The Ultimate Collection [1998]

by: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles

Motown Records is a bit like the Walt Disney Studios, in the sense that both organizations made a good deal more money in recent decades marketing their histories and reputations than they have in creating very much that's new -- indeed, Motown hasn't been an active label, in the sense of recording any new artists, in more than a decade. Apart from its Anthology series in the mid-'70s, however, the label seldom came up with anything that could hold a permanent place in a collection, or was reasonably comprehensive. Then came the Ultimate Collection series, which was timed to coincide with the first technological upgrade in CD mastering to 20-bit digital audio. This disc has 25 songs that encompass all of the Top Ten hits by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles released between 1960 and 1969 (as well as their 1970 number one hit, "Tears of a Clown"), but also some of their finest B-sides ("Choosey Beggar," "Who's Lovin' You") and an album track or two of significance, and it also sounded significantly better than any prior hits collection on the group, including the upgraded Anthology two-CD set issued just three years earlier. What's more, while it in no way supplants the four-CD 35th Anniversary Collection, it offers one track that didn't make it onto that set, the second version of "Way Over There," which -- though it never charted -- is a brilliant piece of writing, singing, and production. After all, "Way Over There" was the very first actual "Motown" single; in fact, it was one of the most ambitious and beautiful records that Berry Gordy ever produced personally -- and it did sell a reported 50,000 copies, which was significant enough in helping to keep the fledgling company afloat. That's as much of a "history lesson" as this CD provides, though people will always happily hear history lessons like that. Mostly, it's a gorgeous flood of sound washing over you for 70 minutes, though not quite like you've ever heard these songs -- including the gently ringing rhythm guitar on "Tracks of My Tears," the in-your-face drums that open "My Girl Has Gone," and the strings of the Detroit Symphony on "Way Over There," but most of all the silky lead and backing vocals, which have never sounded closer or smoother. The standard is now 24-bit, and someday there may even be a DVD audio or SACD of hits by the Miracles, but for a collection featuring some of their most enjoyable and best-sounding music, no one is going to be cheated by buying this disc. ~ Bruce Eder

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