Although it sounds like a good idea, having an artist pick the songs for her own compilation sometimes can lead to unsatisfying results. Artists are likely to lean more heavily than fans would like on their more recent material; to exclude fan favorites about which they have idiosyncratic objections or are just bored with; and to include personal favorites that nobody ever liked but them. Add, in Cris Williamson's case, the situation that the artist, despite a successful career dating back to the mid-'60s, has never enjoyed a hit in the conventional sense, and the likelihood of a highly subjective compilation is compounded. It is therefore some relief to report that the two-hour-and-13-minute, two-CD collection The Essential Cris Williamson, the most comprehensive of four Williamson compilations to be released, is basically an excellent précis of the artist's extensive catalog. "Although I'm not certain these would be your essential Cris Williamson tunes," she writes, addressing her fervent fan base, "I am confident that these ones will represent in a good medicine way, songs which span more than 30 years of work." What omissions are those fans likely to note? First and foremost, the relative absence of tracks from Williamson's best-known album, The Changer and the Changed. She seems to acknowledge that record's importance by beginning each disc of the non-chronological set with a song from it, leading off disc one with "Waterfall" and disc two with "Song of the Soul." But "Sweet Woman" (included on both 1983's Portrait and 1990's The Best of Cris Williamson) is missing, as are any other tracks from The Changer and the Changed. And, true to form, Williamson does lean somewhat toward more recent fare in her choices, selecting, for example, four songs from 2003's Cris & Holly (a duo album with Holly Near). But there is some balance throughout her catalog, with songs dating all the way back to 1971's Cris Williamson. And the overall selection is much better than that on The Best of Cris Williamson (more than half of which has been deemed inessential) and much closer to being an expanded version of the superior Portrait (with only three songs missing from that set). Fans no doubt will carp (e.g., where's "Surrender Dorothy"?), but compilations aren't really made for fans (even though, as usual, they are baited by the inclusion of two previously unreleased tracks, covers of Bonnie Hayes' "Hieroglyphics" and the 1950s standard "I Wish You Love"). Compilations are made for fans to buy as presents for neophytes. And The Essential Cris Williamson should serve that purpose well; someone who had never heard Williamson's music before would be likely to get both an accurate and a positive impression of her body of work by listening to it.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2