Is this the best they can do? Music: For assorted reasons, greatest-hits collections can leave the listener wanting more, or less.

December 17, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the thinking behind a greatest-hits collection. The concept is self-explanatory: All the best stuff from a particular act in a convenient package.

So why is it that greatest-hits albums don't always add up to the best of a particular artist? Either the album is missing one of our favorite songs, or it offers a different version of the song (a concert recording, the "single edit," a "special remix") than the one we want. All too often, we're left feeling that a particular "Best of ..." could have been better.

Originally, greatest-hits collections were exactly that. Conceived for an age when singles were still a major part of the music market, they were intended for fans who normally didn't buy albums.

These days, some artists don't release singles at all. Yet the hits collections keep on coming. So I've decided to apply the truth-in-packaging principle to some of this season's greatest hits collections, in order to see which are the best of this year's Best Ofs.

Sting/The Police

The Very Best of Sting & the Police (A&M 31454 0843)

There's already a Police best-of available, "Every Breath You Take: The Singles," as well as a Sting greatest-hits collection, "Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting." So what's the point of "The Very Best of Sting & the Police" -- is it just an excuse to slip Sean "Puffy" Combs' absurd remix of "Roxanne" onto an album?

Split equally between Police and solo Sting tracks, the album seems to suggest that the Police was essentially Sting's band. But the music argues otherwise. For all the continuity Sting's songwriting provides, what made the Police special was the idiosyncratic sound of drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summer. Sting's solo stuff, though often sharp and catchy, lacks such a sonic signature, and as such, seems colorless by comparison.

Most egregious omission: Sting's "All This Time"; the Police's "King of Pain"

Most ridiculous inclusion: The "Roxanne" remix

Overall grade: **

Kenny G

Greatest Hits (Arista 18991)

He may be the most popular instrumentalist of our age, but there is no shortage of vocals on Kenny G's "Greatest Hits." With guest appearances by Toni Braxton, Babyface, Peabo Bryson and Frank Sinatra, the album shows that even the most melodic of instrumentalists can use a little help from a singer.

Still, Kenny G's greatest strength as a soloist has been the lean, tuneful nature of his playing, and that comes through clearly in tracks like "Songbird" and "Theme from 'Dying Young.' " The album also includes two new recordings: A treacly rendition of the Sam Cooke classic "You Send Me," performed with Michael Bolton, and a frisky, funky instrumental called "Baby G."

Most egregious omission: "Missing You Now," with Bolton

Most ridiculous inclusion: "All the Way Home/One for My Baby," with Sinatra

Overall grade: ***

Enya

Paint the Sky with Stars (Reprise 46835)

Because Enya has never been a singles artist, "Paint the Sky with Stars" doesn't feel like a typical hits collection. But that works to the music's advantage, as the selections here emphasize the melodic strength and textural depth of Enya's music, making it easy to appreciate how singular her airy, Celtic-influenced sound is.

In addition to such familiar tracks as "Orinoco Flow" and "Anywhere Is," the album includes two new songs -- the cheery, harpsichord-spiked "Only If " and the gentle, prayer-like title tune. The album's greatest strength is that these tracks fit together so perfectly; the disc sounds more like an original album than a collection of previously released tunes.

Most egregious omission: "Oiche Chiun (Silent Night)"

Overall grade: ****

Sinead O'Connor

So Far The Best of Sinead O'Connor (Chrysalis 23685)

Because Sinead O'Connor is as well-remembered for her "Saturday Night Live" attack on the Pope as for her chart-topping cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," some pop fans may wonder how, exactly, she could fill a whole album with hits.

Truth is, she doesn't. But that doesn't make "So Far The Best of Sinead O'Connor" any less listenable. Although the collection has its share of self-indulgent excess -- did we really need the church-bashing "Fire On Babylon"? -- it also serves as a reminder of O'Connor's musical range and emotive power.

Most egregious omission: "Jump in the River"

Most ridiculous inclusion: "Empire" by Bomb the Bass

Overall grade: ***

Ozzy Osbourne

The Ozzman Cometh (Epic 67980)

Ozzy Osbourne may be one of the most influential figures in heavy metal, but you wouldn't know it from the muddled mess that is "The Ozzman Cometh."

Although it pretends to cover the Ozzman's career from his early days with Black Sabbath to his current solo career, the "Black Sabbath" and "War Pigs" included here aren't the familiar album versions, but murky rehearsal tapes from Osbourne's private collection.

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