Oh, What a Feeling
Universal Music’s 20th Century Masters CDs, which have been popping up over the last year or so make a sad kind of sense. Aimed squarely at chain store shoppers, they’re a generally a bargain alternative to bloated greatest hits packages. At the Virgin in my neighborhood, 20th Century Masters: The Best of Lionel Richie went for the reasonable $9.99 (for 11 songs) while Lionel Richie: The Definitive Collection was a whopping $18.99 (it’s cheaper than iTunes, though, considering that there are 20 songs). In addition, a lot of the artists anthologized by these discs will never make it to the greatest hits stage, some having crapped out after two or three albums. For them, a 10- or 11-song disc for $9.99 is perfectly reasonable when compared to full-lengths that might be $16.99 a pop. Despite the inappropriate titling of the series (there’s no doubt that Semisonic had some good songs but can they really be considered “Masters” of the 20th Century? The Gin Blossoms? Sublime??!!), these Millennium Collections have a place.
Lionel Richie, easily the most overlooked musician to ever score nine #1 songs, really deserves more and this disc just doesn’t do him justice. Say it slowly ...“Lionel Richie has written nine #1 songs.” In each of nine consecutive years between 1978 and 1987 he placed a song at the #1 position in the pop charts. The only other songwriter to achieve that was Irving Berlin. And what’s funny is that you know them all, even though you probably haven’t heard them for years. Aside from the occasional turn for “Say You, Say Me” on a “Mix” or a “Lite” station, the Faith No More cover of “Easy” in the mid-‘90s, and the zamboni driver in Happy Gilmore singing both parts on “Endless Love”, how often do you hear Richie’s songs? Even “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?” seems to have supplanted the Richie and Michael Jackson-penned “We Are the World” as the rock and roll millionaire do-gooder song for the ‘80s. Can the music of someone who wrote such a mind-boggling number of hits be totally irrelevant?
What’s not really funny is that this disc really gives only a slight bit of insight towards answering that question; only five of the big hits are on this disc. What’s left off are the songs (“Penny Lover”, “Easy”, “Stuck on You”, “Truly”, “Lady”, “Endless Love”, “Running With the Night”, “Three Times a Lady”) that make up Lionel Richie: The Definitive Collection, the wiser investment, schlock and all. You can laugh all you want; Richie’s songs, a weird mix of post-disco lite-funk and milquetoast ballads, and his MOR image, are an easy target. His soul didn’t have a lot of soul, particularly considering he recorded for Motown, but man, could he craft a chorus. It’s tough not to be seven years old again riding with my mom in the blue family truckster each time the chorus to “You Are” comes around. It’s nostalgia more than anything, but this is pop music so lay off. By the same token it was tough to stomach “Hello” when it was new and it sounds equally schmaltzy now. Ditto that damn “Electric Avenue” put-on of an accent on “All Night Long (All Night)”.
Of the remaining upbeat songs included here, “Say You, Say Me” easily trumps “Dancing on the Ceiling” but both probably lose to “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”, a track from his Commodores days that I’ll take any day over “Brickhouse” and the one worthwhile song included here that’s not on any of his other greatest hits collections. Of the included ballads, “Deep River Woman” wins out (though “Stuck on You” beats them all), while “Zoom”, another Commodores track, is everything that’s bad about Richie’s writing in a nutshell. He’s “searching for that silver lining”, a place where “everybody can be what they want to be”. He wishes that “the world was truly happy” and that the word “they call freedom someday would come”. When his devices fall flat, they fall hard. His delivery just isn’t strong enough to redeem bad material and his best songs walk such a fine line to begin with that there’s almost no room for error.
Considering that Richie’s anthology-to-studio album ratio is almost equal to the Who’s, still another collection of his hits seems considerably more than redundant. This collection, because it’s missing so many worthwhile songs, seems especially unnecessary. He may be one of the few cases where it’s worth it to shell out a few more dollars for a more complete collection. It’s tougher to say if in the long run his music, considering how little influence it seems to have had and how little it actually gets played, is irrelevant. but I think that the fact that you can’t sing one of his songs without smiling, and you know that you know the words, is evidence that it’s not.