The idea of a “best of” or “greatest hits” album has always been a little hinky. The target audience is ostensibly people who didn’t care enough to buy the collected albums individually or new listeners wanting to fill in their collections economically. Either group will be looked down upon by “serious” fans, who have digested and enjoyed not only all the band’s albums but also whatever singles, B-sides, and imports they could lay hands on. The argument between bandwagon lassitude and obsessive nerdism will not be settled; there is a case to be made against both types of behavior and money to be made on compilations. However, Stay Golden, Smog: The Best of Golden Smog is perhaps the best-case scenario for such an album, collecting the group’s finest tracks and including a couple of carrots for die-hard fans.
Golden Smog sprung out of the ’80s Minneapolis music scene and provided a no-pressure outlet to members of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Run Westy Run, Wilco and the Replacements. The band started exclusively playing covers, but it later served as a repository for songs that didn’t fit with the members’ regular gigs. The eighteen songs on the album were selected by members of Golden Smog from the band’s second and third releases. It’s hard to argue with their choices, and the tracks range from tuneful bluegrass and country numbers to shaggy-dog rockers that conjure visions of smoky barrooms. The songs’ considerable charms rest in that they sound less like the product of time in a studio than a jam session between friends.
The one bone to be picked with this collection is that it only compiles the last two albums the band recorded for Rykodisc and omits any material from the On Golden Smog EP. It’s arguable that the folks at Rhino made the right decision here and that none of the five covers justify inclusion on the album. They do, however, constitute the band’s first work, and for lack of a better term, are among the “Smoggiest” recordings the band ever produced.
Though there is much to like on Stay Golden, Smog, it isn’t really a full compilation of the band’s years at Rykodisc. Rather, it distills the content of a couple of truly great albums into a pretty comprehensive two-for-one value pack.