It is comforting to know that the record industry cares about the little guy. After all, why else would the Island/Universal group create the vast project of the 20th Century Masters Millennium Collection, a sprawling set of best-of collections that can continually be found filling the bargain bins at the local record shop? Who would want to spend more than $9.99 on greatest hits packages from the likes of Jody Watley, the Gap Band, and .38 Special? Put more fairly to the probably well intentioned folks in Island/Universal’s boardroom, a major service is performed to the legally-purchasing populace when they only need to spend a middling amount of money on mediocre bands whose albums should rightfully be [to name three bands who have releases in the series] free semisonic platters.
The Millennium Collection is a boon to both the eighth-grader discovering Marvin and Tammi or the recovering eighties addict who is willing to spend 10 bucks for the guaranteed opportunity to Wang Chung on any night. But the label seems at times to be at cross purposes with itself when shoddy Millennium packages of the Who can be found alongside Universal’s remarkable “Deluxe Edition” re-releases of the band’s My Generation and Who’s Next, not to mention the readily available and authoritative [if not sonically inferior] The Who’s Greatest Hits. The series of releases that is The 20th Century Masters Collection begs what I like to think of as the George Jones’s question: should an artist have more greatest hits packages than studio albums?
In the case at hand, the question is better put this way: does Traffic, a band that barely released six LPs during its seven years of existence [we all know recent reunions cannot be held against them] really require two separate, and unequal, best of collections? Last year witnessed the release of Feelin’ Alright: The Very Best of Traffic, complete with 15 tracks that documented the band’s entire career, from the early psychedelic days with Dave Mason [Mr. Fantasy, Traffic] to the later proto-jam band days without him [most notably on John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys]. A balanced release, Feelin’ Alright painted a wide-ranging portrait of Traffic’s development and transformation from ’60s drugged-out quartet to ’70s funk-based trio.
But the folks at Island/Universal seem dissatisfied with Traffic receiving such fair treatment. Or, perhaps, they are just dissatisfied with record sales. Now, just about a year to the day after Feelin’ Alright‘s release, the Millennium Collection sits alongside the previous anthology on record racks real and virtual. The difference between the two? The latter, at a savings of two hundred pennies, cuts out five songs. Gone is “Hole in My Shoe” from the band’s second, self-titled effort, yet — more importantly — missing are four tracks that document the brilliant arc of development the Traffic followed as its musical expression found new outlet: “Glad”, “Freedom Rider”, “John Barleycorn” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Stew”. [With the trimming of the last track, gone as well is the seeming existence of Traffic’s fifth release, 1973’s Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory.] Especially for those among us who believe that later Traffic beats early Traffic [no matter how much fun “Dear Mr. Fantasy” remains, or how cool Jimmy Miller is a producer], it seems ludicrously unbalanced for the Millennium Collection to contain eight songs recorded in the band’s first two years, while sharing only two tracks from Traffic’s remaining [and incredibly worthwhile] five.
I thought that two dollars only mattered so much to John Cusak. Still, if you loved Traffic in the late sixties, when everything, in their words was “really simple and stupid”, then The Millennium Collection will fit beautifully into your record collection. But, if you’re musically adventurous — and if that gal who ordered the Latte gave you all the change from her five — then step up instead to the plate of Feelin’ Alright, a record that really shows the best of what an ever-changing band could do. And, if you’ve just hit it big and come into fifty bucks or so, just buy the whole Traffic collection: all six albums have been remastered, they sound beautiful, and every note played by Winwood/Wood/Mason/Capaldi is present and accounted for. And, even if you’re not sure that you need everything Traffic ever release, go ahead anyway: buying all those discs would make the record company’s day.