Greatest hits by Ricky Nelson

October 28, 2011

Except for Elvis Presley, no artist was as commercially successful during the late 1950s and early 1960s pre-British Invasion era than Ricky Nelson. He was a wholesome and safe alternative to the likes of Elvis, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, but a lot more hip than Pat Boone and The Kingston Trio.
One of the original teen idols, Nelson had the advantage of starring in the television series, The Adventures of Ozzie And Harriet. As he got a bit older he would close many of their episodes with a performance of his newest single. This constant exposure to a weekly television fan base resulted in his singles and albums selling in the tens of millions.

His early career was built around a combination of rockabilly songs mixed in with ballads. Many of his singles became double hits, where both sides of the record would chart; usually one side would be uptempo rock ‘n’ roll and the other side something slower. During the early ’60s he moved toward a more polished pop sound.

Nelson’s material has been released many times over the ensuing years. Unless you want to explore his legacy through a box set or the reissue of his original albums, though, the best representation of his sound is the 2005 release, Greatest Hits. Its 25 tracks cover most of his hits from 1957 through 1963, except for one song. My only complaint is that they are not in chronological order, which is always appreciated with a compilation album like this.

The best of the rockabilly sides include covers of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin,’” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” and “Be Bop Baby.” This side of his career is often ignored today but these tracks, among others, remain an important part in the development of rock ‘n’ roll as it exposed this type of material to a middle American audience.

Ballads such as “Poor Little Fool,” “Lonesome Town,” “Never Be Anyone Else But You,” and “Young Emotions” represent some of the best of the era.

“Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou,” released in 1961, continued the trend of combining rockabilly and ballads on one single but here more of a pop sheen was added to the mix. Both sides became huge hits, with “Travelin’ Man” reaching number one on the Billboard Singles Chart and “Hello Mary Lou” checking in at number nine. They remain two of Nelson’s better and most recognizable performances.

“Fools Rush In” is the only track from 1963 and marked his transition to a pop sound. It would also mark the beginning of a downturn in his popularity as The Beatles were about to change music, likening his style and sound more as a link to the past.

I would have liked to have had 1962’s “Teenage Idol” and 1972’s “Garden Party” presented back to back as they represent the two sides of his artistry and make for nice bookends when considering his overall career.

Ricky Nelson died in a plane crash at the age of 45. He is a member of both the Rock and Roll and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. When the best of his music is culled down to 25 tracks, it becomes an essential listening experience to anyone even mildly interested in the music of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Article first published as Music Review: Ricky Nelson – Greatest Hits on Blogcritics.

Greatest Hits by The Buckinghams

October 24, 2011

For one brief shining moment, the Buckinghams sat near the top of the music world. Make that a few moments, actually, as all seven of the group’s chart hits came within a two year period, 1967-1968.

The band formed in Chicago in 1966 and, after a couple of personnel changes, its most consistent line-up consisted of guitarist Carl Giammarese, vocalist Dennis Tufano, bassist Nick Fortuna, keyboardist Marty Grebb, and drummer Jon-Jon. The band split in 1970, reunited a decade later, and continue to tour down to the present day with original members Giammarese and Fortuna leading the way.

Released on the small USA label, the Buckinghams’ first and biggest hit, “Kind Of A Drag,” topped the Billboard Magazine Pop Singles Chart in 1967. A Number One hit allowed them to then sign with Columbia Records, for whom they would enjoy continued success. They also acquired producer James William Guercio, who would go on to work with other brass/rock fusion groups Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

The band’s material has been reissued many times over the years, but the best remains their first Greatest Hits album. Originally released in 1969, it has since been reissued on CD and contains all their chart hits plus several B-sides and album tracks.

“Kind Of A Drag” was a bit raw but set the tone for the group’s career. Its catchy melody, solid rhythm section, and brass moving in and out and filling in the spaces added up to a million-seller. Their second-biggest hit was “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” originally an instrumental hit for jazzman Cannonball Adderley and still a jazz standard. The Buckinghams added lyrics and, with its featured tempo changes and one of the best brass introductions of late ’60s pop, their interpretation of this jazz classic remains their finest performance.

More in a traditional pop vein, other hits like “Don’t You Care,” “Hey Baby They’re Playing Our Song,” and “Susan” boasted mid-to-uptempo arrangements that benefited from Guercio’s smooth production.

A nice addition to the album is a cover of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which the group had scored an early minor hit with for the USA label. Originally a 1952 chart-topping R&B hit by Lloyd Price, the Buckinghams smoothed out the vocal to move the song over to a rock ‘n’ roll sound.

The Buckinghams did not change the face of rock music. What they did accomplish, though, was producing some pleasant and very listenable music; and sometimes that is enough. Their Greatest Hits album remains a nice look at the better side of late 1960s AM radio.

Article first published as Music Review: The Buckinghams – Greatest Hits on Blogcritics.

Greatest Hits by The Association

September 22, 2011

My feet are up, I’m on the coast listening to the Pacific Ocean splash against the rocks, the grandchildren are in bed, the sounds of The Association are softly wafting out of my stereo system, and life is good.

The Association was the innocent side of the mid-to-late 1960s, a side that only existed in the mind and on vinyl, as the decade progressed and the Vietnam War heated up. They created some of the more memorable soft rock songs of the era, including “Cherish,” which continues to receive consistent radio airplay down to the present day. Their albums actually contained quite a bit of material that veered from this formula, but their hits and best known songs hemmed them in. Their ability to evolve musically was limited, which in the ever changing music world of the late 1960s and early 1970s would eventually signal an end to their commercial success and popularity.

Jules Alexander and Terry Kirkman met in Hawaii during 1962. By 1966 Russ Giguere, Brian Cole, Jim Yester, and Ted Bluechel Jr. had joined the band, completing the original line-up. After a couple of unsuccessful singles, they grabbed the brass ring during 1966 when “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish” propelled them to stardom. Alexander left for a couple of years and was replaced by Larry Ramos. When Alexander returned, they became a seven man band. Ramos became an important ingredient to their sound and provided some of the lead vocals for such hits as “Windy” and “Never My Love.” Giguere, Yester, and Ramos, with additional musicians, continue to tour as The Association as of 2011.

Their Greatest Hits, released during 1968, was their highest charting (#4) and most successful (2,000,000 copies sold) album. Two of their studio albums, And Then ….Along Comes The Association and Insight Out also reached the American top ten.

No matter what success their albums may have achieved, they will always be remembered for their string of singles. Greatest Hits gathers these singles, plus a few other tracks in support, to form a soft rock and pop album that has withstood the test of time surprisingly well.

Their memorable ballads, “Cherish,” “No Fair At All,” and “Never My Love” plus their mid tempo pop masterpieces “Windy,” “Time For Livin,’”and “Everything That Touches You” are all present. Every so often The Association proved they could rock out a bit. “Six Man Band” has some excellent guitar work, while “Along Comes Mary” and especially the brilliant “Enter The Young” are melodic up-tempo rock. Also included was the experimental piece, “Requiem For The Masses.” They should have found a way to add “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies” and their soundtrack song, “Goodbye Columbus,” which would have made the album more representative of their overall sound.

The Association produced some of the more memorable pop of the late 1960s. A number of their songs have been instantly recognizable to several generations now. When taken together they form a pleasant listening experience.

And so the waves keep on rolling in and The Association CDhas come to an end. Now where’s that Gary Puckett & The Union Gap CD?

Article first published as Music Review: The Association – Greatest Hits on Blogcritics.

Greatest Hits by Donovan

September 20, 2011

Donovan is a sometimes forgotten figure in today’s music world, but during the 1960s many ranked him second only to Bob Dylan in the pantheon of folk poets. His series of hit singles and successful albums made him a superstar during the second half of the decade

His mystical prose, for want of a better definition, and quiet music explored the gentle side of the violent sixties. His place in the upper echelon of folk artists and troubadours made him a 60s icon.

He released his Greatest Hits album during 1969 at the height of his popularity. It was the most successful album release of his career in the United States, reaching number four on the Billboard’s Pop Album Chart.

The original album gathered together 11 of his best known tracks including the number one hit “Sunshine Superman” and the number two “Mellow Yellow.” The CD reissue included such extra hits as “Atlantis,” “Barabajagal,” and “Riki Tiki Tavi.” The problem with some of the CDs was “Colours” and “Catch The Wind” were re-recorde; “Sunshine Superman” was a different length; and the sound was spotty in places, so beware. Despite these problems, the album remains the best short overview of his music and career.

His early, pre-superstar days are represented by “Colours,” “Josie,” and “Catch The Wind,” but for some unknown reason there was no “Universal Soldier.” These simple folk songs were part of his early career and have held up well down through the years.

The meat of the album was his psychedelic folk hits. “Sunshine Superman” was the perfect song for a summer day back in 1966, and Jimmy Page’s guitar work is often overlooked. Many have guessed at the meaning of “Mellow Yellow’s” lyrics, including the use of vibrators and smoking bananas, which added to the song’s charm. It had an addictive percussion, Paul McCartney’s backing vocal, and Donovan’s whispers, which made it memorable. “Epistle To Dippy” was actually a peace song if you sift through the psychedelic imagery. There really was a “Dippy” to whom the song was dedicated, and he survived his time in the service. “Jennifer Juniper” made use of such instruments as a flute, oboe, and bassoon. It was written for Jenny Boyd, sister of Patti, who married and divorced Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

One of the treats was the inclusion of “Season Of The Witch.” It was an album track on an album of singles and was one of the few true rock songs of his career. Al Kooper and Stephen Stills released a definitive 11-minute version on their Super Session album. Donovan’s original was simpler but it contains one of the best vocal performances of his career.

Some of the material may have aged a bit, but that’s OK. At its worst Greatest Hits was whimsical fun. At its best, it was well-produced, and contained creative music from a bygone era that is still worth a listen now and then.

Article first published as Music Review: Donovan – Greatest Hits on Blogcritics.

Greatest Hits (Remasters) by The Band

May 30, 2011

If you are not familiar with the music of The Band or, for some incomprehensible reason, you do not own any of their music, this 2011 remastered Greatest Hits album is a good place to start. The 18 tracks were taken from their seven studio albums issued between 1968 and 1977. While one can argue that certain other tracks should have been included, what is here forms a fine representative retrospective of their career.

This is the third time this particular album has seen the light of day. Also if you own their original albums or either of their box sets, 1994’s Across The Great Divide or 2005’s A Musical History, then this latest issue may not be necessary. Originally released during 2000, the songs have now been digitally enhanced and come across as crystal clear. The important addition is the original liner notes and accompanying booklet, which contains a 15 page essay about the history of the group and the included music.

The Band was composed of four Canadians: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, plus American Levon Helm. They formed as the banking band for the famous rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins. They rose to prominence when Bob Dylan invited them to back him on his first electric tour. 1967 found them with Dylan, in the basement of a house called Big Pink. They recorded dozens of tracks with Dylan, but more importantly, began to develop their own unique sound, that can be best described as American rock and roots music. They released Music From Big Pink during 1968, which marked the beginning of one of rock’s legendary and critically acclaimed careers.

Music From Big Pink is an album I have visited many times during the past four decades. It is represented here by four tunes. There is the languid Bob Dylan/Richard Manuel ballad, “Tears Of Rage,” the positive vibes of “Chest Fever,” the harmonies of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and the soaring, “The Weight.”

Four songs also appear from their self-titled second album. The rustic “Up On Cripple Creek,” the fun vocal by Levon Helm on “Rag Mama Rag,” the poignant Civil War epic, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and the incisive lyrics of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).”

Three tracks are taken from Stage Fright. The title track is propelled by Rick Danko’s vocal. “The Shape I’m In” is just an infectious romp from beginning to end. “Time To Kill” is another singers song as Danko and Manuel share the lead honors this time.

The last seven tracks come from four different studio albums. “Lie Is A Carnival” is one of those songs that grabs you and stays with you and features some funky brass, courtesy of Allen Toussaint. “Ain’t Got No Home” was a hit for Clarence “Frogman” Henry during early 1957 and they remains true to its goofy appeal. “Acadian Driftwood” was another Robbie Robertson lyrical masterpiece.

Today The Band is a part of music history. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel have both died, and it is doubtful if the three remaining members will ever reunite. They have left behind a wonderful legacy and catalogue of material. Greatest Hits is a sampling of their best.

Article first published as Music Review: The Band – Greatest Hits (Remasters) on Blogcritics.

Greatest Hits Remixed by Triumph

August 4, 2010

Triumph was a Canadian hard rock band that many times was taken for granted. They were never the most popular or the most talented but would churn out excellent rock ‘n’ roll for almost two decades. They reached the height of their popularity during the late seventies and eighties. They released ten studio albums between 1975 and 1993, eight of which would receive gold and platinum awards for sales in their home country and five would achieve that status in The United States.

The band was formed during 1975 by drummer/vocalist Gil Moore, bassist/keyboardist Mike Levine, and singer/guitarist Rik Emmett. Guitarist/keyboardist Rick Santers was added in 1984. Emmett would leave in 1988 and guitarist Phil Xenidis would be a member from 1992 until the band’s dissolution in 1993. Recently the original members have played some dates together.

They have just released Greatest Hits Remixed. It is a three disc set which encompasses their career. As with any compilation albums, there can always be debate of what was included vs. what was left off, but in general they get it right as songs such as “Allied Forces,” “Hold On,” “Lay It On The Line,” “Magic Power,” “Follow Your Heart,” and “Somebody’s Out There” are all included among the fourteen tracks contained on the first disc. I might have replaced their version of “Love Hurts” with 1980’s “I Can Survive” but it’s a minor point.

One should really take note of the album’s title as the tracks are remixed and not rerecorded. My only complaint is the drums are mixed too loud, which in some cases overpowers the guitar sound.

The DVD disc contains many of their videos. While they are interesting, I would have preferred concert material as they were an excellent and powerful live band. Having said that the videos are a nice slice of personal and rock history.

The final disc contains three bonus videos that should please hardcore fans of the group. They include “Child Of The City” with guitarist Phil X, “Blinding Light Show,” which was a bootleg video filmed by a fan, and “Love Hurts” from a YouTube video.

A final note should mention the enclosed booklet which is one of the better ones I have seen this year. It presents an excellent overview of the songs and the band.

Greatest Hits Remixed may not be a perfect release, but it is still very good. It presents the best of Triumph, which should please their large fan base and hopefully earn them some new ones as well.

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Greatest Hits by Janis Joplin

July 2, 2010

I am not the biggest fan of greatest hits albums as they remove classic tracks from their original context. This is especially true for album-oriented artists such as Janis Joplin who only had one song reach the American top forty. Her number one hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” reached the top of the charts during January of 1971.

What Greatest Hits did do, though, upon its release during 1973 was introduce millions of music buyers to Janis Joplin’s music as it became (and remains) her most commercially successful album, selling seven-million copies in the United States alone.

While Greatest Hits only skims the surface of her legacy, it does present the highlights. The psychedelic rock of “Piece Of My Heart” and the hippy flavor of “Down On Me” capture her early career well. Her brilliant and tortured vocal on the old Broadway hit, “Summertime,” and the strong rock of “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” present her voice at its unique best.

Even after all these years I can’t get enough of “Ball and Chain.” This song, originally by Big Mama Thornton, explores love from several angles and is at the heart and soul of Janis Joplin as an artist.

The original vinyl release contained ten tracks. CD reissues expanded the release by adding “Mercedes Benz” and Joplin’s brilliant interpretation of the old Chantels’ doo-wop hit, “Maybe,” which she resurrected as a blues classic.

Who’s to say what directions Janis Joplin’s music would have traveled had she lived? During her short career she had explored hard rock, psychedelic rock, and even some blues. Her music has been released in many forms down through the years and a number of those releases have made Greatest Hits obsolete. Still, if you want a basic introduction to her music, this album is a good place to start.

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