History: America’s Greatest Hits

Part 31 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

Childhood memories can be tantalizing in the way they play with our emotions. For me, they are usually tied to specific songs and / or records (or to be honest, cassettes). I grew up as the eldest of 3 siblings, now all scattered throughout Planet Earth (Washington, Pennsylvania, New Zealand). I have clear visions of singing along to America’s Greatest Hits in the back of my parents car, the crisp fall day in Bucks County, PA providing the backdrop as my brother and I belted out “Sandman” in unison with the cassette. Nostalgia can be a dangerous mindset, but fortunately the album has held up extremely well and has inspired countless artists (chief among them are former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and the band Fountains of Wayne)

It goes without saying that when I first heard the songs on this record I didn’t know much about the band or its…uh….history. I did recognize famed Beatles producer George Martin listed in the credits. That was about it. I had no idea that the band was considered a Neil Young ripoff for most of its hit making years. I had no idea that Rolling Stone’s guide to albums gave almost every record by the band 1 to 2 stars in the reviews (poor to mediocre). Even Neil Young was stunned when his father asked him if the #1 single “A Horse With No Name” was him. Is any of this warranted? I’ll admit there is more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Young at his most laid back on several tracks and George Martin’s production resembles some of his techniques that he used with The Beatles. On the studio albums some of those limitations or influences sometimes can come off as weaknesses. On this compilation the weaknesses fall by the wayside and we are left with a thrilling collection of sing-a-long anthems (that’s saying something for me as I usually avoid greatest hits collections)

Ride that highway in the sky…

A Horse With No Name (chart position #1) – the bands first hit song, a #1 at that. It also sounds very similar to Neil Young. It reminds me of a commercial that used to play when I was a kid that featured a hippie saying “Hey man is that freedom rock? TURN IT UP”. Very warm folk rock with the chorus featuring three-part vocal harmony. Key lyrics:

The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

I Need You (chart position #9) – Beatles feel to the introduction, a more layered production than the previous track. Harmony vocals kick in around the 40 second mark and it elevates the song into an emotional lament of desire. A soft rock masterpiece. Key lyrics:

I need you like the flower needs the rain
You know I need you, guess I’ll start it all again
You know I need you like the winter needs the spring
You know I need you, I need you

Sandman (flip side of A Horse With No Name) – This is about as rocking as America gets with lyrics making a passing reference to the Vietnam War, a somewhat shouty chorus, and a catchy bass groove. Dark undercurrent in the verses before it segues into the stunning chorus. Key lyrics:

I understand you’ve been running from the man
That goes by the name of the Sandman
He flies the sky like an eagle in the eye
Of a hurricane that’s abandoned

Ventura Highway (chart position #8) – This is such a perfectly sequenced compilation – a lighter tone to this track after the slightly darker previous track. Evokes visions of driving in the open air without a care in the world. Harmony vocals among Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek are again a highlight. Generations will sing-a-long to the famous chorus “Ventura Highway in the sunshine / Where the days are longer / The nights are stronger than moonshine / You’re gonna go I know”

Don’t Cross the River (chart position #35) – Bouncy bass carries this tune, has a slight campfire sing-a-long feel as it reaches its chorus. Feels deceptively effortless. A folk rock masterpiece. Lyrics are also deeper than you may realize as your singing along with the positive vibe music. Be true to yourself and avoid falling into the trap of duplicity. “Don’t cross the river if you can’t swim the tide / Don’t try denyin’ livin’ on the other side”

Only In Your Heart (chart position #62) – For me, the highlight of this track is the joyous chorus. The rest sounds slightly generic, which may be why it didn’t chart as high as earlier singles. I like this track – it’s just not quite as strong as what has come before. I can relate to the lyrics though and find myself singing along to this Beatles inspired track. The guitar solo with a minute left sounds like something straight off The Beatles 1966 album Revolver. Key lyrics:

Only in your heart
This thing that makes you want to
Start it all again

You can’t disregard your friends
But life gets so hard when you reach the end

Muskrat Love (chart position #67) – A song that has been mocked by, loved by, and confused fellow musicians as well as fans. The music has a low-key, James Taylor vibe about it (that’d be acoustic guitar & sweet baby james vocals). The issue has always been with the lyrics which concern the mundane details about Muskrats in love. It’s pleasant while playing than floats away…

Tin Man (chart position #4) – A very strong single, emotive vocals leading into that perfect three-part harmony on the bridge. Catchy acoustic guitar with piano refrains holding everything down. Some portions of this song really hit home, sparking memories of late night conversations with true friends – the 1st line is a stunner “Sometimes late when things are real / And people share the gift of gab between themselves”

Lonely People (chart position #5) – Not just my favorite America song – one of my favorite songs of all time. Bass high in the mix with acoustic guitar before Dan Peek’s vocals kick in (one of the few singles he sang lead on). Bar room piano in the bridge before it hits the chorus for the 2nd time, layers of harmony lending the track an ethereal quality. It’s probably strange in 2012 to drive around blasting this song in a soccer mom car – but hey, I never claimed to be cool. Key lyrics:

This is for all the lonely people
Thinking that life has passed them by
Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
And never take you down or never give you up
You never know until you try

Sister Golden Hair (chart position #1) – Almost as great as “Lonely People” it has a slightly faster tempo and similar feel to it (not quite as emotionally touching). The way the track breaks down and comes back to acoustic guitar strumming is perfection. It then keeps building in complexity reminding me of The Beatles (George Martin was America’s primary producer in the 70’s). I’d imagine most people at some point in their lives can relate to the line “Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed / That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed”

Daisy Jane (chart position #20) – A very touching ballad that details a love affair and all the feelings that go with that territory. It starts off very quiet but builds into an emotional plea of longing. Again – harmony vocals are perfection, George Martin’s production gives the track the perfect orchestral embellishments. Key lyrics:

Do you really love me
I hope you do
Like the stars above me
How I love you
When it’s cold at night
Everything’s alright

Woman Tonight (chart position #44) – Soft rock meets funk? Everything about this song screams “THE 70’s” – but you know what? It works. It’s a fun little jammy thing with laid back vocals and one of my favorite lines “I get the shivers up and down my spine / The only time I’m happy’s when I know she’s mine”

There have been other compilations, and certainly the early studio albums and most recent albums are worth seeking out (their 2007 album Here & Now was produced by James Iha and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. It also featured a cameo by Ryan Adams). This is the album by America that I come back to most often and it seems to be a time machine – taking me back to my youth, singing with my brother with not a care in the world. It is a memory that I treasure, and this is the soundtrack. Join me next week as I discuss Bossanova by the Pixies.

6 thoughts on “History: America’s Greatest Hits

  1. Who doesn’t feel good while listening to Ventura Highway…mmm. And I love the mention of Muskrat Love. That made me smile. “And they whirl and they twirl and they tangoed…” lol Truthfully though, the Captain sort of freaked me out. He was just too quiet. Gave me the creeps.

      • I know how that is, as I’m finally done with my own work and able to mull around – hence venturing over to see what you had on tap! I was happy I did 🙂

      • alright, glad you did!! Experimenting with my review style a bit so I don’t repeat myself, and had back to back reviews filled with the “F Word” (Rage Against the Machine and Green Day). Lots of fun! Hope you are doing well, I’m really looking forward to what you come up with next 🙂

      • But the F word can be such a colorful addition to one’s arsenal of descriptors 🙂 I enjoy the span of things you cover. Good stuff. I just don’t know how you remember all the different songs/artists etc.

      • Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been obsessed with reading, writing, and music. Not quite a musician, more like a geek like love of all genres. I do appreciate the kind words. I gave a little warning before I let loose with the F-bomb repeatedly. It was good fun. I usually use it sparingly for impact 🙂

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