The Essential Willie Nelson (2CD)
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Essential Willie Nelson (2CD), The
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The Essential Willie Nelson (2CD) Willie Nelson recorded for many labels during the course of his lengthy career, but his greatest commercial success arrived during his time on Columbia during the late '70s and early '80s, which is one of the reasons that the career-spanning double-disc collection The Essential Willie Nelson appeared on Columbia/Legacy in 2003. The other reason, of course, is that during the first part of the 2000s, Legacy had been turning out cross-licensed, multi-label compilations of artists who hopped around from label to label or had unwieldy careers. Willie is a perfect example of this, as he had five significant stays at labels (in chronological order: Liberty, RCA, Atlantic, Columbia, Island), surrounded by a bunch of detours to independent labels, or duets never featured on his official records, all of which makes the task of assembling a concise, definitive collection a difficult one. With its 41 tracks, spanning nearly 40 years of recording, The Essential Willie Nelson gets about as close as a set could to providing the basics. That doesn't mean that it's perfect, of course. It naturally relies heavily on the Columbia recordings, since it was both his popular peak and the label that released this collection, with 25 of the tracks dating from this era. To a certain extent, this shortchanges the brilliant Atlantic records Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, as well as his fascinatingly erratic RCA recordings (found in their entirety on the Bear Family box Nashville Was the Roughest), but it's also true that the entire first disc, which runs from "Night Life" and "Hello Walls" through "Me and Paul" and "Bloody Mary Morning," all the way to Stardust, has a great momentum and summarizes this transition very well. The second disc picks up this thread well for the first 12 songs or so, covering Honeysuckle Rose and "Always on My Mind," along with some duets ("Pancho & Lefty" with Merle Haggard, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" with Julio Iglesias) before it loses steam as it approaches the mid-'80s -- not so coincidentally, precisely the time that Willie's career was briefly derailed in a dispute with the IRS. From here on out, the compilation relies too heavily on idiosyncratic selections (partially because he stopped having hits, making selection a matter of picking fan favorites) and duets, including the rarities "Slow Dancing" and "One Time Too Many," where Willie is backed by U2 and Aerosmith, respectively, giving the very end of this collection an inappropriately sour aftertaste. These are minor problems, since the overall collection is as generous as Willie Nelson's music itself and it will likely satisfy the needs of most listeners wanting only one disc in their collection. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
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