'Greatest hits'? Not all that often

RECORDS

December 25, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Greatest-hits collections have been around since the beginning of the LP age, and remain a popular format even now -- in part because some pop stars make better singles than albums, but mostly because best-ofs offer more hits-per-minute than other albums.

But are these albums really a better buy? Does the song selection truly present the best of a given artist's work? And does a singles-oriented approach always hold up at album length? Judging from the current crop of greatest-hits collections, the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.

GREATEST HITS

Gloria Estefan (Epic 53046)

Gloria Estefan's "Greatest Hits" isn't the singer's first best-of album; that distinction belongs to the 1990 Spanish-language collection "Exitos de Gloria Estefan." Nor are all the offerings here solo efforts, since "Conga" and "Words Get in the Way" were recorded when she was still a cog in the Miami Sound Machine. But no matter how short this collection falls on the truth-in-packaging front, it doesn't lack for listenability. Moving easily from club fodder like "1, 2, 3" to schmaltzy balladry on the order of "Don't Wanna Lose You," it makes her stylistic shift seem so natural you'd almost mistake it for progress. And though not one of the new tunes is anywhere near as solid as the oldies, none ever embarrasses her.

POP! -- THE FIRST 20 HITS

Erasure (Sire/Reprise 45153)

In small doses, Erasure's ability to balance techno-pop efficiency with soul-inflected effusion can be giddily engaging. But when taken at length as offered by "Pop! -- the First 20 Hits," Erasure's sound becomes as gratingly repetitious as a musical greeting card, endlessly replaying the same tinny melody. Although some of the blame belongs with electronics whiz Vince Clarke, whose clockwork synth sequences rarely manage to make a dull melody seem brighter, most of the fault lies with Andy Bell, a singer whose limited emotional range leaves him better suited to the campy excesses of "Chains of Love" than the melodic melancholy of "Blue Savannah."

TWICE UPON A TIME

-- THE SINGLES

Siouxsie and the Banshees (Geffen 24482)

Whereas the Banshees' first best-of chronicled Siouxsie Sioux's transformation from punk princess to goth-rock goddess, "Twice Upon a Time" follows a more twisted path, taking the band from cult-level acclaim to something resembling pop accessibility. But the most amazing thing about this progression is how little the group alters its approach along the way. Granted, the slow-grinding psychedelia of "Melt" hardly has the instrumental impact or melodic focus of the cut-and-paste dance pulse behind "Peek-A-Boo," much less the exotic pop smarts of "Kiss Them for Me." Yet through it all, the Banshees' strategy stays the same, spinning endless variations on the rhythm section's hypnotic repetitions and Sioux's mannered, melodramatic vocals.

GREATEST HITS VOLUME ONE

Randy Travis (Warner Bros. 45044)

GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO

Randy Travis (Warner Bros. 45045)

Given how completely his baritone drawl came to epitomize the country sound of the late '80s, it hardly seems surprising that Randy Travis would have enough material to fill a couple of best-of collections. But when taken together, the 22 tunes he's chosen to represent his career so far would still fit comfortably on a single CD -- so why are they being sold in two 11-song installments, as "Greatest Hits Volume One" and "Greatest Hits Volume Two"? True, the second volume places a slightly greater emphasis on slow songs, but it's absurd to imagine that any fan fond of upbeat numbers like "Honky Tonk Moon" would somehow have a hard time listening to something as sentimental as "He Walked On Water." Maybe they should retitle these albums as "Greediest Hits."

THE BEST OF MOUNTAIN STAGE,

VOLUME THREE

Various (Blue Plate Music 003)

THE BEST OF MOUNTAIN STAGE,

VOLUME FOUR

Various (Blue Plate Music 004)

As live music becomes increasingly rare on the radio, shows like Mountain Stage -- the eclectic and inspired concerts presented each week by West Virginia Public Radio -- seem more and more like rare gems. But if the performances compiled on "The Best of Mountain Stage" albums are any indication, this show would seem exceptional under any circumstance. Although most of the acts on "Volume Three" fall under the general category of alternative rock, what we get is mostly the quiet side of the genre -- the Cowboy Junkies' "Misguided Angel," for instance -- mixed with selections by thoughtful singer/songwriters like Bruce Cockburn and Mary-Chapin Carpenter. "Volume Four," on the other hand, devotes its energies to giving us the blues, from Marcia Ball's rollicking "That's Enough of That Stuff" to Honeyboy Edwards' stinging "Sweet Home Chicago," to Pops Staples' wonderfully moving "Why Am I Treated So Bad?"

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