Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Best-ofs: Oldies but Not Always Goodies

This has been a boom year for old music in new packages. Augmenting the familiar reissues and greatest hits collections and the live albums by dead artists is the relatively new "best-of" concept, invented specially for album artists who haven't been top 40 hitmakers.

Too often, the new packages are redundant, reshuffling songs so that the consumer will already own half of what he buys, or stretching one terrific album into two flatulent ones. Sometimes they are worse that that, resurrecting music that was better forgotten, or transforming honest mono into muddled artificial stereo. But sometimes they are worth owning.

What follows is a catalog of repackages that have become available this year. A separate article on the somewhat less complex field of blues reissues will come later.

In general, reissues of pre-Beatle rock and roll artists are more valuable than those of rock artists. The rock and rollers were all hitmakers--their best stuff was invariably their most popular, and the dross is easy enough to detect and eliminate. Also, the duplication problem is minimized because most fans don't own many rock and roll albums. But there are other problems, the foremost being the atrocious reprocessed stereo that many companies insist upon.

Reprocessed stereo doesn't quite ruin Chuck Berry's Golden Decade and Bo Diddley's Got My Own Bag of Tricks (the first time a best-of-Bo has been available) but it comes close enough to make a man think about boycotting Chess Records. It also detracts from almost all the Elvis Presley albums now available. United Artists' Legendary Masters Series, on the other hand, often improves on the originals, most noticeably on the remastered Ricky Nelson, a surprisingly consistent and rocking two-record set.

The other two legendary masters however, would be better served by single-LP retrospectives--either that, or the best of Jan & Dean and Eddie Cochran should be put on one record, and the collectors' items on the other. The same goes for Monument's All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison and the two-record sets of Bill Haley and Buddy Holly recently released by Decca. (Single LPs for both Decca artists are still available, and worth looking for.) I would say the same about the 4 Seasons' Edizione d'Oro, on Phillips, except I know that very few who love the early Vee-Jay stuff (much better represented here than on the Vee-Jay album itself) as much as I do, also dislike the Seasons' more middle-of-the-road post-Beatle music.

In soul music, The Chi-Lites' Greatest Hits, on Brunswick, is marred only by their aptly titled eight-minute bomb, "The Longest Day of My Life." Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits, Volume II is an easy-to-take introduction to soul's most experimental superstar, but Motown's similar release on the now-departed 4 Tops is to be avoided. Good but not great are best-ofs by Chess's derivative pop blues singer, Little Milton, and a selection of '60s songs by the '70s stars, the O'Jays.

In rock proper, the most confusing reissue action has surrounded Cream, defunct for four years now, but still the focus of Atco's Live Cream, Volume II, a more or less unmitigated exploitation, and of four reissue albums by Polydor which acquired the rights to all of the Cream members' recordings mid-year. To my mind, the two-LP sets by Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker are worthless, culled from albums that weren't so hot in the first place. The Heavy Cream set is considerably better--in fact, perhaps the best of the Cream best-ofs. Polydor's Eric Clapton set is stronger musically than Atco's History of Eric Clapton, but only because it contains most of Layla, which any self-respecting Clapton fan already owns. The Atco record, on the other hand, contains a good deal of obscure or otherwise unavailable material and offers a revealing version of Clapton's artistic development.

Elsewhere, the quality of the best-of depends on the quality of the artist. London is about to release the second of its Rolling Stones reshuffles: More Hot Rocks: Big Hits and Fazed Cookies. This one will contain lots of material never before available on an American LP, and even though he owns the rest, the hapless Stones fan will doubtless shell out the full two-record price just to get it. So would I. Serviceable best-ofs on the Doors and Delaney & Bonnie are recommended if you want to turn on a friend, or if someone ripped off your old albums.

The same does not go for Creedence Gold, Volume I--already they know there'll be a second one--because the six original Creedence albums all seem to me equal in quality and superior in conception. In fact, best-ofs by two weaker groups, the Butterfield Blues Band (Golden Butter on Elektra) and the Steve Miller Band (An Anthology on Capitol) are more valid as albums. Both sets eliminate a lot of chaff and are decent tributes to decent artists. I'm not quite prepared to say the same of the second volume of Byrds' greatest hits. The Byrds now are like the Kingston Trio in 1966--a good idea lived past its time. If you still like them, take a look at the song titles, but don't say I didn't warn you to buy The Notorious Byrd Brothers or Sweetheart of the Rodeo instead. Also, any rock historian still interested in Moby Grape ought to find their first album, not the recent Great Grape.

Never popular stuff by four currently popular groups--Faces, T. Rex, Humble Pie, Deep Purple--is back on the racks. Avoid it. But pick up on Parrot's Them Featuring Van Morrison. Morrison sued to stop its release, but his reasons must have been financial, not artistic. Posthumous live albums by Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix haven't yet reached the unreasonable stage, although Hendrix's are getting there. Two schlocky groups I always kind of liked, the Guess Who and Paul Revere and the Raiders, don't wear as well on greatest hits albums as I would have hoped.

Finally, in their own crazy category, we find the almost-unknown folk zanies, the Holy Modal Rounders, who have a two-record reissue on Fantasy. I never understood them until now, and I recommend them to anyone who wants to take a flier on something weird. They make Commander Cody sound about as straight as Ray Price.

N'day, Dec. 18, 1972