Friday, October 14, 2005


Throughout the last forty years or so a number of fine albums have been released that are excellent best ofs. While some of these artists/bands have been prolific album producers in their own right, others have been merely content to be singles artists. We won't distinguish here; in fact our hats go off to all of these albums and the artists/bands that produced them.

From earliest to most recent:

Sly & The Family Stone: Greatest Hits (Epic, 1970). From the sublime Dance to the Music to the politically-charged Stand this band had the greatest run of hits over a 24-month period than any band since the Beatles. The rhythms are contagious, as are the lyrics. But what made all of this possible was Sly Stone's vision and commitment to the music. The first truly integrated rock band to front a number one hit in the country, that alone would be history enough. But more than thirty years later they still sound fresh and relevant, well, now, that's just awesome. A+

Al Green: Greatest Hits (Hi, 1975). With the exception of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, no other African American artist has been able to successfully produce both hit singles and worthwhile albums. Call Me in '73 was one of the decade's best LPs. And while any one serious about getting into him would do well to start there, there is no resisting this collection. It shows Green on top of his game. The man didn't simply rule the R&B airwaves, he destroyed them. And he didn't do too shoddy on top-40 either. He had the soul of Otis Redding, but the savvy of, say, James Brown. That is to say he knew how to take his music out to the masses. And the masses drank up ever last drop. A+

Dolly Parton: The Best of Dolly Parton (RCA Victor,1975). The second Best of in her RCA catalogue, this one captures her at her finest. Porter Wagoner's production is second to none, but the triumph here is both Parton's writing (she writes all but two of the titles) and her singing, which is nothing sort of angelic. Jolene is about the insecurities of a woman who knows she is losing her man and there is nothing she can do to stop it; Coat of many Colors her story of personal poverty transcended into riches; and When I Sing for Him her testimony of a faith that has carried her throughout the years. Country music has never been this good. A+

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Chronicle (Fantasy, 1976). 15 of the 20 songs here went top ten, with five reaching number one. Like the Beatles before them, they not only ruled the top-40 format, but consistently turned out quality albums: Willy and the Poor Boys and Cosmos Factory to name their two finest. John Fogerty's genius is that he managed all of this over a three and half year period. It took the Fab Four six years to do the same. Pound for pound, the greatest American rock and roll band ever. A

Neil Young: Decade (Reprise, 1978). This triple LP (2 CDs) captures a career that remarkably was still developing. At 32 his catalogue was considerable. And while nothing here would make one want to skip over the original albums - start with After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night - it's enough evidence of his greatness to give it its due. And as Robert Christgau correctly points out "I'd rather here Ohio, Soldier, Helpless and Long May You Run in this context than in any other." A

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gold and Platinum (MCA, 1979). The shame here is that in death they became bigger than life. With all but two of their albums essentials, particularly their last, the temptation here is to call this a sampler. But it's much more than that. Like John Fogerty before him, Ronnie Van Zant knew a thing or two about how to make a tuneful record. And while hits weren't their purpose in life, they were, nonetheless, an important part of their success. And unlike the Allmans, they went somewhere with their southern boogie. A

Donna Summer: On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (Casablanca, 1979). In her own way she was as significant to black music as Aretha Franklin. In-deed, her style borrows more from '60s Motown than, say, Atlantic. Nor can she be merely stereotyped as another disco diva. Maybe that's why out of a genre that included the likes of Gloria Gaynor, Vicki Sue Robinson, and Thelma Houston, Summer's hits have endured the test of time. Check out Bad Girls and compare it to a contemporary song from, say, Toni Braxton or Alicia Keys. A

Bob Marley and the Wailers: Legend (Island, 1984). Anyone who doubted Marley's abilities as a songwriter should know this. With the exception of Stevie Wonder, nobody wrote better, catchier songs in the '70s. From politics to sex to just plain old down home melodies, Marley's range was undeniable. Natty Dread and Burnin' are absolute most owns, but after that this tribute covers all the bases. A

Madonna: The Immaculate Collection (Sire, 1990). Sure, go on, deny that she made a difference. Pretend that she didn't own a decade that was about as diverse, if not more so, than the '60s. Pretend, too, that you weren't listening to that disco mix of Into The Groove or that you weren't watching her videos - especially Papa Don't Preach - and then try and deny that you weren't mesmerized by the woman's sex appeal. Phony, you say? All style and no substance? Give me a break. Sure, she's about as genuine as a two dollar bill. Equally true, take her out of the decade and it collapses in on itself. But that's OK. You can still lie to yourself and say she didn't matter. After all what harm would it do? A+

John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (Rhino, 1993). The agony here is that 41 songs and they still haven't nailed it. John Prine, Diamond in the Rough, Sweet Revenge, Common Sense and Storm Windows catalogue a prolific career most songwriters would give their eye teeth to approach. Yet Prine makes it seem so easy. Wise beyond his years and yet never smug about it, his humanity and his humility go hand in hand. Like Dylan, a genius; unlike Dylan, a whole lot friendlier. A

Garth Brooks: The Hits (Liberty, 1994). OK, so he's the Billy Joel of country, so what? Only a cynic would deny him his props. And for sheer enjoyment, I'll take Friends in Low Places over Only the Good Die Young any day. At least Brooks seems like he's enjoying his own show; Joel comes off as way too serious for someone with such limited talent. Though I'd much prefer George Strait or John Anderson on sheer principle alone, there isn't anyone out there with as much charisma as this guy. Yes, he's full of himself. So was Little Richard! A

Marshall Crenshaw: This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw (Rhino, 2000). Between 1982 and 1991 Crenshaw was easily the most honest, talented and underappreciated rock-n-roller of his time. Not since Buddy Holly has the world heard such basic, simple and unrelenting music. That he never got a hit single once - especially out of the first two albums - is one of the great injustices of the business that defies all logic. This act of love by a record company known for it's risk-taking is an attempt to set the record straight and maybe right some wrongs in the process. A

De La Soul: Timeless: The Singles Collection (Tommy Boy/Rhino, 2003). If three incredible and two pretty damn good albums haven't provided enough proof that their rap was, well, timeless, nothing will. So what if the choice "single" cuts sound more fulfilling in their original album versions. That's why it's called a singles collection, right? Solution, buy the albums anyway, especially 3 Feet High and Rising. But, if you're like me, this "collection" will serve to illustrate that they are the best hip hop band this side of the Beasties. A+

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