Sheryl Crow is one of those rock stars who can be likeable one minute, and absolutely annoying the next. For every “Strong Enough”, there’s a cornball cover of Led Zeppelin’s “D’Yer Maker”. For every “My Favorite Mistake”, there’s a cheesecake magazine cover. And for every Tuesday Night Music Club, there’s a duet with Kid Rock. Crow’s music is contrived and unoriginal, most of her albums have been inconsistent at best, and she’s a shameless corporate shill, but you know what? Every so often, she puts out a song that just gets it right, and you can’t help but forgive her more idiotic moments. Well, almost. That “Sweet Child O Mine” cover was inexcusable.
Crow specializes in the type of safe, wholesome, retro-rock that rock radio loves. She’s like Tom Petty in a way, in that she keeps plugging away, following the same traditional rock formula, never daring to push the envelope too much, but the music, hopelessly formulaic as it is, is often pleasant. Even though she’s barely a decade into her solo career, a best-of compilation has already been assembled, chronicling her rapid rise as one of the most prominent female artists in pop music today. Because she’s only put out four albums in 10 years, it seems a bit odd to toss out a retrospective at this stage in her career, which is now as strong as it ever was, with no sign of stopping any time soon, but despite a bit of unnecessary filler, The Very Best of Sheryl Crow is a fine collection of tunes. If A&M had waited for a couple more albums, though, it probably would have been even better.
1994’s Tuesday Night Music Club remains Crow’s best album, with much of the credit going to her group of collaborators, including David Baerwald, Bill Bittrell, Kevin Gilbert, and Brian MacLeod. “Leaving Las Vegas”, which Baerwald co-wrote, inspired by the John O’Brien book of the same name (though Crow would later claim otherwise, angering both Baerwald and O’Brien), is a nice roots-rock ode to the down and out, bolstered by the terrific verse,” I’m standing in the middle of the desert/ Waiting for my ship to come in/ But now no joker, no jack, no king/ Can take this loser hand/ And make it win.” Arguably the prettiest song Crow has ever recorded, “Strong Enough” is quintessential Sheryl Crow: easygoing, tender, and wistful. Even the otherwise syrupy ballad “I Shall Believe” wins you over, with Crow’s understated vocal performance. And of course, there’s the whimsical “All I Wanna Do”, her biggest hit, a featuring Crow’s sly vocals, her band’s relaxed groove, and some great lyrics taken from Wyn Cooper’s 1987 poem, “Fun”.
After a bitter falling-out with both Baerwald and ex-boyfriend Gilbert (who died of autoerotic asphyxiation in 1996), Crow set out on her own, audaciously playing all instruments except horns and drums, and while her eponymous 1996 follow-up and 1998’s The Globe Sessions have their share of moments, they just don’t measure up to the charm of the first album. Still, singles like the breezy “Everyday is a Winding Road”, the fun Stones rip-off “If it Makes You Happy”, the languid “Home”, and the bouncy “A Change Would Do You Good” maintained Crow’s popularity. It was the lovely “My Favorite Mistake”, though, that marked another career peak for Crow. With its nocturnal feel (thanks to the always cool Hammond organ) and Keith Richards-style lead riff, and Crow’s sweet voice, it’s the kind of song you’d wish she’d pull off more often. 2002’s C’mon C’mon provides this compilation with a couple of guilty pleasures in the slick blues rock of “Steve McQueen” and the overproduced, shamelessly ebullient “Soak Up the Sun”, which features, of all things, Liz Phair providing some of her typically charming, tone-deaf background vocals.
Two thirds of The Very Best of Sheryl Crow are excellent, but the album wears thin the longer it goes on, as it becomes muddled with filler like “Picture”, her boring duet with Kid Rock, the maudlin “The Difficult Kind” (from The Globe Sessions), and not one, but two faithful renditions of Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” (one rock version, and one country version). Sadly, standout album cuts like “Run Baby Run”, “Can’t Cry Anymore”, and her cover of Bob Dylan’s brilliant “Mississippi” (which actually came out three years before Dylan’s own version) are missing from this collection.
The now 40-something Crow is still doing very well for herself, as she’s become a full-fledged corporate rocker; she went through a slick image makeover in 2002, a recent tour was sponsored by a shampoo company, and her 2002 song “You’re an Original” has been used in a car commercial. Despite that, Crow has carried on, sounding as appealing as ever. She might get irritating at times (she’s quickly becoming one of those artists who always appears at tribute concerts), but her best music never gets tiresome, and The Very Best of Sheryl Crow is an adequate collection of those songs.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.