When it was released in 1970, there was probably nothing to indicate that Greatest Hits was an instant classic. At the time, the normally prolific Stone was holed up in the studio, laboring over what would become There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and the label was getting nervous. So they cobbled together a greatest hits disc from the four albums Stone had recorded so far (as well as some b-sides), and rushed it to the stores so listeners wouldn’t lose interest. Never conceived as anything more than a stalling tactic, Greatest Hits doesn’t even bother to adopt a chronological presentation to illustrate the group’s growth into a soul/rock/psychedelia powerhouse.
Maybe that slapped-together feel is part of what makes Greatest Hits work so well, as if it was put together with the same freewheeling spirit that characterized the band. As it turned out, Greatest Hits would become not only an excellent, high-spirited party disc, but it would also serve as the perfect headstone for the optimism that defined the early part of Stone’s career. After Greatest Hits summed all of the sunshine into one package, There’s a Riot Goin’ On came along to show not only Stone’s increasing feelings of hopelessness with America’s social problems, but also the effects of his addictions. A harrowing, seductive record, the anger of Riot stands as a monumental accomplishment that fully balanced out 1969’s jubilant (although no less politically-conscious) Stand!. Stone had always been socially conscious, the messages in his songs acting as common ground for his diverse audience, but Riot was where the cracks started to show.
But while There’s a Riot Goin’ On is a classic, its dark allure on par with the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, it’s the Sly Stone of Greatest Hits — the Sly Stone of film soundtracks and car commercials — that everyone knows. And why not? Songs like “I Want to Take You Higher”, “Dance to the Music”, and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” sound as fresh today as when they were released. Roughly a decade before Funkadelic issued the challenge, “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!”, the Family Stone were pioneers at putting the notion into practice by mixing rock, funk, and soul. With an infectious communal atmosphere, Stone and his band played in lockstep rhythm, freely traded vocals, and generally cut loose in wonderfully unselfconscious fashion.
The release of this remastered version coincides with other recent reissues from Stone’s catalog. Many of those records are well worth seeking out on their own, but as a starting point, it’s hard to do much better than Greatest Hits. It doesn’t cover the bulk of Stone’s career, but the four years it does cover — pretty comprehensively — were pivotal years not only for Stone but also for popular music.