America

History: America's Greatest Hits (Warner Bros 75) Rating: A-
When I checked out the various "songs of the year" youtube clips put together by my friend Doug, I noticed several songs by the band America, and they all sounded mighty good. People forget just how big this band was; between 1972 and 1975 they had five top 10 albums (including this compilation) and six top 10 singles. Sure, they may have been somewhat faceless, seemingly aping Harvest-era Neil Young on their first #1 hit, "Horse With No Name," and uncannily resembling Paul Simon (if George Harrison had guested on guitar) on their other #1 hit, "Sister Golden Hair," but that just means that they were a good second tier band. Hey, not every artist can be great or groundbreaking, and the fact of the matter is that "Horse With No Name" would be one of the best songs on Harvest, and likewise "Sister Golden Hair" would rank among Simon's "greatest hits." All in all, America had a knack for summery folk rock confections that boasted lightly breezy melodies and were often enhanced by airy three-part harmonies. Yeah, they could be corny even on some of their really good songs like "I Need You" (which is so pretty I can overlook its corniness), and "Muskrat Love" (later a hit for the Captain and Tennille) is pretty weak, but this concise 12-track compilation sums up this band very well and is an album that I enjoy listening to from start to finish. Of course, the hits are the obvious highlights, including the aforementioned smashes but also "Ventura Highway," "Tin Man," and "Lonely People." "Lonely People" is a really sad song, albeit not one without hope, and in fact America actually has a melancholic feel to a lot of their music, which is among the things that I find attractive about them. True, the non-hits aren't as good, but most are also quite listenable, such as "Sandman," which is a bit darker but is less catchy, the bluegrass number "Don't Cross The River," which is perfectly pleasant if not particularly substantial, and the catchy piano pop of "Only In Your Heart," whose synth and guitar-based jam ending actually shows a sense of adventure that is rarely attributed to the band. Anyway, this band was good enough for George Martin to want to work with them, and he actually remixed the first seven songs on this album, which he hadn't produced the first time around. Of course, having Martin produce them was a blessing and curse for the band, kind of like Bush having Steve Albini produce Razorblade Suitcase. For the band his mere presence was a credibility boost, but for mainstream critics who never liked them in the first place it was even more proof that the bands were wanabees. Regardless of all that, what ultimately matters is that the earlier hits here sound better under his remix production, making this album a perfect starting point for checking out a band who are somewhat forgotten by the masses today despite their songs still getting regular airplay on soft rock (or "lite FM" or "adult contemporary" or "easy listening") radio stations. They may have been a bunch of wimps, but they sure could write pretty melodies, as well as play and sing them, and like other overlooked bands such as The Grass Roots or The Association, they're at least worthy of having one album in your collection, and this one contains just about every big song they ever did, with the only major omission being the much later released top 10 hit "You Can Do Magic."

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