Reviewing a Bad Brains ‘greatest hits’ record is a lot like doing a book report on the Bible. I can’t really imagine myself sitting here and explaining what Bad Brains sound like as if I’m introducing you all to some hot new phenomenon. Truthfully, I feel kind of awkward about trying to verbalize the importance of the songs collected on Greatest Riffs.
I wouldn’t summarize the Bible, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the Bad Brains sound. It’s not a ‘if you don’t know, you don’t deserve to’ thing; it’s more so that this is a “new” album composed entirely of songs written before we were subjected to the idiocy of one Bush, let alone two. The only new information here is the way it’s brought to the table. Bad Brains remain Bad Brains. They marry breakneck hardcore punk with straight up reggae jams, and dabble in everything in between. H.R. displays impressive vocal acrobatics in order to make the quick jumps work, and Dr. Know’s guitar work brought a sense of timing and style into a genre that had previously been a wrist race. In conclusion, IT’S BAD BRAINS FOLKS!
Instead, like a particular translation of the Good Book (I’m milking this mediocre analogy), let’s focus on the way this material is presented. Thankfully, Greatest Riffs was put together by Bad Brains’ manager Anthony Countey. It seems as though similar compilations by labels trying to cash-in on the back catalog of some suddenly in-vogue band always suffer from inane track selection. Oftentimes, it’s as though they let interns pick the sequencing out of a hat. Caroline, however, has averted such a tragedy by handing the reigns over to Countey, who does an excellent job of highlighting the band’s power and diversity.
This record works because it spans the spectrum: for those unfamiliar with the band, Greatest Riffs provides an excellent crash course introduction, with material from every relevant Bad Brains offering (from the first seven inch all the way through 1990’s Youth Are Getting Restless). And for the diehard fans, the album offers a superb collection of some of the Brains’ best material transferred onto CD and available together for the first time (that sounded like a commercial, but it’s true).
The only issue of concern is that the reggae tracks are all lumped together at the end as almost an afterthought, while in reality they were a large part of the band’s focus and identity. Then again, if the blistering intensity of the earlier tracks was distilled with a Praise-Jah-jam I probably would’ve punched myself in the face. I guess these are the kinds of problems that unapologetically talented bands pose. The sound quality, considering the vinyl-to-CD transfer, is excellent.The linear notes are surprisingly comprehensive, with complete lyrics as well as a detailed source history for each song. And as if that isn’t enough, the compilation features “Riot Squad,” a previously unreleased track, and a video for “I against I” culled from archival footage (ok, I can’t lie: the song seems unfinished [no vocals, despite lyrics being listed] and the quality of the video leaves something to be desired, but c’mon people. It’s about effort).
This is how Bad Brains should be remembered. The songs on this ‘greatest hits’ record had a big hand in shaping what we all listen to today, even if some of it has been distorted through the Suck-o-Matic2000 (see: Red Hot Chili Peppers). Greatest Riffs allows us to look past, if even just for the duration of the album, the ill-fated reunions and inexcusable prejudices that tainted the bands later years. Bad Brains were pioneers of American punk, and remain as vital to underground music today as they were 20 years ago.