Sunday, September 3, 2017

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Steely Dan

With the death today of Walter Becker, Steely Dan’s career is likely at an end (unless Donald Fagen decides to tour using the band name going forward, which may well happen). The group started in 1972 as a six-member band (although Becker and Fagen had been working together since 1968, when they met at Bard College; one of their early bands had Chevy Chase on drums), with Becker and Fagen at the core as chief songwriters – and gradually, the only permanent members of the band when they decided they weren’t interested in touring any longer. Their commercial fortunes were solid until the late 1970s, when Aja took them to another level – however, after 1980’s Gaucho, then duo pursued their own interests for over a decade. Getting back together in the 1990s, they reversed their previous attitude toward live performances and toured constantly until this year, recording two more studio albums along the way and occasionally releasing solo albums as well. Their music was almost the antithesis of much of the album-oriented rock music of the era: intricate arrangements, horns and strings as needed, and world-weary, cynical lyrics.

The first six of the band’s studio albums were released on the now-defunct ABC Records label; when ABC was bought out by MCA in 1979, Steely Dan was contractually obligated to release Gaucho for them, even though they had a pending deal with Warner Brothers. After they reunited, a live album, Alive in America, and their 2000 studio album Two Against Nature were released on former manager Irving Azoff’s Giant imprint for Warner Brothers; Everything Must Go came out in 2003 for Reprise. Nevertheless, most of the “classic” Steely Dan material is now available through corporate behemoth UMG – but at least there’s one decent all-encompassing choice available:


It’s a couple songs short of almost perfect (I would have preferred to include “Pretzel Logic,” “Josie,” and “Time Out of Mind”), but this is a good selection, with no single edits, and one song each from Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (the skeevy “Cousin Dupree” and the skeptical/wistful “Things I Miss the Most,” respectively), so it all fits nicely onto one CD. As a result, it’s the only compilation that encompasses their entire career – everything else reflects only the ABC/MCA releases between 1972 and 1980. Plus at $5.99 for the download on Amazon and $7.99 on disc, it’s a bargain (even if the package is standard for UMG reissues and probably contains few, if any, liner notes). Oddly, it’s not on iTunes.

Other options (links, when available, go to Wikipedia):

Greatest Hits (1979) – Released as a Christmas gift (or cash grab, depending on your point of view) when ABC Records was in its death throes, this is actually the first Steely Dan album I bought. A double album on vinyl, it contains at least song from each of the first six studio albums, plus the previously-unreleased song from the Katy Lied era, “Here at the Western World” (which instantly became an AOR favorite, mostly because the rest of radio had gone mad for disco and there wasn’t enough product left for album rock jocks to play). “FM,” which had been released as a single from the soundtrack for the flop movie of the same name earlier that year, was inexplicably left off. A nifty CD option (the running time of 79:17 allowed it to just squeeze onto one disc without editing), this one has been left behind and may be out of print (it’s not available for download). It is available new on Amazon for $15.82 as an import.

Gold (1982) – This may set a record for cynical record label compilations. After Gaucho was released in 1980, the group took a long hiatus and was assumed to have broken up – and Donald Fagen released his first solo album, The Nightfly, on Warner Brothers in 1982. So what does a label like MCA do when only one studio album has come out since the last greatest hits set and the band is no more? You release another one anyway! Gold (which even had a similar cover design to Greatest Hits) included three of Gaucho’s seven songs, the aforementioned “FM,” two songs from 1977’s Aja (the AOR hit “Black Cow” and the top 20 pop hit “Deacon Blues”), and two earlier songs – and was released in time to compete with The Nightfly. (I can’t imagine why Becker and Fagen were so unhappy about having to release Gaucho with MCA.) Released on CD in 1991 with four more songs: “Here at the Western World,” a live version of “Bodhisattva” from 1974 that was a B-side for 1980’s “Hey Nineteen” (the song features a rambling, drunken intro by the group’s truck driver Jerome Aniton that’s funny the first time or two you hear it, but gradually moves from annoying to unbearable the more often it’s played), and two Fagen solo soundtrack songs – 1981’s “True Companion” from Heavy Metal, and 1988’s “Century’s End” from the irksome (don’t get me started) Bright Lights, Big City. That’s what’s still around today – although, in a reversal, the download is only available on iTunes for $9.99, not Amazon. (The disc is on Amazon for $8.37, although it may be preparing to go out of print.)

A Decade of Steely Dan (1985) – the first one-disc hits CD (this predates the Gold rerelease); it includes “FM” and the usual AOR hits from throughout their career to this point. It’s not a bad option; I would prefer to hear them in chronological order, but that’s me. Out of print on CD, $9.49 for the download on Amazon and $9.99 on iTunes.

The Very Best of Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years (1985) – This is actually an import from Great Britain, but I’ve seen it in the States often enough to include it here. Nothing particularly exciting on the LP release (it was a two-album set that would have been bettered by Greatest Hits except there were two songs from Gaucho); the CD version that came out two years later had a truncated track listing that included “FM” but excluded the Gaucho songs. Used copies are available on Amazon (but be aware the “Double Disc Set” banner is from the LP version; the CD is one disc) for $10.64 and up, but it’s not available for download.

Citizen Steely Dan (1993) – I’m not sure why MCA decided it was a good idea to put all of the band’s seven studio albums on this four-disc box set (the only other band who’d done that to my knowledge was The Police, who only had five studio albums and filled up Message in a Box with piles of live versions, B-sides, and other goodies), but they did – which effectively meant, to me, that I was better off buying the box set rather than getting any of the studio albums on CD (I had gotten them all on vinyl by this point).
Here’s my Big List of Grievances:
          1. The badly-printed booklet has ghosting from other pages (perhaps that’s the fault of my BMG Music Service edition).
          2. Even though the liner notes are funny, they’re also full of crap – Becker and Fagen claim “the shelf is pretty much empty” when it came to alternate takes and rare tracks, but the band’s first two songs, “Sail the Water Way” and “Dallas,” have remained unavailable in CD/digital format (I mean, I know they’re not very good, but still), as well as their attempts at reviving the Gaucho song “The Second Arrangement” (an assistant engineer accidentally erased the song rather than archiving it, and after multiple attempts to recreate it failed, the band gave up), along with a few others from that era. Instead, we get “Here at the Western World,” “FM,” the live “Bodhisattva” (all three of which had come out on the Gold CD), and an early version of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” – and that’s it.
          3. I would have been happier if they’d kept the original album track order as well (switching “Pearl of the Quarter” and “King of the World” is particularly annoying; at least the switch of “Deacon Blues” and “Peg” was probably made to fit the discs properly).
Anyway, if you buy another hits set, love the band and want to get all the original studio albums, this is a viable option – if you already have some of them, don’t bother. (At least the four “rare tracks” are available for individual download.) $33.49 for the four-disc download on Amazon ($34.99 on iTunes), $46.05 for the box set – and you probably don’t need the liner notes that much.

Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972-1980 (2000) – Apparently there’s a rule among heritage acts that you’ve got to make a one-disc, two-disc, and four-disc set of their stuff available; here’s the two-disc version. Nothing new here; the only song that isn’t on the studio albums is “FM.” Out of print on disc, $16.49 for the download on Amazon, $16.99 on iTunes. I inexplicably almost bought this a couple of years ago used (even though there’s not a note here that isn’t on Citizen Steely Dan), then dropped the CD case and cracked it – which made me decided it was a sign. (It’s not there anymore, so somebody else bought it; don’t worry.)

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection – The Best of Steely Dan (2007) – This is UMG’s budget-line release. $3.99 for the disc on Amazon, not available for download. I suppose if you see it at a Travel Centers of America or Love’s Travel Stops for five bucks or so and you’re jonesing to hear “Reelin’ in the Years,” this is an okay option, but there’s no reason to purchase it otherwise.

Finally, be aware that many of the songs from Becker and Fagen’s early years before Steely Dan – an early Richard Pryor soundtrack, You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat, and some other early demos – have been available on piles of grey market discs over the years. (They did get one of their early songwriting attempts, “I Mean to Shine,” onto a Barbra Streisand album; they also worked as staff writers for ABC Records for a couple of years, and toured as part of Jay and the Americans’ band; the group’s manager cut their salaries in half partway through the tour, while lead singer Jay Black has referred to Becker and Fagen as “the Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll.”) Anyway, these might be good for a listen, but don’t buy any anthology releases that aren’t from ABC, MCA, or UMG.

Friday, August 11, 2017

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set By... Glen Campbell

I’m really grateful I haven’t had to write many of these in 2017 due to a death, at least compared to last year.  And obviously Campbell’s death due to complications from Alzheimer’s wasn’t unexpected.  He had a long life, and mostly a good life.

It wasn’t perfect – he struggled for years with alcohol and cocaine abuse, was married four times, and had a notorious relationship with Tanya Tucker in the early 1980s, who was half his age at the time.  But he also was part of The Wrecking Crew, a group of musicians that played on most of the best records of the 1960s (Campbell himself played guitar on songs by everyone from Bobby Darin to Frank Sinatra to The Monkees).  He toured with The Beach Boys after Brian Wilson’s breakdown in 1965 and was offered the opportunity to join the group (which he declined).  But his career kicked into high gear in the late 1960s, thanks to some great material (“Gentle on My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston”), and continued to hit the country charts consistently and the pop charts occasionally, notching a pair of #1s on the latter with “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.”  He costarred in the film True Grit and had his own variety show on CBS from 1969 to 1972.  And after a fallow period in the 1980s and 1990s, he had a fine comeback in the 2000s, including two top 10 country albums, Ghost on the Canvas and Adios. 

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of compilations out there, and unfortunately, my favorite is long out of print.  It looks like he didn’t do any rerecordings of his hits (I wouldn’t swear to this in court, however), but there are some live albums on minor labels that are labeling themselves as best-ofs.  The easiest thing to do would be to stick with anything bearing a Capitol logo, but Capitol leased out his catalog to at least three other labels by my county, so who knows?  I would strongly recommend making sure whatever you get has the following songs, which are essentials:

  •  “Gentle on My Mind”
  •  “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”
  • “Wichita Lineman”
  • “Galveston”
  • “Rhinestone Cowboy”
  • “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”
  • “Southern Nights”

He had some bigger hits than the ones I’ve listed here (“It’s Only Make Believe,” “Don’t Pull Your Love/Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye”), some so-so remakes (“Let It Be Me”), some that should be left in a time capsule (“Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”).  Finally, virtually none of these contain any of his Christian music (he recorded several religious albums in the late 1980s and 1990s).  But make sure you’ve got the seven songs listed above.

Given that, here’s the easiest one to get, and a decent value for the money:

Obviously he had more than the 16 hits here (37 of his songs charted in the Billboard Hot 100, and he had 42 top 20 hits on Billboard’s country charts), but this is a pretty good selection.  In fairness, “Times Like These” and “These Days” are from the last decade (this set was released in 2009) and weren’t really hits, but it brings his collection full circle.  $7.99 for the download on Amazon and $8.99 for the disc makes it a reasonable introduction.

Here are some other options (I couldn’t possibly list all of them).  Links, when available, go to the Wikipedia page.

Greatest Hits (1971) – his very first hits set, although there were tons of compilations of material he’d recorded for other labels, sometimes as a sideman.  It’s a pretty good selection from the era, but it clocks in well under 30 minutes (like most country albums of the era), so don’t be shocked.  It was available on CD at one point, but both the CD and vinyl versions are out of print, and it’s unavailable for download.

The Best of Glen Campbell (1976) – rather than releasing a Greatest Hits, Vol. II after “Rhinestone Cowboy” hit, Capitol took that along with “Country Boy” and a few other minor hits (“Houston [I’m Coming to See You],” written by future Toto leader David Paich, is also quite good), took all the good stuff from the first greatest hits set, and made it into a pretty good album.  “Southern Nights” hadn’t been released at this point, but in 1987 Capitol released The Very Best of Glen Campbell, which included that hit and a few others, on CD.  It’s on Amazon for $16.99, but that’s for a used disc.  I have it, and it’s perfectly good, but don’t pay a ridiculous price for it.

Classics Collection (1990) – Capitol had a great reissue program around this time (The Beach Boys benefitted from this), but Campbell’s back catalogue fell into neglect, and the label apparently started leasing out songs to smaller companies; this appeared on Collectibles Records (which is a perfectly good reissue label).  Contains all seven songs listed above, but only ten songs overall.  In print at an overpriced $11.49, not available for download.

Greatest Country Hits (1990) and Best of the Early Years (1991) – more hits offloaded on another label; this time it’s Mike Curb’s self-named reissue label.  Neither of these has anything special beyond the basics, and since they’re issued separately you need to buy both to get the whole story – and they’re overpriced ($13.98 and $12.62, respectively, for the discs; $9.49 each for the downloads, and you can only download the full album, not individual songs).

The Essential Glen Campbell Volume One, The Essential Glen Campbell Volume Two, and The Essential Glen Campbell Volume Three (1994) – rather than putting together a good Campbell box set, Capitol inexplicably issued three individual discs out of chronological order, with the truly great songs scattered among them (if they’d gone chronological, discs one and three would have been the ones to get, with disc two the one to skip).  This was greedy and short-sighted; Campbell could really have used a good box set.  All three of these are out of print.

The Glen Campbell Collection (1962-1989) (1997) – the good news is on their third try, Capitol finally found a label that assembled an excellent compilation (Razor & Tie Records).  40 songs over two discs, with breadth (the first release is from 1962, and some of his country chart hits on Atlantic and MCA are included as well).  It’s nice to hear Jimmy Webb can still write a touching song (“Still Within the Sound of My Voice”), and there are a couple of relative rarities – although it would have been nice to have included “Universal Soldier,” Brian Wilson’s donated “Guess I’m Dumb,” and the psychedelic pop hit “My World Fell Down” that he sang as part of the studio band Sagittarius, but you can’t have everything.  The bad news:  it’s out of print, of course.  And since it’s going for around $45 used on Amazon, don’t expect to find it easily.  (I burned a copy from my old library, which I feel a little less guilty about than I did when I started writing this.)

The Capitol Years 65/77 (1998) – well, this will sorta kinda do as a substitute, although it doesn’t include anything from after the Capitol years (and a minor later hit, “Can You Fool”).  Out of print, but available for download on Amazon for $15.49, which isn’t bad for 46 songs.

Super Hits (2000) – this is nowhere near super.  Campbell was struggling with addiction at this point and had been dropped by Capitol, so these are his country chart hits in the early and mid-1980s with Atlantic (which wasn’t really strong in country music), plus his last pop hit, “I Love My Truck,”  released by Mirage Records, which became a mirage shortly thereafter.  You get the idea.  $6.99 for the download.

20 Greatest Hits (2000) – somebody at Capitol decided to be cute – this has a lot of interpretations of ‘60s classics that were not hit versions for Campbell (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Classical Gas,” “King of the Road,” “Both Sides Now”), but “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” was left off.  Skip it.  $9.49 for the download, out of print otherwise.

All the Best (2003) – a solid one-disc set – too bad it’s out of print.  25 songs, all the usual favorites, etc.  Capitol would do well to make this available in physical form again.  $10.49 for the download.

The Legacy (1961-2002) (2003) – hey, Capitol finally got around to a box set.  It does include “Universal Soldier” and “Guess I’m Dumb” (but not “My World Fell Down” or anything from other labels), and the fourth disc is short and has nothing but live versions – six of which are no longer available for download at all from Amazon, even if you buy the whole album.  $23.99 for the “whole” download (the box itself is out of print), but I’d cherry-pick the rarities instead.

Gentle on My Mind: The Best of Glen Campbell (2016) I’m not sure about this one.  It’s going for $8.99 for the disc on Amazon and isn’t available for download, but it's an import from “Spectrum” (whoever they are).  None of the Amazon reviews says they’re rerecordings, but the reviews also look suspciously like they’re for another set.  And since there’s no download option, there’s no way to test this.  Proceed at your own risk.