20th Century Masters: The Best of Rick Nelson covers the artist's years at Verve and Decca between 1957 and 1972. Beginning with the squeaky clean rockabilly of 1957's "I'm Walkin'" to the laid-back singer/songwriter sound of 1972's hit single "Garden Party," the collection covers a lot a ground and stylistic changes in a brief time. Twelve tracks are really not enough to do justice to 15 years worth of Nelson's career. The first six songs chart his move from rockabilly wildcat to pop dreamboat. After the romp through "I'm Walkin'," tunes like 1963's "String Along" and 1963's "For You" are lightweight mediocrities, and 1964's "The Very Thought of You" is practically a novelty number that shows Nelson to be very near to complete artistic oblivion. Luckily Nelson's achingly pure voice keeps the songs from getting too soppy, and by 1966 things start to look up as Nelson turned to country music for inspiration. His Country Fever record was an early salvo in the country-rock explosion, and that album's "Mystery Train" is a blast; James Burton tears it up on guitar and Nelson sounds positively joyous to be free from the bounds of saccharine pop. It would have been nice to have another song or two from this exciting era, but the compilation jumps ahead to 1969 and Nelson's mellow take on Dylan's "She Belongs to Me." He was firmly in the country-tinged singer/songwriter camp at this point and pulls it off very well, both vocally and compositionally. His original song from 1970, "Easy to Be Free," is a beautiful song with lovely vocal harmonies and an uplifting message. The disc includes live versions of Nelson's old hits "Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart" and "Believe What You Say" that show how he was successfully dealing with his past by incorporating it into his new style. Still, it might have been nice to include more original songs from this fertile period in Nelson's career. His "Garden Party" from 1972 shows just what a talented and assured songwriter he had become. Nelson's work for Verve and Decca is worth more than a just a quick glance. A better collection is Ace's The Best of the Later Years (1963-1975), which takes more time and even shows Nelson dipping his toe into psychedelia. Of course, if all you want is the two-dollar tour, this disc does the trick: The sound is flawless, the liner notes are decent, there is a wonderful picture of Nelson at the mic gracing the booklet, and there is some great music by the truly underrated Rick Nelson.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra