Tuesday, March 14, 2017

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... The Commodores

Here’s the big issue with this band.  They started out as a funk band (you really must hear “Slippery When Wet” or “Machine Gun” to understand what I mean), but Motown kept releasing a Lionel Richie ballad as a single every time a new album came out.  And those became hits – of the nine top 10 pop hits the group racked up with Lionel Richie as a member, seven of them were his ballads (the exceptions were “Brick House” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”).  This was unfair to both Richie and the group – not everything he wrote was a slow song (he collaborated with the full group on “Brick House” and “Too Hot Ta Trot,” and cowrote “Fancy Dancer” with bass player Ronald LaPread and “Flying High” with Thomas McClary), and it gave the public a one-sided idea of what they were about.

I’m not saying I don’t like Richie’s ballads – “Easy,” “Sweet Love,” and “Sail On” are all great songs.  (On the other hand, I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing “Three Times a Lady” again.)  But I’m saying it’s very different hearing them on the albums (there were two at the most per album) as opposed to a hits set – obviously, the Richie ballads can take up a lot of space on a poorly-chosen best-of.  So, for this review, I am introducing the Lionel Richie Ballad Percentage, or LRBP.  This will indicate what percentage of the songs on the album are Lionel Richie hit ballads (the seven listed above).  I would recommend avoiding anything with a percentage larger than 40 percent.  And if you’re a Richie fanatic, you have options as well, as you’ll see.

Commodores Gold

I hate to recommend a two-CD set for a band that had 17 top 40 hits, but there’s a reason for that.  There are a few hits sets that use the single edits of the band’s songs, this one doesn’t.  (That’s great for the funk workouts, but you may wish you had the short version of “Three Times a Lady,” given the one here runs 6:42.)  Anyway, all of the hits are here – including the ones after Richie went solo (“Nightshift,” of course, but even such really minor hits as “Painted Picture” and “Goin’ to the Bank”).  $13.49 for the download and $15.96 for the two discs on Amazon.  I don’t have this, but the liner notes for UMG’s Gold series have generally been okay; unfortunately, the label has done a pretty slipshod job of keeping the series readily available for the public (as opposed to Sony’s Essential series, which they’ve promoted quite well), so keep an eye out.  LRBP:  21.2 percent.

Here are the others (links go to the Wikipedia entries):

The Commodores Greatest Hits
(1978) – a Christmas release after “Three Times a Lady” became a big hit that summer.  Pretty representative selection of the group’s hits to that point.  It looks like they used all single edits, except for “Three Times a Lady” (ugh).  This appears to be totally out of print, although you can probably find it in used record stores.  LRBP:  40 percent.

All the Great Hits (1982) – somebody at Motown must have wanted to make sure the band’s name was still out there after Richie went solo and had a big hit solo album (his first release, Lionel Richie, had three top 10 hits).  Commendable, but this ain’t the way to go. Four songs repeated from Greatest Hits, four that had become hits since then (“Sail On,” “Still,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” “Oh No”), and two new songs without Richie, neither of which broke the top 40.  Out of print on disc, but available for download at $6.99 – I’d probably spend more money or go for one of the group’s studio albums first.  LRBP:  60 percent.

Anthology (1983) – I have this on vinyl, and honestly, it could be better – it cuts off after 1979’s Midnight Magic, which means their final two studio albums with Richie (1980’s Heroes and 1981’s In the Pocket, which together had the top 40 hits “Old Fashion Girl,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” and “Oh No”) aren’t represented, even though they’d clearly been out for awhile.  However, this version was only released on vinyl (so it’s obviously out of print) – Motown tended to reuse the word “Anthology” for different configurations; there are three different configurations of The Commodores Anthology, so I’ll have to list all three here.  Single edits only.  LRBP:  28.6 percent.

All the Great Love Songs (1992) – gee, wouldn’t this band be great if all that nasty funk wasn’t around?  The answer is right here.  LRBP:  50 percent.  $9.49 for the download on Amazon, the disc is out of print (thank goodness).

Commodores Hits, Vol. I (1992) and Commodores Hits, Vol. II (1992) – I’m grouping these together to say they’re rerecordings.  After Lionel Richie left in 1982, one by one the other guys dropped out (Thomas McClary in 1984, Ronald LaPread in 1986, Milan Williams in 1989).  They continued to record (“Nightshift” was a big hit in 1985), but since 1990 or so it’s been original members William King and Walter Orange, plus James “J.D.” Nicholas as lead singer since 1984, and presumably some other unnamed musicians.  They still tour today (their tour dates are on The Commodores website), but in the early 1990s, they decided to rerecord their hits on their own label, with Nicholas subbing for Richie (who handled most of the vocals in the glory years along with Orange).  I haven’t heard any of these, but you don’t really want the rerecordings if you’re only buying one album by the band.  These are both on Amazon, but avoid them.

Anthology (1995) – 39 songs on two discs, so if you want to hear the group’s changes over the years, you’ve come to the right place.  (On the other hand, nearly half of the second disc is taken up with the various post-Richie configurations, so beware.)  Single versions only, of course.  Completely out of print, and it may not be particularly easy to find.  LRBP:  17.9 percent, although there may be a few more of his songs that weren’t hits lurking within.

Motown Legends: The Commodores (1996) – another budget release before UMG bought out Motown.  It’s not really a hits set (a few songs weren’t even released as singles), and as a result it gives an inaccurate picture of the group in the opposite direction:  the LRBP here is 18.2 percent.  Still in print per Amazon at $4.99, but I have a feeling they’re clearing out inventory.  No download available.

The Ultimate Collection (1997) – not quite; “Sail On” and “Oh No” are left off.  Most of the other songs are hits (the exception:  Richie’s early “Girl, I Think the World of You”), but how do you release a greatest-hits set and leave off two top five hits?  It clocks in at 74:21; this might have been a time to use a few single edits to get everything in.  LRBP:  33.3 percent.  $7.39 for the disc on Amazon, no download available.

20th Century Masters: The Best of The Commodores - The Millennium Collection (1999) – I’ve mentioned in other entries I’m not a fan of this series; it’s Universal Music Group’s budget line, and they’re usually no more than 12 songs, even for bands from the 1950s and 1960s when the longest song you’d ever hear was three minutes, tops.  This one ain’t so bad, since they used the album versions; it clocks in at around 54:15, which isn’t a ridiculous length for a single CD.  However, the LRBP is an almost intolerable 63.6 percent, so most of those long versions are Richie’s ballads.  $4.99 for the disc (look for it in stores or truck stops when you’re driving), a pointless $8.99 for the download.

Anthology (2001) – I think Motown was completely bought out by Universal Music Group sometime around 1998 or so, which may explain why a completely different configuration of The Commodores hits was released six years after the last release called Anthology.  This is the one I have, and I like it very much – 30 songs over two discs, long versions of the songs, and a completely tolerable LRBP of 23.3 percent.  However, the aforementioned Gold (issued in 2005) has nearly the same configuration (“Lay Back” is dropped, with “Young Girls Are My Weakness,” “Wonderland,” “Only You,” and “Goin’ to the Bank” added) and is cheaper than this one (this Anthology goes for $14.49 for the download and $24.98 for the discs), so go Gold if at all possible.

Commodores Greatest Hits, Vol. I (2007) – rerecordings again, and for all I know these are the same ones they released in 1992.  I know the current members have to make a buck, but you’d probably be better off going to a live show.  There’s probably a Volume II out there as well, I suppose.

The Definitive Collection (2009) – 12 years after The Ultimate Collection, Motown/UMG tries again and fails; the only difference between the two albums is “Oh No” is added, which means “Sail On” is still left off.  (But “Girls, I Think the World of You” is still available – woot!)  Seriously, if you only want a one-disc set, this is the one to get, but you might want to download “Sail On” separately and make your own disc.  LRBP:  37.5 percent.  $7.39 for the disc again on Amazon, $7.99 for the download.

As for solo greatest hits sets, as you might imagine Lionel Richie is the only that has any – and virtually all of them include his Commodores songs as well as his solo work.  (I should point out that, after taking a long break that ran nearly ten years, he’s been releasing solo albums fairly regularly since 1996, and his 2012 album Tuskegee – all duets of his old songs with country stars – hit #1 in Billboard.)  I have The Definitive Collection from 2003, which is $9.24 for one disc, it’s perfectly acceptable.  (My version has a second disc with five extra songs, including “Brick House” as a hidden track; five of the 20 songs on the one-disc version are Commodores songs.)  Uberfans might grab “Lionel Richie/Commodores” Gold at $13.19 for the two-disc set and $13.49 for the download, but note 13 of the 32 songs are Commodores songs, so there would be considerable overlap between this and a regular Commodores set.

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