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 Lovecan be had cheap. Poetically, this cheapo lookscheap 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 Voicecrit 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

ROY ORBISON
16 Biggest Hits (Monument/Legacy)
Not counting imports, there are now 13 best-ofs on 10 labels by this opera singer from the wrong side of the oil rig. Unless you worship Scott Walker, rockabilly, or both (a big unless), you need precisely one. There's no Sun ooby-doobie-booby here, just 16 of the 20 tracks on All-Time Greatest Hits of You-Know-Who, where you pay a buck apiece for four expendables, including Roy's third hit, which peaked at 27 while the other four went 2-9-1-2, wonder why. Here you get what you want: amazing vocal range, a beat that would give Scott Walker lumbago, the mystic miracles "Blue Bayou," "Only the Lonely," and "In Dreams," lesser product slow and fast, and one of the greatest records ever made: "Oh, Pretty Woman." A MINUS

CHARLEY PRIDE
RCA Country Legends (Buddha)
Voicewise, as brilliant as Vernon Dalhart, Ray Price, George Jones. Contentwise, as wan as Red Foley, Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbitt. Only for Pride, wan was perverse. A deeply ambitious sharecropper's son who moved up to Montana to pursue his first love, baseball, and settled for a job smelting zinc, Pride didn't stand out because he could dip from tenor to bass in well-enunciated middle-American smeared with drawl and flanged with vibrato. He stood out because he wasn't white. Although it wasn't easy becoming the only black country star ever, once he got over the hump he was the perfect token for Southern traditionalists eager to find safe common ground with the civil rights movement. Stylistically honky-tonk when Nashville was trying to be modern, he was never thematically honky-tonk—no drinking songs, God knows no catting songs. Yet his skin color was inescapable. From this Mississippi émigré the pro forma can't-go-home-again of "Wonder Could I Live There Anymore" was an indictment, "voice of Uncle Ben" and all. And how to read the cornball complacency of "I'm Just Me": "I was just born to be/Exactly what you see/Nothing more or less/I'm not the worst or the best/I just try to be/Exactly what you see"? Early on some well-wisher suggested he bill himself George Washington Carver III. But that would have been taking on airs, he'd stick with his own name thankee, and look what it was. Belated Country Music Hall of Famer Pride no longer tours regularly. He doesn't have to. He owns a bank. A MINUS

STEPPENWOLF
All Time Greatest Hits (MCA)
Though they named heavy metal, sort of, they were more hard rock, in both the principled '60s sense and the prole '90s sense. Rather than swamps of pomp à la Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly, even Blue Cheer, their two 1968 albums were floods of sludge. They had tunes, lyrics, verve, they had a good beat and you could wheelie to them. Never as slick as his sunglasses after dark, German-born, Canadian-raised, r&b-loving, legally blind ex-folkie John Kay soon grew full of himself, in a sincere, pot-smoking way. But 30 years later his '70s FM staples pack more punch than the half of the debut this revision of 1975's Sixteen Great Performancesleaves in CDNow. They also pack more punch than the lesser leavings of another hard rocker with a pop knack and a best-of out, Alice Cooper. Not only is Kay nicer—the gauche "For Ladies Only" isn't hip to the feminist jive like "Only Women Bleed," but it sure tries harder—he has a better drummer. Jerry Edmonton, died in a car wreck. He rocked. A MINUS

BILLY STEWART
The Best of Billy Stewart: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Chess)
Well past his moment at 32, he died on the road in 1970, leaving this, more or less: two doowop-derived soul-r&b sob-song classics, trilled and scatted pull-out-the-stops demolitions of Doris Day's "Secret Love" and the Gershwins' "Summertime," and other vehicles for his piercing tenor and sharp groove—notably "Fat Boy," about an overweight lover who may be built for comfort but is also, for once, insecure. In short, a more distinguished body of minor music than can be claimed by many better-remembered later soul men who'll remain nameless here. B PLUS

PETER TOSH
Scrolls of the Prophet: The Best of Peter Tosh (Columbia/Legacy)
Tosh's prime was over long before he was murdered in 1987, probably for being the stoned, arrogant gadfly-cum-crank he turned into. By cherry-picking his 1976 and 1977 Columbia albums, culling two Rolling Stones keepers, adding three worthy oddments, and preserving EMI's 1981 "Fools Die" just in case anybody thinks I'm kidding about how far downhill he slid, this showcases the Wailers' only born propagandist. You love Bob Marley, I love Bob Marley, but he didn't venture social statements as hard-hitting, verbally or musically, as "Equal Rights" or "Legalize It." Righteous militance rarely wears well. That Tosh could have done this much with it is worth writing down. A MINUS

MERLE TRAVIS
The Best of Merle Travis: Sweet Temptation (1946-1953) (Razor & Tie)
The two Jimmie Rodgers songs this adds to the Rhino 18-track it supplants are superfluous. He was a fine guitarist, but as a vocalist he wrote novelty songs—so novel they often had class consciousness, like "Sixteen Tons," which Tennessee Ernie Ford owned as soon as he put his tonsils on it. I miss "I Like My Chicken Frying Size," which exemplifies Travis's gustatory candor about human relationships. But then there's the newly added "Kentucky Means Paradise," which does the same for his gustatory candor about food: "You take a chicken and you kill it/And you put him in a skillet." Not many would mention the killing part, or change "it" to the more intimate "him" without flinching. Bet Merle liked his eggs really fresh. A MINUS


PICK HIT

GAP BAND
The Best of Gap Band: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Mercury)
Bootsy’s cousins and Leon Russell’s protégés, the three brothers Wilson were as bland as the two Brothers Johnson until an accidental 1980 P-Funk rip we’ll call ‘‘Oops Upside Your Head’’ transformed them into a great funk band for a handful of silly singles. No champs at hands-on bass and drums, they power-tooled a futuristic electrofunk out of keyboards, sound effects, and overdubbed trackmastery—think ‘‘Burn Rubber,’’ ‘‘You Dropped a Bomb on Me’’—well before Bowie’s ‘‘Let’s Dance’’ or Clinton’s ‘‘Last Dance.’’ I miss ‘‘Beep a Freak,’’ which used a beeper as a rhythm instrument (eep!), and the payday throwaway they wrote for Keenan Ivory Wayans one night. But mainly I wish they’d escaped the African American superstition that ballads are old-age insurance. Two too many show up here—which is seven or eight fewer than on the new Ultimate Collection, which to squeeze them in eviscerates the classics down to radio lengths. A MINUS

JERRY BUTLER
The Best of Jerry Butler: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Mercury)
Before Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff revved into urban-contemporary grandiloquence, their run with this former gospel singer/Impressions cofounder and future songwriting mentor/Chicago alderman defined a style of soul whose cool would never be duplicated. Butler had plenty of voice, but he knew showing it off was tantamount to admitting he had something to prove. So as he matured he turned conversational, talking his songs out of discretion rather than necessity. Thus he established his suitability for that ‘‘One Night Affair’’ he hopes you have in mind. He could certainly sustain the illusion for longer than 11 tracks, but not for the 40-plus you get when you supersize him. Anyway, why overdo it? Right, Jerry? A MINUS

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