Drowning in Genius: Surveying this season’s mountain of greatest-hits albums

SO, WHAT’LL IT BE: Tears for Fears? .38 Special? Whitesnake? It’s become impossible to keep abreast of all the best-ofs, as labels keep foisting greatest-hits albums on overwhelmed consumers. Even Barney put one out.

For major artists, releases of reissues are staggered: Is the new Al Green double-CD, Take Me to the River (EMD/Right Stuff), timed to coincide with his autobiography, preferable to the two-single volumes and the four-CD box? Or would you rather wait for the deluxe package, where Green himself comes over and helps you weed through that stellar back catalog?

New Edition’s legacy has already been strip-mined by MCA for two best-ofs, a combined solo-hits best-of, a New Edition and solos slow-jam best-of, an N.E. and spin-offs No. 1 hits comp (just this May), and various remix records. Want more? Bobby Brown’s Greatest Hits kindly stops at about 1992 to highlight the days of ‘Roni’ and ‘Every Little Step’, when he was the Jackson next door. The new-jack beats sound like taps, but the discovery these songs made — that slick, restrained presentation could accompany utter sexual confidence — still feels thrilling, and set the stage for all the teen pop that followed.

Patches of virgin best-of territory do remain, like Laurie Anderson’s Talk Normal: The Anthology, Rhino’s double-disc culling of the New York City artist-popist’s seven Warner Brothers albums. A weighty career unfolds, from 1982’s ‘O Superman’, an eight-minute-long performance-art piece over synthesizer that became an unlikely British hit, to ‘The Rotowhirl’, a spoken-word recollection of her time as Andy Kaufman’s straight man. Looking back, while Anderson’s mid-’80s work with Peter Gabriel has aged horribly, the “out” elements of her music now seem contemporary and even pop — the droning and mechanized sounds, off-rhythms, and reliance on a speak-sing as unprecedented as rap. The stranded daydream ‘Language Is a Virus’ actually predicts Survivor — “everybody on the island was someone from TV.”

Single discs remain the perfect way to come to terms with groups whose albums have always left you cold. This year, I’m making up with a couple of rocking folkies. Black Gold: The Best of Soul Asylum (Legacy) is programmed for listenability, not chronology, so 1992’s puppyish ‘Runaway Train’ segues off 1986’s Husker-Du-ish ‘Tied to the Tracks’. Dave Pirner will never be called incisive, but the late Soul Asylum singles, like ‘Misery’ and ‘I Will Still Be Laughing’, make up for that in jaundice.

As for the Indigo Girls, well, any alt-rocker will prefer Amy Ray’s songs to Emily Saliers’, but Saliers’ ‘Closer to Fine’ remains their anthem, and the remnants of divinity school, plus gradually acknowledged lesbianism, make for powerful emotions throughout. Let’s say we call them the communitarian R.E.M.?

A new best-of category appears this fall: Call it the record-company mea culpa. Kelly Willis and Aimee Mann suffered serious abuse at the hands of unloving labels. But after they wowed singer-songwriter fans with What I Deserve and the Magnolia soundtrack last year, Universal has cobbled together anthologies of their earlier work. Willis’ One More Time: The MCA Recordings showcases an alt-country singer with indie-rock leanings trying to animate neo-trad environments. But collaborations with Nashville legend Kostas aside, most of this is too tasteful. Aimee Mann’s Ultimate Collection goes from her ‘Til Tuesday days to the version of ‘Wise Up’ from the Jerry Maguire soundtrack. Sure, she and producer Jon Brion peaked only recently, but here’s the evolution of their anxiety tangos. (Not to mention Fiona Apple’s.)

An essential best-of question always is: How much is too much? Compiling a single-CD best-of for Sun Ra, who taped every band practice and released albums by the half-dozen, is like trying to explain the 20th century in a single lecture. But Evidence, with its 21 Ra reissues, has earned the chance, and though Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel undercuts the weirdness that cultists prize, these shorter cuts and live staples establish the composer-bandleader behind the huckster: revampings of classic tunes, bent bebop (the chant in 1972’s ‘Rocket Number Nine’ is not unlike ‘Salt Peanuts’), early synth revelry, and all-out squawk.

Likewise, No More Sad Refrains (Island), an accompaniment to Clinton Heylin’s new biography of epic folkie Sandy Denny, may suffer in comparison with Hannibal’s still-available triple-disc box. But these 150 minutes feel just right for an ear-opening introduction to the vocal inspiration for every British rocker with a touch of Celt, from Robert Plant to Beth Orton.

Far in the other direction, the 51-track, two-disc retrospective of Columbus, Ohio’s forgotten Great Plains, Length of Growth, 1981-89 (Old 3c/Nu Gruv), presents nearly all there was from the Homestead label’s most lyrically erudite noise boys. With collectors alone driving this market, there’s no choice but overkill, though the combo of Ron House’s blow-dryer vocals and Mark Wyatt’s swank keyboards will justify your curiosity.

But ultimately, like many fans, I’d like the tools to free myself from all these authorized versions and make my own best-ofs. Take the new Foreigner double-disc set, Jukebox Heroes (Rhino). After the initial track, ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, disc two is useless — it thoroughly documents the flickering bright spots in the band’s commercial decline. What might be more fun, alongside the true hits, are the artist’s worst moments, the Fat Elvis segments that might end up in a cabaret show alongside outlandish early Foreigner like ‘Starrider’. Maybe when downloading takes over and everything’s up for grabs, the best best-ofs will come from sound-file traders who combine the sensibilities of rock critics and drag queens.

© Eric WeisbardSpin, December 2000

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