Randy Newman has been beloved of critics, record geeks, and music fans for years, so much so that Rhino's 2001 compilation The Best of Randy Newman may seem like a case of preaching to the converted, at least to those who worship Newman. After all, anybody who's been paying attention realizes his sly genius, not just as a songwriter, but as a musician and record-maker -- 12 Songs, Sail Away, Good Old Boys, and Trouble in Paradise are hailed as masterpieces because the records are as carefully constructed and engaging as the songs. Proof of that sentiment arrives immediately with the collection's opening cut, "Mama Told Me Not to Come," which may be better known in Three Dog Night's bombastic rendition, but is better and funnier in this wry telling. That's also true for other Newman songs that have become standards -- "You Can Leave Your Hat On," "Sail Away," "Louisiana 1927," and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" are enhanced by Newman's delivery, which emphasizes not just his humor but also the underlying emotion of his songs. Then there are the songs that the general public associates with Randy Newman -- the novelty tune "Short People," the cynical faux-anthem "I Love L.A.," the reaffirming Toy Story theme "You've Got a Friend in Me." These two sides prove that Randy Newman is a songwriter of exceptional talent and that he can reach a wide audience, but the wonderful, bewildering thing about him is that his recordings obstinately fall between these two extremes -- he's simply too willful to play to a mass audience but, even at his most obscure and ornery, his music is open and accessible. Because of this mercurial talent, it can be hard for a neophyte to get a handle on his recordings, which is why a collection like The Best of Randy Newman isn't simply welcome, it's necessary. This may not be every longtime fan's choice for the very best of Randy Newman, but it does give a good sense of his genius and how far-reaching it is by featuring all those previously mentioned songs, along with many others that confirm the depth of his talent -- "Political Science," "Rednecks," "Marie," "Miami," and "Dixie Flyer," among others. There are certainly other songs in his catalog that could have easily been showcased here, and 12 Songs and Sail Away certainly had their own logic that, in their own way, make them a more effective introduction. But as a far-reaching sampler for neophytes and casual fans, this does the job handsomely.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine