It’s no surprise that the catalog releases just keep getting better each year. Labels have learned that the best way to lift up their sagging bottom lines is to repackage their old material, and the trend of trying to fit as many hits as you can on one disc continues. Here are the ten best examples of labels doing right by their active artists and those of days gone by.
Crystal Gayle was not a one-hit wonder, though she may very well be considered one at this point of time. The 25-track Greatest Hits does a great job dispelling that perception, putting her mega-hit “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue” in its historical context, surrounded by all of Gayle’s other country-pop hits. Highlights include “Ready for the Times to Get Better”, “Half the Way” and the gorgeous Rodney Crowell classic, “‘Till I Can Gain Control Again.”
The Definitive Collection Series
Universal Music Group continues to be the best at collecting all of the hits for artists that can be defined with a single CD. This year, thorough collections were released for Tracy Byrd, Mark Wills, and Chely Wright, among others. The Definitive Collection series distinguishes itself from those of competing labels (I’m lookin’ at you, “16 Biggest Hits”) by being more generous and careful with the track listing choices, and putting remarkable effort into the liner notes, often including new interviews with the artist being profiled. Look for this line to continue with a Terri Clark edition on Feb. 5, 2008.
The Ultimate Hits
It doesn’t quite live up to its title, as it’s missing some major chart hits. Also, the sequencing is schizophrenic, with the new mixed in with the old, perhaps because Brooks knows most fans would only listen to Disc 1 if he went the chronological route. Disclaimers aside, this two-disc set (with bonus DVD) is the best compilation to date for the genre’s biggest act of all-time.
A relentless parade of pop-country confections, with two new songs and a live cut mixed in with all of Hill’s smash hits. Fans looking for a more nuanced compilation will have to wait a bit longer, but The Hits accomplishes its titular goal. The reverse chronology of the track listing proves just how good she’s been all along, with her earliest hits sounding just as great today as her recent ones do.
There’s no possible way to make a perfect Gary Allan compilation, with so many great album cuts that are either the equal of or superior to his radio hits. I’m hesitant to recommend this at all, as I would rather mandate that each country fan own each of his studio albums. Hopefully, this introduction to Allan’s distinctive brand of California country will entice listeners to go back and get the rest of his albums. If not, they’ll still have as solid a collection of country hits as any artist from the past decade could produce.
Greatest Hits: 18 Kids (Special Edition)
Every single top ten hit of Urban’s career so far, which amounts to sixteen big hits from four albums. As generous as the selection is, the package is further elevated by a DVD of all of his music videos to date, along with a re-cut of “Got it Right This Time”, which was on his previous album. Best of all is his cover of Steve Forbert’s “Romeo’s Tune”, which preserves the classic piano melody, but adds Urban’s distinctive musical flair, making the song work as both an homage to Forbert’s original version, and a record of his own.
Peace, Love and Anarchy: Rarities, B-Sides and Demos, Vol. 1
Todd Snider is one of those rare artists whose outtakes and castaways are as interesting as the performances that make up his proper albums. This fantastic collection includes alternate versions of some of Snider’s best album tracks (“Nashville”, “Missing You”) and killers songs that were inexplicably cut from his studio albums (“East Nashville Skyline”, “Old Friend”, “Combover Blues.”) One can only hope that Vol. 2 surfaces soon, especially if Snider isn’t too far along on his next new album.
Out of the Silence Came a Song: The Somber Sound of Porter Wagoner
This is essentially the same compilation as The Rubber Room, which was released in Europe in 2006. It collects the bizarre, yet oddly compelling Wagoner tracks that deal with murder, alcoholism, mental illness, adultery and spirituality – heck, some of the songs deal with three or four of those at the same time. Far more interesting a listen than his conventional compilations, and essential for fans of Nashville Sound-era country music. This is a digital-only release, but you can get The Rubber Room easily on Amazon if you prefer physical discs.
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems
Only a woman who has made great albums for more than thirty years, and collaborated with every artist under the sun, could actually produce a second career box set that is more impressive than her first. Whereas the three-disc Portraits focused mostly on her hits and signature album cuts, Songbird spends only two of its four discs on Harris’ solo material. The second two discs feature demos, outtakes and contributions to tribute albums and other artist’s recordings. The end result is a box set that holds the joy of discovery for her most die-hard, completist fans.
A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection
This would be the blueprint for how to make the perfect collection, if only most artists had the same depth of talent and work as Alison Krauss. Conscious of the obvious truth that most people didn’t buy her records for the “hits”, Krauss compiled her contributions to other projects instead, including her high-profile soundtrack cuts for O Brother and Cold Mountain, but also little-known treasures like her tender cover of “Baby Mine” from The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney. The biggest blessing is the rich selection of new tracks. “Away Down the River”, “Simple Love” and “Jacob’s Dream” are three of the best songs she’s ever recorded, and they are the epitome of her musical style, which is beyond any narrow genre definition at this point, a feat that only the very best artists in music achieve.