Friday, February 22, 2019

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set By... The Monkees

With Peter Tork’s death yesterday, there are two surviving members of The Monkees – Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith (Davy Jones died in 2012). It’s possible there may be more material coming from the group (they released a Christmas album last December, The Monkees Christmas Party, which somehow totally escaped my notice), but for the most part, we’ll be listening primarily to the music they recorded during the late 1960s, during the period the TV series The Monkees aired on NBC, and for a couple of years thereafter.

I talked to Tork for about 30 seconds at a convention signing in 2011 (which was odd, because virtually everybody else there came from the comic book, science fiction, fantasy, or horror fields in one way or another – I think he got booked there in a hurry after a Monkee reunion tour fell apart); the result is I have a signed copy of the band’s 1967 LP Headquarters. He seemed gracious and outgoing – which is the reaction I’ve gotten from several friends on Facebook, many of whom knew him quite well. It’s always good to know the people you have admired from afar are, in face, admirable.

The Monkees got a bad rap in the music business because, as should have been obvious, they didn’t play the instruments for the most part on the first couple of albums. Yeah, and as we’ve discovered, there were plenty of songs by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles that didn’t have some (or all) of the band members playing instruments. (On Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson plays on four songs, Carl on two, Dennis on one, and Al Jardine, Mike Love, and Bruce Johnston on zero.) Others have complained that the band was formed as a corporate maneuver to ape The Beatles, not organically (as opposed to, say, The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, which got together because David Geffen woke up from a dream with dollar signs dancing in his head). Whatever. The band got respect from the people who had been through similar adulation (such as The Beatles), who realized their music output was certainly competitive with other bands, and the fact that they were doing that while making a television show – which was the primary motivating factor; the records were secondary – was no small feat. (John Lennon: “They've got their own scene, and I won't send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!”)

The records did vary in quality – the singles and some of the album tracks on the first two LPs (overseen by Don Kirshner) were quite good, Headquarters (recorded after Kirshner was sacked) has a certain garage band charm, and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. stands up against 95 percent of the pop/rock albums released in 1967. After that, it was a slow downhill run – Nesmith was a quality songwriter, but the others were hit or miss, many of the people who had been writing songs for them during the series’ run (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, John Stewart, Carole King) were more focused on their own recording careers after awhile, and the four Monkees started working individually in the studio rather than as a foursome (which was one of the reasons Tork left the band at the end of 1968; he was more interested in a group dynamic). The series was cancelled in 1968, the strange movie Head was a big-time flop a few months later, Tork left the band, followed by Nesmith in early 1970, and that was pretty much the ball game. There were reunions over the years featuring two, three, or all four members, and a few reunion singles and albums that ranged from pretty good to meh, but nothing as good as virtually everything they touched from 1966 to 1968.

There have been a ton of Monkees hit sets and anthologies over the years, only a few of which are on Spotify (but all the studio albums are there – this is a reversal of the 1970s and 1980s, when all the original studio albums were out of print, so yay Rhino Records!). However, Rhino seems to be shoving most of the physical CDs out of print. So for downloads, here’s the best choice:

This is with a major caveat; read the whole thing to see what I mean.

The Best of The Monkees
originally came packaged as a two-disc set with five songs without vocals, featuring four hit songs (“I’m Not Your Stepping Stone,” “I’m a Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “Daydream Believer” – where’s “Last Train to Clarksville”?) and the theme to the TV series. If you find a used copy with those included, great, but I can’t believe that would be a deal breaker. 25 songs, with nine of their 12 top 40 hits included (it’s missing the B-side “Tapioca Tundra,” the regrettable “D. W. Washburn,” and “That Was Then, This Is Now,” from 1986). For $13.49 for the download on Amazon ($13.99 on iTunes), that’s as good as you’re going to find – Rhino usually does a good job on this sort of thing, but I think their attitude has become “Get the original albums if you’re that big a fan.” Which is unfortunate, because there’s definitely a market for people (such as myself) who want a deeper dive into the hits than a $4.99-at-Walmart 10-track CD, but aren’t interested in collecting the full studio albums (which aren’t all great).

About 90 percent of the rest of these albums are out of print or unavailable for download, but you never know what you’ll find in a used record store. Links go to the Wikipedia pages.

The Monkees Greatest Hits (1969) – Released after the TV series ended but before the group ground to a halt, this is missing several key hits (“Words,” “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”) and makes a few other questionable choices (why is “Zor & Zam” here?). Still, at that point Colgems (the band’s original record label) probably wanted to be rid of them altogether, so at 14 songs, this is a surprisingly decent collection (terrible cover, though). Out of print and never released on CD or digitally.
Barrel Full of Monkees (1971) – Another terrible album cover; Colgems’ design department must have been run by the offspring of a label vice president who dropped out of art school. 20 songs on two albums, which wasn’t such a great deal, and the same hits missing from that one are missing from this one too. This leans toward songs you would have seen on the TV show, which was still in reruns at the time. Also out of print and never released on CD or digitally.

(1972) – Colgems’ catalogue had moved to Bell Records, so they got to do their own hits set. A third best-of in four years (actually, four, The Monkees Golden Hits, released in 1970, was available as a mail-order item only); this has 12 songs, and while it’s shorter than Greatest Hits, it’s better selected (“Theme From The Monkees” is here; it was left off Greatest Hits), and the cover actually shows the four guys in the group. Out of print and never released on CD or digitally.

The Monkees Greatest Hits (1976) – Another new best-of on a different label (Bell had turned into Arista). The usual shuffle (only 11 songs this time, clocking in at just over 30 minutes), with one slight rarity to that point (“Listen to the Band,” which was never on the original TV series), but “Valleri” is left off. This stayed in print for a number of years, so if you have any of their hits sets in your vinyl collection, it’s likely this one. Issued on CD, but long out of print and unavailable for download.

Monkeemania (40 Timeless Hits From The Monkees)
(1979) – Issued originally in Australia and never in the United States, but I have it and I love it. That’s despite the fact that even when I bought it, I thought some of the songs sounded like they were recorded by holding a cassette player up to a TV set – and it turned out I wasn’t far off (apparently some of them came from vinyl albums found in used record stores, not the original masters). Still, 40 songs on two LPs is pretty amazing (it clocks in at 110 minutes total, or 55 minutes per album), and it’s great to get such a wide variety – all of their top 40 hits are here, even “Tapioca Tundra.” (And the live version of “Circle Sky” is great, although the sound quality isn’t.) Comes with a lengthy history of the band printed in Eyestrain-o-Vision, a comic story, and a bunch of color pictures, all of which can be found here (click on the photos to enlarge). Out of print and never released on CD or digitally.

More Greatest Hits of The Monkees
(1982) – And by “More,” they mean “the stuff we didn’t put on the first greatest hits set.” So “Words” and “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” are here (but not “D.W. Washburn”), along with “Valleri” and some other familiar songs from the series. Out of print and unavailable for download.

Monkee Business
(1982) – Rhino Records got into the Monkee cottage industry in 1982 with this picture disc release, which included mostly stuff Arista didn’t want (such as “D.W. Washburn”), although they did grab hold of a mono version of “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” (New Jersey friends: that song was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King about their home area, which was off Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange.) Reissued in 1986 with a different track listing, and now out of print.

Monkee Flips
(1984) – B-sides and assorted minor and nonhits from Rhino, released on vinyl only. I don’t think Rhino had hired any cover designers yet; the cover looks like something I would have done. Out of print and unavailable for download.

Then & Now… The Best of The Monkees (1986) – 1986 saw the TV series rereleased on MTV to a new and far more appreciative audience, the first reunion tour with Davy, Micky, and Peter (but not Mike, who had been financially well off even before his mother passed – she invented Liquid Paper, sold it to Gillette for $48 million, and left him as her sole heir), and this album with three new songs (from Micky and Peter only, which later became a source of conflict between the two of them and Davy). “That Was Then, This Is Now” became a genuine top 20 hit, and the album made it to #21. If you bought the CD, you got a deal (25 songs, with “Tapioca Tundra” the only missing top 40 hit); if you got the LP (like me), not so much (just 14 songs, including the three new ones). Out of print and unavailable for download – Spotify has some of the rarer songs available to stream, but you can’t listen to the whole thing at once. (It’s not like you can’t shuffle in the same songs from other albums, of course.) This was Arista’s last Monkees release; the entire catalogue (and new albums, such as 1987’s Pool It!) moved to Rhino Records.

Missing Links
(1987), Missing Links Volume Two (1990), Missing Links Volume Three (1996) – Okay, I like The Monkees as much or more than most people. I have three of their studio albums and three greatest hits sets. But, really, Rhino – three different rare and unreleased releases? How much of an audience was there for this stuff? (Enough to justify three releases, I suppose, and in fairness there were a fair number of songs used on the TV series that didn’t make it to albums.) All out of print on disc but all available for download - $9.49 for the first and third volumes, and $10.49 for Volume Two on Amazon (50 cents more for each on iTunes), but be aware while there will be the occasional hit on each of these, they aren’t greatest hits sets.

Listen to the Band (1990) – Four-disc box set for the truly obsessed. Stereo mixes, rare and unreleased, etc. As usual, four discs is probably too many, and this is long out of print and unavailable for download (I’d probably grab it used if I saw it cheap, however).

The Monkees Greatest Hits (1996) – Third release with this name, but one was only on vinyl, and I suspect the CD release of the Arista version is rare. This one’s kind of weird – the version on Amazon has 20 songs, but is unavailable for download; the one on iTunes only has 12 songs. They’re both $9.99, so skip the download. In fact, the 20-song version at $9.99 is a better option than The Best of The Monkees, but I’m a little suspicious of what you’ll actually get – Amazon listings aren’t always accurate.
The Monkees Anthology (1998) – I’m listening to this two-disc set as I’m writing. 50 songs, and while it’s not necessarily a good look at their hits (both “Tapioca Tundra” and “D. W. Washburn” are left off), it’s got some other interesting songs from later in their career (including Davy’s bitter “You and I” with guitar work by Neil Young, and Micky’s uncensored version of the antiwar “Mommy and Daddy”). It was also released with a lenticular cover (multiple images, depending on the angle you view it), which is probably why it went out of print (those are expensive to make). I burned a library copy, and I wouldn’t mind picking up a used one for a decent price.

Music Box (2003) – Another four-disc box set; I assume Rhino decided Listen to the Band was too expensive to reproduce (it’s a much bigger physical box; in the late 1980s and early 1990s record companies were making most of those boxes large enough to fit LPs, CDs, and cassettes) and had too many alternate takes and stereo instead of mono versions. This has far fewer rarities, but is way more representative of the first few albums, and it keeps the reunion material to a minimum. (In fact, each of the first three discs represents 1966, 1967, and 1968 output respectively, with the last disc saved for everything after that.) This is pretty readily available – in fact, Amazon claims to have new copies of the physical version for… $18.84?!?!? (Okay, screw it, I just ordered a copy. They’re out of stock, so it may take weeks to arrive, but it’s on order – and I got a free download as well.) Anyway, it’s $37.99 for the download on Amazon, and $39.99 on iTunes (and it’s available on Spotify), but why would you pay $37.99 for the download if you get a download and a physical copy (hopefully) for less than half that? I’ll let you know how this turns out (if I get my physical set, this is clearly a much better option than The Best of The Monkees until they run out), but I guess I don’t need to look for Anthology anymore.

Classic Album Collection
(2010) – 10-disc set with all nine studio albums, and a tenth disc of single-only releases, alternate takes, and a couple of the reunion songs. I’d probably rather get the expanded editions of the better albums and skip the bad ones, but that’s me.  $38.10 for the disc on Amazon, not available for download.  Original Album Series (release year unknown) is similar, but only has the first five studio albums.

The Monkees 50 (2016) – 50 songs on three discs (can’t see why they wouldn’t fit on two, but whatever), and they even found room for “Tapioca Tundra.” $21.43 for the discs and $28.49 for the download on Amazon ($29.99 on iTunes) – which might be worth it if you can’t order Music Box the way I did. 

(2016) – Medium-budget item with 14 songs, including all the key hits and a sprinkle of the more recent songs. $9.72 for the disc and $9.49 for the download on Amazon; iTunes doesn’t seem to have it.

None of the four Monkees have a solo best-of, although all of them have had solo albums released and most of them are available for download. I have two of Mike Nesmith’s solo albums; Magnetic South is a first-rate country rock album, Tantamount to Treason Volume 1 is not.

The TV series doesn’t seem to stream anywhere (perhaps someone will fix that); in the interim, the first year of the show is available as a six-DVD set on Amazon for $26.78.  There are used copies of the second year of the program, Head, the (lousy) 1997 reunion show Hey Hey We’re the Monkees (the conceit was they were still trying to make it as a successful band 30 years later), the 1969 curio special 33-1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee (taped before Peter left but aired after – and against the Oscars, so no one saw it), and a few documentaries and concert videos available on used DVDs and VHS tapes on Amazon for exorbitant prices.

Other “If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From…” Blog Posts You Might Enjoy:

No comments:

Post a Comment