Throw a stick and you're apt to hit someone who thinks the current pop scene is the worst ever! And who, other than nine-year-old white girls, could argue with that logic? Britney Spears and Celine Dion, to name just two, seem more like actors portraying musicians than the real thing. If they want to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they'd better save money to buy a ticket.
Listen closer, though, and you'll discover that the latest Billboard Hot 100 also sports a handful of tunes that actually hit the spot, including Aaliyah's "Try Again," and items such as Sisqó's "Thong Song," whose flat-out stupidity ("thong-th-thong-thong-thong!") has a charm all its own. Not that anyone notices, of course. After all, the grass always looks deader on your side of the fence -- which is why music lovers have consistently griped about the state of the pop-art form for at least the last three decades.
The Greatest Hits, a new compilation series sponsored by Entertainment Weekly magazine and put out by Buddha Records, illustrates this point to perfection. Thus far, twelve discs covering the period between 1970 and 1990 have been issued, and what becomes obvious from listening to them is that the similarities between years are far more profound than the differences. All of these CDs, no matter the era from which they spring, feature pretty much the same mix of tunes: genuinely enjoyable tracks, ditties that should suck but inexplicably don't, standard-issue mediocrities and abject horror. So as you travel backward in time through the descriptions below, don't be surprised if you wind up right where you started.
The Greatest Hits: 1970
Pop plus: "Tears of a Clown," by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: A metaphor is always better if it's got a red nose.
Guilty pleasure: "American Woman," by the Guess Who: Pure dumb fun -- even if Lenny Kravitz does like it.
Bad as Britney: "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," by Melanie: Hippie histrionics released only months before Janis Joplin's death. Coincidence or conspiracy?
From Celine to shining Celine: "Everything Is Beautiful," by Ray Stevens: Everything except this piece of dreck.
The Greatest Hits: 1971
Pop plus: "What's Going On," by Marvin Gaye: A gorgeous soul prayer.
Guilty pleasure: "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)," by the Raiders: About as authentic as NutraSweet -- but its dorky sincerity is a lot more enjoyable than, say, something by Jackson Browne.
Bad as Britney: "Knock Three Times," by Dawn: Hit them, baby, one more time.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Mr. Bojangles," by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: A song even Shirley Temple could hate.The Greatest Hits: 1972
Pop plus: "Let's Stay Together," by Al Green: If you play this tune for your sweetie and don't get laid, hang it up and join the priesthood.
Guilty pleasure: "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," by the Looking Glass: Why one-hit wonders can be wonderful.
Bad as Britney: "A Horse With No Name," by America: Send this nag to the glue factory.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Alone Again (Naturally)," by Gilbert O'Sullivan: The reason he's alone is because he's an annoying, sniveling little whiner.
The Greatest Hits: 1975
Pop plus: "Lovin' You," by Minnie Riperton: Sultry, seductive -- and as an added bonus, that high note can still crack glass.
Guilty pleasure: "That's the Way (I Like It)," by KC & the Sunshine Band: Play that funky music, white boy.
Bad as Britney: "Love Will Keep Us Together," by Captain & Tenille: And swill can tear us apart.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Lady," by Styx: If ingested, immediately induce vomiting.
The Greatest Hits: 1976
Pop plus: "You Sexy Thing," by Hot Chocolate: Just the thing to warm you up on a cold day.
Guilty pleasure: "Boogie Fever," by the Sylvers: Shut up and dance.
Bad as Britney: "Afternoon Delight," by the Starland Vocal Band: A number that manages to make a midday quickie seem absolutely disgusting. What an achievement.
From Celine to shining Celine: "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight," by England Dan & John Ford Coley: And I'd really love for anyone who once owned this song to admit it. What's the matter? Chicken? Bawk-bawk!
The Greatest Hits: 1980
Pop plus: "Love Stinks," by the J. Geils Band: There's no arguing with that sentiment.
Guilty pleasure: "Funkytown," by Lipps Inc.: Still being played in roller rinks everywhere. If that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is.
Bad as Britney: "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," by Pat Benatar: Hit her, baby, ten more times.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Sailing," by Christopher Cross: The only consolation is that Cross sank long ago.
The Greatest Hits: 1981
Pop plus: "Celebration," by Kool & the Gang: Celebrate good times. Come on!
Guilty pleasure: "The Stroke," by Billy Squier: Like an instruction manual for thirteen-year olds wondering what to do with Mom's container of Vaseline. Worked for me.
Bad as Britney: "Queen of Hearts," by Juice Newton: Contains the government's daily recommended serving of vitamin PU.
From Celine to shining Celine: "The One That You Love," by Air Supply: The fourth of seven consecutive top-five singles for the duo -- and frightening evidence that God does not exist.
The Greatest Hits: 1982
Pop plus: "Shake It Up," by the Cars: Still capable of getting motors running.
Guilty pleasure: "867-5309/Jenny," by Tommy Tutone: Surprisingly, it's the right number.
Bad as Britney: "Don't Talk to Strangers," by Rick Springfield: Everyone who's sure 'N Sync will still have a career in twenty years should give this a listen.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Roseanna," by Toto: Fits the Supreme Court definition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The Greatest Hits: 1985
Pop plus: "Freeway of Love," by Aretha Franklin: Get in that baby and drive.
Guilty pleasure: "Walking on Sunshine," by Katrina & the Waves: Why this hasn't been used in a floor-wax ad, I'll never know.
Bad as Britney: "Broken Wings," by Mr. Mister: Broken eardrums is more like it.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Can't Fight This Feeling," by REO Speedwagon: A power ballad with a severe power shortage.
The Greatest Hits: 1986
Pop plus: "Word Up," by Cameo: Fake Zapp that's every bit as good as the real thing.
Guilty pleasure: "Walk This Way," by Run D.M.C.: It's not really rap, but it's not bad.
Bad as Britney: "No One Is to Blame," by Howard Jones: I beg to differ.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)," by Glass Tiger: Forget who?
The Greatest Hits: 1989
Pop plus: "She Drives Me Crazy," by Fine Young Cannibals: This act did a fast fade -- but it was sure enjoyable while it lasted.
Guilty pleasure: "Kiss," by the Art of Noise featuring Tom Jones: Proof that subtlety can be overrated.
Bad as Britney: "Heaven," by Warrant: A little slice of hell.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Right Here Waiting," by Richard Marx: And you thought Karl Marx was unfunny...
The Greatest Hits: 1990
Pop plus: "The Power," by Snap: Okay, it's not that much of a plus -- unless your other choices are Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby," Stevie B's "Because I Love You (Postman Song)" and Poison's "Unskinny Bop."
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Guilty pleasure: "Pump Up the Jam," by Technotronic: And keep the jelly tight.
Bad as Britney: "Opposites Attract," by Paula Abdul: So perfect for Ms. Spears that it's amazing she hasn't covered it already. Pray she doesn't think of it.
From Celine to shining Celine: "Release Me," by Wilson Phillips: Dreadful enough to make Dion's stuff seem tolerable by comparison.