An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Twelve: 2001-2009

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Twelve: 2001-2009

A renewed artistic vision and a reissue boom make the first decade of the 21st century an essential one for Olivia Newton-John.  This decade brings a career-best compilation, her finest studio album, and plenty of other worthy releases along the way.

Magic: The Very Best of Olivia Newton-John

United States:

Pop #150

Track Listing:

Let Me Be There

If You Love Me (Let Me Know)

I Honestly Love You

Have You Never Been Mellow

Please Mr. Please

Come On Over

Don’t Stop Believin’

Sam

You’re the One That I Want (with John Travolta)

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Summer Nights (with John Travolta and Cast)

A Little More Love

Deeper Than the Night

Magic

Xanadu (with Electric Light Orchestra)

Suddenly (with Cliff Richard)

Physical

Make a Move On Me

Heart Attack

Twist of Fate

The Grease Megamix (with John Travolta and Cast)

Newton-John’s first major release during this period is an essential one. Magic: The Very Best of Olivia Newton-John is her first United States compilation that is truly comprehensive of her career, and as perfect a representation of her best and most successful work that can exist on a single disc.  Magic includes all fifteen of her top ten pop hits, supplemented by key singles that had success on the country and adult contemporary charts.

Some cuts still needed to be made, but the only significant American hits excluded were “If Not For You,” “Something Better to Do,” and “Soul Kiss,” all of which had chart success comparable to a handful of the hits included.  You could exchange any three of those for “Come On Over,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” or “Suddenly,” and it would still be a five star collection. Eighteen years later, Magic remains the best starting point for Newton-John’s historic success in the nation that embraced her the most enthusiastically during her hitmaking career.

The Definitive Collection

2001 Japan / 2002 Europe

International:

Denmark #18 | Norway #18 | United Kingdom #11

Track Listing:

You’re the One That I Want (with John Travolta)

Xanadu (with Electric Light Orchestra)

Magic

Sam

I Honestly Love You

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Suddenly (with Cliff Richard)

I Need Love

A Little More Love

Summer Nights (with John Travolta and Cast)

Physical

What is Life

Heart Attack

Landslide

Make Move On Me (Europe) / Jolene (Japan)

Have You Never Been Mellow

Deeper Than the Night

Banks of the Ohio

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Long Live Love

If Not For You

The Grease Megamix (with John Travolta and Cast)

Europe and Japan made their own attempts at a single disc collection for Olivia’s career, which presented a different set of challenges for those markets, given that her chart success wasn’t as pronounced. The Definitive Collection stands out most for its inclusion of her early European hits (“What is Life,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads, ” and “Long Live Love”), as well as “Landslide,” which was a top twenty hit in the U.K.

The “charts first” approach isn’t nearly effective as it was for the States, given how many signature songs of Newton-John’s had less of an impact worldwide.  Also, by not arranging the songs chronologically, some of the transitions are jarring, particularly “What is Life” being sandwiched in between “Physical” and “Heart Attack.”  Still, the material is strong enough overall that the album was a surprise commercial hit, becoming Newton-John’s first gold album in the United Kingdom in two decades.

(2)

2002

International:

Australia #5

Track Listing:

Sunburned Country (with Keith Urban)

Lift Me Up (with Darren Hayes)

I’ll Come Runnin’ (with Tina Arena)

Tenterfield Saddler (with Peter Allen)

I Will Be Right Here (with David Campbell)

I Love You Crazy (with Human Nature)

Bad About You (with Billy Thorpe)

I’m Counting On You (with Johnny O’Keefe)

Never Far Away (with Richard Marx)

Happy Day (with Jimmy Little)

Act of Faith (with Michael McDonald)

Physical (Samba Version)

One of the most interesting things about Newton-John’s career in the new century has been a commercial resurgence in her homeland of Australia.  Her renewed popularity was particularly evident with her first duets album, (2), which featured duets with primarily, but not exclusively, Australian artists.

As with any duets album, the novelty here is in the mixing of Newton-John’s vocals with those of other distinctive singers. It’s an entertaining record throughout, but it’s interesting that the two highlights are the ones that deviate from the format of Newton-John singing live with other artists.  “Tenterfield Saddler” revisits the late Peter Allen’s most personal composition, a moving tale about his father and grandfather.  Newton-John’s vocals are added to it digitally, and she brings a new tenderness to the classic song.  The other highlight is a hidden bonus track, a samba version of “Physical” that slows the song down, bringing the seductive nature of the lyrics to the surface and stripping any lingering camp away from the aerobics class staple.

Indigo: Women of Song

2004

International:

Australia #15 | United Kingdom #27

Track Listing:

How Insensitive

Love Me or Leave Me

Cry Me a River

Anyone Who Had a Heart

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

How Glad I Am

Lovin’ You

Rainy Days and Mondays

Send in the Clowns

Summertime

Alfie

Far more than a by-the-numbers covers project, Indigo: Women of Song is the collection of standards that Newton-John had longed to record for years, having been dissuaded when Linda Ronstadt released What’s New in the early eighties.  Brilliantly produced by Phil Ramone, Indigo plays like an intimate set at a cabaret, albeit one that had a full strings section on hand for dramatic effect.

By choosing the framework of songs popularized by women in the seventies and earlier, Indigo also serves as a historical document of what women singers sounded like before Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion made it all about the power notes.  Newton-John’s matured voice gives the songs additional heft, with her using her lower register more than she ever had on record before.  It’s an excellent listen from start to finish, with her performances of “How Insensitive,” “Cry Me a River,” “Anyone How Had a Heart,” and “Send in the Clowns” being among her finest vocal performances of all time.

Stronger Than Before

2005

International:

Australia #39

Track Listing:

Stronger Than Before

When You Believe

Phenomenal Woman

Under the Skin

Pass it On

That’s All I Know For Sure

When I Needed You

Can I Trust Your Arms

Don’t Stop Believin’

Serenity

Stronger Than Before begins a new era in Newton-John’s catalog that combines her songwriting skills with her desire to use music to heal.  Those ideas are still developing on this project, and when they are most successful, the album is at its best.  Revival of “Don’t Stop Believin'” aside, the album contains nine new songs, four of which were co-written by Newton-John.  The outside material does a serviceable job of delivering the album’s message of resilience in the face of overwhelming challenges, but it is the self-written material that provides the most powerful moments.

The title track opens the set, and has Newton-John reflecting on overcoming her first (and at that time, only) battle with cancer.  “Under the Skin” subtly addresses the insecurities of another with love and support.  “Can I Trust Your Arms” is a stunner, co-written with her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, and informed by her daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder. (“I fight the falling. I push against the pull of it all.”)

The album closes with a revelation.  “Serenity” transforms the Serenity Prayer into a melancholic meditation.  Newton-John’s performance can be likened to the first lights of morning struggling to break through the darkness.  It’s unlike anything she’d ever done before, and sets the stage for her greatest studio recording to date.

Grace and Gratitude

2006

United States:

Christian Albums #36 | Christian/Gospel Albums #54 | New Age #2

International:

Australia #86

Track Listing:

Shekhinah (Interlude)

Pearls On a Chain

Yesod (Interlude)

To Be Wanted

Hod (Interlude)

Learn to Love Yourself

Nezah (Interlude)

Grace and Gratitude

Tiferet (Interlude)

Love is Letting Go of Fear

Hesed-Gevurah (Interlude)

Gaté Gaté

Tala’ al Badru ‘Alayna (Interlude)

Let Go Let God

Binah (Interlude)

I Will Lift Up My Eyes

Hochmah (Interlude)

The Power of Now

Keter (Interlude)

Instrument of Peace

As pure and as beautiful an expression of Olivia Newton-John’s artistic and spiritual essence as can possibly exist on record. Grace and Gratitude is Newton-John’s signature work, a flawless collaboration with Amy Sky that is at turns inspiring, challenging, and comforting.

Written and recorded in the wake of personal challenges, Grace and Gratitude is informed by religious traditions from around the world without losing the intimacy that can only come from individually lived experiences.  Perhaps that’s the best way to capture in words what Grace and Gratitude is about: drawing strength to endure through timeless ideas and the timely presence of those who love you.

Linked together with instrumental interludes, Grace and Gratitude is an album that is best experienced without interruption, as the songs need to be experienced as well as heard.  The title track is Newton-John’s mission statement, the choice to be thankful for all you have been given as your own mortality comes knocking on the door.  “Love is Letting Go of Fear” rejects the easy answers as it encourages the wounded to open themselves up again, understanding that the strength to do so first requires the acknowledgment of how deeply their pain is felt.  “Let Go Let God” transforms a common Australian phrase to something more powerful: “Let the signs remind you we are passengers. Let the signs remind you to surrender.”

Grace and Gratitude is completely free of judgment, which might be its most important element.  It doesn’t place any blame for emotional pain, it understands the paralyzing force of grief, and it believes that the answers can be found from whatever source works for you, be it a Catholic prayer, a Japanese chant, or just the calming reassurance of Newton-John’s voice, if that’s what does it for you.

Go for the hits collections if you want to understand how Newton-John became the biggest female pop star of her time.  But if you want to understand why she’s such a source of inspiration as a person, and are curious to see how deep and true her talent runs, Grace and Gratitude is the album for you.

 

Christmas Wish

2007

United States:

Pop #187 | Independent #21

Track Listing:

O Come All Ye Faithful

Angels We Have Heard on High (Interlude)

Every Time it Snows (with Jon Secada)

Away in a Manger (Interlude)

We Three Kings

First Noel (Interlude)

A Mother’s Christmas Wish (with Jim Brickman)

Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Interlude)

Angels in the Snow

What Child is This (Interlude)

Silent Night (with Jann Arden)

O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Interlude)

All Through the Night (with Michael McDonald)

Little Drummer Boy (Interlude)

Underneath the Same Sky

O Christmas Tree (Interlude)

Little Star of Bethlehem

Deck the Halls (Interlude)

Instrument of Peace (with Marc Jordan)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Interlude)

Christmas On My Radio

A Gift of Love (with Barry Manilow)

Newton-John applies the Grace and Gratitude approach to a Christmas collection, weaving thoughtful renderings of Christmas songs together with atmospheric instrumental interludes.  She is in fine voice, delivering Christmas standards in a way similar to those pop classics she covered on Indigo.  There are also some excellent collaborations throughout, particularly the collaborations with Jon Secada, Jann Arden, and Barry Manilow.

There are a few different Christmas compilations and collections from Newton-John floating around, but Christmas Wish is the only one that you need.  It’s the perfect album to have playing in the background as you decorate the tree or cook Christmas dinner for the family.

A Celebration in Song

2008

Track Listing:

Right Here With You (with Delta Goodrem)

Find a Little Faith (with Cliff Richard)

Courageous (with Melinda Schneider)

The Heart Knows (with Barry Gibb)

Everything Love Is (with Jimmy Barnes)

Isn’t it Amazing (with Sun)

Never Far Away (with Richard Marx)

Sunburned Country (with Keith Urban)

Reckless (with John Farrar)

Angel in the Wings (with Jann Arden)

The Water is Wide (with Amy Sky and RyanDan)

Beautiful Thing (Belinda Emmett)

A Celebration in Song is Newton-John’s second duets album, and this one has a higher purpose that inspires stronger material and performances than (2), as it is a fundraising effort for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center in Melbourne, Australia, released in conjunction with her walk along the Great Wall of China.

The set opens with arguably its strongest track, “Right Here With You,” which Newton-John wrote with duet partner Delta Goodrem. It’s a conversation between a cancer survivor and another woman who has just received her diagnosis, and it captures the need for hope and support to deal with the terrifying fear.  There’s an urgency to the track that elevates it above the rest of the album, which is more generic in its inspirational content.

As can be expected, the album’s other high points come courtesy of songs written by Newton-John or by Amy Sky.  The set also features welcome reunions with Cliff Richard and John Farrar, as well as a pair of highlights that are repeated from (2).  It’s a good album for an even better cause.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Thirteen: 2010-Present

Previous: Part Eleven: 1993-2000

 

1 Comment

  1. Great comments, Kevin! I hadn’t really given Grace & Gratitude much time before, but your input has me curious to check it out.

    One more to go! Great job!

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