(August 15, 2022). The passing of Olivia Newton-John on Monday, August 8, 2022, has inspired many tributes and career retrospectives. Last Thursday, for example, this blogger wrote a personal reflection of what this one-of-a-kind singer/actress/activist meant to me personally.
Olivia was a gifted singer who could convey any emotion—jubilation one minute, sorrow the next—often singing with a clarity and delivery that ranged from a soft, whispery coo to exuberant exclamation…often in the same song. Vocal acrobatics and extended runs weren’t necessary for the kind of songs Olivia sang, but you certainly didn’t come away from the listening experience without feeling something.
Now, as an accompaniment piece to last week’s tribute, the blog ranks her 25 greatest songs! In countdown fashion, from No. 25 to No. 1, these Olivia faves are presented in rank order—based on personal opinion only—along with a mini-story on each (and an audio or video clip courtesy of YouTube).
As you scroll through the list, relive the ones you loved—or liked—and feel free to vote them with a thumbs-up (or down) or an emoji. Also, please comment on where your favorite Olivia songs should be on a greatest hits list like this, in either the comment section at the end of the article or in any of the social media feeds where this article is posted.
Doesn’t this song sound like it should be soundtracking a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode, at least musically speaking? I can just picture him changing into his cardigan sweater and sneakers while this soft-pop ditty about tweeting birds having to find “something better to do” playing in the background. At least that’s my first impression when hearing this No. 13 hit from 1975.
This song was a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It was “Let Me Be There” Part 2 and, like it’s predecessor, was a top-ten pop, country and adult contemporary crossover smash for Olivia in 1974. In fact, it was her biggest country chart hit, reaching No. 2 there mid-year. The backing male vocalist Mike Sammes provided a memorable bass harmony to Olivia’s sweet tenor cooing.
Veteran British singer Cliff Richard continued his 1979-81 American chart comeback with this superstar pairing between him and fellow Brit Olivia from the movie “Xanadu.” The ballad became the fifth top-40 single from that film, which was one more than Olivia’s first movie “Grease” had. But, that statistic aside, there’s no question which film (and soundtrack) was the bigger of the two.
At a time when Madonna was the top pop artist and Sheena Easton was singing sultry songs written by Prince, the once-wholesome Olivia recorded a song that made “Physical” sound like child’s play. It was the culmination of her adult-pop period and became her last top-40 hit in the fall of 1985.
Olivia’s last top-10 single in America was her 15th one—this uptempo, synth-pop number from her last lead movie role, 1983’s “Two of a Kind,” which also starred her “Grease” movie beau John Travolta. “Twist of Fate” charted at the same time Madonna’s first top-40 single, “Holiday,” was climbing, signaling a passing of the baton from pop’s past to pop’s future, and the end of exactly ten years of top-10 hits for Olivia (Jan. 1974-Jan. 1984).
This was the first song I ever heard by Olivia, and I was hooked from Day 1. The song was exuberant and catchy, with Olivia backed by twangy rhythm guitars, synth-string chords, and that bass harmony vocal by Mike Sammes. The rousing final chorus was almost gospel-like, with a jubilantly played tambourine to drive home Olivia’s message, itself delivered by her alternately cooed and euphoric vocals.
This song’s story centers on a jukebox and a particular love song Olivia’s protagonist does not want a certain “button-pushing cowboy” to play while she sits at the bar with her good Kentucky whiskey on the counter. While we all could get her not wanting to hear that B-17 selection, how many of us could actually envision her with a bottle of Kentucky’s best bourbon in tow? Still this song hit No. 3 pop and No. 5 country in 1975.
“Physical” was Olivia’s biggest hit in America—using chart numbers (ten weeks at No. 1) and record sales (two-million seller in the U.S.) as metrics—but when it finally ran it’s course, it wore quickly. Still, it struck a chord with pop fans everywhere and is one of Olivia’s signature hits. Quick fact: “Physical” was sandwiched at No. 1 between the No. 1 reigns of two Hall & Oates classics: “Private Eyes” in November ‘81 and “I Can’t Go For That” in January ‘82.
After the performances of the first two singles from Olivia’s ‘Physical’ album, including the title track (No. 1 for ten weeks) and “Make A Move On Me” (No. 5), it was a slight disappointment that third single “Landslide” climbed no higher than No. 52 in America.
This highly underrated bop was another masterstroke by writer/producer John Farrar, with its jarring chord progressions and some very clever lyrics. Consider: “My head was saying this is the man, my heart agreed. My minor desires turned to major needs. My needs won’t be denied. It was a landslide.” Indeed they won’t, Olivia.
Check out the above video with former husband Matt Lattanzi starring as Olivia’s love interest.
Nothing makes a film a cult classic quite like a cheesy, swing-meets-post-disco song featuring a former country music singer from Australia singing in 1940s, Andrews Sisters, jump-blues style followed by a proto-punk male rock band raging on about not taking a backseat to a selfish lover. But that’s what Olivia and the band The Tubes pulled off in 1980’s ‘Xanadu,’ and the merging of the two acts at the end was like “magic.” Chalk this one up to the genius of John Farrar once again!
I didn’t discover this tune until decades after the song was popular. It reached the top 30 in America a full two years before her real breakthrough with “Let Me Be There” in 1973. I have come to love “If Not For You,” Olivia’s remake of a Bob Dylan original. I especially get a kick out of the little shimmy she did in her performances of it back in 1971 (video link above).
Olivia’s 1992 compilation album, ‘Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971 - 1992,’ included four new songs, the best of which was this melodic mid-tempo number produced by the great John Farrar. It was a throwback to the great pop tunes the pair was known for more than a decade earlier, with clearly sung lyrics by Olivia and Farrar’s subtle backing vocals complementing her.
Here’s the only waltz in this 25-song ranking. That one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three beat isn’t common in pop music, but everyone’s catalog should include at least one. Olivia’s was her first top-20 hit in half a dozen tries (since “Something Better To Do” a year and a half earlier). And no, I don’t believe the hook “Sam, Sam, you know where I am” was inspired by the Doctor Seuss book, “Green Eggs And Ham” and its famous “I am Sam, Sam I am” line.
The familiar Olivia vocal formula was fully intact for this first single from Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 album in 1982: her softly cooed verses followed by rousing, exuberantly sung choruses. The new element here was the new-wavy, synth-infused beat helmed by John Farrar that had Olivia firmly entrenched in late 1982, just before synth-pop’s full takeover in America the following year.
Surprisingly, I only had two singles from the “Grease” soundtrack as a kid: the movie’s title track sung by Frankie Valli and this duet billed to John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Cast. At the time, it was my favorite Olivia song from the movie. While I still love the tune, which captured the storyline’s summer romance between the two main characters in three-and-a-half minutes, Olivia’s other two “Grease” songs—coming up later in this ranking—have since surpassed it.
Few singers could capture the sincerity of an emotion in song the way Olivia Newton-John could, and any song with the word “Honestly” in its title demanded nothing less than that sincerity so perfectly delivered by the singer. The song itself is perfectly crafted pop, but Olivia’s heartfelt performance made it an instant classic—and her first No. 1 hit—in 1974.
“Hopelessly Devoted To You” was Olivia’s “One Less Bell To Answer”: a modern torch song for the ages. It was “Grease’s” confluence of Olivia’s country-to-pop; good girl-to-what’s-next frustration, both in the movie and perhaps in her career. Her “Grease” character Sandy was in an emotional free fall (“I’m out of my head”) and, as we would later find out, willing to do whatever it took to win her man’s affection. Career-wise, “Hopelessly” was the last song Olivia placed in the country top-20. Her next solo single was the sexy, rock-tinged “A Little More Love,”…and the rest was history.
There were five singles from this movie—two by Olivia Newton-John without ELO (“Magic” and “Suddenly”), two by ELO without Olivia Newton-John (“I’m Alive” and “All Over The World”), and one joint effort between both acts: “Xanadu.” All were great songs, but “Xanadu” was sublime! And that performance scene from the movie…ahh!
At least half a dozen songs on this list—all written by John Farrar—followed a very simple pattern: first verse, first chorus, second verse, second chorus, fade. That’s it. No bridge. No third verse or chorus. “Make A Move On Me” from 1982 was one of those. The catchy song sped up the American charts—peaking at No. 5–and was the last certified million seller for Olivia in the U.S.
Another song in the Farrar simple-song-structure vein, “Have You Never Been Mellow” was the first Olivia single I owned (thanks to my mom who bought it for me when I was eight in early 1975). I hadn’t yet discovered “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem” or the Billboard charts, so I had no way of knowing that my mom’s purchase contributed to the song becoming Olivia’s second-consecutive No. 1 single on the pop charts that year.
This duet between John Travolta and Olivia soundtracked my favorite movie scene of all time, where “Grease’s” Sandy makes that infamous good-girl-gone-bad transition that served as the movie’s climax. The song’s immense popularity made it her third No. 1 single (and Travolta’s first) in the U.S. and the year’s biggest-selling record in the U.K. in 1978. It has since become one of the biggest-selling, most consumed songs of all time.
The only song in Olivia’s entire song catalogue that could halfway qualify as disco was this one. “Deeper Than The Night” had a four/four beat and enough hi-hat to get by in early 1979. But it still wasn’t enough to get it into the top ten that year. It was held to a No. 11 peak in June, at a time when the top ten had at least six true disco songs in it. In the years since, it has become one of my faves!
Olivia took it to the nth degree in this sexy number from her ‘Greatest Hits Volume 2’ compilation in 1982. It was her lowest-peaking top-40 single, at No. 38, in early 1983, but it is one of this blogger’s all-time faves. The song’s premise is simple: a forlorn Olivia is well aware of her partner’s hit-and-run intentions and, as long as both parties acknowledge that intent, she’s a very willing participant. No need to be tied up in promises “we could never keep.” Amen.
Olivia played the mythological muse Kira in the movie “Xanadu,” and this song of inspiration served as her unofficial theme. Kira, who had fictionally descended from Mount Olympus, had the ability to inspire others to pursue their hopes and dreams, as reflected in the song’s lyrics. The song’s effective use of reverb, both in Olivia’s vocals and in the instrumentation (especially the percussion), worked well with the song’s fantasy theme. It was enough to make “Magic” Olivia’s second-biggest chart hit of all time, behind “Physical” the following year.
And now, my all-time favorite! It’s been reported that after Olivia Newton-John got a taste of the fun associated with her iconic “good-girl-gone-bad” transformation scene in “Grease,” she never wanted to look back. Next on deck was her first post-“Grease” release, ‘Totally Hot,’ and this first single from it, which is my all-time favorite ONJ song (and has been since its release).
In “A Little More Love,” Olivia famously asks, “Where did my innocence go? How was a young girl to know?” Just 30 years old at the time of this song’s release, Olivia would spend the next seven years of her career exploring her sensuality even more fully. But it all began with this No. 3-peaking pop classic, which stands as the No. 1 song on this personal Olivia Newton-John recap.
Hope you enjoyed scrolling the list of Olivia’s best! And remember to comment either below or on any of the social media feeds where the article is posted!
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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