Mike Oldfield may be back with Virgin- the label that helped launch his career with the iconic Tubular Bells album. However, it is Warner Bros (who managed Oldfield following his earlier acrimonious split from Virgin) that is behind this new collection. The Best of 1992-2003 encompasses Oldfield’s eight albums on that label.
The chronologically ordered first disc contains the singles. One of Tubular Bells II’s offerings is the single version of Sentinel, a bouncier, spacier and more ornate deviation from the introductory music to the original Tubular Bells. The exuberant, honourable UK Top 40 hit Tattoo shows Oldfield’s fondness for bagpipes, recalling a bit of ABBA’s Arrival as it erupts with joy and marches on with its memorable hooks (though the pipes return on tracks like the 1995 promo single The Voyager). A remix of The Bell threatens to fall into 1990s, digitally recorded, cold-sounding muzak but as soon as the bells kick in, almost all is forgiven as it ends spectacularly.
1994’s The Songs of Distant Earth (named after Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel) takes on a more New Age feel, as heard on the spacey, spiritual and future-looking Hibernaculum and the warm Let There Be Light. After a badly dated dance mix of Women of Ireland that really should be replaced by the superior, languid album version, Maggie Reilly returns. Well, not quite. Tubular Bells III single Man In The Rain has Irish folk singer Cara Dillon offering her heavenly chops on this unashamedly derivative yet still exquisite rehash of Moonlight Shadow (though both songs were written around the same time after all). Far Above The Clouds (later performed by Oldfield at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony) is mellow, chilled out house that screams late 1990s.
Sunny Ibiza inspired 1999’s Guitars, which features expectedly guitar-driven tracks like the simultaneously heavy and delicate Cochise and the surprisingly bombastic, energetic Out Of Mind (which screams out for some kickass lyrics). The most interesting section of the album covers tracks from The Millennium Bell, including the Native American-influenced, operatic and theatrical Pacha Mama, the gospel-tinged, slave trade-themed Sunlight Shining Though Cloud and the uplifting Amber Ligh (which rejoices the end of apartheid in South Africa).
After Thou Art In Heaven (Oldfield’s epic take on Uncomfortably Numb), come two selections from the 2003 re-recording of that seminal album. Introduction 2003 – Single Remix just adds some modern drums and electronic pulses, yet loses the mystery of the original. Nevertheless, listeners must give credit to the effort put into the intricate guitar performance of the silly The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
The second disc unfortunately is redundant. Apart from the B-sides including Silent Night, The Spectral Army and Mike’s Reel, remixes of most of those aforementioned singles sound like a desperate appeal to the younger, club-going crowd. The only mixes worth mentioned are the Jam & Spoon Mix of Far Above The Clouds (which pulses like a trance-y Need for Speed soundtrack) and a funkier version of To Be Free off Tr3s Lunas.
The Best of 1992-2003 really would have been perfectly fine as a single disc collection, with few substitutions needed. Despite this, the compilation’s faults do not take away Oldfield’s extraordinary talent and knack for mixing things up over his long career.