Barely essentials 

Greatest hits? We call it riding the gravy train

Usually they’re called “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” packages. On occasion, a record exec gets creative (or swollen with hubris) and terms them “Classic” or “Ultimate” collections. Whatever the moniker, single-artist overviews are more often than not a medley of Top 40 hits slapped together by a record label with little to no artist input. The results, while lucrative for the labels, often leave fans feeling short-changed.

Sure, there are those rare gems like Bob Marley’s ubiquitous Legend and the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-1978, which turn out to be required listening for 90 percent of American kids between the ages of 16 and 19. They provide a decent overview of the band, don’t have any shitty songs and sell about ten million copies. But these are the exceptions.

A more common result is Cat Stevens’ Classics, Vol. 24, featuring “New York Times” and “(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard,” which both sound like the unholy spawn of an outtake from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and a Pink Floyd synth odyssey, circa The Final Cut. Not only are these tunes not classics, but A&M’s whole Classics series seems to defy the definition. I mean, how can somebody use the same word to describe Homer’s Odyssey, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and a mediocre Styx compilation?

Now Sony wants to reinvent A&M’s marginal idea with a series of Essential recordings. Included in the series is a wide range of artists, many with no commercial radio hits, no college radio hits and/or no cult hits. Like A&M’s Classics and 20th Century Masters, Sony’s series rarely lives up to its name.

Exhibit A: The Essential Shawn Mullins, which is made up of two versions of his smash “Lullaby,” eight other tunes from two albums, three songs from a previous compilation and four previously unreleased tracks (one of which is an acoustic version of “Lullaby”). The whole affair has the stink of a one-hit-wonder concert in which the band relies on one hit to both open and close the show. Exhibit B: The Essential Molly Hatchet, a group that survives only in the memories of true Southern-boogie aficionados. Exhibit C: The Essential Kenny Loggins. ’Nuff said.

Some artists in the Sony series do have hits, but many of these don’t have enough to fill an entire CD—like The Essential Adam Ant and The Essential Men at Work. Both New Wavers have already been anthologized early and often (Ant had about six different greatest hits packages from ’86 to ’99), so one has got to wonder why “Goodie Two-Shoes” needs to be recycled yet again. And when you consider the fact that both Adam Ant and Men at Work had only two good albums apiece, the new packages seem even more irrelevant. Of course, the record companies are banking on the fact that you got rid of your record player or simply don’t know that twenty minutes of hunting at Rockin Rudy’s II and a dollar will get you both Business As Usual and Cargo (or Dirk Wears White Socks and Kings of the Wild Frontier, if that’s your fancy).

But the series isn’t totally extraneous. Maybe around the time Sony got to re-anthologizing artists that had actually recorded some essential music, the record company made the smart realization that some artists (and their fans) couldn’t handle being squeezed onto an 80-minute disc. And voilà—the double-disc essential package was born.

The Essential Sly & the Family Stone is a perfect example of a kick-ass double-disc package. From the opening horn arrangement of “Underdog” to the group’s ’60s and ’70s megahits, this overview gives the listener a chance to hear the evolution of a rock/funk/soul god. Unlike Men at Work, you’re not going to find many classic Sly albums in the vinyl bargain bin, so this retrospective will give you a chance to sample Sly’s many sounds—over the course of 35 tracks you can hear the Sly that influenced George Clinton, Maurice White, Prince and whoever wrote Chicago’s early horn charts. Sure it’d be better to buy all the early albums, but pound for pound you won’t find a much better collection.

Like Sly, The Clash has too many great songs to even attempt on a single disc. Most Clash fans would probably urge you to skip The Essential Clash, save a little extra money and hunt out the “nice price” (look for the sticker!) versions of The Clash, Give ’em Enough Rope and London Calling. They may have a point, but that doesn’t change the fact that this anthology rocks. Understandably, there is no way to divide up London Calling, but considering that the Clash had a gold mine of great tracks hidden on so-so albums (like “Straight to Hell” on Combat Rock), this 40-track overview serves a vital purpose.

So what about the dozens of “essential” recordings not considered in this review (Blue Öyster Cult, Willie Nelson, Electric Light Orchestra, Fishbone)? Trust your instincts. If they seemed forgettable the first time around, time and slick packaging probably haven’t made them essential in the meantime.

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