The clever title of Plays Well with Others, a four-disc compilation chronicling Phil Collins' adventures as a sideman, also happens to tell the truth. Whether he was acting as a drummer, songwriter, singer, or producer, Phil Collins does play well with others, adding distinct elements that helped distinguish these collaborations from other entries in an artist's discography. That these collaborations also often helped define the sound of their times is no accident, either. For over a quarter-century Collins was omnipresent, first as a prog-rock drummer, then as a pop superstar in his own right, and in both roles he was instrumental in shaping the sound of modern productions. Plays Well with Others goes a long way in illustrating this fact by tracing this evolution, spending three discs chronicling his studio work from 1969 to 2011, then capping off this biography with a live coda of collaborations. Some of the biggest names arrive on this fourth disc -- George Harrison, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, every one of them indicating the crowd Collins ran with -- and it also contains some explicit genre experimentations (witness "Chips & Salsa," a track by the Phil Collins Big Band), but compared to the epic told by the studio recordings, it feels like an afterthought. The story on the first discs is clear, complex, and fascinating. Collins begins as the go-to art-rock guy, navigating complex time signatures for Argent and Brand X, but also adding funky elements to Brian Eno and able to seem as primitively punk as John Cale. Then, he reunites with his former Genesis bandmate Peter Gabriel for "Intruder," adhering to the singer's dictate of no cymbals, and the doors are blown off: Gabriel, Collins, and producer Hugh Padgham created the cavernous drum sound that came to define the '80s.
Collins would later exploit this sound expertly on his hits with Genesis and on his own, almost all of them made with Padgham, but it is heard in a pop form almost immediately when it's replicated on the tense, ominous throb of Frida's "I Know There's Something Going On." From there, cymbals are added back into the mix, but the wide, spacious sound had been patented, and it'd be heard on recordings by Robert Plant, Al Di Meola, Adam Ant, and Philip. This is the era documented on the second disc, which represents Collins' imperial period, when upstarts like Howard Jones and vets like Paul McCartney, the Four Tops, and Stephen Bishop hired him in hopes of replicating his magic. By the '90s, this sound got smoothed out, turning into adult contemporary in the hands of Collins, John Martyn, and David Crosby, but rapper Lil' Kim remembered the thunderous rapture of "In the Air Tonight" in her 2001 interpolation. Plays Well with Others captures each iteration of this evolution in a way no Phil Collins or Genesis compilation could: the fact that it casts its net wide shows not only his versatility but his vast, lasting influence. If you're looking to understand the album rock and pop of the '70s, '80s, and '90s, this is essential.