Frank Sinatra – Best of the Best (review)

Frank Sinatra – Best of the Best (Capitol / Frank Sinatra Enterprises) CD review

Finally a collection worthy of the “Chairman of the Board.”  Frank Sinatra recorded for a variety of record companies over his long career, making it difficult to track down his finest songs.  Best of the Best comes to the rescue, marking the first time his most fruitful years with Capitol in the 1950’s and his own Reprise label of the 1960’s & 70’s have co-habitated on a single CD.  Lovingly assembled by the Frank Sinatra Estate, The Best of the Best compiles 23 of Sinatra’s most treasured tracks.

The set kicks off with horns blazing on the standard “I’ve Got the World on a String,” working things to a frenzy with loud drumming and the singer practically shouting by the end.  The song comes from the very first recording session with Nelson Riddle; there’s would be a musical partnership that would produce a string of classic tracks throughout the Fifties.  Sinatra was noted as a pioneer in the new long-playing record format – one of the first to create “concept albums,” of which, In the Wee Small Hours (an entire album devoted to introspective, dark numbers) is represented by the title track.  Sinatra, by this point, was capable of invoking so many different emotions – he’s all smooth & sweet on the never growing old “Young at Heart,” while turning on the bombast for the durable “Love and Marriage” (used again and again in TV shows).  Songs For Swingin’ Lovers was quite possibly Sinatra’s finest studio album, and “You Make Me Feel So Young” is but one example of Riddle and Sinatra’s magic; the ebb and flowing of the backing strings and horns effortlessly blend with his voice – this was a high watermark for pop production.

After his contract with Capitol was up, Sinatra headed in a bold direction – forming his own record label, Reprise Records.  Many, many people, including Fred Astaire, tackled the Gershwin nugget “Night and Day,” yet Sinatra completely owns it, with swelling strings and understated production, and a rhythm that is largely implied rather than followed.  Nelson Riddle returns for another track Astaire had first made famous, “The Way You Look Tonight,” and again Sinatra wrestles it and makes it his own, complete with an excellent classic big band arrangement.  His recordings on his own label seem to carry a grittier quality – the hard-swinging teaming with Count Basie’s band produced the classic “Fly Me to the Moon,” while “Strangers in the Night” returned the vocalist to the top of the charts in 1966, proving that even in the age of the Beatles, he could still be relevant.  He brings back Riddle one more time for “Summer Wind,” a surprisingly well-traveled classic that’s been featured in several movies.  A few songs near the end of the collection deal with the passage of time and mortality — “It Was a Very Good Year,” and “My Way” (written especially for him by Paul Anka).  His voice had deepened by this point, but he was still capable of powerful emotion.

As a bonus, the box also contains a live concert recorded in Seattle in 1957, with the singer running through many of his best-known tunes.  He’s not quite as loose as he would become just a few years later when he became a fixture on the Vegas club scene (for proof of that era, see our review of Sinatra’s the Best of Vegas), yet he still manages a few jokes – flubbing the words to “The Tender Trap,” and toying with “I Get a Kick Out of You,” where he sings “the only exception I know is the case….case?  Yeah, let’s buy one.”  The collection comes housed in a handsome, glossy box, which also contains several black & white postcards of the singer, and track by track liner notes by Frank Sinatra Jr.  The amount of care that went into this is quite remarkable.  If you’re only going to own one Sinatra collection – this is the one to get.  Frank Sinatra was notoriously hard to please, yet I think he would be quite happy with The Best of the Best.  –Tony Peters