Pity poor Rhino Entertainment, and their vaults bursting with classic tracks from excessively anthologized artists. Take Aretha Franklin, for instance: she has more compilations to her credit than most artists have albums of original material, and the songs Rhino has easy access to — her classic Atlantic sides — have been reissued most of all. So what’s a label to do?
In Rhino’s case, the answer is “get creative” — and that’s just what they’ve done with this beautiful rescue of the long-out-of-print The Best of Aretha Franklin.
“What do you mean, ‘out of print’?” you might be saying. “There are plenty of Best of Aretha Franklins out there, and most of them have more than this set’s piddling 12 tracks. Who cares about an Aretha best-of from 1973?” To which I respond, “You care. At least, you do if you’re set up for surround sound. And if you aren’t, you might want to buy some new speakers, because this is that good.”
The back story on this title, as longtime Aretha fans may recall, is that Atlantic issued it as a quadraphonic LP in ’73, complete with new four-channel mixes from Tom Dowd (and rare versions of “Rock Steady” and “Chain of Fools”). The quad fad died, Atlantic quit pressing copies of the album, and The Best of Aretha Franklin became the exclusive property of cratediggers with plenty of speakers…until now.
If I had to sum up The Best of Aretha Franklin in one word, it would be “goddamn,” because what else can you say when a disc plunges you into the middle of some of the most important recordings of the rock era. The sound here is simply brilliant — clean and warm, with plenty of room between the tracks and no traces of the digital tomfoolery that must have gone into prepping it for DVD. As with Rhino’s Chicago Transit Authority quad, you feel utterly present in the music; the songs feel almost new again, which is amazing, considering the number of times all of us have heard them by now. And oh yes, “all of us” means you — whether you’re an Aretha fanatic or not. Dig this track listing:
Baby, I Love You
Chain of Fools
Don’t Play That Song
I Say a Little Prayer
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Just a small slice of Franklin’s catalog, but an amazing one. What’s left to say about classic performances like these? Only that Rhino has somehow found a way to make you really sit up and feel them again. It makes you feel like you’re there — and it makes you wonder how any of the musicians walked out of these sessions without being struck deaf, dumb, or blind. In her prime, Aretha was too electrifying for words. Like I said: goddamn.