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Seventeen years on, Unwritten Law finally releases their official "Greatest Hits" album. This is not, however, your typical best-of collection.

Music Review: Unwritten Law – The Hit List

Since 1990, San Diego’s Unwritten Law have released five studio albums, a live album (in 2003), and a greatest hits collection, which came out early in 2007 on Abydos Records. From the skate punk of their early days and the power pop of their peak years, to the hard rock (some say “post grunge”) of their later material, it’s all here among nineteen tracks, plus an unlisted twentieth cut.

Unlike a lot of bands who make you buy a best-of album full of songs already in your collection just for one or two new tracks, Unwritten Law decided to head into the studio and re-record fourteen of their best known and most beloved tracks. They also throw in two new songs here, and include three from their 2005 release Here’s To The Mourning as is.

Not since The Cure recorded acoustic versions of eighteen of their best hits (as a second disc) over five years ago, has a band come up with a cooler way to both reward longtime fans, while summing up a long, fruitful career for more casual listeners.

With the exception of “Rest Of My Life,” a Top 20 modern rock hit taken from 2003’s live and acoustic Music In High Places, most of the new versions will sound slightly heavier than the originals. This is because the guitars and bass are tuned a bit lower (Eb tuning instead of the standard E natural tuning on most original versions).

Having said that, the arrangements of these songs aren’t drastically different. The band is now a four-piece — after losing longtime guitarist Rob Brewer and drummer Wade Youman a few years ago. The latter was replaced by Tony Palermo of Pulley in 2005, and singer Scott Russo has taken on the role as the occasional second guitarist for the band.

Of all the redone tracks, perhaps the most improved of them is “California Sky,” which is the second of three straight aces taken from Unwritten Law’s best album, 1998’s Unwritten Law. Loud guitars, light harmonics, a tambourine, and a much better guitar solo (by guitarist Steve Morris) than the original, makes this an instant standout. “Harmonic” is only different in that the intro no longer includes a last second tuneup. Palermo is as fast and aggressive as his predecessor here and elsewhere on the disc.

“Superman,” from their second album Oz Factor (1996) is slowed-down on the re-recorded version, allowing the melody to stick out a bit more. The original version channeled their inner Green Day.

The opening bone-crushing chords of the 2002 hit “Up All Night,” the borderline ska-ish upstrokes that follow in the verses, and an acoustic-aided bridge make this well-rounded rocker one of the true highlights of their career. The new version isn’t much different, as it remains an anthem for those restless youths (and those who live to be forever young) who would happily answer Russo’s in-song question, “What’s wrong with kickin’ it when you’re bored and lit?”

Nothing, you say? Well, then “smoke some cigarettes” and “fire up another roach” as you watch “the sun come up again,” and again…and so on.

Speaking of bone-crushing, “Celebration Song,” from 2005’s Here’s To The Mourning may be the heaviest song UL ever recorded, with dropped D tuned guitars and bass, and explosive riffs that would make the Deftones smile. That album marked a big change for the band’s sound, and arguably its best moments are included here.

Pretty much all of the fan favorites are included on The Hit List, including their number one hit “Seein’ Red,” (from 2002’s Elva CD). Though “Mean Girl” or “Holiday” could’ve made the cut — perhaps at the expense of a so-so track like “Rescue Me,” also from Elva. But it is worth noting that some of the choice cuts here are collaborations (at least on the lyric sheet) with some familiar names.

Linda Perry, a very in-demand songwriter/producer who fronted early 1990s one-hit wonders 4 Non Blondes and has since worked with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Ziggy Marley, Fischerspooner, and Courtney Love co-wrote the Top 5 hit “Save Me.”

Russo’s girlfriend Aimee Allen also co-wrote the lyrics to this song, as well as most other tracks on the album it’s taken from, Here’s To The Mourning. Allen has been getting more exposure in her own right as of late. Lupe Fiasco incorporated her “Stripper Friends” into hit single “We All Want The Same Thing” this year, and her song “Cooties” appears on the soundtrack to this year’s popular remake of the 1988 movie Hairspray.

Hollywood, California rapper Mickey Avalon co-wrote the heavy, post-grunge rocker “Should’ve Known Better” (the first of two new tracks), though Russo does the rapping on the version that opens this album. He’s not bad and sounds like he’s having fun doing it. Avalon’s own raps appear on the unlisted version of “Should’ve Known Better” at the end of the CD (track 20).

Phil Jamieson, of Australian rock band Grinspoon, co-wrote the excellent “She Says,” and A. Jay Popoff, lead singer of fellow veteran California pop punk rockers Lit co-wrote the lyrics to the second and less impressive of the two new tracks, “Welcome To Oblivion.”

Of course, no UL compilation would be complete without their breakout 1999 hit “Cailin,” which is aided only by a slightly more modern production on the new version. The same is true for other older tracks, including “C.P.K.,” from their first album Blue Room and the Blink 182-ish “Shallow,” from Oz Factor.

In all, The Hit List is about as complete a summary of Unwritten Law’s career as you’ll likely come across, given all the record label changes over the years. And though there are a couple of questionable inclusions and omissions, it is a must-have for any longtime Unwritten Law fan, and a more than satisfying release for the uninitiated and curious. They may have had limited commercial success over their seventeen-year career, but Unwritten Law’s combination of power pop and punk rock is on par with anything their highly successful peers (like Lit, Blink 182) ever did. And they’re not done yet.

For more info on the band, go to their MySpace page.

About Charlie Doherty

Senior Music Editor and Culture & Society (Sports) Editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Prior writing/freelancing ventures: copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. Keep up with me on twitter.com/chucko33

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