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:

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