Conventional wisdom holds that Cheap Trick exploded out of the gates with three strong studio albums, each arguably a touch weaker than the preceeding one. And then after, that... well, best to probably not discuss that too much. As conventional wisdom goes, it's pretty darn accurate. For the first couple of years, Cheap Trick possessed an unholy knack for mixing Beatlesque melodies with a hard rock attitude, even if the world largely ignored the band before Live at Budokan gained prime bootleg status in the States (prompting its official release, and changing the band's fortunes forever). After a while, apparently once the band heard the siren calls of the power ballad and meddling production, those talents seemingly faded toward the background. It was if the band looked at Live at Budokan, the album that made them stars, and said, "That's nice little fluke. When's the new keyboard get here?" So Cheap Trick spent roughly twenty years putting out some good songs, but also a lot of bad ones. Sounds like The Essential Cheap Trick is sorely needed.
As Cheap Trick collections go, The Essential Cheap Trick is probably the strongest so far. Reportedly, the band made the decisions on song selection, so some lost gems do get a chance to see the light of day again. On the first disc, which consists mainly of primo '70s material (although it's anyone's guess why they chose to go with a recent live version of "Mandocello" that features Billy Corgan), songs like "Downed", "Clock Strikes Ten", and "Auf Wiedersehen" sound better than remembered. Naturally, most of the chestnuts are here, too: "Surrender", the single version of "Southern Girls", and the Budokan versions of "I Want You to Want Me" and "Ain't That a Shame" (the problem with being a Cheap Trick fan, by the way, is that you spend all this time talking about how good the first three albums are, and you know deep down that Live at Budokan kicks their collective asses). The exclusion of a few second-tier songs on the first disc will keep Essential from being essential in some fans' books, but there's never a way around that.
Naturally, the second disc is a bit more problematic. On the plus side, since Cheap Trick weren't getting nearly as much attention during the '80s and '90s, Disc Two holds the potential to set a lot of things right, and to unveil some good songs that many of us may have missed the first time around (Anyone remember albums like The Doctor or Standing on the Edge? Anyone?). Songs like "Way of the World" holds up pretty well, as do "Everything Works if you Let It" and "She's Tight". "I Can't Take It", "Tonight It's You", and "Had to Make You Mine" are good, too, but definitely show the band's sound softening. "Can't Stop Falling in Love" is still a well-written pop song, but sounds so dated that it could have fallen off an '80s Heart album. So no missing classics on Disc Two (in both senses of the word -- it includes nothing revelatory, but it also misses the chance to include "Don't Be Cruel" and some truly good rarities that are out there), but the band do a remarkable job of selecting songs that make that period sound a lot better than, at times, it really was. Disc One definitely outshines Disc Two, as you'd expect, but Disc Two isn't bad (although it does drag right there at the very end).
Nothing's going to change the fact that the first three or four albums and Live at Budokan (or a current live show -- these guys are still a sharp, tight band) are still the best way to dive into Cheap Trick, but The Essential Cheap Trick makes for a good one-stop spot for most of the must-have material. If your collection has those early, truly essential Cheap Trick efforts, then this collection might not offer much. However, for the casual fan, this is easily the most comprehensive collection to date.