Reviewing Greatest Hits packages is easy because there are really only three questions that need answers. The first question is whether or not the greatest hits package is necessary. That can be a tricky question because there are a lot of bands out there who never had a hit (to say nothing of multiple hits). And there are still more bands who had hits, but they were not that fucking great (for some reason Creed comes to mind). Even when those questions are set aside, it can still be tough to determine a collection’s worth when the artist in question has released umpteen hits packages (Elton John and Aerosmith come to mind here).
That issue segues into the last two questions to be considered when reviewing a greatest hits collection: what’s here and what’s not? Is the package created to appeal to casual fans who do not own every scrap of music the artist in question has ever released or is it geared to the hard core audience? Does the package contain all of the vital songs or are there glaring omissions? Did the artist weigh the set down by including several songs that do not stack up to the best material on the record?
With those three questions in mind, we examine John Mellencamp’s “Words & Music.”
Question #1. Is this greatest hits package necessary?
Why does Mellencamp’s music feel like such a guilty pleasure? Is it because he had moniker issues long before Prince (Johnny Cougar?)? Could it be the Springsteen-lite tag still haunts him these many years later? There seems to be an inexplicable barrier between Mellencamp and unconditional acceptance. But is his catalog worthy of a greatest hits collection? He has had considerable critical and commercial success over a career spanning nearly 25 years and on that basis the answer to question one seems obvious even if it does not feel that way.
Question #2. What’s here?
The necessity of this package gets murky because this is the second hits collection of Mellencamp’s career (“The Best That I Could Do” being the other). Both compilations cover nearly the same era (“Words & Music” includes 2 new songs as well as songs from Mellencamp’s post 1997 albums) and as one might expect some tracks are represented on both packages. The difference, then, is one disc. “Words & Music” features 37 songs spread over two discs (14 songs on a single disc for “TBTICD”). Looking at the two discs side by side reveals just how many good songs are missing from “The Best That I Could Do.” The lesser-included songs do not detract from the overall listening experience.
Question# 3. What’s not here?
Chronology… that’s about it. Casual Mellencamp fans will not see any glaring omissions from the tracklisting and that is what makes this compilation such a winner. Listeners will discover the album is not sequenced in chronological order. The lack of chronology can make some hits packages feel disjointed, but that is not the case on “Words & Music.” The sequencing on this set allows for a satisfying listen for someone listening to it a disc at a time or for the high-endurance listener who takes in both discs at once. And anal-retentive fans can either program the CDs or create an iPod playlist to get the chronological view of “Words & Music.”
“Words & Music” is filled with songs that spent a lot of time blasting from car stereo speakers during the 80’s and 90’s. It is hard to imagine not liking at least one of these songs and most rock listeners probably like more. “Words & Music” is a pretentious title and has a pretentious essay from Rolling Stone magazine’s lead nitwit Jann Wenner, but this collection delivers. “Words & Music” does a great job of bringing together John Mellencamp’s best, and most of the time his best was pretty fucking good.