The Greatest Hits (Arista 07822-14626)
A greatest-hits album should be a fairly straightforward affair. Unlike a "Best of" collection, which can pretend to differentiate between an artist's most popular and most worthy work, a hits album is by definition obliged to take its cues from the pop charts, and deliver said star's smashes. Anything else amounts to false advertising.
So how, then, do we explain the new Whitney Houston package, "The Greatest Hits"? With 36 tracks spread across two CDs, it should have ample room for all her hits. And yet, not only does it does it offer several of her biggest hits -- including "How Will I Know" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" -- as dance remixes in place of the original versions, but it skips over three of her Top-10 hits entirely: "One Moment in Time," "Miracle" and "Count on Me."
Why were those songs altered or overlooked? A good guess would be that it was because they didn't fit the collection's concept. "The Greatest Hits" splits Houston's ouevre into two sides: The ballad side, called "Cool Down" here, and the dance side, dubbed "Throw Down." Presumably, songs that didn't fit neatly into either category were considered a bad fit for the album.
Except that the last track on the "Throw Down" disc is "The Star-Spangled Banner," as rendered by Houston for the 1991 Super Bowl. Now maybe I've lead a sheltered life, but I don't know anyone who thinks of our national anthem as a dance song. Perhaps there'll be a video version in which Houston shows us how to throw down on the song.
But the "Banner" isn't the only problem with the "Throw Down" concept. Truth is, Houston has never been considered a dance diva the way Donna Summer, Martha Wash or Loleatta Holloway are. She's a pop soul singer, and at her best, her up-tempo hits -- including the original mixes of "How Will I Know," "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" and "It's Not Right But It's OK" -- owe their appeal to the way she blends pop accessibility with the emotive power of soul.
Sadly, that quality is all-but-lost in these dance mixes, which strip the pop arrangements down to the barest bones while inadvertently underscoring the occasional stiffness of Houston's phrasing. Nor is it just the up-tempo stuff that gets remade, as there are also club versions of "The Greatest Love of All" and "I Will Always Love You." (I guess we're lucky there's not a Junior Vasquez mix of "The Star-Spangled Banner.")
As has become common practice, Houston's "The Greatest Hits" also includes several new tracks. Most seem to have been included to up the album's celebrity-duet quotient; hence, we hear Houston dueling with Deborah Cox on the tepid "Same Script, Different Cast," desperately trying to out-emote Enrique Iglesias on "Could I Have This Kiss Forever," and faking attraction with George Michael in "If I Told You That."
Of the new tracks, only the sultry, soulful "Fine" manages to convey any of the strengths that made Houston a star in the first place. Hearing her work the tune's insistent, retro-funk groove, there's no doubting that she still has what it takes to make hits. Here's hoping her future output continues in that direction, and not toward the bloated excess of "Same Script, Different Cast"" or "If I Told You That."
The Abba Generation (MCA 012 159 007)
It's no wonder the A Teens are such a sensation in Europe. Onstage, these four adolescents offer a faithful re-creation of the magic Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad -- better known as ABBA -- made in the '70s. For those too young to have seen ABBA before the group broke up in the early '80s, the A Teen's stage show is like a trip in a time machine. On disc, however, these note-perfect renderings of old ABBA hits are, frankly, almost pointless. After all, if you like ABBA well enough to be an A Teens fan in the first place, wouldn't you rather have the original versions than a set of K-Tel-style remakes? **
The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra 63537)
It seems odd to say so, but there's something comforting about how quaintly old-fashioned modernism has become. Or so it seems on the new Stereolab EP, "The First of the Microbe Hunters." Back in the early '60s, when the modernist aesthetic came into fashion, with its clean lines and smooth surfaces, its blank regularity seemed to presage an orderly and intelligible future -- a world far removed from the chaotic, fuzzy-logic reality we now face. Fortunately, the cool textures and repetitive rhythms of such Stereolab songs as "Outer Bongolia" and "I Feel the Air (Of Another Planet)" reassuringly evoke the bright, shiny hope of old-fashioned modernism.
Music from the Motion Picture (Dreamworks 0044 50262)
As anyone who has ever taken a long drive through the wilds of the American South can attest, one of the most frustrating aspects of such a road trip is trying to find something decent on the radio. Perhaps in tribute to this phenomenon, "Music from the Motion Picture `Road Trip' " offers a striking simulacrum of potluck listening. On the one hand, there are hip new tracks by Supergrass, the Eels and Kid Rock featuring Uncle Kracker, the best of which -- particularly Kid Rock's mackadelic "E.M.S.P." -- are as good as anything on the radio. But rounding those tracks out are some very moldy oldies, ranging from Twisted Sister's unintentionally campy "I Wanna Rock" to Minnie Ripperton's mildly erotic "Inside My Love." All told, the album's effect is a tad too realistic to be enjoyable.