Reba McEntire, <em>50 Greatest Hits</em>

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50 Greatest Hits

For an artist who has been so consistently successful for so many years, Reba McEntire’s MCA catalog has yet to be effectively gathered in a comprehensive set. Until now. While her three hits compilations and two-disc #1’s collection fell short, 50 Greatest Hits delivers, collecting every essential McEntire single of the past quarter-century and painting a definitive picture of the music she has made over these years.

The main reason this approach is so effective for McEntire is that she’s always been a singles artist, despite having a handful of excellent albums to her credit. The three-CD format of this set correlates nicely with the three phases of her MCA career: the traditionalist era with Jimmy Bowen, the country-pop era with Tony Brown, and the post-superstar era, where she stopped being a dominant force at radio but emerged as a star of television and stage.

McEntire had already scored a handful of hits, including two #1’s, with Mercury Records before she moved over to MCA in 1983. Her first album for the label, Just a Little Love, was Urban Country dreck, but scored a hit in the title track and “He Broke Your Memory Last Night.” Those songs are omitted, however, as MCA chooses to begin the first disc with a pair of #1 hits from her landmark My Kind of Country album, “How Blue” and “Somebody Should Leave.”

Over the course of the first disc, listeners can hear just why the CMA voted McEntire their Female Vocalist for four consecutive years. The best tracks of this period are all firmly rooted in traditional country, but are still theatrical in scope because of McEntire’s grandiose vocals. In essence, “Whoever’s in New England” and “What am I Gonna Do About You” are hillbilly power ballads. There are a handful of songs here that don’t hold up over time, particularly her tepid covers of “Cathy’s Clown” and “Sunday Kind of Love.” But there’s also a joy of discovery in hearing forgotten hits like “One Promise Too Late” and “I Know How He Feels”, both of which rank among McEntire’s finest singles.

When it was clear that Bowen and McEntire were running out of creative steam in the early nineties, she began to work with Tony Brown, the co-producer of all of her most commercially successful albums. His flair for the dramatic made for some epic singles, and disc two starts with the near-flawless run of contemporary classics culled from her classic albums Rumor Has It and For My Broken Heart. These are the songs that made McEntire a superstar, and just about all of her most well-known hits can be found on the second disc. The biggest flaw of #1’s was that the conceit of the concept meant leaving off signature records like “Fancy”, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “Take it Back”, all of which can be found here.

It’s a testament to how strong that period was that the entire second disc covers only five years of music, featuring every single she released during that period, including all five singles from her 1994 set Read My Mind. By the time those singles roll around though, you can hear the chemistry between Brown and McEntire losing its charm, as the production gets so big that even the full-voiced McEntire gets lost in the shuffle.

Her 1995 covers album Starting Over is usually seen as the point where her career drops to a lower gear, and it’s telling that while it took two discs to cover the first ten years, the story of the last fourteen fits neatly on to one disc with no notable exclusions. This is as much a reflection of McEntire’s changing priorities as anything else, as each studio album she released is represented by at least two singles. The very best of her albums during this time was 1996’s What if It’s You, and “The Fear of Being Alone” is as good as anything she’s ever recorded.

As hits collections go, this is about as good as it can get for McEntire, at least without delving into her Mercury catalog as well. The set would have been slightly stronger with the addition of “If I Had Only Known” from For My Broken Heart and the studio recording of “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” from her star turn in Annie Get Your Gun. But when the only complaint about a greatest hits album is that it didn’t include an album track and a promotional record, the compilation producers got the job done. Anyone with an interest in understanding either McEntire’s work and the history of contemporary country music should buy this collection immediately.