[9 December 2008]
A “greatest hits” compilation and a “best of” compilation are not the same thing. A “greatest hits” album is, by definition, a collection of an artist’s greatest hits—the most popular songs the artist has recorded, regardless of critical reception, artistic worth, or the artist’s own opinions. A “best of” compilation, by comparison, culls together only the artist’s highest achievements, without consideration of their individual popularity or commercial success. Most compilations released under either rubric hew towards the greatest hits end of things by necessity; the purpose of the comp is to sell records, not define great art. However, the most recent release from Switchfoot, The Best Yet, tries to take a middle road between the two, jettisoning a few of the band’s better-known hits for album tracks and ballads that would otherwise have been neglected with the passage of time.
The Best Yet boasts tracks from all six of the band’s full-lengths, and fully one-third of the 18-track collection is taken from their breakout 2003 success, The Beautiful Letdown, the album that catapulted them from the Christian radio market into the mainstream. This is no surprise, of course, and nor is the fact that the group’s three albums prior to The Beautiful Letdown receive scant representation. The disc includes only one track from the group’s substandard debut, 1997’s Legend of Chin, two tracks from the awkward but worthwhile 1999 LP New Way to Be Human, and two from their quite successful 2000 release Learning to Breathe.
The fact that The Legend of Chin is represented by “Concrete Girl” rather than the better-known “Chem 6A” (which received some rock radio airplay years before their monster hits “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move”) is easily understandable. Like much of Relient K’s early work, the track sounds a little sophomoric and would be out of step with the tenor of most of the other songs on the collection. For New Way to Be Human, both of the album’s Christian radio hits—the title track and “I Turn Everything Over”—are discarded in favor of the quiet “Only Hope” and brash fan favorite “Company Car”. Christian radio smash “Gone”, from The Beautiful Letdown, was undoubtedly left off for being a little too evangelical, and in its stead, the absolute best of the album’s slow burners are included: the winsome final lament “Twenty-Four” and the title track, a smart, poignant ode to failure and redemption.
It is perhaps a disappointment that the Top 40 hit “We Are One Tonight”, from Nothing Is Sound, was left off. Given the album’s success, it would have made sense to include more than three tracks, but an even better tune, the glittering ballad “Shadow Proves the Sunshine”, took its place on The Best Yet. The biggest misstep was eschewing the Oh! Gravity. hit “Head Over Heels (In This Life)”, one of the group’s best songs, and replacing it with the oddball title track and the shelved single “Dirty Second Hands”. This is all the more surprising given that Oh! Gravity. was their weakest album since jumping from parochial Christian label Sparrow to major powerhouse Columbia. If the collection was meant to inspire interest in their previous full-lengths, they’re shooting themselves in the foot by leaving “Head Over Heels” off.
It’s probably wishful thinking to presume that anyone picking up a greatest hits package is looking to expand past it; why bother, when one can just download the few missing gems? Such an attitude, while prevalent, is unfortunate, because Switchfoot’s career path is hard to understand simply by listening to this collection, which is not in chronological order. They started out as a scrappy, grunge-inflected outfit seeking membership in the Christian alternative nation, following in the footsteps of Third Day, Jars of Clay, and Jesus Freak-era DC Talk. A combination of punk-pop sensibility and sweet melodies carried them for three full-lengths before somebody high up in Sony BMG’s ranks figured they could sell the band worldwide outside of the Christian market. The group smoothed out some of the kinks in their sound, deftly veiled the message ever so slightly (enough to sneak onto rock radio, but not enough to sound like they were reneging on commitments to their faithful fans), and struck gold with the next two albums. The band’s most recent release went back to being a little more boisterous and unpredictable, but it failed to connect on a gut level the way their previous efforts had.
This is a story that can’t be told in 18 tracks, but, even with a few unfortunate omissions, The Best Yet is a solid collection of Switchfoot’s best work. For longtime fans, the collection holds little to recommend it, as there is only one new track, “This Is Home” (which is also available on the Prince Caspian soundtrack and on the WOW Hits 2009 comp; the majority of the band’s diehards will probably already own one or both of these). But given that they are self-releasing their upcoming album, it’s likely that this will be the definitive career retrospective for non-obsessives. For anyone who’s been waiting for a Switchfoot greatest hits, this isn’t it; but for anyone who’s been waiting for a Switchfoot best of, this is close.