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Retro Review: Playlist: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

August 3, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The dance rock pioneers get an entry on Sony’s budget best-of compilation series.

Fun Facts

  • The band hails from Birmingham, England, home of Black Sabbath, who got popular just a few years before ELO. Their drummer actually left the band to join Sabbath (props to Wikipedia for the info).
  • This compilation was initially released as “The Essential Electric Light Orchestra,” but was repacked in the cardboard digipak with extra CD content.

Ups

  • In the 1970s, ELO was a band that combined the muscle of what would become classic rock with the big orchestral sound that The Beatles started rocking in the late 1960s. A side effect of that combination was that ELO became one of the first rock bands to also make disco music. This in an age when the integration, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s was splintering into more hardcore factionism (though maybe it was different in the UK).
  • There are some great dance singles here. “Don’t Bring Me Down” features platinum-heavy riffs with solid 4/4 dance drumming. “Shine A Little Love’s” strings and handclaps have the band sounding like Jamiroquai were it not for the “jug-jugga-jug” rhythm guitar in the hook.
  • Overall the music has some nice contour without being epic. “Mr. Blue Sky” is 80% piano-driven McCartney-esque pop-rock, but its final 20% turns to a choral crescendo that makes for a huge contrast. The opposite happens on “Hold On Tight,” which opens with menacing distorted guitar but quickly transforms into an upbeat inspirational rocker I imagine the band performing on a moving truck or bus.
  • Even when they’re not being all maximalist and dance-friendly, ELO can turn out great mellow songs too. “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” is a band geek love song that, were it not for its sincerity, would be on more indie kid mixtapes. On the flipside, “Evil Woman” is your basic mean kiss-off wrapped up in falsettos and acoustic strumming. It’s engaging nonetheless.

Downs

  • The downside to the orchestral maximalism is that sometimes it’s too much, it’s heavy-handed. Songs like “Do Ya” and “Livin’ Thing” just plod along as though all the stuff going on in the song can hide the crummy choruses and thin songwriting.
  • Frontman Jeff Lynne & friends sing in a range of voices that would rival Maria Bamford. They have a tendency to sing in these ultra-falsetto, slightly off-key harmonies alternated with bassy chants that make them sound like Muppets. Couple this with the general hairiness of the band members in their press photos and the effect is exacerbated (I realize this may be an up for some people).
  • I know that it’s trite to knock a best-of for missing songs, but I was kind of disappointed that none of the songs from ELO’s half of the Xanadu soundtrack were featured. That record went platinum and inspired a Tony-nominated broadway revival, so it seems weird that none of the music was featured. Now that’s what I call a roller disco disappointment.

Conclusion: Though American acts like ZZ Top, Electric Six, and N.E.R.D. would continue to fuse rock instrumentation atop dance beats, and countless big indie bands would continue to utilize classical music with quirky arrangements, ELO’s rock/dance/classical discography made them icons in pop music fusion. The compilation itself is cheap, it has a lot of classic rock staples that also mix well in dance sets, and it makes a solid intro to the band. If you buy this best-of, check out Xanadu soundtrack next, and then go from there.

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