Led by the battling Davies brothers, The Kinks were the most quintessentially British of all the British Invasion bands, which was part of the reason why they never made it as big in America as they should have. Primary singer-songwriter and group leader Ray Davies penned cleverly poetic social satires that were imbued with irony and a painter’s eye for detail, while younger brother Dave's raw, exciting guitar work led the group’s garageland sound. Early on the Kinks delivered primitive rock n’ roll with no excess fat, and Greatest Hits is a generous 18-track compilation of their 1964-1966 singles (most of which rarely appeared on proper albums), several of which I consider to be some of the best songs of the ‘60s. Led by Dave's killer riffs and soloing (not Jimmy Page as has often been rumored), #1 U.K. hit “You Really Got Me” was one of the earliest examples of both heavy metal thunder and punk rock attitude, while “All Day And All Of The Night” was an equally raw and great repeat of the formula ("I Need You" goes to this well once again, although not quite as effectively). Elsewhere, “Till The End Of The Day” was also raw and intense while demonstrating the band’s effective backing vocals, while “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” was another intense and moody Nuggets-styled punk rocker before there was such a thing as punk rock; Ray and Dave swap lead vocals on this one though the great lyrics were written by Ray (p.s. love the later To The Bone version). Other classic songs here include the more melancholic “Set Me Free,” which features an affecting Ray vocal, while “A Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” both contained biting social satire that sowed the seeds for ‘90s Britpop. These catchy songs are where The Kinks really became The Kinks to me, and it's because of songs such as these that the term "Kinks-y" was coined. Best of all may be the #1 U.K. hits “Tired Of Waiting For You,” a mature, tuneful musical number on which Ray does sound appropriately tired, and the brilliantly moody and evocative “Sunny Afternoon.” These songs demonstrated that Ray was an intelligent songwriter worthy of the highest possible praise, and as a singer Ray had a distinct British accent that perfectly fit his distinctly British lyrics, while Dave’s high-pitched backing whine was an underrated element of the Kinks arsenal. Granted, not everything here is first-rate, as the concise original 10 track version of this album has been bulked up to 18 tracks, but even the lesser rave ups or overly derivative Beatles imitations are enjoyable ("You Do Something To Me" is pretty great, actually), and "Something Better Beginning" is a pretty, stately ballad. Alas, I was surprised to find out how tame the performances were of other well-known songs such as “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” (much later much better done by The Pretenders and Van Halen, respectively), as the band and/or producer Shel Talmy sometimes failed to capture the performance that Ray's great songs deserved (these songs sometimes have a primitive, dated quality, and the band on the whole weren't as accomplished as musicians as some of the other top British Invasion bands). Still, much of what is here is truly timeless, and Greatest Hits contains many of their most famous songs (aside from "Waterloo Sunset," "Lola," "Celluloid Heroes," and maybe a few others) and provides considerable proof as to why the band were among the all-time greats. Really, this album captures all that non diehards would need from this productive early period, before The Kinks started crafting quality albums in addition to classic singles.
Face To Face (Pye, Reprise ’66) Rating: A-
The Kinks first truly good proper album has a lot of really good songs but only one truly great one, the should already be familiar to you “Sunny Afternoon” (instantly memorable via its classic descending bass line). Other memorable songs are the longing “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home,” a moving plea from Ray to his sister that features some oddly atonal guitar from Dave, and the delightfully catchy music hall number “Dandy,” about a very eligible bachelor. Additional highlights include the vividly reflective “Too Much On My Mind,” which effectively conveys a simple but universal message (who among us hasn’t felt overwhelmed at times?), while “Session Man” tunefully pokes fun at session ace Nicky Hopkins (“he’s not paid to think just play”), “House In The Country” musically shows off the band at their primitive best while commenting on shallow commercialism (it's hard not to also think of Blur's "Country House" when hearing this one), “Holiday In Waikiki” is a psychedelic garage rocker about the commercialization of Hawaii, and “Most Exclusive Residence For Sale” is another hummable social satire. Elsewhere, the moody ballad "Rainy Day in June" contrasts with the light, folksy "Little Miss Queen Of Darkness" and the Beatles-esque "I'll Remember,” as Face To Face was far more diverse and experimental than their previous albums, most of which contained a couple of classic hits plus obvious filler. There are still some average songs here (the boring droner "Fancy" comes immediately to mind), and Ray's uniquely British vocal phrasings (such as pronouncing musician “mu-zish-ee-ann”) may also take some getting used to (these traits were later much aped by Britpop bands such as Oasis, so lets give the lads points for impact on that front at least). The first Kinks album that was fully conceived as such, the extremely good but poor selling Face To Face showed The Kinks successfully branching out as they were about to enter their creative prime.
Something Else by The Kinks (Pye, Reprise ‘67) Rating: A
Ray really hit his stride as an insightful social commentator and melody writer here, while Dave also lent a hand with some strong songwriting contributions. And though the band’s Britishness all but ensured that the record would flop in the U.S. (the band being unable to tour the U.S. for several years during this time was a killer blow as well), and in fact it sold surprisingly poorly in the U.K. as well (despite the band having continued success with their U.K. singles during this time), Something Else has rightfully become recognized as a classic album and one of The Kinks best releases over time. Though perhaps it lacks some of the cohesion of its surrounding concept albums, and there are times when I wish that the band would recklessly rock out more like in the early days, Something Else still has an exquisite overall mood (it should be noted that this was the first Kinks album that Ray self-produced) that transcends individual songs, though some of its songs are quite exceptional. In particular, the charmingly sprightly and delightfully catchy piano rocker “David Watts” (about schoolboy worship, eventfully covered years later by The Jam), the timelessly pretty pathos of Dave’s Dylanesque “Death Of A Clown” (a co-write with Ray though that's Dave's affecting croak you hear), and especially the mesmerizing, impossibly romantic #2 U.K. hit “Waterloo Sunset,” a song that’s been described by many a scribe as the most beautiful song ever written, are three of the best Kinks songs ever. But elsewhere this eclectic album also connects on instantly enjoyable songs such as on the dainty “Two Sisters,” where if you substitute “brothers” for “sisters” you’ll know what the song is really about (the married Ray’s envy over Dave’s carefree bachelor lifestyle), the sea shanty singalong “Harry Rag,” the jaunty marching band number “Tin Soldier Man,” and the light, poppy “Afternoon Tea,” with its lovely “oohs” and bouncy “bomp bomp bomps.” Although the bossa nova-flavored “No Return” and Dave's “Funny Face” fail to really stand out, other songs further demonstrate the vast musical canvas the Kinks drew upon here. For example, the brightly tuneful “Situation Vacant” (which casts a critical eye at overweening ambition and overbearing mother-in-laws) saw Ray again in the guise of observant storyteller, while Dave's “Love Me Till The Sun Shines” offered up simple upbeat rock n’ roll, with a good catchy chorus, some busy drumming, bright keyboards, and tough guitars, and “Lazy Old Sun” ambitiously captured an atmospheric Middle-Eastern psychedelic vibe. Elsewhere, “End Of The Season” was another affectingly crooned ballad with a dash of vaudeville in it, as show tune elements were further integrated in addition to an increased reliance on acoustic guitar and piano (plus continued use of harpsichord). The end result is that these mature reflections veered far away from the bare boned rock n’ roll that characterized most of the band’s early singles, though The Kinks' arrangements on the whole are still considerably less sophisticated than say The Beatles or The Beach Boys. Still, Something Else was indeed something else, and though again it lacks the raw excitement and influential impact of the band’s best earlier work, its versatile restraint, eclecticism, and elegance (musically as well as lyrically) makes it perhaps even more enduring when all is said and done. P.S. Some of the successful non-album singles referenced earlier that were released immediately before and after this album's release were "Dead End Street" (U.K. #5), "Autumn Almanac" (U.K. #3), and "Days" (U.K. #12 only but one of their most beloved songs ever).
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (Pye, Reprise ‘68) Rating: A+
Mixing whimsical music hall with folksy pop and rock, The Kinks’ greatest masterpiece is an utterly charming and singularly unique creation. The low-key songs are simple but the melodies magnificent, and Ray Davies’ lyrical genius enables the band (with help from Nicky Hopkins on mellotron, harpsichord, and piano) to rise to towering heights of elegance. Ray wistfully yearns for older, simpler times and small town values, being at one with nature and slowing down the infernal “progress” that is slowly making precious pastoral pleasures obsolete. It is one of those glorious concept albums (one of many that sprang up in the wake of Sgt. Peppers) whose sum far exceeds its individual parts, as it cumulatively reaches a startling poignance due to its unity of vision. Many of those individual tracks are worth mentioning, however. My favorite songs are the wonderful, sing songy title track (a quintessential Kinks song if ever there was one), which beautifully outlines the album’s primary themes, “Do You Remember Walter?,” a delightfully moving look back at an old mate (memorable quote: “yes people always change, but memories of people can remain”), the equally catchy and nostalgic "Picture Book" (possibly the album's best known song, in part due to its appearance in a successful Hewlett-Packard commercial), “Johnny Thunder,” which has unforgettable “la la la” harmonies (actually several of these songs have wonderfully poppy backing harmonies), "Big Sky," which adds some psychedelic touches but mostly has another agreeably melodic chorus, “Sitting By The Riverside,” a relaxed beauty about the pleasure of leisure, “Animal Farm,” another supremely graceful number musically that lyrically has nothing to do with the classic George Orwell novel of the same name, “Village Green,” which again outlines the album’s main theme (“I miss the village green, and all the simple people”) amid more magical “la la las,” and “Startruck,” which features a great glammy chorus that Marc Bolan would’ve traded in his platform shoes for. Like other late ‘60s gems that you never hear on commercial radio (such as Astral Weeks, Forever Changes, and the vast majority of Odessey and Oracle), this album has a timeless quality to it, yet it sold poorly at the time of its release (it didn't even chart) and it has mind-bogglingly never found a large audience despite being a major favorite of critics and cultists (Ray quipped to Mojo magazine that “it’s the most critically acclaimed flop of all-time"). This unfortunate development caused the band to rethink their strategy and move in a more commercial (and more rocking) direction on subsequent efforts, but for my money this album will always be The Kinks' greatest start-to-finish triumph.
Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) (Pye, Reprise ‘69) Rating: A
This concept album (conceived for a BBC TV series that never aired) is one of the overlooked gems in the Kinks catalogue (indeed, in all of rock music). The story concerns a working class family's struggles in post-war Britain, and musically the band seriously rocks out on songs such as the supremely catchy single "Victoria" and the seriously heavy rocker "Brainwashed." As critic John Mendelson pointed out: “there’s not a song in the lot, start they with harpsichords or slow military drums, that ends up anything less than great bopping rock.” In addition, the robust production and diverse instrumentation (harpsichord, brass, piano, strings) throughout helps make this one of The Kinks' most musically inventive and ambitious (three songs exceed the 5-minute mark) albums, as they often include several interesting ideas or sections within individual songs, though they also find room for simple pleasures (for example, the jaunty harmony-laden rocker "Drivin'" and the wonderfully nostalgic ballad "Young and Innocent Days"). Ray puts in a playful, varied vocal performance, and he’s properly wistful while dreaming of “Australia,” a theatrical, innovative multi-sectioned song that ends with a surprising Dead-styled jam (it should be noted that the band's instrumentalists, in particular Dave and drummer Mick Avory, really shine throughout this album, while new bassist John Dalton also acquits himself quite well replacing Peter Quaife). Another ambitious highlight is the magnificent “Shangri-La” (the name of Arthur's suburban house), which begins beautifully, builds to a soaring chorus, and then musically gets harder as Ray’s satire grows more biting. Arthur’s downscaled expectations in “Shangri-La” (one of the best Kinks songs ever) mirrors Davies’ own, both for Britain and his band (who at least had their U.S. touring boycott rescinded around this time), and he can’t hide his bitter sarcasm addressing what “Mr. Churchill Says” (its at-times cheesiness aside, does this song have a great guitar groove on its extended outro or what?). Another memorable song is “Some Mother’s Son,” a simple but potent protest against war that focuses on the sad, lonely tale of one mother, thereby making a convincing case by using the most basic of human qualities: a mother’s love for her son. It is tender moments such as these that make The Kinks so great, and when Arthur details how his family has “Nothing To Say” there’s really nothing more that needs to be said. Of course, everything The Kinks have to say here is accompanied by a catchy, generally upbeat melody (such as “Yes Sir, No Sir” and “Arthur,” which provides a rousingly epic sing along finale), which contrasts with the often-cynical lyrics, and though the linked storyline can come across as contrived and heavy handed at times, the songs themselves are rarely less than first rate. Alas, the distinctly British content of the album (on songs such as “She Bought A Dress Like Princess Maria,” which starts all dainty but then turns into what I'd call wild circus music!) made it another easy to overlook masterpiece in America aside from “Victoria,” a minor hit that set the stage for the band’s renewed commercial acceptance after years of neglect. (p.s. like Village Green the album failed to chart at all in the U.K., as perhaps The Who's Tommy stole at least some of its "rock opera" thunder).
Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (Pye, Reprise ‘70) Rating: A-
Being able play larger venues in the United States resulted in a harder riff-based sound, and this fine album continued the band's recent hot streak, though it's less consistent and worthwhile overall than the prior three releases. This (again cumbersomely titled) album is largely remembered for the two tracks that still regularly make the rounds on "classic rock radio." "Lola" is probably the band's most famous song, and for good reason, as this classic coming of age anthem (a top 10 hit in both the U.S. and U.K.) has terrific hard-hitting riffs, a ridiculously catchy sing along chorus, and clever gender bending lyrics (it's almost certainly the best song ever about a transvestite!), while the whimsical "Apeman" (a #5 U.K. hit) is all but impossible not to sing along with. Sure, some have decried its sheer silliness, but I find "Apeman" to be extremely enjoyable because not only is it very catchy but I also like it's tropical island flavor, poppy "la la la's," and Ray's absurd pronunciations (such as "polytisheyann"), but lyrically it continues Ray's common theme of yearning for life's simple pleasures, albeit expressed in a more lighthearted manner than usual. Elsewhere, there are several solid hard rocking tracks like "The Contenders," "Top Of The Pops," "Rats," and "Powerman," but it's actually quieter, deeply moving songs such as “Strangers” (written and sung affectingly by Dave, who also wrote "Rats"), “Get Back In Line,” “This Time Tomorrow” (one of my favorite Kinks songs with a great performance from Avory), and “A Long Way From Home” that form the true heart of the album and make it something of an underrated minor classic. Other songs like "Denmark Street" and "The Moneygoround" have music hall influences and could be described as "jaunty," while new member John Gosling shines with his rolling piano runs and celestial keyboards. As for the album's general (at times heavy handed) theme, I'll quote the All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who notes that Ray "lashes out at ex-managers (the boisterous vaudevillian "The Moneygoround"), publishers ("Denmark Street"), TV and music journalists (the hard-hitting "Top of the Pops"), label executives ("Powerman"), and, hell, just society in general ("Apeman," "Got to Be Free")," the latter another catchy piano rocker. He also accurately notes that "if his wit wasn't sharp, the entire project would be insufferable, but the album is as funny as it is angry." There's still a little too much cynical rock star whining going on for my taste (perhaps the album should've been called simply "Where's My Money?"), as well as some fairly generic attempts at rocking out, but despite its faults the album was largely a success not only artistically but commercially as well (their first one in a while that could make the latter claim). Note: A part two of this album was planned but never materialized.
Muswell Hillbillies (RCA ‘71) Rating: A
After the skippable soundtrack album Percy the band switched labels from Pye to RCA and released Muswell Hillbillies, another somewhat forgotten gem that never really found a significant audience, though it is greatly appreciated by Kinkophiles and critics. The album is unique in that its music is an often-unusual hybrid of American roots music (blues, country, etc.) coupled with Salvation Army horns or accordion, along with Ray's typically brilliant British lyrics and effective but at times odd vocalisms (most notably on "Holiday" which oddly enough brings Randy Newman to mind). Ray tells darkly cynical yet at times comical tales about disillusioned "little people" who yearn for escape, even if only temporarily via a "Holiday" or "Alcohol." Several songs here (most obviously "Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues") match upbeat music to troubling lyrics, which creates quite an interesting contrast, and the songs are deceptively catchy and get better the more you get to know them (this is often described, rightfully so, as a "grower album"). Even the album cover (perhaps my favorite Kinks cover) is interesting, though I can see how such a unique hybrid style may have been hard to market, especially since, stellar though most of these songs are, few stand out as potential hit single material (and again, a song like "Have a Cuppa Tea" exemplifies how this album is British to the core, which again may have hurt U.S. sales). Instead, this is an album for the serious, hardcore music fan, and rather than individual songs, catchy music hall melodies (quite a few) and gutsy Stones-y guitars ("Skin and Bones," the anti-government "Here Come The People in Grey") are what I'm more likely to remember from an album that can be both beautiful (especially "Oklahoma U.S.A.") and rollicking. Heck, on louder numbers like "20th Century Man," "Complicated Life," and "Muswell Hillbilly" I can easily visualize people clapping beer mugs together while singing along, and this is also a really good guitar record which proves that Dave’s skills had progressed well past the inspired but rudimentary stage of their early singles (in addition to lead guitar he plays slide guitar and banjo). The music here has a rich old time feel, which is fitting given that Ray has always preferred old time values, and first and foremost he remains a first-class storyteller of primarily sad tales (after all, when you think of The Kinks the word "pathos" immediately comes to mind). Again, if I have a problem with this album it's that it lacks a strong overriding concept like Village Green or classic individual songs like “Waterloo Sunset” or “Lola” to make it an all-time classic. Still, I'd argue that no Kinks collection is complete without the delightful Muswell Hillbillies, the album that many feel marked the end of the band's classic period, though they certainly made more high quality music thereafter.
The Kinks Kronikles (Reprise ’72) Rating: A
I’ll keep this brief: you should own this 28-track, 2-CD compilation album. Not only because it kronikles the Kinks greatest period (1966-1970) and barely overlaps (only “Sunny Afternoon”) with their Greatest Hits, but because many of these songs were previously unavailable on any prior Kinks album. Far from your typical hits collection, this one captures singles, album tracks, b-sides, and rarities (some first appearing here), but the end result is endlessly listenable, with its highs reaching incredible heights and its lows being few and far between. Culling three songs from Face to Face ("Holiday In Waikiki," "Sunny Afternoon," "Fancy"), the best three songs from Something Else ("Waterloo Sunset," "David Watts," "Death Of A Clown"), the lone title track from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (better heard in its entirety anyway), the two obvious picks from Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) ("Victoria," "Shangri-La"), three great tracks from Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One ("Get Back In Line," "Lola," "Apeman"), and the obvious standout from the Percy soundtrack (the pretty orchestral ballad "God's Children"), The Kinks Kronikles is even more valuable due the inclusion of non-album tracks like “Berkeley Mews” (dig its pretty Spanish guitars and crooned harmony vocals), “Dead End Street” (quintessential Kinks and one of their best songs ever due to the way its somber lyrics and horns contrast with its catchy shouted chorus), “This Is Where I Belong” (tuneful, singable, and short), “Autumn Almanac” (evocative and poppy), "Did You See His Name?" (short, charming keyboards-led pop), "Wonderboy" (more light, easily singable pop and apparently a personal favorite of John Lennon), "Mr. Pleasant" (another prototypically jaunty social satire that could be called Kinks-y), "Mindless Child Of Motherhood" (a very good Dave Davies rocker), "Big Black Smoke" (moody and memorable), "Suzannah's Still Alive" (another Dave goodie), "She's Got Everything" (a balls out rocker), and “Days” (a simply sublime pop ballad). And though The Kinks lacked the studio sophistication of The Beatles and the pure musical power of The Who (the band’s most blatant contemporaries), for consistent songwriting genius Ray Davies need not take a back seat to anyone, and his unprolific brother Dave was no slouch either. Simply put, The Kinks were one of the best bands ever and they've never really gotten their just due. There's ample proof right here on this cleverly sequenced compilation (I like the way "Autumn Almanac" and "Sunny Afternoon," and then "Apeman" and "King Kong," are sequenced back to back), which makes The Kinks Kronikles both a great starting point on getting acquainted with this quintessentially klassic British band, and an essential compilation in its own right.
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