Essential Records promoted 2007 as "The Year of Third Day" through the two Chronology albums celebrating the band's first decade. They could have just as easily billed it as "The Year of Jars of Clay" if that band hadn't parted ways with the label earlier in the year. In addition to their just released live EP Live Monsters and a forthcoming Christmas album comes this long overdue double-disc anthology, The Essential Jars of Clay.
No pun was intended by the title. This album arrives as part of Sony's Legacy series of compilations, which includes everyone from Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. To be marketed in a brand that focuses on such legendary artists speaks very highly of this band's place in the history of rock. Third Day may have enjoyed more consistent success in the Christian music culture, but Jars of Clay's success has consistently spilled over from the Christian market into the broader mainstream culture.
Thus it's only fitting these guys receive the red carpet treatment as well. As a fan anticipating the inevitable, I saw no way for a single-disc collection to do justice to a band that has amassed close to 20 No. 1 radio hits since their 1995 debut. Thankfully, the labels agreed, and with this set have represented nearly all of the major releases in the Jars discography with four tracks each.
For a comprehensive overview of the band's long string of success, this set comes awfully close to perfection. From the opening punch of "Flood" and "Liquid" to highlights from their acclaimed 2006 album Good Monsters like "Work," "Dead Man (Carry Me)," and "Oh My God," the album truly does live up to the title. (Well, almost. More on that in a bit.) It also acknowledges Jars' concert album Furthermore: From the Studio/From the Stage, their hymns project Redemption Songs, and their Little Drummer Boy Christmas EP along the way.
And it gets even better. Though Jars has no shortage of hits and favorites to fill two discs with, the album producers were generous enough to track down a handful of rarities to include as extra goodies for the devoted fans. Those who have failed to pick up the City on a Hill albums from Essential will appreciate the inclusion of "Bethlehem Town" and "This Road." Fans that haven't found The White Elephant Sessions disc of demos and rarities will find "New Math" and concert favorite "Coffee Song" as well. "Tonight" and "Shipwrecked" come as bonus tracks from Who We Are Instead. Probably the most obscure song unearthed here for the faithful is "The Widowing Field," a somber cut from the When We Were Soldiers soundtrack.
Here's the catch. For a collection titled The Essential Jars of Clay, the song selection sure bungled the If I Left the Zoo album. "Unforgetful You" is present of course, but how on earth were "Goodbye, Goodnight" and "Grace" included over "Collide" and "I'm Alright?" Likewise, why did the labels ignore "Overjoyed" from Much Afraid in favor of "Tea and Sympathy," or leave off "Show You Love" from Who We Are Instead? The biggest shock of all"brace yourself, fans"is that this anthology leaves out "Faith Like a Child," one of the signature songs from the debut. Lest you think I'm being a nitpicky fan, all of those omissions were No. 1 hits that are truly essential to Jars of Clay's repertoire.
The frustrating clincher is that both discs have room for at least two more songs each, so why not follow through on something that comes this close to getting it exactly right? It'd be easier to ignore this if Jars of Clay wasn't the rare band that has not only enough well-known hits to stuff a double-disc compilation with, but also enough rarities to fill a separate disc (perhaps even two). Between the missed songs, the typos in the CD packaging, and the lack of publicity for it, you can't help but wonder how much better this collection would have fared if it wasn't so hastily thrown together.
Still, it's hard to focus on the shortcomings of this release when you fully consider what's gained. The Essential Jars of Clay remains a generally comprehensive overview with one great song after another"offering enough hits to satisfy the casual fan, with enough lost gems to entice the devoted. That's a rarity in itself these days, though only appropriate for this uncommon band that hit the ground sprinting with their debut, and only grew artistically with time. Let's face it; hits albums aren't usually done this well. I'm glad in this case, because it helps cement the legendary status that Jars of Clay deserves.
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