Three decades after his first accordion-assisted recordings, we're still talking about the Clown King of Pop Music and his continued influence.
When "Weird Al" Yankovic first broke onto the national scene with his parody of the Knack's "My Sharona" in 1979 (titled "My Bologna", naturally), few would have guessed that we would still be talking about him three decades later.
Yet even fewer could've predicted that with his wry, inoffensive pop song parodies, Yankvoic would go on to sell millions of albums, become a three-time Grammy winner (much less get nominated again this year), get his own VH1 Behind the Music special, and continue to sell out concert venues year after year after year. Although parody songs come and go with each passing decade, few have truly cornered the market like Yankovic has, and therein lies his importance: by mocking the popular trends of any given era, Yankovic not only provides a mirror for just how absurd any given musical movement is, he also provides it with its own time-capsule, capturing its essence in satire and preserving it for generations to come.
Although this may seem like a tough responsibility for the curly-haired guy whose weapon of choice is the accordion, this is not a responsibility that Yankvoic takes lightly. Anyone can write a song parody, but writing a good song parody -- much less one that lives alongside its original (or in some cases, even outshines it) -- is a challenge in and of itself. Thus, The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic marks the first major non-thematic hits compilation for Yankovic since 1994's box set Permanent Record: Al in the Box, and boy how things have changed in those 15 years between sets.
When Permanent Record was released, Yankovic was already eight albums (and one movie) into his career, with his last disc -- 1993's Alapalooza -- having already scored a massive hit in the form of the Red Hot Chili Peppers parody "Bedrock Anthem". When Yankovic returned with 1996's Bad Hair Day, however, the grunge movement was in full effect, and Yankovic positively seized the moment, resulting in what is arguably the most consistent album of his career, giddily mocking gangter rap (the Coolio parody "Amish Paradise"), alternative rock ("Gump"), and even left-field quirk poppers like They Might Be Giants (with the style-parody "Everything You Know Is Wrong").
In listening to these tracks, we begin to see why Yankovic has maintained his universal appeal for so long: he was never mean-spirited about his targets. Being civil, he always asked for the original artists' permission before parodying a song, and frequently juxtaposed the track's original context with a completely absurd new meaning (like taking the dead-serious "Gangsta's Paradise" and reworking it into, well, "Amish Paradise"). The few times he appeared to go after an artist (specifically with how "Smells Like Nirvana" is how no one could decipher Kurt Cobain's mumbled lyrics), he did so with the artist's blessing.
The first disc of The Essential "Weird Al" sums up everything prior to 1994, starting with his first "major" work (the stripped-down Queen parody "Another One Rides the Bus"), and working through Yankovic's polkas ("Polkas on 45"), Michael Jackson parodies ("Eat It", "Fat"), and his first of several elongated story songs ("The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota"). What makes The Essential work so well, however, is the wise choices of track selections. Gone are Yankovic's admittedly "lesser" singles (like his 1984 Dare to Be Stupid ragtime track "This Is the Life", the too-obvious Huey Lewis goof "I Want a New Duck"), and -- in their place -- we have excellent album cuts like Kinks-indebted "Yoda", the Talking Heads riff "Dog Eat Dog", and the R.E.M. goof "Frank's 2000" TV".
With the The Essential's second disc, however, things get a little less consistent, largely due to the fact that Yankovic's output from 1999 onward was all over the place in terms of quality. The right songs are pulled from 1999's Running with Scissors (like "The Saga Begins", "It's All About the Pentiums", and the ska-revival parody "Your Horoscope for Today" -- along with the insanely long "Albuquerque"), but things get dicey when we reach the artistic low-point that is 2003's Poodle Hat. Only three tracks are culled (the best of them being the Backstreet Boys parody "eBay"), two of which are fairly forgettable (the Bob Dylan-styled palindrome fest that is "Bob", the spastic "Hardware Store"). This dip in quality makes for somewhat of an awkward transition into the six tracks that are taken from Yankovic's stellar 2006 disc Straight Outta Lynwood, which includes his first-class Chamillionaire parody "White & Nerdy", the 10-minute "Trapped in the Closet" rip that is "Trapped in the Drive-Thru", as well as a fairly good (but not incredible) American Idol knock ("Don't Download This Song", which -- incidentally -- Yankovic released as a free download).
A straight-through listen of these two discs is breathtaking in scope, as some songs still provide plenty of comedic zing ("Smells Like Nirvana" still rings true) even as they are way past their supposed shelf date. Though, yes, certain references get lost in shuffle of things ("It's All About the Pentiums" can be particularly dated at times) and certain parody subjects are just far too obvious (changing Green Day's "American Idiot" to "Canadian Idiot"? Really?), the bulk of Yankovic's material is as solid as comedy-rock gets, totally nailing R. Kelly's exact inflections on "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" and the acoustic '80s soft-rock vibe on the acoustic (and delightfully outrageous) "You Don't Love Me Anymore". Part of the comedy is in the sheer imitation of it all, but most of the comedy comes from Yankovic himself.
Yet while The Essential does an absolutely stellar job of not only summing up Yankovic's career, but also the numerous ways that pop music has morphed over three decades (covering the Beach Boys to Madonna to Rage Against the Machine to Green Day in the course of two-and-a-half hours), fans and even casual observers will (still) find glaring omissions abound. No "My Bologna"? "Ricky"? "Christmas at Ground Zero"? "This Song's Just (Six Words Long)"? "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies"? "Achy Breaky Song"? "Here's Johnny"? "I Can't Watch This"? "Harvey the Wonder Hamster"? "Bohemian Polka"? "Headline News"? "Cavity Search"? "Phony Calls"? "Wanna B Ur Lovr"? "Confessions, Part III"? Although not every track that Yankovic ever did was absolutely brilliant (no artist can ever last three decades without making more than a few missteps), do we really need to hear something as fleeting as Yankovic's Brian Wilson homage "Pancreas" when even the theme to The "Weird Al" Show would've fit in just as well?
Fortunately, this quibbles are all rather minor. The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic is a testament to the comedic genius that Yankovic has maintained over the course of three decades, proving that no matter how seriously we take our music sometimes, there will always be at least one person to pull us aside and remind us just how ludicrous the whole thing is. For that alone, he deserves our thanks.