As has been the case with many iconic performers, the music charts lit up yesterday with selections from Olivia Newton-John’s 50+ year music catalog. This morning, her Oscar-nominated “Hopelessly Devoted to You” displaced Beyonce’s new single on iTunes at #1 (she actually currently occupies 7 of the top 10 singles). The “Grease” soundtrack sits at #1 on the album chart, with the soundtrack to “Xanadu” at #3, “Physical” at #8, and her early 70’s #1 album “If You Love Me (Let Me Know) presently at #10.
My 18-year-old niece commented that on TikTok, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was blowing up yesterday as the track played in the car on the way to dinner.
Many people are today rediscovering music from an artist who’s breathy, ethereal vocals have often been knocked with criticism, with phrases like “if white bread could sing, it would sound like Olivia Newton-John” or “nearly colorless”. These thoughts are so shortsighted and off the mark for an artist who has sold in excess of 100 million records throughout her career, making her one of the most successful artists of all time.
As is the case with new discoveries of artists as prolific as the Aussie icon, you may not know quite where to begin or what to listen to. With that in mind, I thought I’d add a small selection of some of my favorite albums and explain why they make the grade.
YOU LIKE HITS?
Released in 2005, this popular double cd includes both her country and the pop hits together in one collection. When listening to the transition between the beauty of her Bob Dylan cover on “If Not For You” (1971) to the relentless pace of “Twist of Fate” (1983), it makes sense how there could never have been a Shania Twain, Faith Hill, or Taylor Swift without first Olivia Newton-John blazing a trail to crossover superstardom.
BEST TRACKS: Don’t make me choose
UNIQUE INCLUSIONS: “Fool Country” from the “Xanadu” soundtrack, “The Best of Me” with David Foster, and also the “Grease Megamix”
Alternate Option: “Back to Basics: The Essential Collection”
THE PRINCESS OF POP AT HER PEAK POWER
ONJ’s 11th studio album, “Physical”, released in October of 1981 was her most daring, provocative and sexual album to date (“Soul Kiss” took that one step further in 1985 with mixed results, but some of her best vocals ever). The title track was a phenomenon, tying the record at the time for longest reign on the Billboard Hot 100 with 10 consecutive weeks at number one, and ultimately being the number one song of the 80’s decade. The song and video were controversial, culminating in the song being banned in several markets, which only fueled its commercial appeal. But this album was no one trick pony. “Make A Move on Me” was another top-ten hit across the world, with “Landslide” being released as the final single.
The album itself was promoted via a TV special “Let’s Get Physical” on ABC, including videos for all ten tracks, resulting in 35% of the audience in the U.S. tuning in. The home video version of the special won a Grammy for Video of the Year.
BEST TRACKS: “Landslide”, “Physical”, “Stranger’s Touch”, “Make a Move on Me”, “Carried Away”, and “Silvery Rain”
WHAT ELSE? To get the full experience (including alternate takes and songs from the “Two of A Kind” soundtrack, a elusive duet with Barry Gibb, the video album, and Olivia in Concert – 1982), be sure to pick up the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. Also available in a variety of colors on vinyl.
Many people believe that Olivia Newton-John became famous because of her star turn as Sandy Olsson in “Grease”. The truth is she’d top the music charts numerous times before she was cast in the musical, including winning the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1975 for “I Honestly Love You”. 1974’s “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” was a US/Canada compilation of songs taken from her first three albums with the exception of the title track. It was the first of two consecutive number one albums by the English born singer (“Have You Never Been Mellow” release the next year also topped the charts).
Recorded at Abbey Road and produced by long-time friend John Farrer, the album featured two singles with the title track peaking at #5 and her signature song “I Honestly Love You” hitting the top of the charts. With covers (the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as well as compositions from Olivia herself (“Changes”), this album Grade A from start to finish.
BEST TRACKS: “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”, “I Honestly Love You”, “Country Girl”, “God Only Knows”, “Home Ain’t Home Anymore”, and “Mary Skeffington”
INTERESTING FACT: First album by a non-American to be nominated for Record of the Year by the Country Music Association
THE FAN FAVORITE
It comes as no surprise that when you look at the cover of 1978’s “Totally Hot”, the imagery is a world away from Olivia’s 1977 release “Making a Good Thing Better”. Between these two studio albums was what ONJ would often joke in concert was a “little” film she made. “Grease” was her (for lack of a better term) Madonna-evolutionary moment. She was able to become a chameleon at that point, recording rock, disco, pop, country, dance, new age, whatever she chose, and do it well. The album revealed a new side by ONJ, and the critics approved. Even though the album strayed from her country roots, it still hit #4 on the Billboard Country Album chart while hitting #7 on the Top 200 Album Chart.
From the “is it her singing or is it an instrument?” high notes of “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting” to the dirty bass on her hit single “A Little More Love” to the remake of the classic “Gimme Some Lovin'” closing the album, “Totally Hot” is just that…arguably her best studio album.
BEST TRACKS: “A Little More Love”, “Deeper Than the Night”, “Boats Against the Current” and “Dancin’ Round and Round”
INTERESTING QUOTE: Per AllMusic: On “Gimme Some Lovin” – “is as close to a drunken party as one will get on a Newton-John album.
Having fought the good fight against breast cancer for much of her adult life, Olivia Newton-John shines as an example of how to go through life and its challenges with grace, gratitude, and as always, love & light.
Thank you, Olivia, for making my life just that much sweeter. You will be so dearly missed.
Images courtesy of MCA Records, Festival Records, RSO Records, ONJ Productions, Paramount Pictures, and Geffen Records.