Welcome to our latest installment of Greater Hits, where we scour an artist’s discography for compilations and pick the best one for your buck. Today focuses on Aretha Franklin’s fascinating third chapter on Arista Records and the multitude of compilations that it’s yielded.
Just as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Franklin’s sizzling 1967 album and first for Atlantic Records, was a shock to anyone who’d known her from her days singing solid if not transcendent soul on Columbia in the early ’60s, the Queen of Soul’s mid-’80s return with 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? was light years away from “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Today, we laud veteran comebacks that echo the songs that made us fall in love with artists in the first place. Aretha, however, did it on modern-day terms, pairing with producers like Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden to ensconce herself in the sound of the 1980s, never once compromising that multiplatinum voice we still adore today.
While Franklin’s work for Columbia and Atlantic have been the subject of many reissues and box sets, modern day representation of the Arista years has mostly been in the form of compilations, most recently Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998. (Although that trend seems to be changing, it’s an independent label handling an expansion of her work.) And what a list there is: prior to Legacy’s newest set, three major compilations of the Arista years have been released in the last 15-plus years.
Join us after the jump as we dive into each one and tell you which one should be zoomin’ into your collection first!
When Greatest Hits (1980-1994) (Arista 72431 18722-2) was released, Aretha had long since solidified her legend. That impressive string of mid-’80s hits culminated in her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the first female performer to be invited), and a renewed interest in her classic works. Many of her performances in the years that followed – including the showstopping Divas Live on VH-1 – focused on those years, leaving the Arista tenure as more of an interesting footnote.
That said, GH was a respectable if patchy overview of the Queen’s latest reign. One track each from Arista debut Aretha (1980), third album Jump to It (1982) and 1983’s Get It Right was included; three tracks from Who’s Zoomin’ Who made the cut, as did two from Aretha (1986) and three from 1991’s What You See is What You Sweat. That left room for four new tracks: the Babyface-produced “Honey” and “Willing to Forgive”; the C+C Music Factory-helmed “A Deeper Love” (released a year earlier on the soundtrack to Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit) and a live version of “A Natural Woman” with Gloria Estefan and Bonnie Raitt.
That’s not a bad list, but there are so many omissions, particularly collaborative tracks, that make this set less than airtight. There’s no “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” with the Eurythmics, or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with Keith Richards (at least, not on the domestic version – it was a bonus track on import copies). But, until 2008, it was the only Arista-centric compilation on the market.
In 2007, Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen (Arista 82876 78668-2) was released. Although more of a themed set than a general overview, this one is actually a great companion to Greatest Hits, with very little overlap (“I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” with George Michael, “Ever Changing Times” with Michael McDonald, “Doctor’s Orders” with Luther Vandross and the live “A Natural Woman” from GH) and a good chunk of songs wrongfully left off the last set. Additionally, there’s some worthy rarities (“Chain of Fools” with Mariah Carey from the Divas Live telecast, the non-duet but totally worth it live take on “Nessun Dorma” from the 1998 Grammys) and even a handful of decent new tracks, including collaborations with Fantasia Barrino (“Put You Up on Game”) and John Legend (“What Y’all Came to Do”).
The best compilation, though, might have been released a year later, way under the radar. Aretha Franklin’s Playlist title (Arista/Legacy 88697 27459-2, 2008) was, like many early entries in the budget series, a lot greater than it would appear on the outside. Only half of the set’s 14 tracks are from Arista albums, and nothing dates later than 1986. What the other half of the disc provides is a sampling of tracks from the Columbia years as well as Atlantic classics “Respect” and “Chain of Fools.” This creates, believe it or not, the only compilation on the market to join all periods of her career together.
That brings us to this year’s Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998 (Arista/Legacy 88697 99780-2), which treads across material that is by now familiar to those who knew the previous compilations. Indeed, the only track that’s not been on any of those sets was the Lauryn Hill-produced title track to A Rose is Still a Rose (1998), if you don’t count the unreleased remix of “Ever Changing Times.” While the set is certainly a healthy overview, clocking it at just a hair over 68 minutes, nearly every track on the album is edited for time. What’s most annoying about this is that few of the edits are “originals”; only “Freeway of Love,” “Another Night” and “A Rose is Still a Rose” appear as their original single edits. If cutting was necessary (the more one thinks about it, a double-disc set might have been fun, if wildly excessive), it would’ve been far more fun to hear the songs as they appeared on 45s.
Bottom line? If you’re starting out your Aretha collection completely fresh, sample the best of all worlds and get the Playlist title. If you know your Atlantic years inside and out, though, treat yourself to the one-two punch of Greatest Hits and Jewels in the Crown, giving you access to all the great hits sans edits plus some choice non-LP material.