Listening Booth: “The Essential O’Jays”; “The Essential Patti LaBelle”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

The O’Jays – The Essential O’Jays (2008)
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What, you thought you already bought The Essential O’Jays back in 2005, when Sony released another compilation called The Essential O’Jays? Think again, dummy! Thanks to Sony/BMG’s renewed love affair with the Philadelphia International catalog, Essential is now being trotted out in an expanded double-disc version, featuring more of that Philly soul goodness the group has been churning out for the last five decades. Of course, it also features more of the offensively ugly artwork that Sony’s Essential series is known for, but you don’t have to look at it while you listen.

Of course, given that we’re talking about a two-disc distillation of a recording career that started in 1965, it probably goes without saying that The Essential O’Jays doesn’t really live up to its title. It covers all the band’s biggest hits, but with the exception of a few stray tracks tacked onto the end of the second disc, Essential pretty much pretends the O’Jays story ended in 1987, and that just isn’t true. (Of course, you could make the argument that the group hasn’t done anything essential since the late ’70s, but still.)

Minor squabbles aside, you know what you’re getting here — 35 tracks of some damn fine R&B music (and, in the case of the group’s ’70s hits, some of the most important songs the genre had to offer). There aren’t any really notable omissions from the top-selling O’Jays records, although some will take issue with the inclusion of a “2008 single edit” of the classic “Ship Ahoy” (download). Toss in new liner notes dictated by Eddie Levert Sr., and you’ve got something with just enough value to stand taller than the dozens of other O’Jays compilations on the market.

Patti LaBelle – The Essential Patti LaBelle (2008)
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Another Philadelphia International artist getting the compilation treatment is Patti LaBelle, whose Essential entry collects 30 performances from the years 1962-1995 and squeezes them onto two CDs. As with the O’Jays collection, there simply isn’t enough room to include a look at every facet of LaBelle’s long career — but she’s always been more of a singles artist than an album act, and Essential does make room for early performances by LaBelle with her Blue Belles and, of course, a healthy number of hits from her hitmaking ’70s trio Labelle.

The set isn’t arranged chronologically, which may irritate some fans — particularly those who find it difficult to slog through the seven straight ’80s ballads that open the first disc — but it keeps things more thematically coherent, and also makes the uptempo stuff that dominates the second disc feel like a reward for time served.

For fans looking for a budget collection, or newly converted listeners peeking behind the garish curtain that 1986’s “On My Own” dropped on her career, The Essential provides a quick ‘n’ dirty cross-section of what made her a flagship artist for Philadelphia International, and includes a smattering of unreleased or alternate takes, as well as deeper cuts, like her recording of Marvin Gaye’s “The Bells” (download) with Laura Nyro.