by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Discovery (1979, Jet/Columbia)
The band continues its winning streak on their final album of the Seventies, which, while not quite as famous or as critically-acclaimed as, say, Eldorado or A New World Record, technically contains more Top 40 hits – four in all – than any other ELO studio album (while “The Diary of Horace Wimp,” not released as a single in this country, was a Top Ten hit in the U.K..) The disc is mildly notorious for being the band’s most disco-influenced album (even ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy himself allegedly nicknamed the album Disco Very), but while that is, in fact, the case, the disco elements are so mild (certainly when compared to such other rock-disco hybrids as the Stones’ “Miss You” or Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) that it never actually feels like a selling out and even the most club-minded cuts here feel merely like slightly more danceable versions of “Evil Woman.,” especially in the case of the Top Ten smash “Shine a Little Love” and the clavinet-driven grooves of “Last Train to London.” The disc also sports one of the band’s most criminally-overlooked gems in the vaguely Roy Orbison-like “Confusion,” which stopped at just #37 but is arguably better than many of the band’s Top Twenty hits. But the song here that most people will want this album for is the closing cut, the futuristic and relentless stomp of the wildly infectious “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which still sounds as marvelous and fresh today as it did at the close of the Seventies.
Xanadu (1980, MCA)
Technically not exclusively an ELO disc but, rather, a soundtrack featuring one side’s worth of ELO tunes and another side of Olivia Newton-John songs, this is actually one of the finest soundtracks of its time and completely upstaged the movie itself, which met with almost universal derision from critics and theatergoers alike. ELO fans who disliked the disco influences that crept into the mix on the last album may find they like this disc better, as most of the band’s songs here sound as if they could have heralded from the Out of the Blue period, rather than the more contemporary pop of Discovery. “I’m Alive” and “All Over the World” both sound like peak-period ELO and would each reach the Top 40, while the title cut, in spite of being sung by Newton-John rather than Lynne, is still pure ELO musically and ranks among the prettiest melodies that Lynne has ever written. Don’t be so quick to dismiss the side of Newton-John tunes, as they’re actually very good adult-contemporary tunes, especially the breathtakingly gorgeous Cliff Richard duet “Suddenly” (the harmonies between the two vocalists on the chorus and bridge are especially captivating) and the equally lovely “Magic,” a very deserving Number One smash with a haunting minor-key melody that recalls Olivia’s earlier, equally smoky-sounding “A Little More Love.” A multi-tracked Olivia even unexpectedly duets with, of all acts, shock-rockers The Tubes on the intentionally schizophrenic “Dancin’,” which brilliantly takes two completely different mini-songs and fuses them into a medley that ends in the two melodies unexpectedly overlapping to surprisingly successful results.
Time (1981, Jet/Columbia)
Interestingly enough, the first ELO album of the Eighties would turn out to be the band’s first concept disc since Eldorado. While concept albums had largely fallen out of vogue by this point, Time still manages to sound a bit ahead of its time, in part due to the album’s lyrical content, which is set in the future (there are even songs entitled “Ticket to the Moon” and “Yours Truly, 2095”), and in part due to the sheer sound of the album, Lynne largely having traded in the rock-classical fusions of the band’s ‘70s work (indeed, the band has disposed of its full-time strings section, a bit ironic for a band that has the word “orchestra” in its name) for a more synth-pop-oriented sound, one that would have a heavy influence on Steve Winwood’s work for the remainder of the decade. While it’s a little unsettling at first to hear an ELO album with so little in the way of orchestral content (unlikely though it is that the band could have carried its sound of the prior decade into the Eighties with equal commercial success), Lynne’s ambitions remain just as large, and his knack for crafting a strong pop hook is still present as well. The rockabilly-tinged Top Ten hit “Hold On Tight” is the best known song here, but the best moment here just might be the album’s second – and much less commercially successful – single, the vastly intriguing driving time-travel-themed rock of “Twilight,” which sounds like a more futuristic and otherworldly variation of the band’s theme song from Xanadu.
Secret Messages (1983, Jet/Columbia)
The unfortunate thing about Secret Messages is that it could have been considerably more interesting than it is if not for creative interference from the band’s label. Originally intended to be a double album (which had become a real rarity in the world of mainstream pop by 1983, at least as far as studio albums were concerned), Columbia forced Jeff Lynne to trim the package down to a single disc. But Secret Messages wasn’t a concept disc like Time was, nor was it a return to the more symphonic pop of the band’s ’70s material, so the very thing that made this album as ambitious as its predecessor was its unusual running time, so the cost-cutting measure ultimately left the album without much of an identity beyond the occasional use of backmasking that gave the album its title. While the disc consequently never feels like as much of an album piece as most of the band’s past discs, the lack of an overarching concept renders the songs here a little less insular than much of the material from the time-travel-themed Time, so the disc feels a tad more accessible, if not quite as interesting, and Lynne’s songwriting chops are still quite sharp, even if radio wasn’t paying much attention to the band at this point as it had in the decade prior. That, however, means that the disc has many a gem that got overlooked in the U.S., like the infectious and very underrated “Four Little Diamonds,” while the band revisited the rockabilly-tinged sound of the last album’s “Hold Me Tight” with the Top Twenty hit “Rock ‘N’ Roll Is King.”
Balance of Power (1986, CBS Associated)
After a three-year hiatus, the band reconvenes for one final album, but it’s a disappointing note for the original band to go out on for several reasons. Like Secret Messages, it doesn’t seem nearly as ambitious as most of the band’s past work, lacking either a unifying concept or much in the way of experimentation, but even more problematically, it just doesn’t sound a whole lot like ELO (who, by this point, had been reduced to a trio of Jeff Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan, and keyboardist Richard Tandy). Rather, it sounds – as would the two discs that would follow it – more like Jeff Lynne’s outside work, both as a solo artist and as a producer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you – Lynne, even on his own, has consistently churned out very appealing pop owing a great deal to such early influences of his as Roy Orbison and the Beatles (both of whom he’d co-produce late-career singles for) – but it’s bound to disappoint people expecting anything comparable to the lush symphonic pop of A New World Record or Out of the Blue, especially considering how synth-drenched this record is. The album is noteworthy for containing the band’s final Top 40 hit, the underappreciated “Calling America,” and it contains some other minor gems in the likes of “So Serious,” the Orbison-recalling “Endless Lies,” and “Getting to the Point,” but it never sounds like the reunion disc it was intended to be, nor does it seem as if Lynne had any particular vision for the album going into the studio. As such, it’s the least interesting record they ever made.
Zoom (2001, Epic)
As far as billing is concerned, anyway, this is the first Electric Light Orchestra in fifteen years, but it’d be disingenuous to call this a reunion disc per se: it’s basically a Jeff Lynne solo album with a cameo from former keyboardist Richard Tandy on one track (“Alright”). Because of that, it’s hard not to feel like the band name was resurrected simply as a marketing tool to help move more copies of the disc. But if you pretend it’s Jeff Lynne’s name on the cover rather than ELO’s, it becomes a more likeable album, and Lynne’s still got chops as a songwriter, as cuts like “Alright” and “Moment in Paradise” demonstrate, and the disc does sport cameos from two different Beatles: Ringo Starr provides the drums on “Easy Money” and “Moment in Paradise,” while George Harrison plays guitar on “All She Wanted” and “A Long Time Gone.”
Alone in the Universe (2015, Columbia)
Credited this time around to “Jeff Lynne’s ELO,” the billing still feels a bit disingenuous, as Lynne quite literally plays every last instrument on the record (unless you count engineer Steve Jay providing the occasional shaker or tambourine), and Richard Tandy doesn’t even pop up this time around for a cameo. But while there are no other former band members present (nor are there any strings, for that matter, which begs the question, why is the word “orchestra” still in the band name at this point?), this is as likeable and infectious a batch of songs as Lynne has produced – either as ELO or as a solo artist – since at least Secret Messages, and this feels like more of an album piece than that disc, making this the strongest album from ELO since 1981’s Time. The songs may not sound like vintage ELO, mind you, but they’re still great, especially “One Step at a Time,” “The Sun Will Shine on You,” “Dirty to the Bone,” and “Love and Rain.”
While it was a top catalog item for years and remains a common sighting in jukeboxes, ELO’s Greatest Hits arrived too early in the band’s career to round up all their hits, so it’s lacking such strong later-career singles as “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Rock and Roll Is King,” “Hold On Tight,” and “Shine a Little Love,” so your better bet is to go with the less-famous but much-more-comprehensive 2005 package All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. It’s not quite as complete as one might hope, lacking such criminally underrated lesser hits as “Twilight,” “Last Train to London,” and “Calling America” and, far more inexplicably, “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and “Do Ya” (two very major oversights indeed), but all those songs can be found (along with fifteen others) on the follow-up package, 2008’s Ticket to the Moon: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, Volume 2. If you’d rather go with a single double-disc package, 2011’s The Essential Electric Light Orchestra is as thorough a collection as a fan could hope for, rounding up every last hit and major album track.
Be sure to avoid 1990's Electric Light Orchestra Part Two and 1994's Moment of Truth, which are not official albums from ELO but, rather, albums by the misleadingly-named Electric Light Orchestra Part Two, a Jeff Lynne-less band led by former ELO drummer Bev Bevan. On his own, Jeff Lynne's issued just two solo albums, Armchair Theatre and the all-covers Long Wave, but his identity and trademark sound has seeped into everything he's ever produced, and if you love ELO, you may want to check out such outside Jeff Lynne productions as George Harrison's Cloud Nine, Roy Orbison's Mystery Girl, and Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, as well as the two Traveling Wilburys albums and the two Beatles "reunion" singles ("Free As a Bird" and "Real Love.")