Various Artists

Unless you want to spend megabucks on the massive Complete Stax-Volt Singles box set released 15 years ago, this double disc distillation should do just fine. Featuring many of the artists who defined soul music throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, this dose of history is nearly perfect. Beginning with Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)" and ending 50 songs later with "Woman to Woman" by Shirley Brown, there simply isn't a weak cut in the bunch.

It is difficult to come to grips with the importance and sustained relevance of the music contained in this set. Even Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," a song that has been anthologized many times over, still shines amidst the expected company of Sam and Dave, Booker T, Isaac Hayes and Johnny Taylor. Yet the treasures here may well be the ones the least familiar to the casual listener. William Bell's forlorn lover in "You Don't Miss Your Water" (covered splendidly by the Byrds during their heyday) and Mable John's biting declaration in "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)" are moments of devastating emotional impact.

Rarely, if ever, has a labeled become identified with so much transcendent material. Whether it be the blues of Albert King (the still fierce "Born Under a Bad Sign") or the secular gospel of "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers, this is music representing an undeniable American spirit.


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