April 23 (Bloomberg) -- You can spot the terminal throes of the recording industry by the way companies keep reshuffling and remixing their archives with more and more desperation.
Material used to get reissued as ``the best of.'' Now it's ``the very best of.'' Next it will be ``the best that there will ever be of.'' More and more of our record collections tend to include two or three versions of the same material.
Repackaging the good old stuff has the advantage of keeping the real thing in the catalog. In this case, it's also a celebration of African American music.
STAX, ``50th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION'' (2 CDs): Everything is 50 about this rhythm and blues box -- 50 years, 50 tracks, and a 50-page booklet.
It is just about impossible to listen to Otis Redding's ``(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay'' and not get misty eyed. Or to Albert King's ``Born Under a Bad Sign'' (``If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all''), and ``Cheaper to Keep Her'' by Johnnie Taylor, and not smile. Or to Eddie Floyd's ``Knock on Wood'' and Rufus Thomas's ``Do the Funky Chicken,'' and not start truckin'.
Sam and Dave (``Soul Man''), Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and others like Little Milton and Shirley Brown, whom you may not remember but deserve their fair share of immortality, have a purity about them that is closer to blues, gospel, and jazz than to pop.
R&B endures like folk music. It does not go in and out of fashion. These tracks were, of course, made to be hits, and most of them were. At the same time, it is perfectly clear that these people would have made pretty much the same music in any case.
They are timeless, not aimed at the lowest common denominator: The arrangements do not require rewriting and the grooves are not in the least bit dated.
Stax, in Memphis, competed with Motown in Detroit. Both reached out from what was once called the ``race records'' market. I prefer the more closely miked, intimate, bluesy, often campy (``Gee whiz, look at his eyes''), deeply felt simplicity and clarity of Stax.
After hearing all 50 tracks of this compilation, you might just want to start from No. 1 all over again. It may be the only recording you'll need for your next party.
THE VERY BEST OF NINA SIMONE (SONY/BMG)
NINA SIMONE: REMIXED AND REIMAGINED (SONY/BMG)
Nina Simone (1933-2003) is perhaps the only female singer who can be considered on the same level as Billie Holiday. They each had their personal way of combining emotion with musicianship, innocence with sophistication, and they both made familiar songs sound like you never heard them before.
It's refreshing to hear black artists covering white songs for a change -- Jimi Hendrix's ``All Along the Watchtower'' is one example. Nina Simone adds depth and soul to the Beatles and the Bee Gees. Singing ``Here Comes the Sun,'' she sounds as though she is genuinely happy to see the sun coming, although the deep shadows are never far off.
The souped-up anthemic electronic background to her version of ``To Love Somebody,'' in the Chris Coco's Stadium Rocker remix, is reminiscent of ``Let it Be'' by the Beatles surrounded by Phil Spector's walls of sound. They are both kind of like the Mona Lisa with a moustache.
There has been a big market for Nina Simone remixes in recent years. Young music fans consider remixes more ``contemporary.'' It's really just selling the same product in a new package, although some people take the music's adaptability as a sign of universality.
Some of the remixes sound better after a second listening -- DJ Wally's take on George Gershwin's ``My Man's Gone Now,'' from ``Porgy and Bess,'' for one.
It's still Nina Simone despite it all, and we are fortunate to be able to hear the originals as well as their alterations -- with the moustache, as it were, and without.
Simone's version (in French) of Jacques Brel's ``Ne Me Quitte Pas'' always brings out the goose bumps. It's as though she's really scared to death of being left all alone. Nina Simone tells the truth.