Artist: Album (label, release date) 1-5 stars
Black Sabbath: The Best Of Black Sabbath (Sanctuary, August 2, 2005) *****
Maria Muldaur: Southern Winds (Wounded Bird, August 2, 2005) ***
Fred Neil: Echoes Of My Mind: The Best Of Fred Neil 1963-1971 (Raven, August 2, 2005) *****
Blondie: The Best Of Blondie (Capitol, August 2, 2005) **
Black Sabbath: The Best Of Black Sabbath
While there have been no shortage of Black Sabbath anthologies over the years, Sanctuary re-issues the best of them all. Thirty-two tracks, 29 from the Ozzy Osbourne era, with three from the Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan lineups tacked on as tasters at the end. Gillan (ex- and future-Deep Purple) was aboard for only one release, Born Again in 1983, and never really integrated well with the band; few will object to only one cut being included, the anthemic “Zero The Hero” (although I would have gone for the thrash-metal “Trashed”, myself). Those who liked the Dio years are likely to feel gypped, having to make do with just “Heaven and Hell” and “Turn Up The Night”. But the fact remains that Sabbath’s glory years were with Osbourne, and here is an opportunity to get not only the key familiar songs (“Iron Man”, “N.I.B.”, “Sweet Leaf”, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” et. al.) but also the cream of the Sabbath albums that don’t usually turn up on anthologies, including “The Wizard”, “Spiral Architect”, “Hole In The Sky”, “Never Say Die”, and others. One could always quibble with song selection; “Warning” is missed as is “Wheels Of Confusion”, but both are 10-minute-plus tracks that would’ve eaten too much space. “(All Moving Parts) Stand Still” would have been a better choice than “Dirty Women” from Technical Ecstasy. But that’s just a matter of taste; the song selection is generous and intelligent and is in strict chronological order, also a plus with this band, who grew slightly more “progressive” over the years. Ozzy fans can take the three non-Ozzy tracks as a jumping in point for further exploration, or keep them as tokens. Nice packaging helps capture their essence as well.
Maria Muldaur: Southern Winds
Maria Muldaur (nee Maria D’Amato from New York) has been a cult favorite for over four decades now, and her cult will be pleased to know that this album, long an impossibility to find on CD, has new been reissued on fading-star rescuers Wounded Bird. Those unfamiliar with her may know her best from her lone hit, “Midnight At The Oasis”, a fairly silly AM radio hit from 1973. Her music is actually a lot more interesting than that single may imply; originally part of the east coast 1960′s folk/jug-band scene (John Sebastian, Holy Modal Rounders, Fugs, et. al.), she first appeared as a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964, and then as a member of the seminal Jim Kweskin Jug Band through the mid-60′s. Her solo career began in 1970 with a pair of excellent albums she recorded with her husband, folk-blues guitarist/singer Geoff Muldaur. Following their divorce, she relocated to Los Angeles where she recorded her solo debut Maria Muldaur for Warner Brothers/Reprise in 1973, which included her hit. Warners gave her a longer-term contract than commercial considerations should have merited, and she wound up releasing five mid-70′s albums for the label. The first three are classic west-coast eclectic pop albums, featuring explorations into blues, folk, country, pre-rock music, gospel, jazz, and all manner of interesting material that suited her cute-but-knowledgable quavery voice. By the time Southern Winds came out in 1978, her sales had tailed off to little more than zero; as a result, the album features a much smaller cast than the first three, and employs some gimmicks such as a vaguely disco beat on some tunes, and an unbecoming sex-kittenish cover and promotion that cheapened her talents. The album is her weakest of the 70′s, full of generic filler and half-hearted performances from Amos Garrett, Les Dudek, and Mike Finnigan. Not the place to begin for newcomers; try her debut first, or her earlier duo and band albums. But her cult has always been faithful, and if you’re among it, here’s your chance to fill a hole.
Fred Neil: Echoes Of My Mind: The Best Of Fred Neil 1963-1971
This is a solid 24-track anthology from one of the more interesting, enigmatic singer/songwriters of the 1960′s. Fred Neil is best known for a pair of songs covered by others; “Other Side Of This Life” a staple of Jefferson Airplane‘s live act, and “Everybody’s Talkin’” which Harry Nilsson covered for the film Midnight Cowboy. His own versions of these and his other songs are known mainly to collectors, or very grizzled veterans of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960′s. He recorded eight poorly selling albums from 1963-1971 before retiring from music entirely in 1971. Here’s a fine chance to hear what attracted Jefferson Airplane and Nilsson to him, as well as Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, and John Sebastian, all of whom credit him as an influence. His early material was mainly acoustic and drumless, he started using full electric instrumentation on his second album, Fred Neil, which is also his best. Among the finest songs here are the lovely “The Dolphins”, his version of “Morning Dew”, and “Bleeker and MacDougal”. His rich, expressive, moody baritone is unique among the 60′s folkies; his guitar style is idiosyncratic, and his subject material is colorful and evocative. Aside from a 36-cut retrospective on Collector’s Choice, The Many Sides Of Fred Neil, there has been few attempts to put his legacy in order; this one is a better jumping in point for newcomers. Neil died in 2001.
Blondie: The Best Of Blondie
Here’s some cheap-o product. Originally released on CEMA with different cover art, The Best of Blondie is a 10-song budget compilation that offers no frills, a very incomplete portrait of a major band, and some questionable song selections. There have been so many Blondie compilations over the years, some good, some bad, that it is almost incomprehensible that anybody would need this one. Like most quicky budget releases, the target buyer is probably an impulse buyer at an interstate rest stop or convenience store, who is sick of the CD’s in their car. Fair enough; but would a buyer in those circumstances grow sick of this CD quickly too? Most likely; of the ten tracks, “Island Of Lost Souls” from their misbegotten final album (not counting their reincarnation in 1999) The Hunter, is their worst single ever, “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High” were both #1 hits from their 1981 release Autoamerican, an album that pissed off their loyal fans when it was released, and gained them a fair weather audience that bailed within a year. The Georgio Moroder-produced “Call Me”, from the 1980 film American Gigolo is here, leaving the remaining 6 songs to cover their four best albums, most of them overplayed and not among their very best. Docked a star for uselessness; stick with Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat (or the under appreciated Plastic Letters). For the impulse buyer on the interstate, you’ll get more mileage from a couple of corn dogs and a Big Gulp.
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