Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits

John Denver

RCA Records, 2004

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


John Denver was too folk to be country, too country to be rock, and seemingly too innocent to play the music industry's games. He plowed his own path with his songs, to hell with the rules laid out by others. As a result, he was ridiculed by rock fans and shunned by the country music establishment -- all the while winning over a solid base of fans. And when he died after his experimental plane crashed in 1997, thousands of people -- myself included -- rediscovered just what made Denver's music so special.

The latest posthumous collection, Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits, is a bit of a misnomer. Never mind the title reads like one of those growing credits from a Monty Python movie, this disc casually ignores the fact that Denver did indeed record a few albums for labels other than RCA. Still, his greatest success came with RCA, so that's a minor quibble.

While everyone's own personal "greatest hits" list is sure to include songs that didn't make the cut (I would have included "Matthew"), the 20 selections on the main disc are well-chosen and are powerful reminders that Denver was indeed a talented songwriter, singer and musician. Admittedly, some of these songs haven't aged as well as one would have hoped -- the production level of "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" is a prime example -- but it's still nice to hear these tracks in one form they were meant to be.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The familiar songs are all here -- "Annie's Song," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," "Back Home Again," "Thank God I'm A Country Boy," "Rocky Mountain High," et cetera. But the inclusion of some other tracks which may not be as familiar to some is a welcome addition.

Take "My Sweet Lady," arguably the prettiest song Denver ever recorded. Listen to this and try to not be moved by the sheer love poetry contained therein. Likewise, listen to "Poems, Prayers And Promises" and, if you listen closely, you can almost hear Denver summing up his life and celebrating it. Never mind the fact this song was recorded in 1971 -- a quarter-century before Denver's untimely death. This, gentle reader, is insight at its finest.

Also a welcome inclusion is "Perhaps Love," a duet Denver recorded with opera star Placido Domingo for Domingo's adult-contemporary debut release. Denver's star was not at its brightest at this time, but one listen to this song, and you can tell his power as a songwriter and a performer was just as strong as it had ever been. If only the fickle finger of popular opinion hadn't pointed people away from Denver's career.

So what sets this collection apart from the other "greatest hits" collections or the definitive box set? Added on to this is a bonus disc, containing four songs from the archives, three of which had never seen the light of day until now. The older, original version of "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" (from the independent release John Denver Sings) is, surprisingly, more powerful than the version commercially released. It is a shame, then, that whoever put this set together didn't put the whole John Denver Sings record on here; hearing this song makes me crave the rest of the album. The acoustic versions of "Annie's Song" and "Calypso" show Denver's guitar skills, even if they probably will never take the place of the old standards. Of these tracks, only a cover of "The Weight" disappoints -- and maybe that's nitpicking on my part, as I heard Denver repeat the first verse at the end of the song.

One other minor quibble: I know it wasn't the same label, but as a special bonus, couldn't the producers have gotten the rights to put one or two songs from Denver's stint with The Mitchell Trio? That's The Way It's Gonna Be has been criminally out of print for decades now; wouldn't it have been interesting to hear how Denver got his start?

There are still those of us out there who grew up with Denver's music and have a healthy appreciation for his talents. There is also a new generation discovering the power of singer-songwriters -- of which far too many leave this world under tragic circumstances. Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits is a nice collection which serves both as a reminder to the older generation and an introduction to the younger one about what a powerful artist Denver was.

Rating: A-

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© 2004 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of RCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.