At first glance, it’s hard to take the title of this two-disc compilation, The Ultimate Kansas, very seriously. Particularly when it’s a matter of public record that the band released a box set back in 1994. Logically, you’d have to figure that a box set would, simply by sheer volume, have the edge on a mere two-disc compilation.
Turns out, though, that the so-called “box set” contained only two discs . . . which, I think most of us would agree, is a pretty crappy excuse for a box set.
The next step, therefore, is to make a comparison of the tracks contained on these two double-disc compilations and see which comes closest to the definition of “ultimate”.
As it happens, this is not a case of false advertising. There’s little question that The Ultimate Kansas blows away any previous competition in the field of “most comprehensive Kansas anthology”. No, it doesn’t cover the MCA years, let alone anything the band’s done since . . . but it is, without question, the best existing collection of the band’s work from 1974 to 1983.
The average radio listener is probably only familiar with Kansas for their two biggest hits: “Carry on Wayward Son”, from Leftoverture (a.k.a. the song that taught the band Jellyfish how to harmonize together), and “Dust in the Wind,” from Point of Know Return. If you stretch your album-rock memory, you might even recognize “People of the South Wind”, “Hold On”, and “Play the Game”. The latter was a pretty substantial hit, but if you’ve thought it was by Styx for all these years, trust me, it’s an easy mistake to make. Still, it’s the two albums cited above that are generally considered the watershed moments of the band’s career.
Kansas were definitely a unique entity when they first emerged on the music scene. Somewhere between Yes and the Doobie Brothers, mixing American rock with British progressive tendencies, it might be overstating things to say that, at certain moments during the ‘70s, they were the US equivalent of Led Zeppelin, but not by much.
Listening to The Ultimate Kansas, though, one realizes that, as good as some of the material may be, Kansas were definitely one of the bands that led directly to the beginning of punk rock. It’s songs like the 10-minutes-plus “Song for America” and the nine-minutes-plus “The Pinnacle” that inspired a generation to rebel against lengthy, bloated tracks of epic length and get back to hard, fast nuggets of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s names like Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson who tend to be cited more often than not, but, rest assured, Kansas were a part of the “problem” (as seen by the soon-to-be-punks, anyway) as well.
The band’s last album for Epic, Drastic Measures, is often written off as a desperate attempt for commercial viability in the just-getting-started MTV generation. If that’s what it was, then it was a dismal failure. This proved to be Kansas’s least successful album since their debut. Still, at the same time, there’s surely a certain percentage of the cable-viewing public that fondly remembers the video for the album’s single. Those folks will be glad to know that, while no other song from Drastic Measures made the cut, “Fight Fire with Fire” does, indeed, appear on The Ultimate Kansas.
There are a handful of omissions that diehards could argue about, but that’s par for the course with any collection from any band, really. “Where’s ‘Questions of My Childhood’” some will want to know. The answer, of course, is that it’s still sitting quite comfortably on Leftoverture, where you can always find it if you want it, since, if you know that song, you probably already own that album, anyway.
It’s not very likely that a casual fan would choose The Ultimate Kansas over the less-unwieldy, single-disc compilation, The Best of Kansas, particularly considering that the latter contains pretty much every significant radio hit the band ever had. Anyone looking for a career overview of the band’s work that covers both the airwave-friendly stuff in addition to the seven-minutes-plus album tracks, however, would do well to lunge headlong into this set.