Tuesday, August 21, 2018

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set By... Linda Ronstadt

Essay By Curt Alliaume

Okay, let’s take a look at a living, albeit retired, artist. This is a case where I bought an album, which sent me down the rabbit hole.

On Friday, I found a copy of a Linda Ronstadt two-CD best-of, Just One Look: Classic Linda Ronstadt – used at my local library. (Naperville’s library system is a great place to get library copies of CDs, DVDs, and books they no longer want to keep in stock; it used to be a great place for people to donate their old materials too, but with Half-Price Books having opened a location two blocks away from the main branch, that’s no longer as prevalent. Remarkably, however, this was a donation copy.) Anyway, I paid my dollar before I looked at the track listing – and discovered it was, uh, spotty. 30 songs over two discs (clocking in at a little less than 100 minutes, which leaves a lot of unused space), and missing the following top 20 hits: “When Will I Be Loved,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” and “Somewhere Out There” with James Ingram. Meanwhile, it contains five songs from Get Closer, which is a favorite album of mine, but her only album over a 15-year period not to go platinum (also, they left off my all-time favorite Ronstadt song, “Easy for You to Say”), and four from Winter Light, a not particularly successful 1993 release that was somewhat influenced by new age music popular at the time, such as Enya.

So I started doing a little digging. Ronstadt, as almost everyone knows, is now retired; she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 and cannot sing. (That may mean she can’t sing the way she could, given the havoc Parkinson’s plays with muscle and nerve control. There’s a video on YouTube of one of her performances in 2009, and she still sounds fine to me, but it’s certainly her decision to call it a day if she doesn’t feel she can match her standards.) Here’s a 2013 article from The New York Times that coincided with the release of her autobiography that gives some of the details.

The challenge for Ronstadt now is financial; I’m not saying she’s flat broke (it was estimated she made $12 million in 1978, which would be roughly $45 million today, and I’m pretty sure she had some smart business managers to invest properly), but the economics of the music industry have changed greatly over the past half century, and as she notes in the Times article, artists like her have not benefitted from these changes. They used to make a lot of money with sales of recorded music, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. For one thing, single albums in 1978 had a list price of $7.98 or $8.98 – that’s between 30 and 34 dollars today. Even if you paid half of list price in 1978 (which was possible if you shopped smartly – R.I.P. Korvette’s!), that’s still fifteen to seventeen dollars, and that’s still more than I shell out now for a download. (And don’t forget used CDs are much more reliable than used vinyl was in that time period.) So the artists aren’t getting big-money contracts with lots of up-front money, and the heritage artists aren’t getting as much in royalties – unless they also wrote the songs (in the Times article, Ronstadt references that). Which is great for songwriters – some of whom were singer-songwriters, and figured that out up front. Take a look at releases by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – on their 1965 album Going to a Go-Go, not only does Smokey write eleven of the twelve songs (which included four top 20 hits), he had other members of the group cowrite the songs with him so they could bring in some money too. Pete Moore cowrote seven songs, Marv Tarplin three, and Bobby Rogers and Ronnie White two apiece.

Anyway, Ronstadt’s not a songwriter – she’s cowritten three songs throughout her long career, two of which are on 1976’s Hasten Down the Wind, and the other is the title track on Winter Light. (I’m not sure why she took 17 years to write more music; it’s possible that since Hasten Down the Wind didn’t yield any top 10 singles, her producer Peter Asher may have been looking for more outside material as a result.) So she can’t bring in money that way. Which brings me to the other way veteran musicians bring in money today – tour, tour, tour. No big deal – artists toured in 1978, too – but here’s where the numbers reverse. For example, here’s a picture of a Ronstadt ticket stub from August 1978, at Centennial Hall in Toledo, OH, which seated 10,000 for concerts at the time.
This was a floor seat for $8.50 – which would be about $32.50 today. For a comparable, I’ve researched tickets for Fleetwood Mac’s current tour, and their stop at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH (which seats 20,000, but that’s as close as I could get) has a floor seat price of $199.50. Slight difference, huh? As a result, you’ve got artists who are are as old as Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Stevie Nicks are all between 70 and 75) or older on the boards – Gordon Lightfoot is on tour, and he turns 80 in November. Some artists take up residency in Vegas (Celine Dion, Britney Spears); Billy Joel does regularly scheduled concerts at Madison Square Garden (where he can commute from his Long Island home via helicopter). Again, this is a gravy train Ronstadt is unable to catch.

In short, economics of the industry stink for Linda Ronstadt (and, no doubt, other heritage artists who weren’t big songwriters and can’t tour for one reason or another).  So, going back to greatest hits sets and given all these factors, here’s what I would choose first.

Just One Look: Classic Linda Ronstadt

Yeah, I know – I still think the song selection is lousy. John Boylan, who did the compilation for the album, has been part of Ronstadt’s career for years (he produced Don’t Cry Now for her back in 1973, and has been her manager since 2000), must have had his reasons for these songs (it’s also possible Ronstadt herself may have helped select some of the songs), but leaving off the hits I mentioned previously is a headscratcher. Still, it’s a pretty decent buy for $13.61 on CD and $14.49 for the Amazon download ($14.99 on iTunes) – and it does contain “Winter Light,” so Ronstadt gets songwriting royalties.

The problem is Elektra has let Ronstadt’s catalog go fallow – so there aren’t a lot of other options easily available. Here is what’s been released over the years (links to to the Wikipedia entries).

Different Drum (1974) – single LP released by Capitol right after her first release on her next label, Asylum Records (Elektra Records owns Asylum, and moved most artists to the Elektra label in the late 1980s); apparently someone realized she owed Capitol another album later in that year, which became Heart Like a Wheel. Half of the songs are from Ronstadt’s first band, The Stone Poneys (including the big hit “Different Drum” and minor followup “Up to My Neck in High Muddy Water”), the other half are from her first three solo albums. Inexplicably put back in print on CD in 1995 (despite having one ugly cover), now out of print and unavailable for download. You’re not missing anything.

Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits (1976) – this, on the other hand, has sold seven million copies. This combines Asylum and Capitol material (and “Different Drum” is included), and all the major hits of her career to that point are included. Obviously not all-encompassing, and unavailable for download, but a bargain at $4.99 for the CD (you probably paid $4.99 for your vinyl copy way back when).

A Retrospective (1977) – Capitol must have decided they needed a better best-of from the years Ronstadt was on the label than Different Drum, so this two-LP set came out four months after Greatest Hits. It picks what’s worth picking off her four studio albums with the label, and sprinkles in some Stone Poneys material. Long out of print, and I don’t think it ever came out on CD, much less for download. I have this on vinyl, but I haven’t listened to it in… well, a long, long time.

Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 (1980) – It’s not easy to come up with a new greatest hits set four years and three albums after the last one, but Elektra/Asylum managed. All the singles from those three albums (Simple Dreams, Living in the U.S.A., Mad Love) are here, along with the leftover minor hit “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.” Same cover design as the previous greatest hits album too, except in blue (I wonder if the designer charged full price). $7.56 for the CD on Amazon with no downloads available – it looks like Amazon is clearing out inventory on this one.

Round Midnight With Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra (1986) – omnibus of the three albums of standards Ronstadt did with Nelson Riddle. Elektra executives thought this would ruin her career; instead they all went platinum, with What’s New becoming one of her three best-selling studio albums along with Simple Dreams and Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. Out of print on CD and vinyl, but $18.99 for the download on Amazon ($19.99 on iTunes), and since the three individual albums are considerably more if you get them all (about $27.60 on Amazon, $29.97 on iTunes), getting them all in this format makes a lot more sense. Also available on Spotify.

The Linda Ronstadt Box Set (1998) – how many focus groups did it take to come up with that title? Anyway, really a missed opportunity – I would have made the first two discs her rock and country years (with the hits, but lots of album tracks and live versions – how is it Ronstadt never made a live album?), with the third disc sticking with the standards and the fourth her Spanish-language and Trios work (with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). Unfortunately, Elektra didn’t consult me, so we get something like that, but with less hits, a disc of “duets” (some of which are the Trios songs, others weren’t billed as duets when they were originally released), and a disc of rare material (which means, apparently, stuff that wasn’t on her studio albums). Sometimes songs are rare for a reason, I guess. Anyway, out of print and unavailable for download.

The Best of Linda Ronstadt (2002) – not anymore, apparently. The best-chosen one-disc option (the only major hit missing from here is 1980’s “How Do I Make You,” from her seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time new wave-tinged Mad Love), and it even includes “Winter Light.” But it’s out of print and unavailable for download, at least in the United States (apparently it’s still available in Europe and Australia).

Mi Jardin Azul: Las Canciones Favoritas (2004) – a best-of from her three Spanish-language albums, plus two songs from other discs (including “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” another song she cowrote, from Hasten Down the Wind). Not my cup of tea necessarily, but others will want this. $11.49 for the download on Amazon and $11.99 on iTunes, $63.55 for the disc on Amazon (again, they’re probably getting rid of inventory). Available on Spotify.

The Best of Linda Ronstadt: The Capitol Years (2006) – a misnomer; it’s actually everything from her four solo albums on the label (no Stone Poneys here), not the “best” of those years. Still, 46 songs over two albums is a bargain, although these are more country and less pop than most listeners would expect. $15.41 for the two-disc set on Amazon, $14.49 for the download there and $14.99 on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

Linda Ronstadt Greatest Hits I & II (2007) – This seems fairly obvious; the two best-selling greatest hits albums combined on one disk (they fit with no cuts), and again the same design (this time with a green background). Obviously missing anything released after Mad Love, and unavailable for download (and I think it’s actually an import), otherwise this would get my recommendation. $11.42 for the disc on Amazon, but their price on this seems to change daily (I remember it being under ten dollars last week).

The Collection (2011) – same as The Best of Linda Ronstadttwo discs, well selected, out of print and unavailable for download.

Original Album Series (2012) – this is like the ‘70s Collection below, except it trades out her first Asylum album, Don’t Cry Now, for Mad Love, which has more hits but doesn’t really fit well with the others. Still, it has two songs she wrote (“Lo Siento Mi Vida” and “Try Me Again”), except I’m not sure how these omnibus album sets work with royalties. $17.27 for five discs, no download option, on Amazon. All five albums are available individually on Spotify.

Duets (2014) – obviously a bunch of the duets Ronstadt performed across her career. Probably a good place to sample the songs she recorded with Ann Savoy in 2006, and her duet with Frank Sinatra on “Moonlight in Vermont” is nice to have (it was only on his Duets album), as is “Sisters” with Bette Midler (only on Midler’s Rosemary Clooney songbook CD). It would have been nice to hear “An American Dream,” though – her performance with The Dirt Band wasn’t billed as a duet, but might as well have been. Not a necessity, but an inexpensive option with a few hits. $9.49 for the download on Amazon ($8.75 for the disc), $9.99 on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

The ‘70s Collection, The ‘80s Collection and The ‘90s Collection (all 2014) – Elektra/Asylum’s way to make sure you have all of the albums from each decade. ‘70s has five albums, ‘80s seven, and ‘90s six, but the pricing isn’t per original disc, so ‘80s is actually the biggest bang for the buck (of course, that depends on how you feel about the standards and Spanish-language albums). ‘70s is $39.99, ‘80s is $49.99, and ‘90s is $44.99, all on iTunes – I don’t see them on Amazon. All are available on Spotify.

Greatest Hits (2015) – released the same day as Just One Look, and it’s a one-disc distillation of that album (so, no album cuts other than “Winter Light”). This also means it’s missing the same hits as Just One Look, which makes me question why anyone would need it - if you’re going to release two hits sets simultaneously, wouldn’t it make sense to make them different from one another? Oddly, there’s no physical disk package (maybe that’s why they made the two similar – even the cover designs look like they’re supposed to be a matched set), but $9.49 for the download on Amazon, $9.99 on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

The Complete Trio Collection (2016) – this does for the Trios discs with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton what Round Midnight did for the Nelson Riddle albums – puts them all in one place. This also includes a disc of unreleased versions and alternate takes, bringing it up to three discs. However, this set is more expensive than the two Trios discs are individually, so you’re paying for those alternate takes. $21.89 for the discs and $23.99 for the download on Amazon, $24.99 for the download on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

Other “If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From…” Blog Posts:

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Top 100 Albums of 1980

Here are the top 100 albums of 1979 (per Billboard magazine’s year-end charts) and a few comments on each.  (Parentheses after the album titles indicates what format I have the album in; either CD, vinyl, or cassette. No parentheses means I don’t own it.)

1. Pink Floyd, The Wall – I’ve never been much of a Pink Floyd fan, nor much of a prog rock fan in general – I own the same number of albums by Amy Grant as I do of Pink Floyd, Rush, Yes, and ELP combined. I’ve got a Pink Floyd best-of and Dark Side of the Moon, and that’s all I’ve felt the need to own for quite some time. The Wall was on my “I’ll download it off Freegal someday” list, but since our library discontinued its Freegal subscription, that’s not happening until I wear down their resolve. “Comfortably Numb,” “Hey You,” and “Run Like Hell” got plenty of AOR play, but the big hit was “Another Brick in the Wall,” which was #1 on WABC’s Top 5 at 10 night after night for weeks. (I remember DJ Howard Hoffmann saying in disgust, “You know, there are other songs out there!”)

2. The Eagles, The Long Run (CD, cassette) –I thought this was massively overrated after Hotel California. (Eagles fans, however, disagreed with me pretty vehemently when I presented this opinion in an Amazon review.) Their last studio album for decades, containing three top 10 hits (“Heartache Tonight,” “I Can’t Tell You Why,” title track) that still get played endlessly on the radio (and a few other albums tracks that get airplay as well).

3. Michael Jackson, Off the Wall (CD, vinyl) – Jackson’s breakthrough album. Personally I prefer Thriller (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” sets my teeth on edge), but I can understand why some people think this is the better of the two. Four top 10 hits here – “Don’t Stop,” “Rock With You,” the title track, and “She’s Out of My Life” (which also annoys me).

4. Billy Joel, Glass Houses (vinyl) – Kind of a disappointment to me after The Stranger and 52nd Street; I think Joel wanted to prove he was a rocker rather than a balladeer, and got caught short on material. Other than “Sleeping With the Television On,” side two can be skipped – that’s actually not unusual for Joel, given 21 of his 28 top thirty hits were on the first side of the albums, excluding “Only Human (Second Wind)” (which was released from a two-LP hits collection). This is also his shortest studio album, at just over 35 minutes. So if you’re looking to start your Billy Joel collection, start elsewhere.

5. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedeos (CD) – This was Petty’s breakthrough album, containing two top 20 hits (“Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee”) and several other radio standards (“Even the Losers,” “Here Comes My Girl”). The success of this and other rock albums in the fall of 1979 helped bring the disco boom to a halt.

6. Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band, Against the Wind (CD) – Not his best – I would take Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and The Promise before this – but it’s not bad. Three top 20 hits here (“Fire Lake,” “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” title track); this was a huge album in the spring and summer of 1980.

7. Pat Benatar, In the Heat of the Night – I have no Pat Benatar studio albums (although I do have a three-disc greatest hits set, which is at least one disc too many). Nothing against her; I just found most of her first few albums very similar (with the possible exception of the Eurodisco-ish “We Live for Love,” found here along with “Heartbreaker”). This one was produced by Mike Chapman; subsequent albums were helmed by her husband, Neil Girardo.

8. Blondie, Eat to the Beat (CD, vinyl) – Perfectly good followup to Parallel Lines, even though it had no top 20 hits (“Dreaming” did the best at #27; “The Hardest Part” and “Atomic” are also here).

9. Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door – The last of their official studio albums (Coda, from 1982, was all unreleased tracks put together after John Bonham’s death). Probably not the way they wanted to go out, but that’s the way it goes. “Fool in the Rain” was the one chart hit, “All of My Love” also got significant radio play.

10. Kenny Rogers, Kenny – As of this writing, I own 2,194 compact discs, 575 vinyl albums, and 295 albums on cassette – none of which are from Kenny Rogers.

11. Kool & The Gang, Ladies Night (vinyl) – Released in an era where long versions were better (there are only six songs on the whole album, averaging over five and half minutes apiece), this turned around the band’s commercial slide and gave it two top ten hits (the title track and “Too Hot”). James “J.T.” Taylor joined as lead singer here (the “J.T.” was added to avoid confusion with the other James Taylor).

12. Soundtrack, The Rose – Bette Midler made a successful acting debut here, but she isn’t Janis Joplin (which is fortunate for her). She can belt when she needs to, but she’s an outstanding crooner and interpreter. It just doesn’t seem like a fit.

13. Styx, Cornerstone – Yes, another Styx album in the year-end top 20. These guys kept busy. “Babe,” “Why Me, “ and “Borrowed Time” were the hits.

14. Donna Summer, On the Radio – Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 and 2 – I’ve got The Donna Summer Anthology, which encompasses almost all of her career (this obviously only goes through early 1980). That album includes everything here except “Our Love” and “I Remember Yesterday,” so there doesn’t seem a reason to hunt this one down.

15. Dan Fogelberg, Phoenix – I have a bunch of Fogelberg albums, but I’ve avoided this one. I find “Longer” a little nauseating, which I suspect is because I didn’t have anybody to relate it to upon its release (Fogelberg never said it specifically, but I suspect the song was written for his first wife – he was more specific about saying “Dancing Shoes,” “Lonely in Love,” and most of the album Exiles were about her, their marriage, and subsequent divorce.) Another one in the “I would have downloaded it from Freegal someday” pile (I did download Nether Lands from there).

16. Kenny Loggins, Keep the Fire – Same thing as the Fogelberg entry, except I wasn’t nauseated by “This Is It.” Downloaded Nightwatch from Freegal, didn’t get to this one.

17. Christopher Cross, Christopher Cross (CD, vinyl) – And yet I have this one in two different formats. This was a monster seller for a debut album, with four top 40 hits (“Ride Like the Wind,” “Sailing,” “Never Be the Same,” “Say You’ll Be Mine”). After the disco rampage of 1979, adult contemporary seems to have ruled the roost for much of 1980.

18. Kenny Rogers, The Gambler – No interest whatsoever.

19. The Pretenders, The Pretenders (CD) – First album from the band, back when it was more of a group and less of Chrissie Hynde’s backup band. “Brass in Pocket” can be found here. It just occurred to me that both this album and Jackson Browne’s 1976 album The Pretender were released through the WEA (Warner Brothers, Elektra, Atlantic) conglomerate – wonder how many times those two titles were confused on order sheets?

20. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk (CD, vinyl) – Fairly disappointing followup to Rumours, although give them credit for trying something a little different. It was pretty expensive ($15.98 list price as a double album, which was pricey even then), Lindsey Buckingham’s contributions were more new wave influenced and thus jarring to their fans, and all the RKO-affiliated radio stations played the album in its entirety right before it was released, thus giving fans a chance to save a lot of money. (After Warner Brothers threatened to stop sending radio copies to RKO stations, that practice came to an abrupt halt.) I liked the vinyl packaging, but having nothing but cardboard sleeves didn’t help the condition of the albums. Chart hits included “Sara,” “Think About Me,” and the title track. Note early CD issues (like mine) have a truncated version of Stevie Nicks’ “Sara” to fit on one disc; try to find the full-length version if you can.

21. Supertramp, Breakfast in America (CD, vinyl) – A leftover from the top 100 albums of 1979, “Take the Long Way Home” was a hit at the end of that year and into 1980; “The Logical Song” and “Goodbye Stranger” were hits in 1979.

22. The Commodores, Midnight Magic – Also released in 1979, with “Sail On” and “Still” becoming huge hits in the early and late fall of that year, respectively.

23. Herb Alpert, Rise – Alpert’s biggest album in eleven years, since the heyday of the Tijuana Brass. I’m not sure how comfy he was with the idea that the title track because a #1 hit partially because it was used as the score for a rape sequence on a television soap opera, but he didn’t decline permission to use it, I guess.

24. Molly Hatchet, Flirtin’ With Disaster – These guys and .38 Special were pretty much the last of the Southern rock groups. I should give them a chance – they’re probably about as good as Lynyrd Skynyrd – but it hasn’t happened yet.

25. Waylon Jennings, Greatest Hits – This was released in the spring of 1979, but remained a catalog item for years. RCA rereleased it in 1989, omitting two songs (from an 11-song album?). At this point I’d get The Essential Waylon Jennings instead.

26. The Whispers, The Whispers – 1980 was a big year for veteran R&B vocal groups. The Whispers had been around since the late 1960s, but a label switch to Solar Records (with distribution by RCA) certainly must have given them a boost. “And the Beat Goes on” and “Lady” were the hit singles, both making it to the top 3 on the R&B charts.

27. Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love –This is known as Linda’s punk rock album (it’s barely new wave), with three songs each written by Elvis Costello and Cretones founder Mark Goldenberg. None of those were singles, however; those were “How Do I Make You” (written by Billy Steinberg, who wrote “True Colors,” “So Emotional,” and “Like a Virgin”) and remakes of “Hurt So Bad” (Little Anthony and The Imperials) and “I Can’t Let Go” (The Hollies), which makes me think somebody chickened out (Elektra/Asylum? Peter Asher, her producer? Linda herself?). Not a catalog seller like her others, although it did go platinum.

28. The J. Geils Band, Love Stinks – Odd that this album should finish in the year-end top 30 despite yielding no top 30 singles. Still, this gave the band a great commercial push, which Freeze Frame rode to multiplatinum status. Then they broke up.

29. The B-52’s, The B-52’s – Debut album from the band, and I’m sure it’s a good one (although, like Love Stinks, there were no top 30 singles). I haven’t found it at a decent price; when I do I’ll add it to my collection (I have Cosmic Thing and a greatest hits set).

30. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gold and Platinum – Released in late 1979 as a two-LP set, now completely out of print because the worst possible running time for vinyl albums is just over 80 minutes (which means a two-CD set, rather than one). If you love Lynyrd Skynyrd and don’t have any of their hits sets, try Gold. And make sure you check the credits; the reconstituted version of the band has released a ton of material, many of which are live versions of the original hits.

31. Foreigner, Head Games – This one has the title track and “Dirty White Boy” on it.

32. The Cars, Candy-O – Released in the summer of 1979, stuck on the charts a long time.

33. The Bee Gees, The Bee Gees’ Greatest – Another two-LP greatest hits set. The Bee Gees have had so many hits sets it’s difficult to keep track; this one is still in print by virtue of adding a few songs to make it a two-CD set of respectable length.

34. Journey, Departure – Man, 1979-1980 had a lot of AOR acts I don’t care for. This one has “Any Way You Want It” as the big hit.

35. The Rolling Stones, Emotional Rescue (vinyl) – Loved this when it came out in 1980, not so much now. (They spent a year working on this one, and the subsequent LP of a few new songs and a bunch that didn’t make previous albums, Tattoo You, was considerably better.)

36. Dionne Warwick, Dionne – This also made 1979’s top 100 selling albums. “Déjà Vu” did well as a single in late 1979 and into 1980, which kept this on the LP charts.

37. Boz Scaggs, Middle Man (CD, vinyl) – One of my favorite albums from the year, this had two top 20 singles in “Breakdown Dead Ahead” and “Jojo.” “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” a third top 20 hit from that year, is not here; it’s on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack (and that version is different than the single; you’ll need to get one of his greatest hits sets to get the single mix).

38. The Brothers Johnson, Light Up the Night – For a band that had some major hits (“I’ll Be Good to You,” “Strawberry Letter #23,” and “Stomp,” which was on this album), these guys have pretty much faded into obscurity. Partially because Quincy Jones stopped producing them after this album, partially because A&M wasn’t much with rhythm and blues acts. Anyway, “Stomp” is certainly a good one.

39. ZZ Top, Deguello – “I Thank You” (written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter and originally a hit for Sam & Dave) and “Cheap Sunglasses” were the big hits here. This was their first album in three years and followed a label switch from London to Warner Brothers, which was so busy promoting The Eagles, Led Zep, and Fleetwood Mac that they may have dropped the ball on this one initially – it was released in November 1979, but “I Thank You” didn’t chart until two months later.

40. Blondie, Parallel Lines (vinyl) – Another leftover, this one from late 1978. Blondie picked up a lot of sales from “Call Me” on the American Gigolo soundtrack.

41. AC/DC, Highway to Hell – The band’s first top 20 album in the states, and it’s still a great catalog seller today. Bon Scott, their lead singer, died in February 1980, which probably stimulated sales.

42. Jermaine Jackson, Let’s Get Serious – Jermaine’s the second best-selling member of The Jackson 5 beside Michael, which is kind of like being the second-best writer of the Shakespeare brothers. This one became a big seller on the basis of the title track, which was co-written and produced by Stevie Wonder.

43. Angela Bofill, Angel of the Night – On GRP Records, Bofill was pigeonholed as a jazz singer, but that didn’t change much when she switched to Arista. This is her biggest seller. A series of strokes starting in 2006 have left her unable to sing for the most part.

44. Genesis, Duke (CD, cassette) – I haven’t listened to this in years, but with “Misunderstanding” and “Turn It on Again” on it, how bad can it be?

45. Jefferson Starship, Freedom at Point Zero (CD) – Marty Balin quit and Grace Slick was fired after Earth came out in 1978; Mickey Thomas took Balin’s place, with no replacement for Slick (she would return on a few songs for the next album and full time after that). This is probably the best of the post-Balin albums, because it doesn’t rely on outside songwriters. “Jane” was the big hit here.

46. Journey, Evolution – Oh, goody. Journey sold a lot in 1980 (but not as much as they would in subsequent years). “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” was on this one, which was released in 1979.

47. Eric Clapton, Just One Night – I have my doubts about the title; the album was recorded in Budokan, Japan (which Cheap Trick made a popular live album spot), but he played two dates there in December 1979, and you can’t tell me they didn’t take the best takes from that pair of concerts. “Tulsa Time” and “Cocaine” charted as a two-sided single. I’ll get this sometime when I see it cheap – as I’ve noted before, I’ve made some bad choices by purchasing more recent Clapton albums rather than his better stuff from the 1960s and 1970s.

48. The Cars, The Cars (CD, vinyl) – Another 1978 album that was still lurking on the charts well into 1980.

49. The Clash, London Calling (CD) – The band’s breakthrough LP in the States – their first two albums (one of which was released two years after it was issued in the UK) didn’t break the top 100. Of course, this one didn’t break the top 25 itself, but it’s become a decent catalog seller, hitting platinum in the States, partially due to a 2004 reissue that added one disc worth of outtakes and alternate versions and a DVD (I’ve never watched the DVD, and I sense the outtakes were never meant to be released – the sound quality on some is unbelievably bad). “Train in Vain,” which was a hidden track on the original release, became the band’s first top 40 single, and it’s a (slightly) more pop direction that might have helped make the band a major worldwide act if Mick Jones (who wrote and sang it) and Joe Strummer (who was the group’s main singer and songwriter) had been able to get along.

50. Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle – Numan’s still a major star in the UK; Savage (Songs From a Broken World) hit #2 on the UK charts in 2017. Not so much in the US; this album peaked at #16 on the strength of the hit single “Cars,” but never found much success beyond that (actually, Savage is his second-highest charting album here). I loved “Cars,” but never heard much of the rest of his stuff (he never had another American chart single), and placed him (unfairly) in the same European One-Hit Wonder File as M (“Pop Muzik”); I may have to try to listen to some of his stuff on Spotify.

51. Van Halen, Women and Children First – This has only sold three million copies, but it’s still a bit of disappointment compared to their first two albums and 1984. Still, there are people who like this one (Robert Christgau rated it higher than any of their other albums), but for me, this is another of those “I’ll get it if I see it cheap” albums. “And the Cradle Will Rock” was the single.

52. Bob James and Earl Klugh, One on One – First of three duo albums between pianist James and guitarist Klugh, which has gone gold and won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

53. Rush, Permanent Waves – The first top 10 album for the band in the UK and US (and their third in their native Canada), with the medium hit single “The Spirit of Radio.” I have to admit I’ve never really gotten into Rush, mainly because the few people I knew who were big fans of the band in this era would just babble about them all the time.

54. Smokey Robinson, Where’s There Smoke (vinyl) – This was a 1979 leftover that belatedly became a hit after Motown reluctantly released “Crusin’” as a single. The original push was for a disco remake of Robinson’s “Get Ready,” which he’d written for The Temptations in 1966 and became a bigger hit for Rare Earth a few years later, but that version flopped. “Crusin’” was Robinson’s biggest solo hit to that point, and reestablished him as a force on the recording scene for a few years.

55. Barbra Streisand, Wet (vinyl) – A (very vague) concept album from Streisand; all the songs had water as a theme (although “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” was a bit of a stretch). I have no idea why I have this, but I do.

56. Shalamar, Big Fun – R&B trio briefly in vogue in the early 1980s; the lineup shuffled around a few times. Solo, Howard Hewitt had a decent career, but Jody Watley did much better. The hit on this one was “The Second Time Around,” which fit almost all radio formats.

57. Rupert Holmes, Partners in Crime (CD, vinyl) – I’m a huge Holmes fan, starting with “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and going through all of his albums. I now own all of them on a CD box set, Cast of Characters, which was given a very limited release of 3,000 copies in 2005. That set now goes for between $375 and $500 used on Amazon and eBay; fortunately my wife told me when I was reluctant to spend $80 on it new, “You will be kicking yourself for the rest of your life if you don’t get it now.” Anyway, this is easily his most radio-friendly album, with three top 30 hits (“Escape,” “Him,” “Answering Machine”).  He might have had more hits if he’d allowed his sense of humor through more often; unfortunately his following two albums sounded like he was deliberately trying to avoid going down that road.

58. Lipps Inc., Mouth to Mouth – A near one-hit wonder (their other single to chart, “Rock It,” stalled at #64) thanks to “Funky Town,” which was unfortunately inescapable on the radio in the spring and summer of 1980. It was a real band, but the success of “Funky Town” probably pigeonholed them permanently; they only hit on the Dance charts after 1980 (albeit eleven times in all), and broke up in 1986.

59. Barry Manilow, One Voice – Manilow’s music was getting less airplay on Top 40 stations and migrating slowly to Adult Contemporary; it might have helped if he’d had another uptempo hit like “Copacabana” on this album.

60. Pete Townshend, Empty Glass (vinyl) – His first real solo album, and the beginning of the end for The Who, as he started using his best songs for himself. This is a very good album about a very confused guy who probably drank too much confronting aging, a marriage that was slowly disintegrating, and a band that didn’t interest him as much as it had. “Let My Love Open the Door,” which was as big a hit in the States as anything The Who ever did, was the biggest single.

61. Soundtrack, Urban Cowboy (CD) – This didn’t quite do for country music what Saturday Night Fever did for disco, but it came close. Six top 40 singles were released from the album (plus two that were already big hits well before this was released, The Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” and The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) kept this selling through most of the year.

62. Stephanie Mills, Sweet Sensation – Not really sure how this ranked so high – the album released in April, but its big hit, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” didn’t come out until August. One of the last major releases by 20th Century-Fox records; the corporation dumped the label on Polygram the following year.

63. Soundtrack, The Empire Strikes Back – This doesn’t contain the Meco version of the main theme.

64. Ambrosia, One Eighty (vinyl) – So named because they recorded it in January 1980, although fans thought the name came from a 180-degree change in style – this is more blue-eyed soul than the semi-prog rock the band had been playing. It spawned two major hits, “Biggest Part of Me” and “You’re the Only Woman,” but a subsequent album (and a turn toward harder rock) didn’t sell, and the group broke up temporarily. Three of the original four members now tour again with the band on the oldies circuit.

65. Prince, Prince – This is actually his second solo album, and has his first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” It took me years to realize the falsetto vocals on that hit and appreciate his style (I now own a dozen Prince albums), but I managed.

66. Cheap Trick, Dream Police (CD) – Kind of a disappointment after the success the band had with Live at Budokan. The title track and “Voices” were medium-sized hits.

67. Toto, Hydra – Another disappointing album; Columbia Records must have had a lousy fourth quarter of 1979 (fortunately for them, The Wall made up for it). “99” was a medium-sized hit, and is not an ode to Barbara Feldon’s Get Smart character.

68. Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, Masterjam – Fans of the band had to be careful at this point, as not all of their albums actually featured Chaka Khan, who was enjoying a concurrent solo career. “Do You Love What You Feel” was the radio hit here.

69. Soundtrack, American Gigolo (vinyl) – This ranked almost exclusively on the basis of Blondie’s “Call Me,” which was never on any of their studio albums. I bought this used, and was disappointed to discover the version of “The Seduction,” which became a minor top 40 hit by The James Last Band with David Sanborn, wasn’t on it; it’s a Giorgio Moroder synth version instead.

70. Isaac Hayes, Don’t Let Go – Temporary comeback for Hayes, who had been all over the place in the first half of the 1970s, but declared bankruptcy in 1976 after several investments went sour. The title track (which he didn’t write; it’s a remake of a 1958 hit by Roy Hamilton, and written by Jesse Stone) was a major hit, and “Déjà Vu,” which he did write, was a hit for Dionne Warwick at the same time.

71. Kenny Rogers, Gideon – I have to give him credit for working hard, I suppose.

72. The Knack, Get the Knack (vinyl) – Left over from 1979, of course. The followup album, …But the Little Girls Understand, was a huge flop, as critics (and, belatedly, fans) were realizing the focus of the band’s lyrics seemed to be mostly having (borderline S&M) sex with teenagers. (Google the lyrics of “Baby Talks Dirty” sometime.) A third album, Round Trip, didn’t impress anyone, and the band broke up, although they did have a few reunion LPs and tours after that.

73. Ray, Goodman & Brown, Ray, Goodman & Brown – Another R&B vocal group, this trio was originally The Moments (albeit with a bunch of changes in personnel); the group was forced to change their name in 1979 after a label switch. “Special Lady” was a gigantic hit for the group; although they never had a hit that big after that, they’ve still toured under both this name and The Moments. (Do note both Ray and Goodman are deceased and Brown has retired, if you’re thinking of getting tickets.)

74. The Manhattans, After Midnight – Another veteran R&B vocal group; The Manhattans hit here with “Shining Star.” I’m not sure if they tour anymore; the website looks pretty outdated.

75. Pat Travers Band, Crash and Burn – Here’s a band that never had a top 40 single, and their only chart hit at all came from their previous album – “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights).” And yet, here they are. Blues/boogie band from Canada, and yes, he still tours.

76. Frank Sinatra, Trilogy: Past, Present and Future (CD) – And, yes, the absence of a serial comma in the title bugs the crap out of me. Three-album set from The Chairman of the Board (two CDs), organized as the title suggests: one LP of standards, one of songs from the 1960s and 1970s, and a “Future” suite written by Gordon Jenkins (which has gotten a bunch of criticism, but I give him a lot of credit for trying something completely different and with a point of view). Definitely worth the money.

77. Spyro Gyra, Catching the Sun (vinyl) – Another album of music I play right before going to sleep.

78. Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps (CD) – Huge album for Young, and (as usual for him) nothing like his previous album, Comes a Time – this one rocks. “Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue Into the Black)” was the big radio hit from this one. This was recorded live with the crowd noise mixed out. One of Young’s essential albums.

79. The Police, Regatta de Blanc (CD, vinyl) – Arguably just as good as their first album, Outlandos d’Amour, just without a top 40 hit (“Message in a Bottle” is certainly an AOR standard, however). A pretty good second album – most bands are struggling for material when they do a quick followup (for The Police, that would be the third album, Zenyatta Mondatta).

80. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (CD, vinyl) – The reason Billboard created a catalog album chart – this stayed on the album charts for nearly a decade after its release, and was revived with the success of The Wall.

81. Stevie Wonder, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants – Major flop for Wonder after Songs in the Key of Life. “Send One Your Love” was the hit single. The theory is Wonder, who tends to work slowly, put out Hotter Than July less than a year later was to minimize the failure of this one.

82. Crystal Gayle, Miss the Mississippi – Her first album on Columbia Records after starting her career on United Artists; she would also be on Elektra, Warner Brothers, and Capitol (which makes finding an all-encompassing greatest hits set a challenge). “Half the Way” was the big hit here.

83. The Alan Parsons Project, Eve (CD, vinyl) – Not-challenging prog rock, I guess. The theme of this album is women, and it’s a little misogynistic at times (although there are female lead vocals on several songs – Parsons himself is not a singer). “Damned If I Do” was the hit.

84. Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim – “Romeo’s Tune” made people think he was going to be the next big singer-songwriter; he wound up being a one-hit wonder. Still touring, though.

85. Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Live Rust (CD) – Here’s the live album that came out shortly after Rust Never Sleeps, with the version of “Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue Into the Black)” released as a single. Young has released seven “regular” live albums (counting Arc, which is nothing but guitar feedback) and eight “archive” live albums (released decades after they were originally recorded) by my count, and that’s not counting albums like Rust Never Sleeps, Freedom, and Time Fades Away, which were albums of all-new songs recorded live with the crowd noise muted – so it’s hard to know where to start. But this is as good a place as any.

86. Heart, Bebe le Strange (CD) – Somewhat of a disappointment for Heart; Dog and Butterfly had been considerably more successful. “Even It Up” was a medium chart hit.

87. The Gap Band, The Gap Band II – Funk band from Oklahoma (didn’t expect that, did you?) had a brief period of popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

88. Joe Jackson, I’m the Man (vinyl) – No hits here at all (“It’s Different for Girls” got a lot of FM airplay), but a worthy followup to Look Sharp!  As with The Police, the third album (Beat Crazy) was the stinker.

89. The Isley Brothers, Go All the Way – The Isleys maintained such a busy recording and touring schedule in the 1970s and early 1980s it’s hard to keep track of all the releases from that era. I don’t have this one; it’s probably okay but not great (really, if you like the Isleys, start with a hits set). “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love” was the hit here.

90. Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway – This has such a strange history. Flack and Hathaway had recorded together in the early 1970s (“Where Is the Love” was a big hit for them in 1972), but had stopped doing so for several years because of Hathaway’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. They did release another hit duet, “The Closer I Get to You,” in 1978, and began working on this album the following year – but Hathaway committed suicide after just two tracks were recorded. Flack finished the rest of the album by herself (but kept Hathaway’s billing); both of the duets were minor hits as singles.

91. The Captain & Tennille, Make Your Move – First album for the duo on Casablanca after several albums on A&M Records, this contains their last big hit, “Do That to Me One More Time,” as well as two minor hits (including possibly the worst version of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” ever). The duo joined Casablanca in its death throes; after “Do That to Me One More Time” hit label president Neil Bogart left the label (he would die of cancer two years later), the accountants stopped the flow of cash and coke that had made the label famous, and The Captain & Tennille’s recording career with Casablanca ground to a halt one album later.

92. Smokey Robinson, Warm Thoughts (vinyl) – Not as big a seller as Where There’s Smoke, but in my mind a better album – disco wasn’t a part of it, and Robinson’s songwriting was unusually strong. “Let Me Be the Clock” was a medium pop hit.

93. The Doobie Brothers, Minute by Minute (CD, vinyl) – A leftover from 1979, boosted by a pile of Grammy awards.

94. Donna Summer, Bad Girls (CD) – And another 1979 leftover.

95. Diana Ross, Diana – Motown had an odd plan for this album: it was released in May 1980 without a lead single; the label waited for R&B stations pick their favorite songs. (Originally there was worry about the album’s quality; originally produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, Ross had the instrumental tracks remixed and rerecorded her vocals without their participation.) “Upside Down” was finally released after two months; by September it was #1, and the album became her highest-charting solo album aside from the Lady Sings the Blues soundtrack. (It’s hard to tell about sales on Motown albums generally; Motown didn’t join up with RIAA until 1979.)

96. Change, The Glow of Love – Faceless studio band (Luther Vandross was one of the lead singers early on) that hit #4 on the R&B charts with “A Lover’s Holiday.”

97. The O’Jays, Identify Yourself (CD) – The band had been hitting steadily for years, so this really wasn’t a comeback album, but they did make the top 30 with the single “Forever Mine.”

98. Little River Band, First Under the Wire – This was released in the summer of 1979. “Lonesome Loser” and “Cool Change” were both top 10 hits.

99. Anne Murray, I’ll Always Love You – Let me get back to you on that one.

100. Cameo, Cameosis – I know very little about this band other than their 1986 hit “Word Up.” This was their second album to go gold and first to hit #1 on the R&B album charts. Apparently they’re now in residence in Las Vegas (don’t laugh, so is Britney Spears).

Thursday, August 16, 2018

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set By... Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin sounded nothing like any female R&B singer in the 1960s.  Up until that point, most African American female singers tended to veer toward the middle of the road (Dionne Warwick, Nancy Wilson, even Diana Ross) – to find a female singer with any background in the blues, you’d be talking about Etta James, or going back further, anyone from LaVern Baker to Big Mama Thornton.  Franklin’s background was in gospel singing (she didn’t go secular until her late teens), and following her mentor Sam Cooke, she moved into pop.  After six years at Columbia at a time when the label didn’t know what to do with non-MOR acts, she moved to Atlantic Records and ran off a string of hits – “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Rock Steady,” and more.  Her popularity faltered in the 1970s, but she got it back for a period in the 1980s with hits like “Freeway of Love” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” and she was always a top concert draw.

Franklin didn’t have a particularly easy personal life, despite growing up in relative luxury as the daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin.  She gave birth to two children before she turned 15, and two marriages ended in divorce.  Her weight fluctuated over the years, and she had problems with smoking and alcohol.  She lost her father to a gunshot wound (he would be in a coma for five years before dying), and was predeceased by two sisters and a brother.  In later years she had a variety of health problems that may or may not have been related to cancer.  So it’s best to remember her for her music – and she could do it all.  And she wasn’t just a singer, she wrote some of her own material and played piano as well.

Franklin was on three labels over the years – Columbia, Atlantic, and Arista from 1980 onward.  There aren’t any really good all-encompassing choices from all three labels (although there is some cooperation between them), but for one solid package, here’s what I would pick:

30 Greatest Hits

I’m puzzled as to why this isn’t in print anymore, but at least it’s around for download. Franklin had 31 Top 40 hits with Atlantic, and almost all of them are here (a couple of lesser hits are left off in favor of B-sides and other tracks). Released the same year as her biggest album on Arista, Who’s Zoomin’ Who, it sold pretty well on vinyl and became a catalog item when released on CD two years later (although, unfortunately, the track listing was created with vinyl in mind; it clocks in at roughly 99:14 – a one-disk version would had to have been 25 Greatest Hits). I don’t see a better two-disc Atlantic best-of from Franklin anywhere that’s still available, so this will have to do – a little searching in used CD stores should yield a copy. $14.49 for the download on Amazon, $14.99 on iTunes.

Some of the other choices (Franklin had many, many compilations released over the years) are listed below; the links go to the Wikipedia entries. Please try to stick with the major labels (Rhino, Atlantic, Warner Brothers, Columbia, Arista, Sony), as anything else may be a grey-market release.

Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits (1967) and Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits Volume II (1968) – both rushed out by Columbia after Franklin started having massive success on Atlantic Records. These are both out of print, but don’t worry – none of her big hits were here. (The only time she hit the top 40 while with Columbia was with a remake of the standard “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” which peaked at #37.) Columbia reissued and reshuffled her songs over and over again starting in the late 1960s and into the 1980s (Today I Sing the Blues, In the Beginning: The World of Aretha Franklin 1960-1967, The Legendary Queen of Soul, etc.); just be aware that anything on Columbia or Sony will be bereft of music you’ve heard on the radio.

Aretha’s Gold (1969) – released after her first four Atlantic albums generated a pile of hits. (Labels tended to release greatest hits sets very quickly in those days, because they sold better than studio albums and no one was really sure when the gravy train would end.) It was a pretty generous running time for that era at 41:17, and included “The House That Jack Built,” which hadn’t been on any of her studio albums. Out of print (although Amazon has a few copies of the CD and vinyl editions at ridiculous prices – I think the vinyl edition is one of those 180-gram reissues), but available for download at $9.49 on Amazon and $9.99 on iTunes; keep in mind this is only a small slice of what she did over her career at the label.

Aretha’s Greatest Hits (1971) – this seems unnecessary, coming two years after Aretha’s Gold and repeating eight of its 14 songs. Atlantic seems to have reconsidered it over the years as well; it’s long out of print on CD and unavailable for download, but it’s still around on vinyl (as an import). It’s certainly worth having, but again, it’s not a must-have. Ten Years of Gold (1976) fits the same pattern – another hits set repeating songs from previous best-ofs – and it appears to be unavailable in any format other than used vinyl.

Aretha Sings the Blues (1980) – another Columbia shuffle; this one may be of more interest to collectors because it’s mostly blues based (although not all). Out of print on vinyl, cassette, and CD, and unavailable for download.

The Best of Aretha Franklin (1984) –12-track Atlantic set probably meant as a vinyl-only stopgap; CDs weren’t a factor in deciding what to rerelease in 1984. Out of print on disc and vinyl, $9.99 for the download on both Amazon and iTunes; given there are so many better choices available, it’s embarrassing this is even available. And the cover is hideous; I barely recognize Franklin at all.

Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings (1992) – I’d be reluctant to recommend this over 30 Greatest Hits because it’s a lot more expensive, but it sure covers everything she did on Atlantic. Four discs, 86 songs, nothing important missing to my knowledge (understanding that excludes anything she did after leaving Atlantic). This isn’t to be confused with a second Atlantic box set, The Queen of Soul, released in 2014, with a different track listing (also 86 songs in all) – I think either of them would be useful for a major Franklin fan. The 1992 set is out of print and unavailable for download (but should be easy to find at a good used record store), the 2014 set is $37.99 for the download on Amazon and $39.99 on iTunes, $43.58 for the actual physical box set on Amazon.

Chain of Fools (1993) – cheapie eight-track compilation, for impulse shoppers only. Rhino/Atlantic generally released these to bring in CD buyers who didn’t want to buy multidisc box sets (but seriously, only eight songs?). Out of print, $8.99 for the download on Amazon. Spend a few more bucks and get something good.

Greatest Hits 1980-1994 (1994) – Franklin moved to Arista in 1980 after several hitless years on Atlantic; she fit Clive Davis’ preferred artist profile (veteran singer who didn’t write much music); this reflects her Arista time period only. This isn’t an especially well-chosen set, as several hits were left off (“Through the Storm,” a top 20 hit with Elton John, “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be,” a duet with labelmate Whitney Houston, her “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” remake, and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” with Eurythmics). I get that they had space limitations, but some of the songs selected instead (the non-hit duet “Doctor’s Orders” with Luther Vandross, the dull “Ever Changing Times” with Michael McDonald) just don’t make sense. Out of print and unavailable for download, but used CD stores should have this, given it went platinum.

The Very Best of Aretha Franklin, Vol. 1 (1994) and The Very Best of Aretha Franklin, Vol. 2 (1994) – Atlantic did a really nice job with these, splitting Franklin’s output with the label up right at the turn of the decade. If anything, the song selection here is better than 30 Greatest Hits, as “Something He Can Feel” and “Master of Eyes (The Deepness of Your Eyes)” are both here. Both volumes are out of print, so if you’re looking for two discs in used record stores, I might get these two instead of 30 Greatest. However, the downloads for these two are $11.49 apiece on Amazon ($11.99 on iTunes), whereas 30 Greatest Hits by itself is only three dollars more – so you’d be spending a lot more money for the single albums if you download. (It would actually be cheaper to download 30 Greatest Hits by itself and the five songs that are on these two sets but not 30 Greatest Hits individually – they’re all on Volume 2 – than to download the two Very Bests by themselves.)

Love Songs (1997) – yes, I have this. The good news is it’s not all ballads, and I only spent $2.99 for it. It’s all from the Atlantic years. $5.99 for the disc on Amazon (I suspect they’re clearing out inventory); $11.49 for the download on Amazon and $11.99 on iTunes.

Aretha’s Best (2001) – one of the few best-ofs that has both Atlantic and Arista material, although since it’s a Rhino product, it leans heavily on the former (the Arista period is represented by “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” and the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”). 20 songs, seven dollars for the physical disc on Amazon (for now). I’m much more of a fan of the Atlantic years, but this is a pretty good all-encompassing package.
Respect: The Very Best of Aretha Franklin (2002) – another best-of that combines Arista and Atlantic material. My B.S. detector normally goes up when I see something like this only available as an import and not for download, but the label is listed on Amazon as “Warner Spec. Mkt. Uk,” so I guess it’s all right. I’d still stick with the American releases unless you’re adventurous. $17.76 for the two-disc set.

Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul (2007) – somebody at Atlantic had fun with that title. Outtakes and a couple of B-sides, probably of interest only to diehard collectors. Out of print on disc, $16.99 for the download on Amazon, $17.99 on iTunes.

Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with The Queen (2007) – Arista’s retort to Rare and Unreleased, I guess. All duets (or famous backing musicians; Keith Richards produced and played on her “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” remake, for example), mostly previously released on her own albums (although “Chain of Fools” with Mariah Carey is from VH1 Divas Live, and “What Now My Love” was a duet with Frank Sinatra from late in his career). Out of print, but available for $9.99 for the download on both Amazon and iTunes, which isn’t a bad price.

Queen of Soul: The Best of Aretha Franklin (2007) – one disc and 24 songs from the Atlantic years; this was probably released in 2007 as a one-disc option for the casual fans. It’s now out of print and goes for $14.49 for the download on Amazon and $14.99 on iTunes. I haven’t compared the track selection between this and 30 Greatest Hits, but since the latter is the exact same price, that’s got to be the better buy (30 – 24 = 6 extra songs, right?).  And I’d love to know why they insisted on calling this one Queen of Soul when there was already a box set by that name; there’s already enough confusion among greatest hits titles.

Playlist: The Very Best of Aretha Franklin (2008) – low-budget Sony release, notable only because all three labels are represented here (a surprise to me, as I’ve never seen any other Playlist albums include music from non-Sony sources).  The only Atlantic songs are “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” but those are pretty good choices, and you have to like “Skylark.”  Almost everything else is from the Arista days, which means it’s weighted heavily toward her 1980s sound. Out of print and unavailable for download, however; if you have Spotify, though, have at it.

The Essential Aretha Franklin: The Columbia Years (2010) – yet another Columbia rerelease (and this itself was a reissue of a 2005 two-disc set called, appropriately, The Queen in Waiting). Nothing essential, but I’m sure it’s all useful. And two extra checkmarks: the title, which makes it clear it’s her output from Columbia (no Arista or Atlantic material here), and Sony sticking with just the 1960s output – they could have added her 1980s and 1990s material from Arista at that point to this package, but that would have been a very odd combination. Out of print on disc, $14.49 for the download on Amazon and $14.99 on iTunes.

Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998 (2012) – Confusing looking package; the title clearly states the music is from the 1980s and 1990s, but the cover photo looks like it was taken years before. Anyway, this has a better selection than Greatest Hits 1980-1994 (all of the songs I mentioned that were left off that set are here), and it’s in chronological order. Pick this up to complete your Franklin collection. $6.98 for the CD, $10.99 for the download on both Amazon and iTunes.  Try to find this instead of Greatest Hits 1980-1994 if willing to spend more than the price of a used CD.

There are also some omnibus packages available of studio albums from the Atlantic and Columbia years – The Atlantic Albums Collection, at $87.03 for 19 discs, looks like it’s a steal, even though it doesn’t include her last few albums for the label (which aren’t supposed to be very good). And I haven’t touched her gospel albums – Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings includes everything from the original studio release plus some extra cuts, and at $14.49 for the download, it’s probably worthwhile (the original version is $9.49 for the download); she also did some early gospel sides before signing with Columbia that show up on nonamo labels from time to time. Franklin didn’t release a gospel best-of in her career, and unless Atlantic and Arista combine forces on one (she did One Light, One Faith, One Baptism for Arista in 1987), that seems unlikely to change.

Other “If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From…” Blog Posts: