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.


  1. As much as I'm a slut for anything with the JL name on it, I've got to admit, I was let down by the "Mr. Blue Sky" disc. I got it, because I'm an ELO completist, but the songs, while to a Lynne level of competence (which I think is saying something), aren't really any better than the originals, which were perfect.

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