Neil Diamond Album Overview
Part 4: 1981-2003 The Compilation-Mania years

You may notice that quite a few albums are missing from this section. Basically, I chose to handle the "classic" Neil Diamond period canon, so all of the post-Jazz Singer studio albums are not included. I am, and always will be, a rock and roll fan at heart, and Neil's 80's-period MOR is just not my style. There's no reason for me to think that all of Neil's work is "brilliant"... in fact, I find most of his post-Jazz SInger work to be undistiguished, and, by the 90's, bad to the point of being unlistenable. Don't feel bad- there aren't a lot of artists that consistently hit the jackpot on every album. Even the greats, like The Beatles, have bad songs, and Led Zeppelin can be equal parts brilliance and tedium.

Rather than waste my time doing write-ups on music that I don't even like, I will concentrate on capsule reviews of the many compilation titles. I'm accepting volunteers to do writeups of the Neil Diamond studio albums of this time period.

 

Love Songs
MCA strikes again with another collection of previously-released Neil songs. This time, the slow ballads were dashed together for an album called Love Songs. And again, I don't see any compelling reason to want to buy this- there's nothing really new on the album, and like his biggest snooze-fest on Uni/MCA, Stones, about half of the songs are covers, implying that Neil himself did not compose enough "love songs". But, of course, Love Songs had managed to attract enough buyers to attain gold record status. Sigh. If you are even considering purchasing this, stop. Take your hands off of this disc and instead, buy all 6 of Neil's MCA studio albums, from Velvet Gloves and Spit through Moods. Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings...Plus! Then you will have a much better opportunity to hear Neil's artistic development in the way that he intended, and you will have EVERY song that MCA had released, so you will NEVER have to buy another MCA Neil compilation album AGAIN.

12GH v.2
12 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 cleverly keys off of the title of Neil's best-selling MCA collection. Given what Columbia had for a material pool, they did make an admirable effort to compile a second collection of Neil's hits, the ones under their label. It should be noted that not all of the songs were true hits (calling "Beautiful Noise" a "hit" is stretching things just a little!) and this album should have contained "I've Been This Way Before" but it does not. The songs are sequenced in non-chronological order, perhaps so as not to show Neil's decline into a schmaltz-meister after Beautiful Noise. Still, it's a good starting point for anyone interested in hearing Neil's early Columbia material and his Jazz Singer hits in one package, especially because one's not likely to hear "Be" or "Longfellow Serenade" on the radio anymore.

12GH
(re-listed and reviewed again due to content change) In 1982, Direct Disk had re-issued Neil's His 12 Greatest Hits as an audiophile half-speed mastered album, using a better master tape source and including studio versions of "Holly Holy" and "Sweet Caroline", though not quite the same ones that had appeared on earlier albums. "Holly Holy" appears with an alternate vocal take with a remixed instrumental backing, and is far superior to the older (and more common) version, and "Sweet Caroline" was also remixed, now emphasizing a strong drum track and the sumptuous Charles Calello orchestration. By 1985, when MCA was ready to unleash Neil CDs to the world, they curiously chose the Direct Disk master instead of the MCA LP master. This first CD release, as MCAD-37252, was identical in content to the audiophile album, thereby placing the remixes into general public consumption for the first time. The ride only lasted a few years, though, and 12GH was eventually remastered again, restoring the live tracks, and relegating those superb remixes to history.

CEY
Classics-The Early Years has a lot going for it. It's the easiest, most cost-effective way of obtaining Bang material today, and most of it is in stereo, to boot. There's not a single dud amidst the well-chosen selection of songs and the sound quality is excellent, all the better to take advantage of the modern sound systems that people will play it on these days. So what's the catch? Well, a purist will gripe that CEY does not contain the original stereo versions of Neil's songs. Most of these had been remixed, at times altering the stereo image, at times adding additional instrumental or vocal overdubs. Still, these do not detract from enjoying CEY. Buy it, it's a wonderful trip down memory lane.

GH66-92
The Greatest Hits 1966-1992 was Columbia's first offering as a major ND "career retrospective". They had somehow dug out a lot of the old Bang mono masters, making them available to record buyers for, in some cases, the first time in over 20 years! It also contains the highlights of Neil's Columbia period (of course). The real heartbreak is they way that they'd dealt with his Uni/MCA period- the most commercially fertile period of his career that spawned the largest number of memorable singles. Most of the MCA songs are represented by late-period live tracks- none of them particularly exceptional (look- buy the original Hot August Night to hear the same songs in their definitive live form!). The absolute worst things that Neil had EVER done are the dreadful re-recordings "Play Me" (please, STOP IT!) and "Song Sung Blue" (sounds like a dry-run for a live show, with an incredibly cheap-sounding Karaoke backing) on this collection. Pass.

Glory Rd
Glory Road- Released in 1992 by MCA to compete with Columbia's The Greatest Hits 1966-1992. Even though several song titles overlap, the two sets contain entirely different performances. GH66-92 was controversial for the substitution of late-period live tracks or truly terrible re-recordings in-place of the MCA period hits. Glory Road contains all of the MCA original recordings, albeit in sometimes poorly-mastered form. There really isn't any excuse for the hiss levels on this- after all, an earlier CD release, 12GH, had far better sound quality. The song selection is, however, impeccable. Due to the long running time of CDs and the generally small pool of material to work with, Glory Road's 2 discs contain basically all of the necessary highlights of Neil's MCA years, without all the filler. The set contains 2 rarities- a stereo version of the "Song Sung Blue" 45 mix, and "Cracklin Rosie" with a countdown intro. My only quibble is the choice of "Cherry Cherry", the full-length cut from Hot August Night, instead of the edited single, which contained an electric guitar overdub.

12GH
(re-listed and reviewed again due to content change) This is an excellent example of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". MCA's 1993 re-release of the classic His 12 Greatest Hits (MCAD-11540) had perhaps taken the concept of restoring the original content a bit too literally. This release removes the remixes of "Holly Holy" and "Sweet Caroline" and puts those live versions from HAN right back on the disc, as it was on the original 1974 LP. The sound quality was kicked up a few notches, due to advances in noise-reduction technology and CD remastering techniques. The complete lack of hiss, and the stereo separation on this version is quite astounding- probably the best that the MCA material had ever sounded. However, I prefer the musical content of the earlier CD, remixes and all. And what's up with the cover graphic? Cropping, and reducing Neil's picture to the size of a postage stamp?

Live in Am
There isn't any nice way to say this- Live In America is the nadir of Neil's live albums. It lacks the polish of his studio albums, and the richness of voice and singing range of his 70's live albums. It's almost depressing to hear Neil growl his way through the album with an extremely hoarse and gravelly delivery, demolishing what used to be his most beautiful songs. It really makes you wonder why his current record label, Columbia, saw fit to release this- it certainly doesn't show Neil (or his voice) in a good light, as Neil's inability to hold any long, sustained notes is all-too-obvious. Hardcore fans might buy this to keep their collections complete, but you'd think that most people would buy CDs or records to get some form of entertainment from it- Live in America provides none. Not recommended at all. This is a prime candidate for a title that should go "out-of-print"- the sooner, the better.

Live in Concert
Reader's Digest's Neil Diamond Live in Concert is a very interesting title. It's NOT just a rehash of previously released material. There are quite a few performances here that were previously unreleased. Some of them are so-so (the 90's ones), some are quite acceptable (the 1989 Dublin ones). The true gems are the 5 songs from The Jazz Singer. Sure, you've heard "America" and "Love on the Rocks" done-to-death already... but what this set has are early 80's renditions of "Summerlove" (a stunner!) "On the Robert E. Lee" (fun) "Amazed and Confused" "You Baby" (exciting) and "Songs of Life" (sad and wistful, but in a good way) that alone make this worth the (rather high) price of purchase. There is some material (too much, actually) taken from the detestable Live In America, but the Love at the Greek songs here benefit from the remastering and have superior sound quality.

IML
In My Lifetime is Columbia's much-improved "career retrospective" boxed set. They had (smartly) licensed the MCA hits from MCA, so In My Lifetime finally reunites all of the phases of Neil's career, from the rock n' rollin' Bang years (in mono), through his Uni/MCA singer/songwriter phase, to his pop-philosopher-to-MOR-balladeer Columbia period. Some interesting rarities are also included- thus saving fans hundreds of dollars now that they don't have to hunt for 45's like "Clown Town" anymore. The set also comes with a beautifully done, thick booklet, with quite a collection of must-see photos and Neil's commentary about each individual song. Columbia had (understandably) short shrifted much of Neil's 80's and 90's albums- as those contain few (if any) truly enduring classics.

Millennium
Now it's the year 1999. MCA decides to release the confusingly-titled The Best of Neil Diamond, also known by its other two titles, 20th Century Masters and/or The Millennium Collection- a series of individual CDs that contain the highlights of such artists like The Who, The Mamas and the Papas, and Neil Diamond. The track listing of the ND disc almost completely overlaps with His 12 Greatest Hits, which, coincidentally, had just recently gone out-of-print (it's a conspiracy!). "Crunchy Granola Suite" was added, "Shilo" and "Done Too Soon" departed. "Holly Holy" and "Sweet Caroline" appear in their thin-mix original studio album incarnations. I suppose that it's better to have those than the live Hot August Night ones, but still, once you had heard the terrific remixes from Direct Disc and the 1985 12GH CD, it's hard to go back... This disc contains no rarities, not even mono 45 mixes, so interest to collectors is almost nil. For newbies only, or ND completests, or people who want to buy The Millennium Collection discs as if they were part of a set of encyclopaedias.

ND Coll.
In an amazingly short-sighted move, MCA had decided, in celebration of Y2K (?), to bring us yet ANOTHER re-hash of Neil Diamond songs in another compilation title, The Neil Diamond Collection. This brings the number of U.S. Neil compilation titles to 7, outnumbering the actual number of studio-recorded Neil catalog titles on Uni/MCA. The song choices come as no surprise: an expanded version of a "hits" package with a generous 18 songs all together. But the timing of this release is completely baffling, being that it came so soon after the "Millennium Collection" disc, The Best of Neil Diamond, so both titles couldn't help but cut into the sales of the other. These are 5-star songs, but pointlessly repackaged. In the meantime, there's a treasure trove of Uni material- such as mono 45 mixes, the live overdub/edit of "Cherry Cherry" and the B-side, "Broad Old Woman" that have still not seen a CD release. Plus, the catalog titles are in dire need of remastering and restored packaging (original cover graphics, gatefolds, booklets, etc.). Is there anybody who's sane in the MCA re-issues department?

HAN
(re-listed and reviewed again due to content change) I think it's time to celebrate! For the first time in years, MCA has done a Neil Diamond re-issue properly. The Y2K release of the legendary Hot August Night album finally has all of the original double-gatefold artwork restored (don't forget to look under the CD tray) and a drastic sonic upgrade. But most importantly, it contains 3 previously unreleased additional tracks, "Walk on Water", "Kentucky Woman" and "Stones". Of these 3, it's the stunningly beautiful, emotional and fragile "Stones" that earns its place in the upper echelon of live Neil Diamond performances- it should have been on the original release. Words just fail me- it's just that good. Put this one on your shopping list. And don't let your old unremastered CDs of HAN just sit and gather dust. There's still some good uses for it- give it to a younger sibling, a co-worker, a friend or a library.

Essential
In 2001, Sony started releasing “The Essential” CD series, their contribution to music encyclopaedia sets. Unlike MCA, Sony’s offerings were double CD sets… all the better to spotlight the musical legacies of their more legendary artists. But… Sony had already done a proper Neil Diamond “career highlights” set in In My Lifetime, so The Essential Neil Diamond could only be redundant. It just so happens that Neil was in the middle of a major tour at the time, so Sony added six “live” previously unreleased tracks from his current tour to the set, replacing some of the original tracklist. There was a lot of pent-up fan demand for some new live material, and Essential seemingly satisfied that, as a full-length live album was not in the works. However, 3 of these new tracks, “Captain Sunshine”, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and “Lady Magdelene/Yes I Will” sound suspiciously like recent re-recordings, overdubbed with applause. Neil’s voice had changed considerably since his 70’s hitmaking heyday, and it is jarring to hear his newer live recordings interspersed with 25-30 year old studio hit recordings. The transitions could have been smoother if the disc was compiled in the order of recording date. Due to the live substitutions, I find Essential unsuitable as a “first purchase” for a new fan… that audience wants “the hits”, the way they’d heard them on the radio, not compilations like this, with a bewildering mishmash of old mono hits, some stereo old hits, recycled live tracks from other albums, recent live tracks and new re-recordings.

Love Songs
I’m not sure what the purpose for another MCA compilation was… this time, Love Songs with an altered track listing. An attempt to make some cash for Valentine’s Day? Luckily for Neil’s fans, by the time this “new” Love Songs compilation came out, we’d gotten word that MCA was going to remaster the entire main Neil studio catalog, so we knew we could pass on this. Not recommended... MCA has been "pulling a Bang" for far too long by doing too many pointless Neil compilations by recycling the same small pool of material. Love Songs (Mark II) is just the latest. Don't continue to encourage them with your money...

Play Me
Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings...Plus! is a good collection, finally the "last word" on the much-recycled MCA tracks. What's on it? It contains the musical content of all six of Neil's Uni/MCA albums on three convenient CDs, so you don't have to play the six disc shuffle. The main reason for wanting it is the quality of the mastering. The old CDs had an unbearable amount of hiss on them, (esp. Tap Root Manuscript) from their high generation, old hissy LP masters, and it is good that MCA finally got around to remastering the old albums for the CD age- even if it took a long time. The sound on Play Me is amazing- very clear and crisp and hiss-less. I have 2 beefs about it- the missing lead note in "Shilo" and the cut-off intro on "Stones" (That's two of the reasons for keeping an old 12GH CD around). The "Plus!" part is not exactly anything new or exciting... "Plus!" equals a few tracks from Gold and Hot August Night. The non-LP "B" side, "Broad Old Woman" and the elusive 1973 single mix of "Cherry Cherry" live make their CD debut here. So, now that MCA has properly released everything they have, there is no reason to buy any additional MCA Neil compilations. We're at the end of the rainbow, and the only worthwhile thing left to do is for MCA to do a vault-raid and unearth some truly previously-unreleased gems.


Related Pages:

Part 1: 1966-1967 The Rock n' Rollin' Bang Years
Part 2: 1968-1972 Ambitious Singer/Songwriter/Hitmaker
Part 3: 1973-1980 The Early Columbia Years, from Mystic to Romantic


This article is Copyright 1999-2004, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Questions, Comments, offers to write reviews of any of the "missing" titles may be addressed to me at:
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