Various Artists

El Pea

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The U.K. Island label's series of budget-priced samplers remains one of the easiest of all introductions to the sheer wealth, variety, and imagination of Chris Blackwell's company's early-'70s output. Culling crucial cuts from across the forthcoming release schedule, each assuredly drew an entire new audience into the label's grasp in an age when Island itself was simply pumping out new product.

The punningly titled (and sleeved) El Pea highlights much of what 1971 had in store for the label, with selections ranging from much-anticipated new albums by superstars Traffic, Free, and Cat Stevens; cult demigods Mott the Hoople and Quintessence; and a handful of names that might well have been new to the average browser: Mike Heron, slipping out of the Incredible String Band with his Smiling Men With Bad Reputations debut; Nick Drake, still laboring away in absolute obscurity; and so on.

There was also a spotlight shone on Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the so-called supergroup whose own eponymous debut was still awaited with baited breath, and the choice of the virtuoso "Knife Edge" over any of the album's more accessible tracks further confirms El Pea's validity. Any other label would have gone for "Lucky Man," knowing that no one could resist its plaintive charms. "Knife Edge" let the ingenue know precisely what to expect from Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

And so it goes on -- from Jethro Tull to Blodwyn Pig, from Fairport Convention to Sandy Denny, 21 tracks spread across four sides of vinyl serve up one of the most generous and alluring label samplers you will ever lay your hands on. Unless, of course, you also pick up the rest of the Island compilations.

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