Remembering Glen Campbell (1936-2017): His Fifteen Greatest Albums

by Jeff Fiedler

The immediate adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of the late Glen Campbell is “multi-talented.” Even if he had never made a single album of his own (and he’d go on to make nearly sixty studio albums in addition to six live discs!), he’d still have gone down in music history as one of the greatest and most in-demand session musicians of the ‘60s, having served as a crucial member of the now-legendary Wrecking Crew team, briefly serving as a full-blown member of The Champs of "Tequila" fame, and even being invited to become a member – albeit just a temporary one – of one of the biggest rock groups of the ‘60s, the Beach Boys. (Campbell would spend four months as a touring replacement for Brian Wilson during the early part of 1965, Brian later penning a great, oft-overlooked non-LP single for Glen in "Guess I'm Dumb.") By the late ‘60s, the former session great had reinvented himself as one of the premier adult-contemporary balladeers in the business, one regularly reaching the upper part of the singles charts – on the pop and country surveys alike, Campbell being one of the biggest country-crossover success stories of the ‘60s and ‘70s – with his instant-classic renditions of some of Jimmy Webb’s finest compositions. He had his down periods both commercially and artistically, but his vast discography also boasts three distinct golden eras, an impressive feat for any performer with a catalog of albums spanning over four decades, and his unlikely comebacks were epic both in their duration – when Campbell was on a hot streak, he was truly on fire – and their artistic brilliance. But beyond being just a fabulous vocalist and guitarist, Campbell had plenty of charisma, a trait that served him well on camera, and that would lead to a second career as both the host of television’s The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, one of the longest-running prime-time variety shows of the ’70s, lasting four seasons, and an actor on the silver screen, Campbell receiving critical raves for his co-starring turn alongside the legendary John Wayne in the 1969 film True Grit. But it was the world of music to which Campbell made his greatest contributions, and we salute his career here by selecting and showcasing – in chronological order – his fifteen most essential long-players as a recording artist.

Big Bluegrass Special (1962, Capitol)

Campbell’s very first album was a collaboration with the Green River Boys and, as you might guess from the title, it’s a full-blown bluegrass affair. Naturally, it’s a far cry from the adult-contemporary pop that would make Campbell a superstar in the late ‘60s and beyond, but for those with at least a tolerance – if not a passion – for country and bluegrass, this is quite a charming and enjoyable disc, not in the least to hear Campbell’s phenomenal picking. If you’re not familiar with Campbell’s guitar chops, you’re in for a real treat. There may be little indication here that Glen would ever become one of the more famous pop vocalists of the next two decades, but it’s clear here that this is one very talented musician with a whole lot of potential.

Too Late to Worry, Too Blue to Cry (1963, Capitol)

It’s not a particularly famous album and is even a bit more obscure than his fully-bluegrass-oriented debut, but it’s here that Campbell begins to gradually move from bluegrass into pop territory, and while this is still a heavily country-tinged album (there are even covers here of Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb tunes), there’s a greater emphasis on Campbell’s vocal chops here than on his previous outing, and the disc consequently foreshadows the turn that Campbell’s solo career would take in the back half of the decade. It’s not an essential listen for those who prefer Glen’s more pop-oriented side (though the title cut is certainly noteworthy for being just his second Hot 100 hit - and his first on the Capitol label, where he'd spend most of his career; he'd previously had a #62 hit on the Crest label with a non-LP rendition of "Turn Around, Look at Me," later a Top Ten hit in 1968 for The Vogues), but for bigger Campbell fans who are curious to trek his musical evolution over the years, this is definitely an intriguing and critical transitional disc.

Gentle on My Mind (1967, Capitol)

It’s not his first pure pop vocal album – that designation would belong to 1967’s Burning Bridges – but it’s this disc that truly started to inch Campbell closer towards the mainstream and begin his reinvention as one of the finer adult-contemporary balladeers of the late ‘60s. The title cut wouldn’t click with the public immediately – it reached just #62 upon its initial release and only reached the Top 40 upon being re-issued towards the end of 1968 and even then still just peaked at # 39, a surprisingly low chart peak for a song of its massive popularity – but the song (penned by John Hartford) was Campbell’s first true classic and remained one of his signature tunes throughout his career. Though nothing else from this disc would be a hit for Campbell, it’s all quite solid, and it’s notable for including one of the earliest Nilsson covers – in this case, “Without Her,” a tune which ends up suiting Campbell quite well!

By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1967, Capitol)

Like Gentle on My Mind, this disc didn’t yield any major hits beyond its Jimmy Webb-penned title track, but the song became Campbell’s commercial breakthrough, becoming his first Top 40 hit – as well as an instant pop standard – and peaking at #26. But much like Gentle on My Mind, this is a rock-solid disc with little in the way of obvious filler, and one cut – the overlooked single “Hey Little One” – would even be re-released and utilized as the title track of the follow-up album.

Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell (1968, Capitol)

For Campbell’s tenth album, he teamed up with labelmate Bobbie Gentry, best known for her 1967 chart-topping story-song “Ode to Billie Joe,” for a full-length disc of duets, and the collaboration proved to be quite inspired, even if it falls just a tad short of being as appealing as Campbell’s better solo discs from this era. The pair would even have a minor Top 40 hit with their lovely cover of the Everly Brothers classic “Let It Be Me.” The disc would later be reissued decades later with the pair’s equally enchanting non-LP cover of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” – a second Top 40-charting duet for Campbell and Gentry – tacked on a bonus cut. Campbell would go on in the '70s to cut a full-length duets project with Anne Murray and record several duets in the early '80s with Rita Coolidge and Tanya Tucker, but it's Gentry who remains not simply Campbell's first duets partner but his best.

Wichita Lineman (1968, Capitol)

It was Jimmy Webb’s magic pen that helped make a crossover star of Campbell, so it’s only natural that he’d return to the Webb songbook, and once more, it paid off in dividends. This album’s title cut became Campbell’s biggest hit yet, not only topping the country charts for two weeks but crossing over in a very major way by topping the adult-contemporary charts for six weeks and climbing all the way to #3 on the Hot 100. “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” would also cross over, sneaking into the Top 40 at #32. Campbell’s self-penned “Fate of Man” and the touching closing cut “That’s Not Home” were bypassed as singles but remain two of the finer album cuts from this period in Campbell’s career. Also included here are covers of the Bee Gees’ “Words,” Bobby Goldsboro’s “The Straight Life” (a very underrated and oft-overlooked tune from the pen of Sonny Curtis, a former member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets who went on to write the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” and the Mary Tyler Moore theme), and an early, pre-Rod Stewart cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.”

Galveston (1969, Capitol)

Easily Campbell’s best album up to this point, if not possibly even the best album he ever made, Glen here eschews covers of especially familiar songs (the most recognizable cover here is Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go”) and also allows himself the freedom to include several self-penned cuts, including “If This Is Love” and “Friends.” But, though there’s no shortage of fine cuts here, the album is best remembered for its two Jimmy Webb-penned cuts, both Top 40 hits: “Where’s the Playground Susie” would stop at #26, but the title cut would repeat the success of “Wichita Lineman” and return Campbell to the top of the country and adult-contemporary charts while also reaching the Top Five on the pop charts.

Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb (1974, Capitol)

Campbell would go through a bit of a slump both artistically and commercially in the early part of the ‘70s – most of his few hits during the first half of the decade were confined to covers of well-worn oldies like Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” or Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby” – and three full years went by in which Campbell couldn’t even so much as reach the Top 40. Surprisingly, given the long string of hits Campbell had scored in the past by visiting the Jimmy Webb songbook, nothing from this disc – featuring eight Webb compositions, one credited to Susan Webb, and, for some odd reason, a Little Feat cover (“Roll Me Easy”) – was able to help Glen break that commercial slump, but artistically speaking, this full-length collaboration is a masterful and delightful teaming of talents, highlighted by “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” and “It’s a Sin When You Love Somebody.”

Rhinestone Cowboy (1975, Capitol)

After a four-year absence from the Top 40, Campbell resurfaced in a very major way with this disc, which gave Campbell the biggest hit of his career in the lush country-pop of the title cut, which topped the Hot 100 for two weeks. Produced and featuring four songs written by the ace team of Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter (who had already written and/or produced such hits as the Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” and “Keeper of the Castle,” Tavares’ “It Only Takes a Minute,” and the Righteous Brothers’ “Rock and Roll Heaven”), this album simply sparkles and contains less padding than any of Campbell’s Seventies full-lengths up to this point with the sole exception of the Webb disc. It also contains what’s arguably Campbell’s most criminally underrated pop single, the #11-peaking “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.),” a Lambert-Potter composition that ranks right up there with their very best melodies.

Bloodline (1976, Capitol)

This follow-up to Rhinestone Cowboy didn’t get nearly the critical attention or sales that its predecessor reaped, but it’s arguably the more ambitious and artistic disc. Lambert and Potter return as both producers and contributing songwriters (their “See You on Sunday” and “Baby Don’t Be Giving Me Up” are both knockouts), while Campbell dips back into the Webb songbook for “Christiaan No.” There’s only one hit single – and a fairly minor one, at that – included here, and that’s a #27-peaking covers medley cleverly linking the Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds hit “Don’t Pull Your Love” (which Lambert and Potter had been responsible for writing, coincidentally enough) with the Casinos oldie “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” Impressively, that might actually be the weakest track here, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another Campbell album from his commercial heyday with as many should-have-been-singles and criminally-overlooked album cuts as this disc.   

Southern Nights (1977, Capitol)

Every bit as fabulous as its predecessor and a triumph both artistically and commercially, Campbell continues his winning streak with this disc, which gave Campbell his second Number One pop hit with the buoyant and sunny title cut, penned by the legendary Allen Toussaint. (Of his two Number One hits, “Rhinestone Cowboy” might be the more famous, but this one is arguably the better piece of songwriting.) Campbell wisely continues to mine the Webb catalog for material, this time covering “This Is Sarah’s Song” and “Early Morning Song,” and also covers the Beach Boys classic “God Only Knows,” a fitting choice of cover material not just for its vocal suitability for the singer but for Campbell’s status as a former – if short-lived – member of the legendary ‘60s band. Campbell also had a second – but commonly-overlooked – Top 40 hit from this disc, the bouncy and wildly catchy “Sunflower,” written but never recorded by Neil Diamond and which Campbell sounds as if he’s having a blast getting the opportunity to sing.

Basic (1978, Capitol)

The last in a long string of stellar late-‘70s discs, Campbell surprisingly sticks to songs from just one writer for the entire course of this disc, and it’s not Jimmy Webb, either, but the little-known Michael Smotherman, who provides nearly all the keyboards here, while the production is helmed by Tom Thacker and Campbell himself. It’s not a classic or especially well-known album, but it’s a rock-solid adult-contemporary disc and easily one of his most underrated full-lengths, hurt only by the inclusion of the bagpipes-driven closer “Grafhaidh Me Thu.” Just one minor hit resulted from the album – the #38-peaking “Can You Fool,” which would prove to be Campbell’s final Top 40 hit – but there are plenty of minor lost gems scattered throughout, such as “California,” “I’m Gonna Love You,” and “Sing It Nice and Loud for Me Sonny.”

Meet Glen Campbell (2008, Capitol)

Campbell – both commercially and artistically – went considerably adrift after the ‘70s, and fans couldn’t be blamed for wondering if he was ever going to get back on track. So it must have come as a complete shock when Campbell – whose most recent albums had mostly either been gospel affairs or seasonal outings – resurfaced after nearly three decades in the artistic wilderness with this stirring all-covers affair. Even more surprising, just three songs here – The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and John Lennon’s “Grow Old with Me” – hail from earlier than the Nineties; instead, Campbell devotes most of the disc to such contemporary fare as the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These,” Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” U2’s “All I Want Is You,” Travis’ “Sing,” Tom Petty’s “Walls” and “Angel Dream,” and perhaps most surprisingly of all, The Replacements’ “Sadly Beautiful,” arguably the highlight of the album. Naturally, the album didn’t get a great deal of radio play, so no hits were forthcoming, but Campbell’s artistic renaissance – and his third golden era – had begun.

Ghost on the Canvas (2011, Surfdog)

Retaining his Meet Glen Campbell producer Julian Raymond (best known for his work with Fastball and Cheap Trick), Campbell – whose health was rapidly deteriorating at this point, the album being accompanied with an announcement that the legend had developed a serious case of Alzheimer’s disease – sticks to the lo-fi alt-country of his critically-heralded comeback disc with this almost equally appealing follow-up.  Most of the songs this time around are originals from Campbell and Raymond – highlighted by “A Thousand Lifetimes,” “A Better Place,” and the album-closing epic “There’s No Me … Without You” – but there a few inspired outside tunes also mixed in, including a cover of Jakob Dylan’s “Nothing but the Whole Wide World” and two Paul Westerberg-penned tunes, “Any Trouble” and the fabulous title cut.

Adios (2017, Universal)

Ghost on the Canvas and its accompanying Farewell Tour from Campbell was followed by a short series of lesser efforts – an archival live disc from 1988 of a Campbell/Webb concert; See You There, recorded at the same time as Ghost on the Canvas and largely featuring Campbell revisiting and re-recording new versions of his biggest hits; and the documentary soundtrack Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. The effect of all this was to lessen the impact that Ghost on the Canvas, understandably presumed by everyone to be his final album, had left on everyone who had heard it. So, as dire though Glen’s health was at the time this disc was recorded, it’s heartwarming that Campbell – with the encouragement and assistance of his friend Carl Jackson – went back into the studio one last time to bow out on a more graceful and definitive note, and this disc accomplishes exactly what its makers meant for it to. Naturally, of course, Glen’s condition at the time means that he’s not at full vocal strength here, but he gets some all-star help from country legends Roger Miller (who contributes the standout cut “Am I All Alone (or Is It Only Me)”), Willie Nelson, and Vince Gill, and he’s also got a strong set of material to work with, including, fittingly enough, four Webb tunes: “Postcard from Paris,” the masterful “It Won’t Bring Her Back,” “Just Like Always,” and the stirring title cut, which is perfectly utilized as the closing cut. (Just try not to tear up as the track comes to a close.) Adios, indeed, Glen. Adios. You will truly be missed.