Featuring ballads from 'Grease' and 'Xanadu' alongside her own chart-toppers, here are the essential songs from the late Olivia Newton-John.
Advertisement

Whether she was roller skating out of a brick wall or riding shotgun in a flying convertible, Olivia Newton-John, who died Monday at the age of 73, was a true original. Equal parts sincerity and sparkle, it seemed impossible for the Australian singer to be anything but herself (critics who called her bland be damned) and we loved her for it. Her voice, the lightest puff of whipped cream floating atop a feather-pillow cloud, was an unapologetically feminine instrument — but never weak — a quiet strength ran through everything she did.

Pop's softest transformer, Newton-John made it look easy, smoothly morphing from denim-clad country bumpkin to '70s Sad Girl, from Sandra Dee to the aerobics instructor we all wished we had. And the fact that she did it without ever losing her essence was a testament to her strong sense of self.

And now, in chronological order, we present the 15 best Olivia Newton-John songs.

"Let Me Be There" (1973)

Newton-John's country phase was a curious one. While her clear, soft voice seemed perfectly suited to lovelorn melodies, and her all-denim outfits looked great, she wasn't a typical country star — though she sure sounds like one here. With its bass-y, Statler Brothers-style backup vocals and rousing sing-along chorus, "Let Me Be There" was her very first Top 10 single and won her a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Written by John Rostill, the song went on to be covered by the likes of Tanya Tucker, Ike & Tina Turner, and one Elvis Presley.

"If You Love Me, Let Me Know" (1974)

Olivia flies her country flag high on this twangy, traditional sounding single. But the authentic sound can't hide the fact that Newton-John was considered an outsider, something Nashville's old guard never let her forget. The year this song was released, she won the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year award, accepting her prize via a pre-recorded video from a very non-country locale: London. 

Her win angered American country music royalty so much that genre giants George Jones and Tammy Wynette founded the Association of Country Entertainers  specifically to keep "pop stars" like Newton-John out. Members included Conway Twitty, who went on to cover Newton-John's hit "Let Me Be There" with Loretta Lynn just one year later. Uh, hypocritical much? But Liv had the last laugh — If You Love Me, Let Me Know was number four on  Billboard's Top Country Albums list that year, as well as her first tour at the top of the Billboard 200 pop chart. Oh, and Elvis once again covered ONJ (name-dropping her during his concerts) and recorded her title track for his 1977 album, Moody Blue.

"I Honestly Love You" (1974)

With its slow pace, sad strings and weepy piano, this ode to unrequited love is downright depressing — at least by Olivia's sunny standards. It also serves as a kind of breadcrumb trail leading toward her next phase as the Queen of soft-rock AM radio. "I Honestly Love You" won two Grammys in one year: for Record of the Year and Best Pop Female Vocal Performance in 1975. Co-written by Jeff Barry — responsible for girl group classics as "Be My Baby" and "Then He Kissed Me" — and Peter Allen, the Boy from Oz who penned "Arthur" and "Don't Cry Out Loud," its success was a good bet from the get-go, but Newton-John's expert delivery put it over the top.

"Have You Never Been Mellow" (1975)

Light as a puff of Jean-Nate body spray, and melancholy as a smog-drenched sunset, this song is a vibe, pillow talk for a stressed-out year (circa Vietnam and Watergate). A classic of the 70's Sad Girl genre (see: "Do You Know Where You're Going To," "Rainy Days and Mondays," or any other introspective, lady-led tune that sounds like a lonely walk on a beach) the delicate delivery hides an edgy message — I've evolved, why can't you? The fact that it's been covered by punk bands, lounge singers, and indie stars is further testament to its magisterial mystery. Written by her fave collaborator and fellow Australian John Farrar, this deceptively simple ballad cemented Newton-John's turn away from country and toward soft rock, hitting number one in March of '75.

"Hopelessly Devoted to You" (1978)

As part of Newton-John's contract for Grease, she would get to sing one solo number — problem was, this song didn't exist in the original musical the film was based on. Writer John Farrar came to the rescue with "Hopelessly Devoted to You," an aching ballad perfectly expressing Sandy's pining for John Travolta's Danny. A quiet moment of reflection in the middle of a riotous couple of hours, this '50s-style song is no throwback — it's something wholly new. Like the rest of the soundtrack, this song has an exaggerated, over-the-top sheen, the doo-whop days reinterpreted. Everything about the number — and the way it was filmed — is designed to make you melt: Newton-John's white nightgown and Disney-princess bangs, the moonlit suburban backyard, even the way Travolta's reflection magically appears in the waters of a plastic baby pool.

"Summer Nights" (1978)

"Tell me more, tell me more!" A raunchy, back-and-forth bop hilariously encapsulating the differences between the sexes, this uncontainable saga of a song became a massive success for a good reason. One story (the summer romance of Travolta's Danny and Newton-John's Sandy) told from each of their perspectives , this is a he said/she said tale set to a beat so propulsive it threatens to blow the roof off place. Add to this a Greek chorus of Greasers and Pink Ladies plus bleachers choreography that literally races across the screen and you can see why this song smashed the charts — and our hearts.

"You're The One That I Want" (1978)

Plucked from soft-rock radio purgatory by Danny Zuko himself, Travolta told Merv Griffin in a 1981 TV interview that it was he who convinced Newton-John the part of Sandy was meant for her. Tailored to her strengths (the best songs were specifically written for her by her right hand man, Farrar) and weaknesses (accents, as Sandy magically became Australian) her plucky charm shines through in every frame. And the impact that this role — and this song in particular — had on her career cannot be understated. 

Transforming from a pure-as-the-driven-snow innocent ("Sandy 1") to a spandex-clad biker chick crushing cig butts with her kitten heels ("Sandy 2") this song was a cinematic sensation that showed Newton-John's surprising range. And the interplay between Travolta and Newton-John, running around a carnal carnival, hamming it up as they belt out how much they want each other? Worth the price of admission alone.

"We Go Together" (1978)

Long before Grease the movie, there was Grease the musical  — a dirtier, grittier, Chicago-centric creation written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. But by the time it got to Hollywood, only a handful of original songs remained. Luckily, "We Go Together" was one of them, and it's obvious why; this completely insane yet heartfelt song perfectly captures Grease's interpretation of the '50s. Listening to it is a sugar buzz of epic proportions, as the song mocks and celebrates the era's classic tunes. An example of these beautifully bonkers lyrics? We thought you'd never ask! "Rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong/Shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom/Chang chang changitty chang sha-bop/Dip da-dip da-dip doo-wop da doo-bee doo."

Newton-John (in Bad Sandy mode) leads this group sing-along with Travolta, giving it her all. And in the last moments, as "Greased Lightning" takes off into the sky, her surprise is so joyful, her glee so all-encompassing, she takes the whole audience along for the ride. Riding shotgun into the clouds, her head resting lightly on Danny's shoulder, earthbound friends waving goodbye below, well, that's how we want to remember her, forever.

"A Little More Love" (1978)

In the best case of art imitating life, Newton-John's career experienced a Bad Sandy Takeover with the release of her album Totally Hot, which came out just months after Grease did. The cover shows her dressed in, yup, head-to-toe black, and you can hear the echoes of the Farrar-penned Grease faves in this single, "A Little More Love." If Blondie went Pink Lady, it might sound like this, a bit jittery, driving, touched with new-wave keyboards, and overflowing with the cool confidence that Newton-John began exploring at this point in her career. This song is a serious banger — good luck getting the chorus out of your head.

"Xanadu" (1980)

The massive goodwill Grease generated deflated quickly with Xanadu, the L.A.-set roller skating fantasy about Greek goddesses released from a Venice beach mural (co-starring a rollerskating Gene Kelly in his final film role). Plot twist: the music was amazing. Written by ELO's Jeff Lynne and sung by Newton-John, the title track is echoey, grandiose, majestic, bizarre, and completely unaware of its camp value — which is exactly why we love it.

"Magic" (1980)

"Bring all your dreams alive" has never sounded creepier, and we love it. The strangest Newton-John song ever is also the most earwormy. Written for Xanadu by stalwart John Farrar, this song is the black sheep of the family, with hints of Talking Heads and the best horror movie soundtracks. It's so echoey and haunting it sounds like it's playing in the next room, or perhaps floating up out of a (possessed) basement. With its wiggly keyboards, minor keys, and weird, downbeat, edge, Newton-John's ghostly, dramatic, slightly sinister vocals enhance the effect perfectly. Plus this lovely weirdo spent four weeks at the number one on the US Billboard Hot 100.

"Suddenly" (1980)

Stretching a single letter — "I" — into a multi-syllabic journey ("and aye-yai-uh-hi-hi") is a pop feat that should only be attempted by professionals, like Newton-John and her duet partner, Cliff Richard (sometimes referred to as England's answer to…Elvis?). In Xanadu, it's lip synched by the male lead, Michael Beck, as he roller skates with Newton-John. The flow of the skating, the flow of the song, the flow of their hair, as they glide through a series of movie sets…sweet '80s perfection quad-skating right into our hearts.

"Physical" (1981)

Newton-John often said she was embarrassed by the overtly sexual lyrics to "Physical," the lead single off the album of the same name. Maybe this is why she came up with the concept for the video, recasting herself — and the song — as an ode to vigorous aerobic exercise, a brilliant conceptual move that was one of the keys to its massive success, staying at the number one spot for 10 weeks in 1982. 

In the video, which seems almost like a lost SNL sketch, she's clad in a headband and leotard, comically teaching a room full of sweaty dudes. This video forever tied the song to the burgeoning '80s aerobic dance craze (Jane Fonda's legendary Workout Book was released the same year). And, much like Bey would do years later with Lemonade (though Queen B's was far more artistic), Newton-John released a parallel music video "album" in 1982. With a different video for each song, the collection was called Olivia Physical, and in 1983, it earned Newton-John a Grammy for Video of the Year.

"Make a Move On Me" (1981)

"I'm the one you want, that's all I wanna be/So come on baby make a move on me," might not sound ground-breaking, complex or particularly deep, but as a bright, ebullient pop song, it works perfectly. An instant mood-booster, heard in '80s-era step-aerobics classes from coast to coast, this energetic follow up to the "Physical" single made it to number five on the US Billboard Hot 100. It would be her last single to go gold.

"Twist of Fate" (1983)

The '80s brought electronic music to the cultural forefront, along with harder edges and attitudes — none of which were particularly suited to our soft rock queen. Written for the soundtrack of Two of a Kind, the 1983 film that reunited her with Travolta, it turned out to be her last top 10 hit. But the story doesn't end there — the song was revived on Stranger Things season two, though it didn't spawn a similar renaissance as Kate Bush's recent resurrection. Newton-John's song was so masterfully incorporated into the action that it's hard to imagine the legendary Snowball dance without it. "Twist of Fate's" electronic glow-up makes Steve's longing look at Nancy even more wrenching, while the hard rocking, guitar/drum interlude perfectly punctuates the moment he puts the car in drive and roars away.

Related content:

    Comments