Wednesday, March 3, 2021

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Olivia Newton-John


By Curt Alliaume
Okay, first things first: she’s not dead. I only say this because I’ve tended to write these pieces after the subject (or a member of the group) has died.
Second thing: I’m not a huge Olivia Newton-John fan. I don’t have a single one of her studio albums. I don’t dislike her music, but I don’t search it out, either. I’m writing this for a reason, which I’ll get to in a bit. (The blog version of a teaser.)
Anyway, Olivia Newton-John has had a pretty solid career, for which she doesn’t receive a lot of credit compared to other female singers of the era. Here in the United States, she’s had 27 top 40 hits, of which 15 went top 10 (and five went to #1). In her native Australia, the number are nearly identical: 25 top 40 hits, 15 top 10, four #1s. She’s been recording forever: her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine”came out in 1966, her first chart hit worldwide was in 1971 with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” and she had a run of five straight top 10 pop and country hits in the U.S. in the mid-1970s, including a pair of #1s in “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” (That was also part of a string of eight #1 Adult Contemporary hits out of nine singles, with “Every Face Tells a Story” the only miss at #6.)
But by 1978 she’d only had one top 20 pop hit in the previous two years, and if the trend had continued we probably would have been watching The Olivia Newton-John Variety Hour with costumed koalas and wallabys in a swimming pool by 1980 or so. Fortunately for her, she signed up to play Sandy in the movie version of Grease, which reignited her career. It wasn’t the best fit for her onscreen—at 29, she was too old to realistically play the high school student Sandy (of course, she wasn’t alone there: buying the 33-year-old Stockard Channing as a 17-year-old was a major stretch), but audiences bought it and it became the most popular movie of 1978, spawning three top five singles for Newton-John as well. This started her metamorphosis from sweet country pop singer to a harder-edged dance-pop star, with two further #1 hits in “Magic” (from her 1980 film Xanadu) and “Physical,” which was #1 for ten weeks between 1981 and 1982. Other ballad singers went dance-pop in the 1980s, some successfully (Sheena Easton), some not so much (Melissa Manchester, “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” notwithstanding), but Newton-John was the first.
Of course, all good things come to an end. After her 1983 film Two of a Kind flopped, and her 1985 album Soul Kiss only yielded one top 20 hit, Newton-John took three years between albums following the birth of her daughter Chloe, and found herself as a heritage artist among the teen pop sensations of the late 1980s like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. She’s still recorded a number of albums and made lots of live appearances (and she’s also survived three bouts with breast cancer), but her hit-making days are pretty much done.
Which brings me to why I’m writing this. I listen to my albums at random, and yesterday the randomizer went to one of her greatest hits sets. I checked on Spotify to see if it was there as well—and it’s not. In fact, if you only want to download a greatest hits set or stream it, this is your one and only option:
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best Of Olivia Newton-John
Yes, the bane of my existence, the Dr. Doom to my Captain Fantastic, the crappiest of the reissue series among the labels, Universal Music Group’s 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection. Featuring a grand total of 12 songs and running for 42 minutes and 34 seconds (CDs can hold up to 80 minutes of music), and missing the following top 10 songs: “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” “You’re the One That I Want,” “Summer Nights,” “Xanadu,” and “Make a Move on Me.” (It does have the #11 “Deeper Than the Night,” but inexplicably out of chronological order.) It’s only available to download on Amazon (iTunes doesn’t have it), and Spotify’s streaming version has “Let Me Be There” and “I Honestly Love You” blocked—those two songs aren’t available on the service anywhere. So something is probably up with UMG and the rights to these songs—I don’t know what. $9.49 for the full download on Amazon (so it’s not even a budget option anymore), new and used copies are also available from third-party sellers with the usual caveats.
So, if you want a real greatest hits set, you’re going to have to buy one on CD. And there’s one good way to go… if you can find it.
UMG did have its moments of corporate grace. Although I’m not fond of the cover design on these sets (clearly modeled on Columbia/Sony’s The Essential series), there’s no arguing with the track selection. It’s chronological, misses only two American Hot 100 singles (1971’s “Banks of the Ohio” and 1992’s “If You Need Love,” which peaked at #94 and #96 respectively on the chart), and even includes one rarity (1980’s “Fool Country,” previously only released as the B-side to “Magic”). It’s even available on Spotify if you look enough (it’s not in her album discography, but if you look under Artists Playlists, click on “Olivia Newton-John Best of” and then click on Gold among the albums listed, it will show up—with 30 percent of the tracks unavailable for streaming). I don’t think UMG made a pile of these on disc (I have one—thanks and RIP, BMG Music Service), but if you’re a fan who wants all the hits, it’s worth searching out. $16.48 new on Amazon for the two-CD set (until they run out, I guess), and also available from other sellers; you might want to try your local used record stores too.
Before I list the other options, a quick digression (because it’s my blog and no one can stop me): there are two Newton-John songs that aren’t on any of her best-ofs. I have no idea why (you’d either have to ask her or an executive at UMG):

- John Denver’s “Fly Away,” a #13 hit from 1975, with Newton-John on unbilled but prominent harmony vocals. There are two possible reasons why this isn’t on any of her anthologies as far as I can tell. First, it was released on RCA Records, which would require cross licensing, the only one of her songs in this category—she started on EMI in Australia and her primary label during her hitmaking years was MCA in America (except for the Grease soundtrack on RSO), but all of them are now under the UMG umbrella; RCA is not. Two, her vocal wasn’t prominent enough to merit billing (I had forgotten it was her until a few years ago), so the corporate decision may have been “Why bother?” (Side note to the digression: Newton-John recorded Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” early in her career; it went top 15 in England.)

- Her 1980 duet with Andy Gibb, “I Can’t Help It,” which peaked at #12. Licensing isn’t an issue here and she’s billed on the single, so I have no guesses as to why it isn’t available from her.

Anyway. Here are the other options (links go to the Wikipedia entries).

- First Impressions (1974)—Greatest hits set released in Australia just as Newton-John became well known in America. Some interesting oddities (her take on George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” and “I Honestly Love You” is billed under its original title “I Love You, I Honestly Love You”). A huge fan could probably find a vinyl or CD version through third-party sellers on Amazon or on eBay, with the warning that you might not get an original copy.
- Crystal Lady (1976)—Originally released in Japan and another one never issued in the States, this is almost everything but the hits (of her major hits “Let Me Be There” is represented, and it’s a double vinyl album with 32 songs). Again, available used on Amazon or eBay; I’d be a little more dubious about CD copies of this.
- Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits (1977)—Very solid representation of her early hits; only “Banks of the Ohio” doesn’t make the cut—and it’s replaced by “Changes,” which she wrote herself and thus could earn some royalties. Another digression: I always though Newton-John wasn’t a songwriter and that her primary producer John Farrar did the song selection and served as her main songwriter (which was not uncommon for female singers in the 1970s; with the exception of Joni Mitchell, many of the leading female singer-songwriters still had men calling most of the shots in the studio), but in fact she did have the occasional solo writing credit or cowrite on many of her albums, and wrote more in earnest after the hitmaking years were done (she wrote all the songs on her album Gaia: One Woman’s Journey, recorded after her first recovery from breast cancer—too bad it’s not available for streaming or download). Anyway, this is out of print and unavailable for download or streaming too, and some of the songs aren’t available at all. I’d recommend looking through the used vinyl bins; it went double platinum, so somebody bought it.
- Olivia’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1982)—Not so much this time around. Two key songs are left off (okay, I could probably justify leaving “Deeper Than the Night” off, but what genius decided to omit “Summer Nights”) despite there being space on the record, and it’s in fairly haphazard order. This is another one that’s out of print and unavailable for download or streaming; it might be easier to find used on CD than the first hits set, and this one went double platinum too.
- Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971–1992 (1992)—The title seems longer than the running time of the album, even though this seemed to be an all-encompassing set. First of all, there’s nothing here from 1971; the earliest hits here are 1974’s “If You Love Me (Let Me Know).” Second, nine top 20 hits are left off; if you wanted “Let Me Be There,” “Make a Move on Me,” or two of the three Xanadu singles, tough luck—even though the album clocks in at less than 55 minutes at a point in time when vinyl releases had all but ceased. (There are four new songs recorded for this collection, none of which became major hits.) Third, why are the songs in reverse chronological order? (In fairness, the Europe/Japan and Australia releases had longer track listings; American record executives apparently think we’re idiots.) This still was certified gold here because it was her only all-encompassing set at the time; it’s probably available at used CD stores. I’ve got it (I was playing this when I went down the ONJ rabbit hole), but Gold is obviously way preferable.
- Magic: The Very Best of Olivia Newton-John (2001)—It took nine years, but UMG managed to put out a decent one-disc set. The only two top 20 songs missing here are “Something Better to Do” and “Soul Kiss,” which aren’t missed, and “The Grease Megamix,” which had been a major hit when released worldwide (except in the United States) in 1990, is here (and this may be the only place to find it; Spotify doesn’t have it). $12.69 on Amazon for the one-disc set until they run out, unavailable for streaming or download.
- 40/40 The Best Selection (2010)—Oh, I don’t know about that. Selected by Japanese fans’ vote, there are a lot of songs here most casual fans don’t know (“Long Live Love,” “Angel Eyes,” “The Promise (The Dolphin Song)”), so while it may sound similar to Gold, it’s not interchangeable. New and used copies available on Amazon and (presumably) eBay.
- Icon (2013)—Another budget option from the gang at UMG; this one leaves out “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (which means the Grease singles aren’t represented at all) and “Suddenly” but adds “Xanadu.” Hardly great, but it’s five bucks on Amazon; it might be worth buying it and downloading the three Grease singles and some combination of “Sam,” “Something Better to Do,” “Suddenly,” and “Make a Move on Me” to make a pretty good compilation—“If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” appears to be totally unavailable for download except for a recent live version.
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Crossposted from Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.