Recent K-Tel Records releases -- A review of ''Best of Reggae,'' ''Today's Hottest Hard Rock,'' and more

By David Browne
Updated August 20, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Recent K-Tel Records releases

There is rock & roll meant to be preserved forever on opulent boxed sets. There are rock stars destined to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There is The Who’s Tommy on Broadway.

And then there is K-tel. You remember K-tel Records: Low-budget compilation albums with titles like Believe in Music and ChartBusters, all sold via cheese-ball TV ads. All the hits! All the stars! All from the company that gave you wacky household gadgets like the Miracle Brush! Founded in 1962, K-tel International Inc. tapped into the lucrative trove of TV-marketed albums starting with 25 Polka Classics in 1970. But due in part to bad investments, it filed for bankruptcy in 1984, and its output decreased. In the meantime, K-tel was overtaken by specialty labels like Rhino and compilations like the four volumes of MTV Party to Go.

The TV ads have been retired, but K-tel lives on. Based in Plymouth, Minn., the company continues to crank out as many as 15 albums a month in genres from rap to metal (they’re sold in department stores like Wal-Mart and KMart). The sound quality is vastly improved from the days of those tinny-sounding LPs. But judging from a batch of the label’s summer releases, the more things change in the record industry, the less they change for K-tel — thank God.

Cover-art budgets probably don’t go higher than 50 bucks a shot, ”packaging” (as in CD booklets) does not exist, and the song selections remain haphazard at best. Any collection called Best of Reggae that includes Ziggy Marley but not Bob is automatically suspect; never mind that the bulk of the record is forgettable pop-crossover reggae by Eddy Grant, Marcia Griffiths, and others. Likewise, an anthology with a name like Today’s Hottest Hard Rock should feature Van Halen or ALice in Chains. But no, it’s mostly album cuts by power-ballad nonentities like Winger and Mr. Big. And while Today’s Top Christian Hits makes a case for the eclecticism of born-again pop (from Michael W. Smith’s Velveeta crooning to Twila Paris’ spry bluegrass), by record’s end I was ready to play all my Judas Priest albums backward, forward and sideways.

At other times, the K-tel formula works even better than the Miracle Brush. Anyone looking to dip into ’90s Nashville could do worse than securing a copy of Today’s Hit Country, which combines lesser chart toppers from Vince Gill and Alabama with kick-starters from John Anderson (”Seminole Wind”) and Brooks & Dunn (their shining moment, ”Brand New Man”). Rap: Today’s Greatest Hits is clearly mis-titled, but it is a respectable set of predominantly positive-minded, antiviolence grooves from, among others, the normally hard-edged Too $hort, Fu-Schnickens, and Spice-1. And Dance X-Treme (originally called Dance Ecstasy but renamed after the label learned there was a drug by that name) is a true StairMaster soundtrack. In the great K-tel tradition, it also has a surprise in the bubbly ”Success” by Dannii Minogue.

In keeping with another K-tel tradition — nostalgia — are Discomania (a solid 10-track set of ’70s glitter-ball favorites) and the truly inane Dumb Ditties. The latter includes the expected novelty songs from Ray Stevens and Roger Miller but also Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs’ risqué ’60s garage-band hit ”Li’l Red Riding Hood.” And continuing the legacy of, say, the K-tel Salad Queen are two volumes of Bon Appetit: Entertaining With Style — classical concerti strictly intended as dinner-party background music, and pleasant at that.

Ominous clouds do linger on the K-tel horizon. The company now has earnest subsidiaries for New Age and jazz and is planning a high-minded four-CD box called The Brill Building Sound, a collection of the early-’60s pop hits (”On Broadway,” ”The Loco-Motion”) written in that famed New York building. Thanks, but I’ll wait for next month’s Biker Rock. Respectability, after all, is not what we want from K-tel. We live in a world where nothing — music, appliances, love, friendships, you name it — really lasts. And with their proudly disposable collections, the folks at K-tel know it better than anyone. They have lived, and they have learned. Listen to their collections, and bow before them.

Reggae: C-
Hard Rock: D
Hit Country: B+
Rap Hits: B
Dance X-Treme: B
Discomania: B+
Dumb Ditties: B-
Bon Appétit (each): B-