America – 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits (review)

America – 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits (Rhino)

Celebrating their semi centennial with a solid career overview

For any band, reaching the half-century mark is a monumental achievement.  Years of touring, success, lack of success and friction of inter-personal relationships have caused the end of many a great band over the years.  The fact that America is still a working group, playing shows, year after year, is a testament to the dedication of both Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell to the same ideals that brought them together over 50 years ago.

A new collection, 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits, celebrates the high points of a long career.

The set opens with their first, and most recognizable hit, “A Horse With No Name,” a combination of CSN harmonies and Neil Young-like lead vocals, over a gentle, pulsing acoustic backdrop, that somehow manages to make a statement of the dying ecology; it still jumps out of the speakers, almost five decades later.  

What made America such a juggernaut is that back in their heyday, they had three capable vocalists and songwriters all adding their own elements to the band (Dan Peek was the third original member).  Beckley’s piano ballad “I Need You” was a counterpoint to Bunnell’s ominous “Sandman.”  

Three songs from their second album, Homecoming, show off their versatility.  Peek turned in the countryfied, 12-string jangle of “Don’t Cross the River,” which features some goose-bump-inducing harmonies on the chorus, while Bunnell gave us the iconic, acoustic-flavored “Ventura Highway” (with the crazy “alligator lizards in the air” lyric), while Beckley gives us another, McCartney-esque, “Only in Your Heart.”    

After the somewhat lackluster Hat Trick (I mean, if Captain & Tennille outdo your “Muskrat Love,” you might want to regroup and come up with a better plan, right?).  That plan was to bring in Beatles’ guru/producer George Martin.  This partnership brought immediate dividends in the gentle simplicity of Bunnell’s “Tin Man” and the absolutely gorgeous “Lonely People” (a highlight of Peek’s songwriting talents).  

Beckley gives us another great ballad in “Daisy Jane,” while Peek turns in the reggae-infused “Woman Tonight,” a forgotten track off of the album Hearts.  The real highlight off that album was the smash hit, written by Beckley, “Sister Golden Hair,” one of their finest singles.  

Another lost single, Bunnell’s “Amber Cascades,” was one of the high points of the album Hideaway.  Their final album as a trio, Hideaway, yielded the minor single, “God of the Sun.” After that, Dan Peek left for a solo career, reducing America to a duo.  They returned in 1982 with the Russ Ballard-penned “You Can Do Magic.”  

There’s also a 3-disc version of this collection that delves deep into their catalog.

The strength of 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits is that it’s concise (six less tracks than the somewhat bloated Complete Greatest Hits), but also contains all the highlights of the band’s career (something that the original America’s Greatest Hits does not).  Although there are plenty of great songs throughout America’s vast catalog, 50th Anniversary is a great starting point.  —Tony Peters