Neil Diamond – The Very Best Of (review)

Neil Diamond – The Very Best of – The Original Studio Recordings (Columbia / Legacy) review

It used to be that buying a Neil Diamond collection was kind of like purchasing cheap cubic zirconium – it looked good in the store, but when you brought it home, you noticed something missing.  While there has been numerous Neil Diamond collections, none of them have contained all of his hits – instead choosing to substitute subpar live versions for songs that each record label did not own.  The Very Best of Neil Diamond marks the first time that the multi-platinum artist’s entire career is represented on a single disc, all with the correct hit versions of his songs.   Kudos goes to Sony Legacy for finally getting it right.

The set gives equal space to all three of his major eras – the early, effervescent pop songs like “Cherry Cherry” and “I’m a Believer” recorded for the Bang label, the middle, sugary singer/songwriter lean of “Song Sung Blue” and “Cracklin’ Rosie” done for Uni Records, and the grandiose bombastic later songs like “America” and “Hello Again” taken from his long tenure on Columbia.  The collection isn’t sequenced in chronological order, but it isn’t totally random either – instead grouping songs in clusters – beginning with his latter years. “Forever in Blue Jeans” makes an odd choice to open the set (it only peaked at #20 on the charts), followed by the Robbie Robertson-produced “Beautiful Noise,” then “Love on the Rocks,” one of three songs from his foray into Hollywood, The Jazz Singer.  Then come four tracks from his peak early Seventies output: “I Am…I Said,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie’ and “Play Me.”  The seven tracks from the beginning of his career are sprinkled throughout the album, and are culled from the recent The Bang Years 1966-1968 set, which sounds rather harsh to my ears.

Two tracks are also taken from his more recent albums recorded with Rick Rubin – these more sparse arrangements, with mostly acoustic guitar and Diamond’s raspier, elder voice sound quite different from the large-scale productions he was doing, especially in the early Eighties.  “Hell Yeah,” which closes the collection, is especially good in summing up Diamond’s career: “If you’re asking me to tell / is it worth what I paid / you’re gonna hear me say / hell yeah it is.”

As these tracks play, one by one, you get a deeper appreciation for Diamond as a songwriter; he certainly changed over the years.  Sometimes, that makes for some jarring results – going from 1980’s “Love on the Rocks” to 1966’s “Cherry Cherry” is a little unsettling (although it sometimes has surprising results – “Song Sung Blue” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” both start on the exact same note).

While Diamond has received criticism over the years for sometimes churning out schmaltzy hits, this collection shows that ultimately, he’s the one who’s gotten the last laugh – Diamond has proven himself an incredibly durable songwriter.  Consider how many of his songs have become hits for other people – both The Monkees and UB40 took his compositions straight to number one, while Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” heightened an already great scene in Pulp Fiction, and Deep Purple injected some heavy metal fury into “Kentucky Woman.”  Then, there’s “Sweet Caroline,” ever-present at sporting events and wedding receptions worldwide, included in countless movies and television shows, it’s literally everywhere.

Another nice touch is the liner notes, with Diamond himself giving his track by track recollections – we find out, among other things, the odd inspiration behind “Cracklin’ Rosie,”  and that “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was written for the screaming teeny boppers at his early shows.

Although it’s impossible to squeeze all of his hits onto a single CD, the one glaring omission seems to be “Heartlight,” his last top ten hit, and the only big smash not included on this set (perhaps Diamond himself doesn’t care for the song?).  That aside, The Very Best of Neil Diamond makes for a fun listen – you might even call it a gem. –Tony Peters