Best of the Rest

Many of these subpantheon best-ofs have awaited judgment for years. My guarantee: All make sense as individual records. Where some artists (Joe Cocker, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick) fall off so sharply that an even chronological spread does them dirt, the ones below are consistent. And where the peak albums of some artists (Joe Cocker, but no longer the Steppenwolf) render compilations redundant, the ones below are functional. Also fun.


ABC
The Best of ABC: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Mercury)
For two whole albums in the early '80s, nearly 18 months, Martin Fry poised on the dizzying edge of parody without cramping up. Then he nosedived. When he came to, he'd turned into the disco dandy he'd pretended he was so much smarter than, doomed to envy Neil Tennant till the end of Fry's alienated days. If you want to honor his artistic integrity, The Lexicon of Love can be had cheap. Poetically, this cheapo looks cheap while making Fry seem more pop-savvy than he actually was. A MINUS

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CHUCK BERRY
The Anthology (MCA)
You remember him. He invented rock and roll—in 40 or so utterly indelible songs, with another couple dozen on the cusp. His CD-era standard has been the three-disc, 71-track Chess Box, which sticks a lot of questionable stuff toward the end and retails for around $50. On sale for $20 less and squeezing a 50-song double-CD into the shelf space of one, this is more consumer-friendly. Except that in a typical completist-baiting maneuver, it adds seven forgettable previously uncompileds (OK, "Don't You Lie to Me" is good) and to make room axes unquestionable stuff that only begins with "Anthony Boy," and "Have Mercy Judge." Still ace music, of course—at least the instrumentals are under control. But dock it two notches for profiteering anyway—and avoid the similarly misbegotten new Louis Jordan package altogether. A MINUS

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE
A Portrait of Champion Jack Dupree (Rounder)
An expatriate at 50, the overrecorded last of the barrelhouse pianists laid down some of his best music in sweet home New Orleans before he went back to Hamburg to die at 82: hyped supersession, cockeyed follow-up, posthumous farewell. I've always preferred the follow-up, in part because it begins with the adoptee's lament "They Gave Me Away," in part because it seems so uncalculated and associative—an entertainer made not born letting down what hair he's got left because he's too old to play it safe anymore. All the wildest stuff from that one is here, together with the tightest stuff from the debut and the most responsive stuff from the farewell. Songster blues. Decrepitude feeling its oats. A MINUS

GREAT PLAINS
Length of Growth 1981-89 (Old 3C)
Every goddamn drone and whine Ron House and his Columbus friends ever released, 50 songs that evoke both the punk that set them off and the alt-country they spied coming down the road. Quick, kids, where do the Great Plains start? Well west of Columbus, right? And by the way, who was this Mark Hanna guy? Pol behind four presidents fROMOHIO, two of whom were assassinated and one of whom Great Plains did a song about. Other subjects include Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Dick Clark, the fate of the family farm, how bad onetime Voice crit Don Howland has to piss, and, most famously, why punk rock boys go out with new wave girls. Not all of it is great, some of it is barely good, and I doubt even his thesis adviser would listen to House caterwauling 50 straight songs. But he knows that, and he wants you to hear them all anyway—surely you don't think he's in it for the money. A single album by Canton's own Marilyn Manson will cost you more than both CDs. B PLUS

LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS
Blues Masters: The Very Best of Lightnin' Hopkins (Rhino)
His juke-joint records long out of juice, Hopkins unplugged because he saw money in folk music. Like a quality gangsta rapper, he was cold, wry, and into his own pain, a ruminative cuss who moved white fans to rave about improvisation as they worshipfully awaited whatever bullshit came out of his mouth. Of this there was way too much—he recorded more than John Lee Hooker, who unlike Hopkins had a beat. That said, Rhino's selection of 16 1947-1961 tracks from nine labels is the solidest album ever to bear his name. Usually there's accompaniment, bass at least, but Hopkins's phrasing is so wayward that the effect is country anyway. Winnowed down to these memorable performances, he's thoughtful and soulful, evocative and surprising—the back-porch poet of folk dreams. A MINUS

SKIP JAMES
Blues From the Delta (Vanguard)
James isn't all he's cracked up to be, especially in the '60s. If the catwalking guitar line of "I'm So Glad" could still give Eric Clapton penis envy, his piano had lost its atonal abandon; if the song he wrote for his D.C. M.D. has God in it, "Careless Love" is barely filler. But always carrying the music is a tenuous falsetto that's been through a lot of bad medicine, a voice that's looked at death from both sides now and done what it could to aestheticize the terror. A MINUS

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