Neil Diamond’s dense songbook is, somehow, not ever easy to sort through, if not just because after recording for so many labels and making so many notable left turns in his career, most of his “hits” retrospectives have tended to focus on a single label, a single era, or even a single style of song (i.e. 1972’s Love Songs, which is absolute saccharine overkill). Although the colors of those shimmer shirts have changed through the ages, finding a cohesive introduction to the “Jewish Elvis” that covered everything a casual fan would want has been akin to finding a Diamond in the rough (no apologies).
Yet following Diamond’s turn for the stark in 2005 with a pair of Rick Rubin-produced, intensely serious and stripped-down affairs, Diamond has somewhat come back into the critical limelight, obviously angling to bolster his own legacy beyond his trilogy of notable albums (1972’s live set Hot August Night, 1976’s Robbie Robertson-produced Beautiful Noise, and — of course — 1980’s soundtrack to The Jazz Singer) and his scattered iconic singles. Compilations from the man have come out yearly like clockwork, with both Sony Legacy’s overstuffed 2001 effort The Essential and Geffen’s 2005 comp Gold both selling well for casual fans but, unbeknownst to them, it contained more re-works than original recordings, obviously upsetting some purists.
As major labels continue to merge and swallow lesser ones in the post-millennial consolidation frenzy, previously rigid recording clauses have given way to much greater label flexibility, and compilations like 2002’s Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings … Plus! and the intensely well-received 2011 set The Bang Years: 1966-1968 have caused notable revaluation and celebration of Diamond’s early oeuvre, his kitschy knack for pure, uninhibited pop flowing from him like a river. Although the man never found a sentimental moment he couldn’t mercilessly exploit — especially during his dreadful post-Jazz Singer years — the demand for his original recordings was great enough that in 2011, the excellent single-disc comp The Very Best of Neil Diamond: The Original Studio Recordings finally came into light.
So why, pray tell, are we even talking about All-Time Greatest Hits, released in 2014?
In total fairness, that’s an excellent question, because there is very little to distinguish the two compilations. Both The Very Best and All-Time Greatest Hits are 23 tracks apiece, and should you not count All-Time‘s rare solo version of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (versus the chart-topping 1978 version featuring Barbara Streisand), the only difference between these two sets is a meager three songs. Both compilations contain every single song you’d expect: “Love on the Rocks”, “Cracklin’ Rosie”, “Sweet Caroline”, “Red, Red Wine”, “I’m a Believer”, “Cherry, Cherry”, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman”, “America”, “Kentucky Woman”, etc. They all sound absolutely pristine here, and although the non-chronological track listing does somewhat hurt the cause — putting “September Morn” and “Love on the Rocks” together doesn’t do much to highlight their individual strengths — they still give fans both old and new that unashamed rush of pure pop that only Diamond could deliver.
Again, though, what constitutes the differences between these compilations? You’re really not missing much with the three-song swap of assuredly lesser songs in Diamond’s discography. The Very Best comp houses “If You Know What I Mean” from Beautiful Noise as well as a pair of Rubin-produced tunes: “Pretty Amazing Grace” and “Hell Yeah”. For All-Time, however, three tracks are pulled from Diamond’s ’70s era: 1970’s “Soolaimon” from Tap Root Manuscript, 1972’s “Morningside”, and “September Morn” from the 1979 disc of the same name. All of these songs are improvements over Very Best‘s trio, making All-Time Greatest Hits somewhat more of a “get” for those who think that “America” was Diamond’s last great solo hurrah (sorry, “Heartlight”).
Overall, All-Time Greatest Hits, although a bit on the long side due to the fact that a little bit of schmaltz can really go a long way, still manages to potentially be the most concise and satisfying summation of Neil Diamond’s career. For those on the fence about which comp to get, All-Time Greatest Hits may very well be the one that makes you a believer.