Those who worry that labels will run out of material to reissue from the middle of the 20th century shouldn't fear as long as Ace Records is around to assemble off-the-wall compilations such as these. Almost by its very nature, a 24-song anthology devoted to rock & roll, R&B, and novelty songs from 1949-1967 about crime is bound to include some items even eclectic collectors haven't yet heard. That's certainly the case with Criminal Records, especially as none of these were major hits, even if some of the songs were smashes by other artists, and some of the artists are pretty well known. These takes on crime -- usually trying to get away with it, or pleading for mercy after getting caught -- are often on the upbeat side, sometimes absurdly so, to the point where they frequently skirt the territory between popular music and novelty. True, the lyrics, situations, and comic vocal deliveries are sometimes more impressive than the melodies and arrangements. Still, it's largely a good, fun time for those who don't take their roots music too seriously, even if some of these are the kind of things more amusing to hear on the radio or at a party than over and over again.
Refreshingly, rather than opt for the common hit versions of the most familiar songs, you get more obscure ones, Dean Carter's demented, mid-'60s, garage-psychedelic rant through "Jailhouse Rock" being a standout in that category (though Vicki Young's "Riot in Cell Block #9" is mighty tame in comparison to the Robins' classic original). There are little-known forays into crime cuts by such big names as George Jones, the Coasters, Bob Luman, Magic Sam, Ray Stevens, and Chubby Checker, whose "Those Private Eyes (Are Watching Me)" was the flop single that directly preceded "The Twist." There's also the rare original version of "Cops and Robbers" (appropriated by Bo Diddley) by Boogaloo & His Gallant Crew. There's good jump blues by Wynonie Harris and, more unexpectedly, Scatman Crothers. There's classic early Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller-penned comedy doo wop on the Robins' "Framed." And to open and close the CD, you have the "Dragnet" theme by Ray Anthony, and the Dragnet parody (and future Dr. Demento staple) by Stan Freberg, "St. George and the Dragonet." The witty liner notes are an investigation worthy of a detective in and of themselves, sparing no detail on the background of these largely unknown discs. Note that one of the best tracks, Richard Berry's "Next Time," is a previously unissued alternate take.