In today’s radically-changed music climate, it should come as no surprise that record labels are trying many different series and business models to figure out just what the heck will sell. These releases aren’t necessarily aimed at the audience reading this site, most often targeting the casual music buyer. As such, these greatest hits series – whether Sony’s The Essential…, Universal’s 20th Century Masters or EMI’s Classic Masters, just to name a few – tend to be scorned by many collectors as mere budget-priced rehashes with a paucity of tracks and liner notes to match the low price point. While I, too, have been known to utter “Another Elvis compilation?” or something similar in mock disgust, there are some worthwhile additions to these budget lines. Our friends at Sony/Legacy with little fanfare have been making their Playlist series one worth watching.
Playlist is squarely aimed at the iPod generation, boasting on the front cover sticker that each collection’s 14 tracks make “the perfect Playlist for you!” with all liner notes and photos on an enhanced CD, and the packaging a simple, chintzy “100% recycled” digipak. My local indie – which stocks everything – doesn’t carry these releases, and they’re usually found at the likes of Borders, Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart for somewhere between $5.99 and $7.99. (Amazon, of course, also carries the full line, and New York’s J&R Music World actually has offered them for $4.99, or roughly the price of a Venti coffee!) But Legacy has been sneaking some rarities onto many of the titles in the collection, as they’ve done with a few entries in their Essential series as well.
Tuesday brought the release of 12 new Playlists including entries by The Dixie Chicks, The Charlie Daniels Band, Fishbone, and Paul Simon’s on-again, off-again partner, Art Garfunkel. Playlist: The Very Best of Art Garfunkel handily replaces Garfunkel as the best domestic CD overview of the man’s post-Simon oeuvre. Two rarities can be found here: “Grateful,” a John Bucchino song previously only available as a CD included with a children’s book entitled Grateful: A Song of Thanks, and the UK single mix of Mike Batt’s “Bright Eyes” which made major waves in 1979 across the pond. While there are the usual odd choices that accompany every greatest hits collection (Where is “Break Away”? Why was the re-recording of “All I Know” with solo accompaniment by its composer/lyricist Jimmy Webb included over the original track, however beautiful the stark re-recording is?), Playlist bests Garfunkel by two songs, and even licenses a track from EMI off Art’s recent release, the largely self-penned 2002 set Everything Waits to Be Noticed. This was clearly not a cheap cash-in, but rather a well-researched compilation deserving more notice itself. Garfunkel himself hand-picked the tracks, while the “virtual booklet” viewable in .pdf format offers a surprisingly solid essay, full musician credits and discographical information. Vic Anesini remastered the album, and the notes make mention that five tracks were re-transferred to digital from the original tapes. (These selections are not identified, but all tracks sound crisp.) I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to a casual fan or a collector, both for the overall product and the fine, often-underrated music contained within: the duet with James Taylor on Carole King and Howard Greenfield's "Crying in the Rain," the hauntingly evocative Albert Hammond/Hal David "99 Miles from L.A." or Simon and Taylor harmonizing with Garfunkel on "What a Wonderful World." All reaffirm Garfunkel's status as a top-notch interpreter and remind one of his deservedly hit-filled years.
Other Playlist titles worth seeking out include Tuesday's Bruce Hornsby release which contains two tracks being released for the first time: a cover of Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” and a live take of “Sticks and Stones.” Going back a couple of years, 2008’s The Very Best of Daryl Hall & John Oates offers no fewer than nine rare tracks out of its 14, primarily single edits and unique video mixes. Even when these sets aren’t definitive assays of an artist’s career (the Hall & Oates set, unlike the Garfunkel, doesn’t cross-license and so it is limited to the Arista years), they often have a number of tracks making them desirable. The Crash Test Dummies and Rick Springfield Playlists also boast real rarities.
So, a hint of advice from me to you: the next time you’re browsing at your local big-box store, don’t skip over the racks of cheap CDs; there are diamonds in the rough to be found. Check 'em out; while some titles will inevitably disappoint, others might make the best 7 bucks you spend that day. While I hope Legacy is also planning more releases from their recently-acquired catalogs of Phil Spector/Philles and Philadelphia International Records (not to mention the usual array of box sets, Legacy Editions, and the list goes on…) to serve collectors, I’m happy that Sony is still seeking new ways to reach a broad audience base and doing that via physical product, even with digital notes. And in the meantime, I’m more than happy to add "another greatest hits compilation?!" to my shelves if it's an interestingly-produced Playlist or Essential. (One wonders if Sony's upcoming Setlist series discussed here in the past is a kind of companion to Playlist?)
To our readers: do you have any surprising favorites from a budget series? Let me know - we're listening!