Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Monkees Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Instant Replay (1969, Colgems)

B –   

Tork had fully departed by this point, making this the first album released by the group as a trio. Ironically, Tork ends up appearing briefly on the album, anyway, since the disc is comprised in part of archival cuts left over from sessions from the band’s pre-Head days, even dating as far back as the debut album (the Goffin-King song “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her”). Yet, in spite of its jumbled construction, the album is actually slightly underrated and, while its songs may not be quite as inventive or memorable as highlights from Head like “Circle Sky,” it makes for a more pleasing whole than that disc, not in the least since it’s comprised fully of proper songs rather than score fragments and dialogue. “Tear Drop City” and “Through the Looking Glass,” both from Boyce and Hart, have their fair share of appeal, as do “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her,” Dolenz’ “Shorty Blackwell,” Nesmith’s “While I Cry,” and the surprisingly rocking Davy Jones-sung “You and I” (allegedly featuring Neil Young on guitar, surreal though that may seem). The album flopped and failed to yield any hit singles, either, but it’s a bit of a lost gem with several minor treasures to be found, and it’s also the last time during the band’s original run that they truly sounded like a band.

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The Monkees Present (1969, Colgems)

B –   

The band members were more or less recording separately at this point (in fact, the album was originally envisioned as a double album with each member getting a side to themselves), so the title is somewhat disingenuous. But, like Instant Replay before it, this album is actually better than it has any right to be and was a nice way for Nesmith, who’d split the band shortly after its release, to make his exit, and he proves to be the disc’s most valuable player, contributing the highlights “Listen to the Band” (which he’d later re-cut with his next outfit, the First National Band) and “Good Clean Fun,” while Dolenz shines on such rockers as “Little Girl” and the chilling “Mommy and Daddy,” and Davy provides the most vintage-Monkees-sounding moments via cuts like the Boyce/Hart-penned “Looking for the Good Times.”

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Changes (1970, Colgems)

C –

Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz were the only remaining members of the band at this point, and it’s certainly up to debate whether it was a good idea – either artistically or commercially – to still be employing the Monkees name. With Nesmith now out of the picture, the remaining two have opted to delve headlong into bubblegum territory a la The Archies, recruiting Jeff Barry and Andy Kim (the writers behind “Sugar, Sugar”) to compose the bulk of the album (with help on some cuts from future “Montego Bay” singer Bobby Bloom). The record ultimately fared no better than either of the previous two (stalling all the way back at #152), while leadoff single “Oh My My” petered out at #98 on the Hot 100. But the album is never quite as infectious as the best bubblegum music should be, and you can also tell that neither man’s heart is really in it anymore, the duo content to let Barry and Kim do all the creative work while they simply sing the songs and fulfill their remaining obligations to Colgems.  The album’s utter obscurity (and this is one very hard album to find) makes it one of the band’s more fascinating discs in the band’s catalog, but it’s also far and away their least essential release up to this point. Not surprisingly, Jones and Dolenz would call it a day shortly after, though the pair would reconvene in 1976 as one-half of the quarter Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart alongside “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Valleri” writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

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Pool It! (1987, Rhino)

D

The Monkees suddenly – and rather unexpectedly – found themselves a red-hot property again in 1986 after reruns of their old sitcom became phenomenal ratings successes for both MTV and Nickelodeon, spurring a 20th-anniversary tour and a new best-of package containing three new songs, including the infectious “That Was Then, This Is Now,” which reached #20 and became the band’s first Top 40 hit since the 1968 non-LP single “D.W. Washburn.” Naturally, the band (or, rather, Dolenz, Jones, and Tork, Nesmith having declined to take part in the reunion) wanted to take advantage of their resurgence by releasing a new studio album. Unfortunately, the band doesn’t seem to have invested much time into finding material that’s especially strong or even fits alongside their trademark sound of old all that well. (It’s hard to imagine a song much less suitable for Davy to sing than “Every Step of the Way,” a song co-written by the great Ian Hunter that Davy also attempts to sing like Ian Hunter, which is completely jarring.) Rather, most of the disc simply sounds like three former members of the Monkees singing helplessly generic late-‘80s pop songs with some very dated production. “Heart and Soul” was a very minor hit (sneaking onto the Hot 100 at #87) and is reasonably decent, but there’s little else here that is likely to bring you back for another listen. Avoid.

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Justus (1996, Rhino)

C +

Roughly a full decade later, the band reconvened – this time with Nesmith in tow – for a new attempt at a reunion disc. Justus also has the distinction of being the first – and, to date, still the only – album from the band to be wholly self-written. The disc begins with an unnecessary – but still fairly good – re-recording of “Circle Sky” from Head, but it gets steadily better and reaches an apex in its middle third with such fun cuts as the Dolenz-sung “Regional Girl” and “Unlucky Stars” and Nesmith’s “Admiral Mike,” while Davy’s “It’s Not Too Late” is a fine choice of closer. While it falls well shy of ranking alongside the band’s ‘60s work, it’s certainly a far superior reunion disc than Pool It! and ends up being their strongest outing overall since at least 1970’s The Monkees Present.

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Good Times (2016, Rhino)

A –

Arguably the band’s finest hour since Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd., Good Times is astoundingly good, particularly for a band that had long-struggled to craft a reunion disc that was truly worthy of their legacy and rested comfortably musically alongside their earliest albums. The surviving three members (Jones had sadly since passed away, though he appears here via archival tapes) have drafted Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger to produce the disc, and together, they pull off the impressive trick of crafting a record that actually sounds much like their best early work while still sounding reasonably contemporary. [The band does draw on its archives to dust off a few unfinished gems like the Nilsson-penned album-opening title track, the Davy-sung, Neil Diamond-composed “Love to Love,” and a Tork-sung rendition of the Goffin-King gem “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” but these surprisingly fit in reasonably well within the context of the disc.]  Roughly half the disc surprisingly finds the band turning to modern-day songwriters for custom-made material, such as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (“Me and Magdalena”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”), Oasis’ Noel Gallagher (“Birth of an Accidental Hipster”), and Schlesinger himself (the feel-good toe-tapper “Our Own World” and the top-notch closer “I Was There (and I’m Told I Had a Good Time),” penned with Dolenz), but the new songs all suit the band marvelously, none more so than the sunshine pop of “You Bring the Summer,” brought to the group by XTC’s Andy Partridge, which is arguably the band’s greatest single by far since “Daydream Believer.” The band’s since released a seasonal disc (2018’s Christmas Party), but if Good Times should prove to be the band’s final proper studio album, they truly couldn’t go out in much grander style than they do here. 

Compilations:

The number of Monkees compilations that have been issued over the years – most of them via Rhino Records – is nearly three times the number of actual studio albums from the band, and they all vary wildly in their appeal to the more casual fan. If you just want a single disc with the hits, you have two really solid CD-era choices: if you prefer to have only the ‘60s material, go with Rhino’s 2003 package The Best of the Monkees, a twenty-five-track set (thirty if you also count the five-track bonus disc of instrumental versions for Karaoke) which goes beyond just the Top 40 hits to also include such seminal album cuts as “For Pete’s Sake” and “She.” But if you want a fuller picture of the band’s career, go with Rhino’s 1995 release Greatest Hits, which, at twenty tracks, is a little bit shorter but includes the reunion singles “That Was Then, This Is Now” (a Top Twenty hit) and “Heart and Soul.” If you prefer your music on vinyl, you may want to stick with Arista’s well-timed 1986 double-disc package Then and Now … The Best of the Monkees, the track selection of which is largely comparable to the aforementioned 2003 package but also includes three newly-recorded songs, including “That Was Then, This Is Now.”

Live Albums:

Most of the live discs from the band hail from the late ‘80s and beyond, with only two officially-sanctioned recordings actually hailing from the band’s ‘60s heyday. Since one of those is a four-disc boxed set likely to appeal to only the band’s most diehard fans, your best bet by default is Rhino’s Live 1967