The Very Baddest of ZZ Top marks the group’s fourth greatest hits compilation in as many decades. There is a single-disc edition and a double-disc edition, but this review concerns the latter and its collection of a whopping forty songs spanning the trio’s lengthy career. For the most part, both discs are arranged in loose chronological order covering their studio albums from 1971’s ZZ Top’s First Album through to 2003’s Mescalero (strangely enough, there are no tracks here that have been released since the group’s previous greatest hits compilation, 2004’s Rancho Texicano, making me question the necessity of this particular compilation). The most notable exception is the beginning of disc one, which begins with a winning combination of Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man, La Grange and Tush. The former two demonstrate the group’s popular synthesiser-heavy ‘80s sound, while the latter two define their down-to-earth bluesy ‘70s sound.
After that barrage of hits comes (Someone Else Been) Shaking Your Tree, the fairly low-key opening track from their very first album, and from there the disc cherry-picks the highlights from ZZ Top’s career up until the release of their 1983 classic Eliminator. After a while, it becomes pretty obvious that ZZ Top have a tendency to repeat themselves musically. For all the genre’s strengths, blues-rock is still a fairly limited genre and ZZ Top tends to rely a little too much on tried-and-true formats such as twelve-bar blues. How bored one gets by this kind of proficient but not particularly original or creative musicianship varies from person to person, but I managed to make it through the first disc with minimal complaint as it sped up, slowed down, got loud and got quiet. However, for some reason the second last track is Velcro Fry, a track from 1985’s Afterburner, and the heavily synthesised sound of this track makes for a jarring transition from the dozen or so earthy-sounding blues tracks that preceded it.
Disc two contains two more tracks from Eliminator (Legs and Got Me Under Pressure, both of which are just as excellent as the other Eliminator tracks) and proceeds to cover everything from Afterburner to Mescalero. However, it’s notably weaker than disc one. It becomes obvious very quickly just how much of a shadow Eliminator casts over the albums that came after it as they all rely heavily on synthesisers and the production ultimately sounds badly dated. Combine that with the aforementioned limited musicianship and disc two becomes a bit of a chore.
Even so, there are the occasional highlights – Doubleback sounds like one of the band’s prime rockers, the Afterburner tracks make for good companion pieces to the Eliminator tracks and even Mescalero and Que Lastima sound pretty good despite being the most recent tracks here. Everything between Give It Up and Mescalero is well and truly forgettable, though (and the less said about the cover of As Time Goes By that concludes disc two, the better.)
The double-disc edition of The Very Baddest of ZZ Top isn’t bad by any means, but it’s definitely hampered by the fact that the members of ZZ Top only have so much talent and the second disc shows just how badly that talent can get stretched over the course of about thirty years. The single-disc edition’s track list reveals that it also chooses some poor tracks over good ones in an attempt to cover the group’s entire discography. Even so, when the group is firing on all cylinders – as they do on just about every track from Tres Hombres, Degüello and Eliminator – it becomes worthwhile and most of this compilation is able to sustain that kind of momentum anyway.