As the year 2000 loomed on the horizon, Playboy Magazine took it upon itself to ask a number of leading musicians to name the greatest songs of the soon-to-be-completed millennium. One of the musos queried was Richard Thompson, and while many of his comrades couldn't be bothered to go further back than 1940 in their overview of musical history, the scholarly Thompson took the notion seriously enough to extend his own list of notable songs as far back as 1068 A.D. While Playboy never ended up printing Thompson's list, the notion made enough of an impression on him that he put together a special show in which he guided his audience through his own version of the greatest hits of the past ten centuries. 1000 Years of Popular Music is culled from recordings of Thompson's concert series of the same name, and beyond the novelty value of the set list (from the oldest round in the English language to Britney Spears in a mere 76 minutes!), it also offers a rare look at Thompson the interpretive musician, as well as lends a fascinating perspective on his musical influences. As one might expect, the early innings are dominated by the British folk tradition, with "King Henry V's Conquest of France" and "Blackleg Miner" suggesting where Thompson's melodic sense first took root, and other tunes demonstrating how operetta and the British music halls absorbed and refined similar themes. Thompson also indulges his passion for classic jazz of the 1930s and '40s on some Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong chestnuts, and wraps up by following rock & roll through Jerry Lee Lewis, the Who, and the Beatles to Prince and Britney Spears ("Oops! I Did It Again," of which Thompson writes, "Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song"). Considering that precious few of these songs were meant to be performed by a solo acoustic guitar, Thompson's arrangements are inventive and effective; whether he's going for laughs or drama, he gets the most from his material. (He's also fortunate to be joined in the proceedings by vocalist Judith Owen and percussionist Michael Jerome). 1000 Years of Popular Music is entertaining, informative, and a lot more enlightening than the average lecture on musical history. Perhaps Thompson should consider writing a text on the subject should his remarkable fingers ever fail him. (1000 Years of Popular Music has been released by Thompson's boutique label Beeswing Records, and can be purchased through his website.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming