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TOP 500 REVIEWERon February 5, 2015
Gosh, what a terrific 2-CD set this is, and how amazing to think that the half CENTURY of some of Willie Nelson's finest contributions to country music included on it don't even cover the past decade-plus! The set does a really nice job of following his career chronologically, beginning with a 1961 single, "Night Life", right along through to the previously unreleased 2003 mix of a 1987 duet recording with Steven Tyler/Aerosmith, "One Time Too Many".

I didn't discover country music until mid-life, and though my interest started out slowly with the country pop/rock sound that seems to get the most air time on the large country stations, my scope steadily widened to include a broader spectrum of the genre, quickly developing an appreciation of its history, and an affinity for Willie's jazzy/bluesy/folkish style, with some outlaw/pop/rock thrown in for good measure. Seems he's covered it all with both his writing and singing, and has the ability to run that entire gamut without a hitch. It's no wonder his music is so respected and admired! While looking this past Christmas to expand the country section of a CD collection I'd begun building for my husband many moons ago, it was almost as intimidating for me to attempt to select a "best of"-type Willie CD (from the MANY compilations available) as it was trying to figure out where in the world to begin describing everything this CD includes in a "review" that would do it justice, but I'll try.

I love the story behind track 1 of the first C.D., "Night Life". Apparently, after the owner of his label rejected it as not being "country", he sold it in 1960 for $150 to Paul Buskirk (while he was working as a guitar instructor at his school.) They took it to another studio and - to avoid being sued - recorded it as "NITE Life" using the name "Paul Buskirk and the Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson" (Willie's full name is Willie Hugh Nelson!) So it seems ol' Willie's been bucking the system since Day 1, proving that where there's a will(IE), there's a way! The song later became a hit for Ray Price. and has been covered by SO many other people (Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, B.J. Thomas, Dottie West, Rusty Draper, David Lee Roth, Aretha Franklin)... so that just goes to show you what a gem it is! In fact, he'd also written other gems that became hits for others ("Hello Walls" for Faron Young, "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker) prior to finally getting the chance with Liberty Records to record his debut album (I think it's hilarious that he titled the album "...And Then I Wrote" and included his own recording of those songs!) Those songs are tracks 2, 3 & 4 of the first CD. (Do wish Willie's recording of the hit he wrote for Claude Gray, "Family Bible", was also included on this CD, but it's not.)

Track 5, "I Never Cared for You", is the only single ever released during Willie's brief stint with Monument Records (it never charted, so I think it was included on this set simply to reflect that point in his career.) He apparently did re-record it several times for various of his other albums. Tracks 6, 7 & 8 ("The Party's Over", "Good Times" & "Me and Paul") represent his years with RCA (though he had singles that charted higher during that time, i.e. "Bring Me Sunshine", "One in a Row", "Blackjack County Chain", "Little Things", so it'd be interesting to know why these particular songs were chosen.) Tracks 9 & 10 are a song each from his two Atlantic Record albums - "Shotgun Willie" from the album of the same name, and "Bloody Mary Morning" from the "Phases & Stages" album.

Then we listen to his career explode! From Track 11 on the first CD all the way through Track 14 on the second CD (during his Columbia years), with only a couple of exceptions, each of the songs is either one of his own or a collaborative #1 hit single, or else comes from one of his own or a collaborative #1 album (i.e. "Uncloudy Day" was a #4 hit from "The Troublemaker", "All of Me" was a #3 hit from "Stardust", both "Whiskey River", which reached #12, and "Stay a Little Longer" are from "Willie & Family Live", and "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning" was a #2 hit from "Always on My Mind".) The couple of exceptions are certainly nothing to sneeze at ... Willie's cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" was a #4 hit (with the "Sings Kristofferson" album making it to #5), and his "Faded Love" duet with Ray Price climbed to #3 (the most popular recording of that often-recorded song), as did the collaborative album it came from ("San Antonio Rose").

Willie's only #1 hit that didn't make it onto this set was his "I Can Get Off on You" duet with Waylon Jennings (and it's a shame the #1 singles he was considered a "guest" on weren't included... "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" on Jenning's "Ol' Waylon" album, "Just to Satisfy You" on Jenning's "Black on Black" album, "Mind Your Own Business" on Hank Williams Jr.'s "Montana Cafe" album, or "Beer for My Horses" on Toby Keith's "Unleashed" album... there might be legal reasons for that.) The only two #1 albums not represented are 1981's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (covering pop standards from the 1940's), and 2004's "Band of Brothers" which was released after this compilation.

We enjoyed seeing the interesting way the second CD ends almost as much as how the first one begins! Track 15, "Graceland", is Willie's 1993 cover of the original Paul Simon song from his final Columbia album. Track 16, "Everywhere I Go" is a duet with Emmylou Harris from his 1998 "Teatro" album. Track 17, "Slow Dancing" is a 1997 "B-side" single recording collaboration with U2. Track 18, "Mendocino County Line" is the 2003 Grammy-winning duet with Lee Ann Womack from his 2002 "The Great Divide" album. And the final track, "One Time Too Many", is apparently one that was recorded with Steven Tyler/Aerosmith in Vancouver back in 1987, lost, found, mixed in NYC in 2003 and released for the first time with this "Essential" set!

Willie Nelson will turn 82 this year, and what a very full life and career he has to reflect upon! Not only is this man a singer and songwriter, musician and guitarist, but so many other things - a poet and author, an actor and liberal activist. He helped found Farm Aid, with the original concert raising $9 million for American farmers, and is involved with so many other causes and charities as well. I don't think his wry sense of humor was ever more apparent than when his accountants didn't pay his taxes for years, he ended up owing the IRS $32 million, and cleared his debt with not only an auction of his assets, but also with the profits of a double album entitled, "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?" Whether or not you agree with his "politics" and activism with regards to the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana, there can't be ANY disagreement that Mr. Nelson is a well-deserved icon of country music, and this is a thoroughly enjoyable CD set!
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on December 19, 2013
I think the selection of songs on this two disc set is fine, but I only like Willie Nelson slow songs, so I may not be the best judge. That being said, it contains the songs I like. However, I was a bit disappointed in the rather tinny sound of the cd, which I think goes beyond what might be expected due to the age of the recordings, so am only giving it 3 stars.
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on July 21, 2006
Great album. A must have if you are a Willie Nelson fan. The duets are incredible. Seven Spanish Angels with Ray Charles has to be one of the greatest duets of all time. And when Julio Iglesias sings "To all the girls i've loved before" I actually believe that there may have been quite a number (I still don't believe Willie when he sings that).
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on October 14, 2013
When Willie Nelson was the biggest thing in country music, I wasn't really interested. I was into other music at the time and tended to look askance at any act getting the superhype treatment. I knew people with his albums and heard him at their houses, but I deferred giving him an extended hearing. But I cycle through phases in my musical interests and lately returned to country, and it seemed right to give Willie my attention at long last.

I'm glad I chose this album for my introduction. It's a very extensive selection that spans his entire career. I've noted some reviews that gripe about the quality of his singing. Bob Dylan's voice is hardly operatic, but he managed to record some of the most compelling ballads ever heard, and one could go on to make a long list of singers from Billie Holiday to Howlin' Wolf to Johnny Cash to Atahualpa Yupanqui whose place in the musical pantheon has little to do with the condition of their adenoids and everything to do with artistic depth and authenticity. Willie is, in fact, a better singer than I realized, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of the artistry that comes across in his interpretations of the material. I won't compose a novella here, telling you things you don't need to hear from me. What you need to hear (if you want to get acquainted with Willie Nelson) is on the album, and your reaction to that is what will matter. By the way, the album also includes some collaborations with other artists (Waylon, of course, had to be included), some of which came as a surprise; but the surprises added to the collection rather than detracting, for the most part.

I have only one criticism, and it's hardly a complaint because it has the benefit of adding unintended humor to the collection, and I like a good laugh. It's about the duet with Julio Iglesias, "To All The Girls I've Loved Before." If it weren't so funny, it would be excruciating. This cut is a classic specimen of '80s schlock, complete with the overwrought synthesizers typical of the period. I suppose the massive success it enjoyed at the time and the money it brought in will spare Willie any embarrassment at rehearing this spectacular turkey; but its inclusion on the album is only justified by its place on the charts -- if one is going to present a complete record of his hits, this one has to be included. And of course I realize that some readers will love this saccharine bomb and be offended that I'm making fun of it. Don't mind me. Again, I don't write my reviews to pontificate on matters of taste. My doctrine in that regard is very simple. Everyone's reaction to a work of art is as valid as anybody else's; and people who don't realize that and who try to promote their own reactions as the "correct" ones only betray their ignorance of what art is. It's okay to say "I hate this" or "I love this"; it's not okay to demand: "You should love/hate this, too."

The Essential Willie Nelson -- great album if you don't already have all the songs.
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on September 11, 2013
Don't you hate those adjectives? I mean what does definitive mean? It means 'Supplying or being a final settlement or decision.' So how can an album be definitive if the artist is still alive and kicking. Enough of my attempt at irony.

What a GREAT collection of Willie's best songs (to date). He is an icon in the world of country music, and beyond. With over 200 albums to his credit, he is the Stephen King of country music.

His voice is so recognizable you'd have to be from another planet not to realize it's him, regardless of your musical tastes. I have always enjoyed Willie Nelson, but this is the first album of his music I have bought. Every last song is a Willie Nelson greatest hit.
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on August 27, 2014
Would have given a 5 star if it had more upbeat songs on it.

Lots of music on these 2 disk CD's. Lots of great favorites. A good number of those upbeat songs like "On the road again".

It was worth it to me. Plenty of music and 90% of the songs I really enjoyed the other 10% were not bad just not my favorites.

Would I recommend it to a friend? YUP.
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on June 10, 2013
There is every reason in the world to dismiss Willie Nelson as a writer, performer, or singer except one. He is unique with a history that crosses genres, makes things happen that shouldn't happen, and brings smiles to people's faces and lives. I mean how many Country Western singers can take Hoagy Carmichael and make you want to hear more. He can play with Ray Charles or almost anyone else and make it sound good. This is a compilation album that contains all of the well known works but also some lesser known ones. Some of the sound quality on the early songs is less than we expect with digital recording but they are listenable none the less. Willis is an icon representing everything from the last half of the 20th Century and is still going strong.
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on March 28, 2014
I'm a late blooming Willie Nelson fan. Sure, I flirted with his stuff for a number of years. Listened with pleasure when it came on the radio or was background music in a restaurant. Then, BANG! Starlight was released. Ever since then, I've bought every Willie Nelson CD I could find and enjoy every one of them. This particular entry gives an excellent historical perspective on his work. It's a keeper and a great companion for those times when you need someone to sing your thoughts for you.
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on November 13, 2013
Some of the reasons I didn't like it are at the same time some of the reasons why I did like it. The album is digitized from original recordings and some go back to the 50's which include some recording additives, such as backup, that would not be used today. But the album reflects the changes in Willie's music over the decades and it definitely brings to your attention how many amazing songs he has written that are loved and mean as much today as when they were written. For me personally, as time goes by the importance of this recording will only grow. Willie is one of the great poets of our time.
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on February 11, 2014
I'm not a C & W person per se. I'm really a Motown man from the 60's & 70's. But I like good music. I thought Willie wrote most of his songs, but after getting this, I found out that he did not. He did however, write enough to be a living legend. Interesting to observe how his voice changed from what it used to be. At one time, back in the beginning, he really could sing (smile).
This is a good soothing change of pace for me. Enjoy listening to it when I'm riding in my vehicle. Relaxing & different.
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