Whoever compiled The Best of Roxy Music had the ingenious idea to sequence it in reverse chronological order, going from the least old material to the oldest. That way, unsuspecting listeners are given the impression the English band progressed from the world’s most debonair sophisti-pop lounge lizards to bold, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek art-rock boundary pushers, rather than the other way around.
It’s a neat trick, and maybe it was only meant to emphasize the material most casual Roxy Music fans worldwide would be familiar with. It also has the effect of making the listening experience even more thrilling for those who are discovering what they were missing.
The Best of Roxy Music originally appeared in 2001, nearly 20 years after their final studio album. It has never been issued on vinyl before. Now it caps off an extensive vinyl reissue campaign, getting the full double-album, gatefold, colored vinyl treatment. However, the garish artwork has survived intact, and the half-speed mastering sounds clean but oddly inert.
Roxy Music have already been compiled extensively. Many of these 18 tracks are reprised from the popular Street Life collection, which was released in 1986. Unlike Street Life, The Best of Roxy Music includes at least one song from each of the band’s eight studio albums. As with the previous collection, it contains singles that did not appear in an official capacity on any album. Two of these, the driving two-chord marvel “Virginia Plain” and sublime, proto-indie “Pyjamarama”, are essential. Two of them, a disco re-recording of “Angel Eyes” and a straight cover of John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy”, are superfluous schmaltz that were nonetheless big hits.
Roxy Music’s legacy is so well-established, their influence so widely acknowledged, that gleaning any new insight or understanding from a collection like this is difficult. One significant takeaway from The Best of Roxy Music is a somewhat surprising one. The band’s career was split into two distinct phases, with the interim between Siren in 1975 and Manifesto in 1979 as the demarcation point. Starting with Manifesto and certainly by its successor Flesh and Blood (1980), their gutsy, cocksure art-rock was replaced by well-mannered, synth-heavy romanticism, just as their rhythm section was replaced by session musicians. Listening to The Best of Roxy Music now, though, that latter-day material has not aged as well as expected.
Sure, the two singles from their 1982 swan song, “More Than This” and title track “Avalon”, still sound like the ultimate bedroom music for intellectuals and still are bathed in a thick, exotic atmosphere. But the fretless bass, Andy MacKay’s ever-so-tasteful sax embellishments, and Phil Manzanera’s increasingly sparse guitar lines all sound slightly dated. The demure nature of this music, Bryan Ferry‘s silken croon included, becomes all the more striking when it bumps up against the collection’s second LP. This runs through the signature swagger of “Love Is the Drug”, their only American hit; the increasingly tragic, ultimately unhinged “Out of the Blue”; and the heavy powerpop stomp of “All I Want Is You”.
“Mother of Pearl” is a fast/slow Jekyll and Hyde epic, and from there the record blazes through the band’s earliest years, all the way through the barely-controlled, musical allusion-spewing chaos of “Remake/Remodel” from their first album in 1972, Ferry sounding like he is having the time of his life all the while. This is what gives The Best of Roxy Music its title. The always-annoying “Do the Strand” is proof, not everything Roxy Music did during that first phase was gold but did they ever come close. Entire careers of many subsequent bands can be traced through these nine tracks.
Maybe that is why The Best of Roxy Music is sequenced the way it is because if this early material were the beginning, everything that came after could only be considered afterglow—pleasurable, yes, but still an anticlimax. As is, The Best of Roxy Music plays rope-a-dope with a neophyte’s expectations, subverting them just like the band’s first iteration subverted so much conventional wisdom about rock’n’roll. In the end, Roxy Music come across as maybe the only band in history that became less cool by becoming cooler.