I. Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You?
When was the moment that Stephanie Lynn Nicks became inevitable?
It's not as though you can just forget a voice like hers. Ever since the start of her on-again, off-again tenure in Fleetwood Mac - when her dulcet tones powered songs like "Rhiannon," "Landslide," "Dreams" (the band's first No. 1 single in America), essential B-side "Silver Springs," "Gypsy" and others - Nicks' artistry and talent has been a given. But you can feel it in the air too, right? At some point in the last decade, the work and influence of Nicks - and not just in the confines of the Mac - started to feel less like a monument and more like an ethereal force, the way one play of "Don't Stop Believin'" in The Sopranos caused a tidal wave in culture. Maybe it started with her two-episode appearance on American Horror Story: Coven as an even witchier version of herself. It certainly apexed between her solo induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 - the first woman to receive the honor twice, after which Carole King and Tina Turner earned recognition for their own solo careers - and that 2020 TikTok clip of Nathan Apodaca lip-syncing "Dreams" between swigs of Ocean Spray cranberry juice while skateboarding to work. (Afterward, the song made it back to the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 12.)
The physical testament to her career may help you find that answer yourself: Complete Albums & Rarities (Rhino R2 698595), a 10CD box set offering a near one-stop shop to Nicks' discography. All eight of her solo albums are here (is it only that few?), plus a formidable double-album of rarities. Here, finally, the story of what makes Stevie run and endure can be told. You just might want to break out a magnifying glass for some parts.
II. Sings a Song, Sounds Like She's Singing
For all of Nicks' outsized influence on women in pop and rock, her career is hardly a chartwatcher's game. Only 10 of her singles reached the Top 40 in America, ending with 1989's "Rooms on Fire"; afterward, she became almost solely seen as an album artist. (Indeed, outside of 1994's Street Angel, every single one of the albums here did reach Billboard's Top 10.) So in some ways, there's much to discover.
Nicks' first two solo albums, Bella Donna (1981) and The Wild Heart (1983), do indeed feel of a piece with each other, and are probably the most familiar. Both were produced with brio by Jimmy Iovine, with a stable of first-call session musicians at the ready: guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Bob Glaub, keyboardist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, drummer Russ Kunkel, plus contributions from Bruce Springsteen's pianist Roy Bittan, Eagles guitarist Don Felder, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, percussionist Bobbye Hall and more. Petty and The Heartbreakers guest in full on the unforgettable "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" and follow-up "I Will Run to You"; "Leather and Lace" features a vulnerable duet with the Eagles' Don Henley, and an uncredited Prince contributes driving synthesizers to "Stand Back," a song freely inspired by his own smash "Little Red Corvette." With hits aplenty from this period - all of the above, plus "Edge of Seventeen" and "If Anyone Falls" - these two (handsomely expanded by Rhino in the past, although little of that bonus material reappears here) will surely strike a familiar chord with fans old and new.
Things moved into fascinating new directions as the '80s continued. 1985's Rock a Little added more synth texture and thunderous, reverbed drums, plus new producing partners; after Iovine left halfway through recording, Nicks recruited an upstart songwriter/multi-instrumentalist named Rick Nowels to finish the job. (Nowels would later craft hits with and for Belinda Carlisle, Celine Dion, Madonna, Lana Del Rey and others - mainly women influenced in some way by Nicks' example.) The album is a little all over the map - for every triumph like Top 5 hit "Talk to Me" or the fun "Imperial Hotel," co-written and co-produced by Petty's longtime guitarist Mike Campbell, there's an overdone cut like "I Can't Wait" - but it set up the path forward for her last solo effort of the decade. 1989's The Other Side of the Mirror followed a rocky personal period where one drug addiction (cocaine) was replaced by another (Klonopin), and long-simmering tensions finally caused the shockingly stable Fleetwood Mac line-up to splinter after a decade together. With a brace of songs written mostly with Nowels and produced by Rupert Hine, Mirror is at turns charming ("Rooms on Fire," "Long Way to Go") and unusual (the horn laden "Whole Lotta Trouble"; "Two Kinds of Love," a vocal duet with Bruce Hornsby and a soprano sax solo by Kenny G), often underserved by its thin production.
Nicks would move further into the wilderness with 1994's Street Angel, an album with a troubled gestation (Nicks, about to re-enter drug rehab, clashed with original producer Glyn Johns and worked with engineer Thom Panunzio to streamline some last-minute overdubs to accommodate familiar collaborators like Wachtel and Campbell). As her only album to miss the pop Top 10, it's not without some interesting tracks: lead track "Blue Denim," a sharpened nod to former romantic partner and bandmate Lindsey Buckingham; slick would-be single "Unconditional Love"; a slightly too uptempo cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" on which the singer/songwriter makes a brief cameo. But Complete Albums & Rarities doesn't make a convincing argument for Street Angel as a lost masterpiece.
Happily, the 21st century material makes the sun shine again. 2001's Trouble in Shangri-La marries classic, mystical Nicks songwriting (like Rumours demo "Planets of the Universe") with a modern but not dated production sensibility from collaborators like John Shanks and Sheryl Crow, while 2011's In Your Dreams is big-tent, it-just-works classic rock with hints of country, powered by producers Campbell, Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette) and Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and winning adult-contemporary fare like "For What It's Worth," "Annabel Lee" (utilizing Edgar Allan Poe's poem as lyrics) and "Soldier's Angel," an unlikely team-up with Buckingham. Finally, 2014's 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault continues the sonic threads of In Your Dreams with songs Nicks had demoed over the decades.
Finally, the newly-compiled rarities set showcases Nicks' musical gifts as a surprisingly deep well, able to be tapped for the right soundtrack project or odds-and-ends collection. A few sterling cuts are here, like the Fast Times At Ridgemont High gem "Sleeping Angel," sturdy covers of Petty's "Free Fallin'," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," and terrific contributions to the soundtrack to the witchy cult hit Practical Magic: "If You Ever Did Believe" and a new version of Fleetwood Mac's "Crystal." Both these discs and, indeed, the entire package keep the oeuvre solely studio-focused, so while Rarities doesn't offer everything out of the cupboards - a smattering of live tracks or remixes on other greatest hits sets, a few of the great licensed-in bonus cuts on Rhino's deluxe overview Stand Back: 1981-2017 - there is more than enough to enjoy.
III. Sometimes It's a Bitch, Sometimes It's a Breeze
Producers Bill Inglot and Patrick Milligan have paid a worthy sonic tribute to Nicks with Complete Albums & Rarities. Each disc sounds great - evenly mastered and as crisp as possible. If there is one way the box struggles, though, it's in the packaging. The outer box is fine enough - a sturdy, 8" x 8" construction that opens halfway between a book and a clamshell case, with a 2" spine that'll stand out on a shelf - but each studio album is contained in a thin four-panel jacket, with an inner pocket opening on the right panel and no reinforcement on the left that would make them easy to crease. The gatefold allows for recreation of original album credits, but fitting everything across those two panels makes for a painful read if you haven't updated your glasses prescription in awhile or are simply hard of seeing! (The double-disc Rarities is a more standard digipak with two outer-facing pockets, allowing songwriter and original album sourcing to be listed on the inner sleeve.) Inside the box is a four-page insert featuring some great, pink-and-purple-tinted images from the photoshoot that gives the box its cover, and package credits. For such a valedictory moment, the moment could have been right for a brilliant female music writer (there are many) to pen an appropriate essay.
These quibbles, of course, do nothing to take away from the music. Nicks was a star in a formidable galaxy with Fleetwood Mac, and is served well by her songwriting and studio collaborations here. Complete Albums & Rarities is a flawed but satisfactory, maximalist portrait of a vital woman of rock. May the planets of the universe continue go their way for her.