Various Artists, The Definitive Collection of Federal Records (1964-1982) [VP Records, 2010]
I like “various artists” reggae compilations. According to my database, my collection includes 360 of them, some of which are multiple-disc sets. So understandably I now have certain expectations when a new one comes my way. The Definitive Collection of Federal Records (1964-1982) has just come my way, so let’s see how it measures up.
First and foremost, I have high standards for both quantity and quality. No problem there; The Definitive Collection presents 40 tracks over two discs, and because Federal Records was part of the indigenous Jamaican recording industry from the beginning (in fact, helped to create it), the compiler of this set had a wealth of material to dig into, from ska through rocksteady through roots reggae. As for quality, well, the exemplary original mastering translates beautifully into digital format, as you’ll hear in the rich bass, bright horns and all the rest. And take a look at a few of the names: The Maytals, The Paragons, John Holt, Ernie Smith, Marcia Griffiths, Derrick Harriott, Delroy Wilson. So quantity and quality standards met.
I have other expectations. Inevitably I’ll find a few old friends, which is where the Hopeton Lewis, Pluto Shervington, and Bob Andy tracks come in. But I also want a healthy variety of stuff that’s new to me, and at least half the material here is just that – in fact some tracks offer delightful surprises, such as Ernie Smith’s vocals on “Duppy Gun Man,” the bouncy rhythms of Lyn Taitt & The Jets’ instrumental “Napoleon Solo,” the calypso-reggae of Lord Laro, and an extended edit of Ken Boothe’s familiar “Everything I Own” that takes the listener not into dub territory but into tasteful (verging on flamboyant) piano stylings of the kind that frequented easy-listening charts at the time.
Refreshing (or at least interesting) reggaefied covers of North American hits are often a staple of compilations, and here we get “Stagger Lee” from John Holt, “Alone Again Naturally” from The Now Generation, “Lady” from Wayne Wade, and a handful of others. And of course no set like this would be complete without a few choices I’d argue with; in this case that honor goes to Boris Gardiner’s pair of sappy offerings and Lord Creator’s perfunctory medley of his tunes, which does nothing more than deny each song its own integrity.
But overall, The Definitive Collection of Federal Records is a highly successful set, modestly but adequately presented, including liner notes by noted reggae expert Steve Barrow. I hereby install it with pleasure to a top-twenty spot in my collection of collections.