During the swing era, jazz was not thought of as cerebral, highbrow music that only appealed to intellectuals in Sweden. It was part of popular culture, and swing's big bands made their presence felt in the places where popular culture usually makes its presence felt: high school dances, jukeboxes, neighborhood bars, movies, and ballrooms (which were the dance clubs of their time). So when Harry James, one of swing's superstars, and other big band leaders took part in the United States government's V-disc program during World War II, it was a lot like Billy Joel (just to give one example) expressing his patriotism after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Spanning 1941-1944, The Best of the War Years focuses on live and studio performances that came out on military V-discs. Back then, none of these recordings were sold commercially; V-discs were strictly for the enjoyment of American servicemen. But it isn't uncommon for people in the private sector to sell collections of V-disc recordings to civilians -- which is a good thing, because the material on this 20-track CD is generally quite solid, if less than essential. Neither instrumentals nor vocals are neglected. As a trumpet-playing instrumentalist, James is as pleasing on up-tempo workouts (including "Crazy Rhythm" and "Tuxedo Junction") as he is on something as lyrical as "Autumn Serenade." And Helen Forrest (one of the top big band singers of the '30s and '40s) is characteristically sentimental when James features her on "I Cried for You" and other standards. The Best of the War Years isn't recommended to casual listeners, who would be better off sticking to James' well-known Columbia hits. But for hardcore swing collectors, these V-disc recordings are a joy to listen to.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson