‘Tis the season for labels to cash in on their catalog. Here’s a look at some recent compilations from country artists, some of which are far more worthy of your holiday cash than others.
The Ultimate Hits
Garth returns to a “retailer other than Wal-Mart” near you, with an ambitious two-CD, 34-track collection, his first proper hits collection in thirteen years.
What’s Here: Thirty of Garth’s hits spanning the two decades of his career, along with four new tracks and a DVD collection that’s more thorough than the CD’s it’s included with.
What’s Missing: For a collection billing itself as ultimate, it’s amazing that some huge hits (“Not Counting You,” “Somewhere Other Than the Night”, “She’s Every Woman”) are omitted, along with a few more top five singles that belong here before the God-awful ‘The Change.” At least Chris Gaines didn’t get invited to the party.
Bottom Line: Just by existing, it’s already the best Brooks compilation available, and on the whole, it’s a better set than the now-deleted Hits from 1994. However, the bewilderingly random sequencing and middling new tracks, which include a duet – oh, I’m sorry, The Duet, with Huey Lewis, make this career overview decent enough, but hardly ultimate.
The first hits package for Sara Evans comes after five studio albums, three of which have sold platinum, with another gold plaque in the mix. She’s been a favorite at radio, being one of the most consistent female hitmakers in a time frame that hasn’t been to kind to artists of her gender.
What’s Here: All eight of her top ten singles, including 4 #1 hits, along with two others – “You’ll Always Be My Baby” and “Saints & Angels” – that peaked a bit lower. Also in the mix are four new tracks, including the deliriously catchy “As If.”
What’s Missing: By only including ten earlier singles, RCA missed the opportunity to paint a fuller picture of Evans’ talent. Some of her most interesting and memorable singles, like “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus”, “Three Chords and the Truth” and “Fool, I’m a Woman”, would’ve given this set more depth without extending the playing time too much.
Bottom Line: For anybody who hasn’t picked up her previous sets, the value here is decent, but if you’ve been buying her albums or cherry-picking the hits along the way, you can skip it. All four new tracks are solid, so even die-hard fans should download the four new tracks.
Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems
The second comprehensive box set to come along for Emmylou Harris, eleven years after the three-disc Portraits. There’s at least one track from every album of her career, along with a bounty of rare and unreleased tracks.
What’s Here: An exhaustive career overview, one that is completely hit-free and lacking any duplicate tracks from the previous box set. Among the 78 selections are cuts from albums never released on CD, contributions to tribute albums and other artist’s albums, unreleased demos and alternate versions, and to top it all off, a DVD with performances spanning her entire career.
What’s Missing: The first two discs are spent picking tracks from all of her albums, and like Portraits before it, too much space is taken up by selections from her first few Warner Bros. albums. Given that her first seven studio albums have been remastered and individually reissued, more tracks from the hard-to-find Evangeline and Thirteen would’ve been appreciated.
Bottom Line: Few artists have enough depth in their catalog to justify such an approach, but Harris deserves it. The music is stunning throughout, including outtakes from the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and a powerful take on “Immigrant Eyes” that was recorded as a birthday present for songwriter Guy Clark. Even an Emmylou completist like myself, who has all of her albums in one form or another, gained more than forty performances that I didn’t already have. Throw in the fantastic liner notes and rare photographs, and you have a timely reminder that there are some things you can’t do digitally. This set makes the best case for keeping compact discs around that I’ve seen in a long time.
22 More Hits
The eighth compilation of Strait’s career, not counting budget and international releases, serves as a companion piece to the double-disc 50 #1 Hits.
What’s Here: Some of Strait’s hits since that previous collection, like “You’ll Be There” and current hit “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”, along with all of his earlier hits that missed #1, like the classics “Amarillo By Morning” and and “The Cowboy Rides Away”, and the not-quite-classic “Don’t Make Me Come Over There and Love You.”
What’s Missing: MCA butchered those fifty #1 hits to squeeze them on to two discs, and none of them make an appearance here, which makes sense given that this release is intended to supplement that collection. By including current single “Cowgirls”, a clear substitute for recording new material for this set, attention is brought to the absence of the three other big hits from the same album: “Give it Away”, “Wrapped” and “It Just Comes Natural.”
Bottom Line: There’s not point pretending this is much more than a holiday cash-in, but as long as Strait keeps producing hits, MCA will keep finding new ways to compile them. Unless you somehow just discovered Strait, however, this is a fairly useless collection. Get the original box set and wait for the next one. I’m sure MCA is prepping it for next Christmas.
Greatest Hits: 18 Kids
Just in time for the holidays, Capitol issues a very thorough hits collection for their biggest artist, Keith Urban. A special edition is available, which features a DVD of his entire music video history.
What’s Here: All sixteen of his top ten hits and two new tracks, one of which is a re-recording of a track from his most recent album.
What’s Missing: Only one of his solo singles, “It’s a Love Thing”, which stopped at #18. There’s nothing here from his work with The Ranch, nor any popular album cuts like “You Look Good in My Shirt”, but that’s just nit-picking. This is quite a generous hits collection, even if some of the lesser tracks haven’t held up over time, particularly those from his debut album.
Bottom Line: He’s sold so many records that most fans will have a good chunk of this collection, but Capitol has timed this set perfectly, releasing it before Urban had too many hits to fit on one CD and including all of his hits. The new take on “Got it Right This Time (The Celebration)” surpasses the original, but the real joy here is his inspiring take on the Steve Forbert classic “Romeo’s Tune.” He preserves the original piano hook while Urbanizing the song with his distinctive instrumentation and vocals, resulting in the coolest cover of the year, bar none.