Universal’s “20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection” is a budget-priced series of bare-bones greatest hits packages from some of the music giant’s biggest stars. The discs provide a great way to get acquainted with the work of artists who only had a few hits, but in the case of a superstar with the longevity of Liza Minnelli, the effort seems to be wasted. Comprising material from her years at Universal’s A&M imprint, The Best of Liza Minnelli only contains songs from four albums released 1970-1972, with seven of the twelve tracks taken from the New Feelin’ album alone. Even the most casual fan will realize that this collection ends just as Minnelli’s star was rising.
Because of its limited scope, the disc doesn’t include anything from the film Cabaret (although lesser versions of two songs from the show are featured), which won Minnelli both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Also overlooked are the title track from the 1977 picture New York, New York and songs from Minnelli’s early Broadway career, which included a Tony-winning performance in Flora, The Red Menace. What we’re dealing with, then, is more accurately called The Best of Liza Minnelli 1970-1972. That caveat established, though, it’s important to assess the music that actually comprises the disc.
Minnelli in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was, as the liner notes stress, at a career crossroads. No longer a Broadway ingenue, she was dealing with a divorce and her mother’s death, and had not yet established herself as a confident adult singer. Not yet known for a particular style, Minnelli was torn between standards and contemporary pop songs, traditional and modern arrangements, youthful awkwardness and knowing world-weariness. The performances on The Best Of exemplify this.
Minnelli’s backing musicians water down the classics “The Man I Love” and “Stormy Weather” with dated A/C arrangements, and the cheesy, funk-inspired versions of “Love for Sale” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” are cringe-inducing (the latter almost sounds like “Lady Marmalade”) despite Minnelli’s spirited vocals. The live French version of the Minnelli staple “Liza (With a ‘Z’)” is little more than a novelty that suffers from a sloppy performance, even if Liza’s poor French pronunciation is somewhat charming.
Minnelli fares better with her assured reading of the David/Bacharach composition “The Look of Love” and her more traditional interpretation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine”. The highlight of the collection, though, is surely “Come Saturday Morning”, from the 1969 album of the same name. With a gentle, baroque-folk arrangement, the song perfectly captures the fleeting nature of bliss. Minnelli’s voice strikes an easy balance between confidence and youthful optimism, especially in the spoken passage where she declares, “The trouble is that probably all the good things in life take place in no more than a minute.”
For Minnelli, the “good things”—at least career-wise—were just starting to happen when these songs were recorded. The Best Of hints at the great performances to come, but doesn’t have any to deliver itself.