At this point in Pat Benatar’s career, she is relegated to nothing but a stream of greatest hits compilations, largely because—as the dismal 2003 effort Go pointed out—there’s nothing worse than watching a prominent ‘80s icon attempt to recreate the sound that made them popular in the first place, despite said sound being two decades removed from its relevance.
Her last greatest hits album came out three years ago, and that was a single disc affair that touched on every one of her chart peaks. Yet what, dear reader, would make you forego that compilation and instead pick up the two-disc, 40-song compilation Ultimate Hits from the same artist?
Simple: Pat Benatar was an incredible singles artist.
In looking back at Benatar’s career, she has not a single classic album to her belt, which, especially when contrasted with such contemporaries like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, is somewhat of a sad statement (even Lauper’s iconic disc She’s So Unusual encapsulates the effervescent, care-free feelings of the era to perfection). Though Benatar’s albums all produced big hits, her discs were always weighed down by excessive filler, much as how her entire discography is weighed down by too many live discs, stylistic detours, and—yes—hits compilations. She barely wrote her own hits (that was often handled by her guitarist/producer/future husband Neil Giraldo), but she could sell each and every one of them, largely through her throaty, scratchy, arching howl of a voice.
Though Benatar would be known as great spandex-laced eye candy in the ‘80s (one of the few problems with being the first on the MTV bandwagon was being subject to such pigeonholing), she rocked in a way that Lauper and Madonna often shied away from, never fully reaching the rebellious spirit of Joan Jett but still lacing each of her songs with a fiery attitude and Giraldo’s ever-powerful guitar solos. Though a single-disc compilation may admirably cover her many, many hits—go ahead, get the choruses to “Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Love is a Battlefield,” and “We Belong” stuck in your head all over again—this two-disc set actually gives a wider breadth of her career, which, ultimately, is a surprisingly good thing.
With the tracks sequenced chronologically, we actually get to see Benatar’s career arc ever so gracefully from being a badass pin-up rock vixen to a bona fide pop diva to a casual eccentric. Particularly with her early works, you can hear some accidental thievery here and there: “I Need a Lover” borrows its melody a bit too liberally from Linda Ronstadt’s “It’s So Easy”, but such a subconscious steal is forgiven when you hear her 1980 hit “In the Heat of the Night” and realize just how carefully it influenced Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” four years later. All the while, we find ourselves bombarded with some of the smaller gems in her back catalog: “We Live for Love”, the harrowing child-abuse number “Hell is for Children”, and the frantic, stuttering album track “Anxiety (Get Nervous)”. Though some singles easily trump others (“You Better Run” is a bit too bombastic for its own good, especially when preceding the effortless joy of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), the first disc —covering her material from 1980 to 1983—proves to be a remarkably potent listen, even if it actually doesn’t contain all her hits (what happened to charting single “Take It Anyway You Want It” anyway?).
Yet with as many hits as Benatar and Giraldo were able to pack into those formative years, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that disc two of Ultimate Collection (covering her material from 1984-1993, along with a 2008 song written for The Young & The Restless) will suffer by comparison. Although Benatar still tackled pop fluff before (and with vigor, even, as evidenced by tracks like “Just Like Me” and the Blondie-via-B52s excursion “Looking for a Stranger”), disc two opens with “Diamond Field”, one of her less powerful detours into accessibility. Of course, it’s hard to come off too harshly on the song when it’s then followed by the widescreen anthemetic pop escapism of “We Belong”, still one of the finest mainstream ballads in the ‘80s. The gritty rock edge of her early singles, unsurprisingly, gradually fades away as time goes on, instead showing Benatar traveling bubblegum avenues both good (the Katrina & the Waves echoing “Ooh Ooh Song”) and bad (the overly long “Painted Desert”, here incorrectly listed as “Painted Dessert”). Though she still had some great pop moments in the latter part of her career, like with the effortless joy of “One Love (Song of the Lion)”, you can gradually hear her getting written into a corner, and tracks like “Sex as a Weapon” and “Le Bel Age”—fan favorites though they may be—feel forced.
The second half of disc two emphasizes a slew of songs from True Love, her big-band collection that, unfortunately, sounds utterly staged from the first second. The production is too bright and obvious, the whole time Benatar sounding like her group lost a bloody coup to the boogie-woogie piano of Jools Holland. Two tracks from her surprisingly-potent 1993 return-to-rock effort Gravity’s Rainbow actually do a fantastic job of ending the disc, right next to that Young & the Restless track—the sweet-but-not-saccharine “Every Time I Fall Back”. Notice, however, that nothing from Go made the cut this time ‘round. Though there are some gems to be found here, the second disc stretches out a bit too much, running on the fuel of the reused ideas and sounds that brought her an audience in the first place.
With all that said though, Ultimate Collection proves to be both an intimidating look at Benatar’s career as well as one that’s certainly time-capsule worthy. It’s often too easy to write of MTV video starlets as products of their age and nothing more, forgetting that as artists, they at least tried to move beyond the limits of mainstream radio pop and into something far more worthwhile. Today, Cyndi Lauper can release acoustic discs, cover albums, and knockout dance LPs all without batting an eye. There was a time when Benatar could release blues albums, standards sets, acoustic discs, and rawk releases while still finding just enough of an audience to sustain herself. Her effort is admirable and her talent is undeniable: maybe it’s now time to recognize her powerful, fantastically flawed body of work over just her singles. Maybe it’s time to give Pat Benatar the credit that she rightfully deserves.