RETRO GRADES

The good, the bad and the ugly retrospectives

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It's the time of year when single-artist retrospectives come in waves. And it's the time of year when rock critics write about 'em to provide something of a consumer guide, and to keep in good graces with the record label publicity departments. Hey, who am I to buck tradition? Here are a few that came across my desk.

U2

The Best of 1990-2000

Island/Interscope

Few would argue against the notion that U2 made more impact in the '80s than the '90s. But were they actually better in the earlier decade? The single-disc Best of 1990-2000 makes for good comparative listening to Best of 1980-1990.

At the cusp of the decades, the Irish quartet was looking to back off their earnest, world-on-our-shoulders image and thus in '91 unleashed Achtung, Baby, a controversial album that embraced irony, artifice and — gasp! — electronics. Eleven years later, this experimentalism hardly sounds earth-shaking. That didn't stop pundits from wrongheadedly hailing 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind as the band's "return to rock." Given the benefit of hindsight, the '90s stuff seems like a perfectly natural evolution from the band's weighty '80s fare.

Best of 1990-2000 includes two rather pedestrian new songs: the atmospheric "Electrical Storm" and "The Hands that Built America" (theme from Gangs of New York), a ballad that borders on the ponderous. The disc also features four new mixes, not to be confused with remixes, as "Gone," "Numb," "Staring at the Sun" and "Discoteque" don't get made over as much as tweaked. Hit songs "One," "Even Better than the Real Thing," "Mysterious Ways" and "Beautiful Day" remain intact.

While it has a few dead spots, Best of 1990-2000 shows that in the '90s U2 continued to be relevant and, in their own way, important. Were they a better band in the '90s than the '80s? Uh, no. $$$$ Rod Stewart

Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings

Mercury

Rod Stewart didn't always suck. From 1969-1975, the lad was right good. He was an odd juxtaposition: Brit glam-boy with a rooster-tail 'do whose music coalesced American blues, R&B, rock 'n' roll, folk and country. At this stage, the guy was a singer first, rock star second. The voice was his ace in the hole. Who'd have thought that such a soulful, playful rasp could become so clownish on 1978's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

The three-CD Reason to Believe captures Rod's Mercury career, before he went Hollywood. Of the 55 songs, only three were bona fide hits — "Maggie May," "You Wear it Well" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You." So unlike the other titles discussed in this little survey, Mercury Studio Recordings offers a sense of discovery.

The real treasure here is Disc 3, which combines Stewart's 1971 classic Every Picture Tells a Story and its estimable follow-up, Never a Dull Moment. Stewart and his ace band (including Ron Wood) conjured up a sinewy roots stew that blended mandolins and fiddles with acoustic and post-Chuck Berry electric guitars.

Although it contains some chaff, Reason to Believe is a vivid overview of the grainy-voice singer at peak form. $$$$ Elton John

Greatest Hits, 1970-2002

Universal

This set is as aptly named as they come. The 34 songs were culled straight from the charts, the higher the better.

Discs 1 and 2 are diametrically opposed: The first is pretty much essential; the second consists of mostly throwaways. Disc 1: "Daniel." Disc 2: "Little Jeannie." Disc 1: "Rocket Man." Disc 2: "Sad Songs (Say So Much)." Disc 1: "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." Disc 2: "I Don't Wanna Go on With You Like That." Disc 1: "Levon." Disc 2: "Nikita." Disc 1: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Disc 2: "Sacrifice."

You get the idea. This is what happens when an artist experiences a precipitous artistic decline but manages to stay on the charts. Here's a more direct way to say it: Elton John pretty much sucked after 1975. $$$ INXS

The Best of INXS

Atlantic/Rhino

The Aussie band's music has not withstood the test of time particularly well. Most of the songs sound hopelessly '80s, marked by mounds of synthesizer and big, brittle drum machines. That a fair amount of the material on The Best of INXS was released in the '90s would speak to the band's stark plunge in popularity early in that decade. They simply milked the same increasingly tired sound too long.

Funny enough, three of the songs that hold up best came from 1983-84. "The One Thing," "Don't Change" and "Original Sin" are pure new wave, undiluted by the R&B pretense that would launch the band to stardom. INXS's most R&B-oriented song, the funky "What You Need," remains the gem of its catalogue, but material from their mega-hit Kick (1987) — "Devil Inside," "Need You Tonight" and "Never Tear Us Apart" — are as stale as a 10-year-old Vegemite sandwich. $$

Stephen Bishop

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection

MCA

So you're asking ... Who?

Try this: "Down in Jamaica, they got lots of pretty women ..."

Stop groaning. Late '70s wimp-rocker Stephen Bishop is for some folk (me included) the ultimate guilty pleasure. The Millennium Collection is rather chintzy — just 12 songs over 46 minutes. It could've been so much more. It could've been an epic statement of wimpitude.

Bishop possessed a knack for writing warm, sentimental melodies, but his bigger talents lie in writing lyrics that evoked complete doormat-hood and singing them in a sweet, pleading tenor.

"I could be a gentleman, walk away with style/ But I'll fight to keep you/ Throw my arms around you/ This is crazy I know but I just have to show/ I'm never letting go."

"Just give me one more night, to hold you."

Hey, it takes guts for an artist to be the guy who gets his heart treated like a soccer ball but clings and weeps and begs and begs and begs. Even the toughest fellas have a little corner of them set aside for this sort of vulnerability. Bishop wallows in it, vents it, oozes it, turns it into a kind of heartbreak catharsis. Who knew wimp rock could be so therapeutic? $$$ 1/2

Parliament

Funked Up: The Very Best of Parliament

Mercury

For all you funk-impaired folks out there, consider this a starter kit. Parliament was the song-oriented, hit-making wing of George Clinton's musical empire. Only two of the tunes in this collection ever stuck in the mass consciousness — "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" and "Flashlight" — but the 16 selections include six R&B Top 10s from 1974-1980. Like most of Clinton's other work, Parliament married the street to the dance floor, and dressed it up in a loopy vibe. This set seethes with strong hooks and great performances, but it all takes a backseat to the groove. To quote the man, "Aw, we need the funk, we gotta have the funk." True. $$$$ Nirvana

Nirvana

DGC

Now that Cobain's former bandmates and the widow Love have settled their legal dispute, the door is open to reissue Nirvana material. This 50-minute single disc is a modest start. The retrospective touches on each part of the band's career, along with one new song and a newly issued "single mix" of "Pennyroyal Tea." The new tune, "You Know You're Right," captures Cobain's last recorded performance. It follows in the familiar pattern of alternating sections that simmer and explode. It's a solid tune, but one that we've heard before. Grab Nirvana if you find that the original jewel cases are empty. $$$$ David Bowie

Best of Bowie

Virgin/EMI

Although never much of a Bowie fan, I've maintained a grudging affection for most of his singles. The album tracks, to these ears, have been largely useless. So this 20-song Bowie retrospective is a keeper, about all I'll ever need by the man. I could do without the dreary opener, "Space Oddity" ("Ground control to Major Tom," for those unfamiliar). Same with '97's electronica-infused "I'm Afraid of Americans" and the wretched "Dancing in the Street," a 1985 duet with Mick Jagger that may be the worst Motown remake ever. The rest of the set is strong, though. You know the tunes: "Changes," "Young Americans," "Fame," "Fashion," "Let's Dance" and more. Bowie's always been overrated, but his best is pretty damn good. $$$ 1/2 Contact Associate Editor Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or e-mail him at [email protected].

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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