I can hear you asking now: Didn't Matthew Sweet just release a greatest hits album, back in 2000? Yes, he did -- and, no, he hasn't released an album stateside since 1999's In Reverse. Do you have a better idea on how a record label can make money off an artist who is on hiatus?
Bruce McCulloch, in a classic Kids in the Hall sketch, once noted, "Greatest hits albums are for children and housewives." And he's right -- greatest hits albums, as a concept, do suck. They're usually used to fulfill contractual obligations between artist and label, and they lack the thematic cohesion of an album proper. And in today's iTunes / cherry-pick-your-favorite-songs-and-burn-your-own-mix-CD universe, greatest hits albums are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Record company attempts to sweeten a greatest hits package with, say, live material or a bonus DVD rarely justify asking the consumer to shell out money for songs they already own. On top of everything else, greatest hits albums are a cop-out. If you like an artist, go buy his or her actual body of work.
That little screed out of the way, let's discuss the album at hand: The Best of Matthew Sweet, brought to you by BMG Heritage. The album is part of BMG's Platinum & Gold Collection, which sounds impressive until you learn that other acts who have or are scheduled to receive the P & G treatment include Taylor Dayne, A Flock of Seagulls, and S.W.V. Or, as Cliff Claven might say, "Who are three acts who have never been in my kitchen?" There is no indication that Matthew Sweet was involved in the creation of this album in any way, shape or form; it's all BMG, if that matters to you.
But and so, The Best of Matthew Sweet ignores his embryonic first and second late-1980s albums (Inside and Earth) and picks up with Sweet's third album and undeniable masterpiece, 1991's Girlfriend. Every track on that album is a treat, and the three that appear here -- "Evangeline", "I've Been Waiting" and the title track -- are superlative, all chiming guitars courtesy of Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids) and heartfelt emotion. If you didn't know it already, you'll realize that every '90s power pop album released after Girlfriend is influenced by Sweet. (And while we're throwing around some boasts, I will fight anyone who doesn't believe that "Girlfriend" is the best pop song of the '90s.) The only downside to hearing these tracks? After hearing them, I wanted to listen to the rest of Girlfriend and not finish listening to this compilation for the review. The life of a freelance rock critic can be so tough sometimes.
One of the neater tricks of The Best of Matthew Sweet is that it can be used to not only trace Sweet's path (the tracks on the album are arranged chronologically), but also the path of '90s commercial rock in general. Girlfriend was released in 1991, right before Nevermind dropped a neutron bomb on the music scene, and of course Girlfriend has more in common with Marshall Crenshaw than with Kurt Cobain. That's not the case with Sweet's 1993 album, Altered Beast, which, with 11 years of retrospect, sounds like an ill-advised attempt to join the grunge ranks. "Falling", from that album, is dark, messy, and full of scuffed-up guitars. Ditto for "Superdeformed", which appeared on the '90s-alt-who's-who compilation No Alternative -- surely the only time Sweet has been lumped in with Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins. Granted, Sweet couldn't keep recording Girlfriend over and over, but the Altered Beast cuts reveal a pop craftsman lost in a sea of flannel.
Fortunately for Sweet -- and his fans -- he righted the ship with 1995's 100% Fun, an album released in the dying days of grunge. And it sounds like Sweet had moved beyond that genre. Ironically, "Sick of Myself" is a tune where Sweet sounds most like himself -- his guitar jangle is back and he's got his heart on his sleeve: "I'm sick of myself / When I look at you / Something is beautiful and true" is one of the best pining-over-a-girl anthems ever. More tellingly, "Get Older" proves that Sweet buried Altered Beast and foreshadows his later work with the Thorns: "Who cares if they don't think you're cool?", Sweet asks over a gentle, mid-tempo beat. The cuts from 1997's Blue Sky on Mars find Sweet in a holding pattern, with "Where You Get Love" and "Until You Break" as the raucous song and the introspective song.
Those of you who gave up on Sweet in the mid-90s for whatever reason will be shocked -- shocked! -- to hear this compilation's closer, "Thunderstorm", off 1999's In Reverse. Clocking in at nine-and-a-half minutes, it's about as long as all his previous best songs combined. It's a lush, full, Wall of Sound-esque epic, with enough different musical passages to make Yes envious. It's nothing short of amazing, and it proves that Sweet still is a vital musician, though it's a shame that In Reverse's complex song cycle has to get boiled down to one track for the greatest hits package ... highlighting yet another shortcoming of the greatest hits album.
If you can get past the cynicism of BMG cashing in at your expense, and you're only a casual fan of Sweet, there are worse ways to spend your hard-earned money than on this compilation. All of the songs you'd expect are here, and a few songs you probably don't know will hopefully make you want to dig deeper. But, please, promise me you'll buy Girlfriend and In Reverse.