download.

Anthology (2001) – I think Motown was completely bought out by Universal Music Group sometime around 1998 or so, which may explain why a completely different configuration of The Commodores hits was released six years after the last release called Anthology.  This is the one I have, and I like it very much – 30 songs over two discs, long versions of the songs, and a completely tolerable LRBP of 23.3 percent.  However, the aforementioned Gold (issued in 2005) has nearly the same configuration (“Lay Back” is dropped, with “Young Girls Are My Weakness,” “Wonderland,” “Only You,” and “Goin’ to the Bank” added) and is cheaper than this one (this Anthology goes for $14.49 for the download and $24.98 for the discs), so go Gold if at all possible.

Commodores Greatest Hits, Vol. I (2007) – rerecordings again, and for all I know these are the same ones they released in 1992.  I know the current members have to make a buck, but you’d probably be better off going to a live show.  There’s probably a Volume II out there as well, I suppose.

The Definitive Collection (2009) – 12 years after The Ultimate Collection, Motown/UMG tries again and fails; the only difference between the two albums is “Oh No” is added, which means “Sail On” is still left off.  (But “Girls, I Think the World of You” is still available – woot!)  Seriously, if you only want a one-disc set, this is the one to get, but you might want to download “Sail On” separately and make your own disc.  LRBP:  37.5 percent.  $7.39 for the disc again on Amazon, $7.99 for the download.

As for solo greatest hits sets, as you might imagine Lionel Richie is the only that has any – and virtually all of them include his Commodores songs as well as his solo work.  (I should point out that, after taking a long break that ran nearly ten years, he’s been releasing solo albums fairly regularly since 1996, and his 2012 album Tuskegee – all duets of his old songs with country stars – hit #1 in Billboard.)  I have The Definitive Collection from 2003, which is $9.24 for one disc, it’s perfectly acceptable.  (My version has a second disc with five extra songs, including “Brick House” as a hidden track; five of the 20 songs on the one-disc version are Commodores songs.)  Uberfans might grab “Lionel Richie/Commodores” Gold at $13.19 for the two-disc set and $13.49 for the download, but note 13 of the 32 songs are Commodores songs, so there would be considerable overlap between this and a regular Commodores set.