Prior to 2003's Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, ZZ Top's catalog was crying out for a comprehensive retrospective. Not that the band hadn't been anthologized before: they had two hits collections, with notably different track listings, and in 1987's Six Pack, they even had a makeshift box set, but all three of these were hampered by limited focus and haphazard execution. Chrome, Smoke & BBQ addresses both of these concerns by focusing on the trio's 20 years at Warner -- from 1970's ZZ Top's First Album to 1990's Recycler -- picking the best 70 or so songs from these ten albums and spreading them over the course of a lavish four-disc, 80-track box set. This is the first logical approach to ZZ Top's career yet, and while it isn't a perfect collection, it comes tantalizingly close to that ideal. The primary problem is that by the time the fourth disc rolls around, the collection has lost considerable momentum -- and that's without even touching any material from the forgettable albums the band waxed for RCA in the '90s. With its robotic beats and flattened production, Recycler pointed the way toward those RCA records, yet it did have some excellent songs -- "Give It Up," "My Head's in Mississippi," and "Doubleback" -- that harked back to the group's strengths, something that would have been more apparent if these songs appeared at the end of disc three, after the Afterburner material. Instead, they're stranded on the fourth disc, along with four other songs from Recycler, for a grand total of seven of ten songs from that album, to which are added six "Medium Rare" tracks -- the obligatory obscurities that are included on each box set, this time being a pretty cool Spanish version of "Francene," an OK live take on "Cheap Sunglasses" from a 1980 promo single, and four 12" remixes, none of which are very good. This disc is required listening only for diehards. Fortunately, the other three discs are damn near perfect, containing six to seven songs from each of their albums except their debut (nearly all of those records had a mere ten tracks, making this a very generous sampling) along with three tracks from guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons' first band, the Moving Sidewalks, and a single, "Miller's Farm"/"Salt Lick," from the "embryonic" ZZ Top, before bassist Dusty Hill or drummer Frank Beard joined forces with Gibbons. All the hits and classic rock radio staples are here, of course, along with a wealth of album tracks that illustrate that even if the band didn't have much range -- whether the production was raw and greasy as it was on "La Grange" or clean and sleek, like the Police playing the Rolling Stones, as on "Pearl Necklace," they rarely strayed from either fast blues boogie or slow blues -- they did have strong songwriting chops, witnessed by such buried treasures as the raucous "Brown Sugar" and "Just Got Paid," the monster groove of "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," the sweet "Leila," the crawling "Blue Jean Blues," and the unspeakable sleaze of the oozing "Mexican Blackbird" and smirking "I Got the Six." All this and more (including a radio commercial for Deguello) spread out over three addictive discs that truly do condense ZZ Top's records to their very best. It would be nice to have the good Recycler songs sandwiched onto the third disc and top the set off at three discs -- it would have been a nice symmetry, with one disc for each band member -- but it's easy enough to ignore the last disc and revel in how good the rest of the set is. Basically, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ is all the ZZ Top you'd ever need.
[Chrome, Smoke & BBQ was released in two editions, both containing a terrific book, filled with great photos -- including early shots of Gibbons in the Moving Sidewalks, without the beard -- testimonials by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Ann Richards, and of all people, David Lynch (who immortally proclaims "ZZ Top = the fast track to cool"), an excellent history by Tom Vickers, and track-by-track notes by Gibbons, Hill, and Beard, as told to Bob Merlis. The limited edition is quite fancy in its own right, encased in a mock roadhouse shack and containing a booklet shaped as a menu, a sheet of ZZ Top paper dolls (no perforations, however; this is for display purposes only), and a flipbook that finds the trio doing their signature twirling guitars and hand gestures. It's a little elaborate, but it's fun, particularly because the four discs are in jewel cases and can be transported while this sits on the set, next to the other impractical, oversized box sets, such as that Charley Patton box designed as a fake album of 78s, in your collection.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine