Buying a greatest hits package for Neil Diamond is harder than one might think. Over the years, most have been littered with live versions or re-recorded versions of key tracks. So the search went on for many years. Now, usually I’d eschew Best Of collections in order to go straight to the actual albums but some artists lack a sure fire 5-star album. While boasting an arm’s length list of classic songs, you’re not going to see a Neil Diamond album in any Top 100 Greatest Albums lists.
The first half of The Very Best Of Neil Diamondis a nearly flawless collection of pop, folk, and singer-songwriter stories. The run of tracks from “Cherry, Cherry”, “I AM… I Said”, “Sweet Caroline”, and “Cracklin’ Rosie” is sublime; 60s and 70s pop does not get any better than this. The dizzying heights continue as “I’m a Believer” and “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” appear soon after. One of the few new tracks to this writer is the Robbie Robertson produced “A Beautiful Noise” which, as the lyrics say, “has a beautiful beat”.
The pacing/order of the tracks for the most part works like a charm. Many slower tracks such as “Love On The Rocks” are surrounded with their more upbeat brothers so there is hardly a letdown… almost. The album sags right at the midway point when “Song Sung Blue”, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and “Hello Again” take some of the air out. After that, the album is a bit hit and miss and isn’t fully redeemed until the one two punch of “Kentucky Woman” followed by “Shilo”.
Back in the 90s, the movie Pulp Fiction suddenly made Neil Diamond cool again. Brooklyn born Diamond is so beloved that there is not even a sniff of irony in Boston fans singing “Sweet Caroline” during Red Sox home games (even if that tradition is getting a bit tiresome). While there is some schmaltziness that appears here and there, for the most part this is all well- crafted, life-affirming perfection.
In 2008, Swedish born Lykki Li put out one of my favourite albums of the year with Youth Novels. The synth pop tracks fit in perfectly with Robyn and Sally Shapiro. Wounded Rhymes followed in 2011 and was rougher around the edges, a bit more angry and seemed to signal a new direction. I Never Learn is Li’s third and takes another turn in her career. The bright eyed pop songs are gone as are much of the harder edges of more recent times. With the help of Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, this collection of songs is far more grandiose than what’s come before.
The title track, and first song, sets the bar high. It’s one of the more stripped down tracks with mostly just an acoustic guitar but still sounds heavenly with the addition of strings and “ahhhhs” that appear midway through. “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” is raw with Li’s most pained vocal, her voice straining in the chorus as she sings the title. You can literally hear her heartbreaking as she sings.
“Gunshot” gets a smack in the arm with the chorus but sounds like it could be sung by any new pop starlet that the music industry endlessly pumps out. The titles of “Never Gonna Love Again” and “Heart of Steel” say all you need to know and would fit in with any Diane Warren track written in the last 25 years. While impeccably produced and better in small doses, I Never Learn can be a hard slog when swallowed whole.