Greatest Hits, by Rick Astley
If most people are familiar with Rick Astley at all, they are familiar with him for his #1 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which has become a successful meme and led a great many people to be “rick rolled” by being directed to the classic music video for the song. Yet Rick Astley is certainly far more than a one-hit wonder. In fact, in the United States alone he had 3 top ten hits, two of which hit #1, along with numerous other top 40 hits, all of which are helpfully included on this compilation. Admittedly, most of these songs are not familiar to me, but in reviewing this album it is worthwhile to ask a few questions. Does Rick Astley deserve to be remembered as one of the most solid and underrated white-soul singers of his generation? Is this the best album for showing off his vocal chops? How many of these songs are worth appreciating now thirty years from his commercial peak as a singer? These are worthy questions to answer and this is certainly an enjoyable song. Also, is Rick Astley more than a Stock Aitken Waterman puppet or is he a genuine soul talent of his own?
This album is seventeen songs long. Even if you are at least a moderate fan of Rick Astley, as I consider myself, there are likely to be about a dozen songs you are not very familiar with on here. At least this was the case for me. This album is structured to place the most familiar songs of the album far apart to allow the reader to appreciate them in the wider context of his work. That is for the best. The album begins exactly as one would expect with “Never Gonna Give You Up.” After this come a few more unfamiliar songs, most notably “It Would Take A Strong, Strong Man,” “Whenever You Need Somebody,” and “Move Right Out.” “Together Forever,” the next most familiar song on the collection for many, is followed by “My Arms Keep Missing You,” a cover of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and the obscure “Hopelessly,” from Astley’s fourth album. An obscure early duet single, “When You Gonna,” in a very long dance remix, is followed by “Never Knew Love,” “Hold Me In Your Arms,” and a strong closing set of songs with a traditionalist cover of “When I Fall In Love,” the stellar “Cry For Help,” and the touching “The Ones You Love.” If you like the single mixes of Astley’s first four albums, this is an enjoyable collection.
That doesn’t mean that this collection is perfect. The production on many of these songs will remind middle-aged listeners of the soundtrack to Sega Genesis games with those tinkling synths that were common to Stock Aitken Waterman singles of the age. It is quite possible, moreover, that the better version of this album is the European album, which is less heavily slanted to the beginning of Astley’s career with more songs from the soulful and more accoustic and less irritatingly produced back end of his career. Aside from the two #1 singles “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever,” and a few other standouts like “It Would Take A Strong, Strong Man,” the best songs on here come from the third and fourth albums of Astley’s career in general. This album does a lot to show that throughout his career Astley struggled to find the right tonal approach to love and relationships in his songs, which range from suspicious and angry break-up songs (like the shockingly blunt “Move Right Out”) to the devoted songs of true love that he is perhaps most famous for, and even a few songs that reflect the melancholy side of devotion like “Cry For Help,” my personal favorite of his. Even more notable, and melancholy, though, is the way that Astley’s genuine soulfulness as a singer often clashed early in his career with some terribly cheap production, and that tension makes this album a remarkable and striking document of a career that has been criminally underrated.