Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Original "Greatest Hits" Album! - Elvis’ Golden Records Establishes The Trend

The Good: Some truly great songs, lyrics, and moments of voice, One or two audacious instrumentals
The Bad: Minutiae, Some songs not as big as others.
The Basics: Elvis Presley creates the first "Greatest Hits" album, which is tweaked after his death to include some of his early rising star hits. A great compilation.

For years now, I've taken more than a little flack from some of my readers for giving a perfect rating to an album by The Bee-Gees. While I stand by my review of The Bee-Gees - Their Greatest Hits: The Record especially as a comprehensive time capsule of the rock and roll era, I understand how those who have not heard it might judge it based on the fact that the Bee Gee's often seem rather tied to the disco movement. But the truth is, that compilation honestly is the most pure exploration of how rock and roll evolved from the late 1950s through the turn of the millennium. It was considering that viewpoint of rating a product that I came to Elvis’ Golden Records.

Generally attributed as the very first rock and roll "Greatest Hits" album, Elvis’ Golden Records is an anthology of the 1956 to 1958 hits by Elvis Presley. Honestly figuring that if Elvis Presley is the King of Rock and Roll he ought to have one anthology that is considered "Excellent" and worth appearing in every collection, I'm putting my money on this one. Re-released in 1997 with six additional tracks, Elvis’ Golden Records is a collection of the twenty most recognizable early hits of Presley as he dominated the charts in those years. While there are some songs on 30 #1 Hits that I like more ("Burning Love" and "Suspicious Minds" come instantly to mind) that collection also seems to carry some of the esoteric hits that history had been more or less kind enough to sweep under the rug. Elvis’ Golden Records has quite possibly the greatest concentration of historic blockbuster tracks on one album.

With twenty tracks clocking in just over an hour, Elvis’ Golden Records as remastered in 1997 represents a strong and diverse collection of - mostly - universally recognizable Elvis Presley hits. This collection has the most direct influence by Elvis Presley as well as this collection includes a number of tracks that he is credited with co-writing (whether he did or not), like "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel." He provides primary vocals on all of the tracks and guitar on most, if not all.

The additional six tracks - the last six - are actually earlier works than the ones that precede them. Those bonus tracks were phenomenal successes in their way and include such memorable hits as "Blue Suede Shoes" and "My Baby Left Me." This does add the additional value of illustrating what the early successes Presley had on the charts were.

Elvis’ Golden Records possesses some of the most recognizable Elvis-sung lyrics and therefore some of the most memorable lines of the early rock and roll era. As a student of pop culture history, it's easy to listen to Elvis croon out "Don't step on my blue suede shoes" ("Blue Suede Shoes") or sing the musical story of the dance riot in "Jailhouse Rock."

Personally, I find there are few lines that resonate with the same simple beauty as when Presley sings, "Love me tender, / Love me long, / Take me to your heart. / For its there that I belong, / And we'll never part. / Love me tender, / Love me dear, / Tell me you are mine. / I'll be yours through all the years, / 'Till the end of time" ("Love Me Tender"). Elvis and his co-writers have genuine grasp on the desire to reach out and love someone and that essential need to feel loved. "Love Me Tender" might just be the best rock and roll ballad of all time and its simplicity resonates because the lyrics cut through the complexity to the simplest message possible.

Lyrically, early Elvis Presley is not all wonderful, but the truth is on Elvis’ Golden Records, the best - or at least most memorable - lines seem to be represented in this collection. Even one of the tracks that is not my personal favorite, "Hound Dog," doesn't have terrible lyrics. Sure, I've heard comedians pick at, "You ain't nothing but a hound dog / Crying all the time . . . You ain't ever caught a rabbit / And you ain't no friend of mine" ("Hound Dog"), but the lines aren't all that bad, especially when compared to the overuse of "baby" by most artists these days.

Lyrically, the least impressive is "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" which is just silly and rather astonishing that it was once a number one, much less a gold record! But, just like that Bee Gee's record, this, too captures well the time period and what sold at the time as opposed to just what we historically remember him for. And there is some value in that.

For those (few) unfamiliar with the works of Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Golden Records captures Elvis' mellow vocals as he has the ability to traverse the baritone and tenor ranges of the musical spectrum. On this album, Presley's vocals tend to be articulate and clear, coming through with an expressive quality that makes the lyrics clear and truly emotive.

So, for example, on "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Anyway You Want Me (That's Where I'll Be)," Presley is mellow and clear and hits some lower notes that give him a very soulful sound. Conversely, songs like "Hound Dog" and "Blue Suede Shoes" are fast, rhythmic and yet equally clear, which speaks both to Presley's ability to sing and articulate and the production of the tracks.

On that subject, though, comes the drawback of such a compilation of hits as this. On Elvis’ Golden Records, "Hound Dog" and "Blue Suede Shoes" are wisely put at the opposite ends of the album, which is good because they share a great deal in the way of notes, beats and sound in general. The problem with Elvis' early works is that many of the tracks do sound similar, if not the same.

On Elvis’ Golden Records, many of the songs are slower and sadder than one might expect from Presley (unless they've actually listened to his albums!). Presley's music is surprisingly sensitive as he begs to be loved ("Love Me Tender"), treated well ("Don't Be Cruel") and to be able to give his love ("Too Much"). He plays guitar well on the album with tracks like "All Shook Up" and "Jailhouse Rock" being some of his most immediately impressive works on guitar. But it's not like Presley is generally considered one of the guitar greats of history and that is for a reason.

So, while this is not a perfect album, it's pretty close and it is the essential collection of early Elvis Presley works without the "fat" and with all of the essential songs from his earliest period. Anyone who wants to have the obligatory Elvis Presley album on hand, this might well be the best bet.

The best track is "Love Me Tender," the low point is "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear".

For other works by Elvis Presley, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Elvis Presley
Loving You
Elvis’ Christmas Album
30 #1 Hits


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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