Johnny Cash released dozens of albums during his tenure with Sun and Columbia Records, and nearly all of them are long out of print. What remains are compilations, many of them overlapping. If you don’t want to opt for a boxed set, two basic collections will suffice: The Sun Years (Sun/Rhino), an 18- track anthology of his brooding rockabilly of the mid-’50s, and the 20- track Columbia Records 1958-1986, which picks up the story from early hits (”Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” ”Ring of Fire”) to later ones like ”(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”
Other Cash anthologies are a mixed lot. The two volumes of his Greatest Hits (Columbia) have been rendered obsolete by the above-named collection, and Biggest Hits (Columbia) isn’t really — except for ”A Boy Named Sue” it’s mostly later hits and misses. The Vintage Years (Rhino) tidily collects both Sun and early Columbia singles (still, you’re better off with The Sun Years), while The Many Sides of Johnny Cash (Columbia) is a skimpy — and utterly random — 10-song jumble. Avoid the 1988 collection Classic Cash (PolyGram), on which Cash undertook the pointless task of rerecording his old hits.