Taking up a collection

Dec 22, 1999 at 12:00 am

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. But I'd feel a whole lot better if I could just get over this premillennial tension and pick the right soundtrack for an occasion that some worriers are referring to as the last night on earth and others will use as an excuse to party like it's (the last day of) 1999. These gratuitous references to the contrary, my list of the century's finest tunes wouldn't necessarily include anything by R.E.M., the Byrds, Tricky, U2 or Prince. Then again, you could do far worse.

And, in case you were wondering, the Backstreet Boys' Millennium (Jive) really shouldn't figure into the plans of anyone except smitten preteens and those interested in extending the commercial hegemony of bland, mass-produced corporate pop product. Ditto for Twentieth Century (RCA), the oddly titled latest release from one-time chart-busters Alabama, who must have figured that looking back was better than agonizing over the country-radio ascendancy of model-with-a-hat Shania Twain and the annoying toddler twang of LeAnn Rimes.

For more suitable mood music, wallow in Matthew Sweet's "Millennium Blues," from his new long-player In Reverse (Vulcan), or Dr. Dre's gangsta-flavored Dr. Dre – 2001 (Interscope).

When it comes to retrospective collections, it doesn't take Nostradamus to figure out the major labels' plans: Dig out the archival material, clean it up (when possible) and slap together attractively packaged collections.

The label home of Mariah Carey has embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of the conglomerate's history with Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, a massive, 26-disc set that, despite its wishful-thinking title, traces recorded music back only about 80 years. What else could they do? As the liner notes explain, Thomas Edison patented the cylinder phonograph in 1877, wax cylinders were commercially released 13 years later, and double-sided 78 rpm discs were adopted as a recording standard in 1904. The collections' hefty price tag – about $300 – is sure to keep away all but the most dedicated music junkies, so some of the music has been culled for a series of eight two-disc volumes.

Even a music historian would have trouble connecting the dots between Mamie Smith's 1921 "Crazy Blues," the first-ever blues recording, a wailing, horn-spiked tune that sold nearly 1 million copies in a year, and the Indigo Girls' "Galileo." But both are heard on one of Sony's two-disc breakouts Folk, Gospel and Blues: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. It's a fascinating, multigenre journey in and of itself, beginning with rootsy pieces by Bessie Smith, Blind Willie Johnson, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. The Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers take us to church, while the '60s folk renaissance is represented by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" and Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." Included among the tracks from the last 20 years are Steve Forbert's "Romeo's Tune," Stevie Ray Vaughan's supercharged "Pride and Joy" and Keb' Mo's tangy, laid-back "Every Morning."

The blues, naturally, inform the music heard on another Sony breakout, Jazz: The Definitive Performances, particularly early tracks by the likes of Bessie Smith, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. The swing era is saluted with such familiarities as Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," Benny Goodman's "Flying Home," Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and Woody Herman's tenor-madness festival "Four Brothers," with Stan Getz. Modern jazz, from bebop to cool jazz and beyond, is represented by Miles Davis' "So What," Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." Fusion gets its due, too, with tracks by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report, and the Marsalis family slips in, with one track each from trumpeter Wynton and saxophonist Branford. Better than causing a family squabble.

High-lonesome sounds, traditional twang and polished Nashville fare all find a place on another Sony miniset, Country: The American Tradition, which takes an approach that's wide but not particularly deep. Disc one opens with fiddler Alexander "Eck" Robertson's 1922 goodie "Sally Goodin," the genre's first commercial recording, and closes some 75 years later with the Dixie Chicks' utterly superficial "Wide Open Spaces." In between are such delights as the Carter Family's (circa 1935) "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again," Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late (With Your Kisses)," Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" and Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." The '80s and '90s show themselves with songs by Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Sony is hardly the only label taking advantage of the millennium tie-in idea. The folks at the Rhino Records label, more likely to respect themselves in the morning, have concocted their own retrospectives, with the '80s New Wave – Millennium Party volume featuring the B­52's "Rock Lobster," Devo's "Whip It" and the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." The series' other millennium party discs dip into '60s rock, classic rock, hip-hop and funk.

The same label, stretching a marketing scheme fairly thin, has put together a similar installment for another series, MTV: The First 1000 Years – New Wave, which features different songs by some of the same artists. For example, the B­52's bounce through "Love Shack," and Devo provides "Freedom of Choice." The MTV series also includes discs devoted to R&B, rock and hip-hop.

Fans of the Great White Way get one-stop New Year's Eve shopping with Sondheim Tonight: Live From the Barbican (Jay), a tribute to the Broadway composer, complete with a "2000 Party Pack" that's filled with a (somewhat pathetic) one-person party pack – confetti, balloon and blow-out toy. Sondheim is saluted by the City of London Philharmonic, with two discs' worth of music from A Little Night Music, Sweeny Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park With George and other shows.

These kind of mannered anthems aren't my idea of party music, but who knows? When the world is running down, you make the best of what's still around. (Sorry, Sting.) Phillip Booth writes for the Orlando Weekly. Send comments to [email protected]