Greatest Hits is a worthy endeavor. It’s nice to revisit these songs in a bit of a different context, and if it brings more people to explore Tracy Chapman’s excellent body of work, then it’s a success.
Tracy Chapman first entered public awareness in a big way with her critically hailed 1988 self-titled album and its surprise Top 40 hit, “Fast Car”. The track is a haunting piece about a woman seeking to escape the shackles of poverty but, even though she works hard and does everything she should, is unable to do so. The song hit a chord with millions, and it ended up as an unlikely Top 10 hit in America. Follow-up singles “Baby Can I Hold You” and “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” kept up her momentum. She followed with a series of strong albums that built upon the stark folk-rock of her debut, even if they didn’t approach it’s level of mainstream success: Crossroads (1989), Matters of the Heart (1992), New Beginning (1995), Telling Stories (2000), Let It Rain (2002), Where You Live, and Our Bright Future (2008).
It’s now been seven years since Chapman’s last studio album, and she hasn’t toured since the summer of 2009. A new studio album would be nice indeed, but a Greatest Hits collection is better than nothing. The songs were selected by Chapman herself, and as a result it’s not the same old chronological rundown of her singles that one might expect. The songs are also newly remastered, so they’ve never sounded better. The collection is mixed so that it flows like a complete listening experience, and she’s sprinkled in some lesser-known tracks along with her hits. It’s an absorbing listen, and a reminder of what a truly compelling body of work Tracy Chapman has to her credit -- and how incredibly relevant it all is today. She has a reputation for chronically society’s ills with grace and incisiveness, but Chapman also delves deeply into matters of the heart.
All of her albums are represented, though some have a larger presence than others. Her debut yields the three obvious choices: “Fast Car”, “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” and the sublime ballad “Baby Can I Hold You”. A massively successful and influential release, Tracy Chapman became one of the ‘80s most unlikely smashes when it reached #1 on the Billboard Album Chart at the end of the summer of ‘88. Her follow-up album Crossroads was very nearly as good as her debut, although it didn’t sell nearly as well. Chapman chose three great songs for inclusion here: the title-track, “Subcity”, another of her powerful explorations of the scourge of poverty, and the poetic beauty “All That You Have Is Your Soul”. It features Neil Young guesting on acoustic guitar and piano, and an absolutely stunning vocal by Chapman, who is generally underrated as a singer. A shame she couldn’t find room for the upbeat and emotional “Freedom Now”, a song dedicated to Nelson Mandela.
Chapman’s third album, Matters of the Heart was a commercial disappointment despite being yet another excellent collection of first-rate material. Only two tracks are included here: the stark and dramatic first single “Bang Bang Bang” (which couldn’t be more timely for 2015), and the mid-tempo gem “Open Arms”, which Chapman must have a special fondness for as it was never a single and she gives it prominent placement in the first segment of Greatest Hits. She overlooked the album’s second single, “Dreaming on a World” and a couple other strong tracks: “I Used to Be a Sailor” and the shattering “The Love That You Had”, which is arguably one of Chapman’s finest recordings.
1995’s New Beginning was a big commercial comeback, as the swinging blues-rocker “Give Me One Reason” became the biggest hit of her career, climbing all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song earned Chapman four Grammy nominations, and one win -- for Best Rock Song. The two other songs included from New Beginning are both beautiful ballads: “The Promise” and “Smoke and Ashes”, a definite highlight and a song that deserves a wider audience. Oddly the title song, which was a single that earned significant airplay, is not included. Of course, if Chapman had made this a double CD then there would have been room for all these additional great song, but then it wouldn’t serve its task as being a compact primer on the highlights of her career.
Chapman begins the compilation with the haunting title-track to her fifth album, Telling Stories, and it fits nicely into the opening slot. It’s one of those songs that are strong enough for casual fans who might not have heard it before to sit up and take notice. She bypasses the album’s two other singles -- “It’s OK” and “Wedding Song” -- and instead includes “Speak the Word”, a mid-tempo rocker with a whirling organ adding a nice retro touch. There are seldom opportunities for artists to go back and correct decisions they now find faulty -- since it’s included here, it’s easy to assume that if Chapman had to do it over again, “Speak the Word” would have been the album’s second single.
Let It Rain is represented by only one track, the album’s first single “You’re the One”. It’s a swinging bluesy number with a strong rhythm, some nice guitar licks and a terrific gospel-tinged backing vocal arrangement. Fans of “Give Me One Reason” should enjoy this one, which has a similar spirit.
The excellent Where You Live also only has one song present -- the powerful “Change”. The biggest omission of the collection has to be the album’s sharply pointed second single, “America” -- Chapman really should have found room for it.
For her most recent studio album, Our Bright Future, she features two songs -- the lovely piano ballad “Sing for You” (which Rhino Records is marketing as a featured track from this collection, as there are no new recordings included), and the rootsy gospel stomper “Save Us All”.
The album ends with a bit of an oddity -- a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” recorded live on the David Letterman Show. Chapman delivers a terrific performance, and it’s quite a nice way to end the compilation.
There are doubtless many music fans who are familiar with Tracy Chapman primarily via her two big hits, “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason”. This collection is an excellent starting point to discovering that she’s put out a ton of great work. Greatest Hits is a strong representation of her very best, although really it’s just the Cliff Notes version. A two-disc set would have provided a better overall picture, but perhaps it’s best to capture casual fans with a single disc. Given that Chapman was involved in the track selection and the songs are newly remastered, perhaps there is hope that this collection is the prelude for a reissue campaign -- it would be nice indeed to have newly remastered deluxe editions of her classic albums available. Even better would be new studio work by Chapman -- perhaps this collection is setting the stage for a return. Even if none of that comes to pass, Greatest Hits is still a worthy endeavor. It’s nice to revisit these songs in a bit of a different context, and if it brings more people to explore Tracy Chapman’s excellent body of work, then it’s a success.