For many mainstream listeners, Toby Keith first appeared on their radar in 2002 with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," the blistering counterpoint to Alan Jackson's sorrowful "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" that turned Keith into a talk radio phenomenon and a genuine American star. Like many overnight ...
For many mainstream listeners, Toby Keith first appeared on their radar in 2002 with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," the blistering counterpoint to Alan Jackson's sorrowful "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" that turned Keith into a talk radio phenomenon and a genuine American star. Like many overnight success stories, Toby Keith's celebrity didn't happen overnight -- it was the beginning of his second act, as the 2008 double-disc compilation 35 Biggest Hits makes plain. 35 Biggest Hits divides neatly into a disc of '90s hits and a disc of new-millennium singles, stopping with 2006's White Trash with Money (2007's Big Dog Daddy apparently falling under another contract and thereby absent from this comp) but adding the new recording "She's a Hottie," an OK rocker that feels like the contractual obligation it likely is. This split makes sense chronologically but it also makes sense musically, as Keith's '90s hits were much softer than his 2000s singles. After establishing his modern-day outlaw stance with "Should've Been a Cowboy" and "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action" in 1993, Keith spent much of the '90s crooning ballads vaguely reminiscent of Ronnie Milsap's early-'80s hits (such as the lovely "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You"), but when he jumped from Mercury Nashville to DreamWorks in 1999, his sound got bigger and tougher, eventually leading to the Waylon-indebted swagger of "Beer for My Horses" and "Honky Tonk U." Most musicians do their most adventurous work earlier in their careers, but 35 Biggest Hits shows that Toby Keith is the opposite, getting bolder and riskier as the years go by. Such a statement suggests that his earlier records weren't much good but that's not the case at all; he had loose-limbed barroom rockers like "You Ain't Much Fun" early in his career and all of the ballads are very good, showcasing a sensitive side that has been overshadowed by the outsized persona he's been working since Pull My Chain. Listening to 35 Biggest Hits, it's easy to appreciate how much Keith has changed over the years and how he's as good now as he ever was, making this a rather revealing career overview and an excellent introduction to a singer who, no matter how bright his star shines, still tends to be a bit underrated. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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