When Mick Jagger is looking to set the mood for an evening with a "special person," he puts on a Sade record. We know this because Jagger has confessed it himself, in the liner notes to a CD in a series called "Artist's Choice," which launched last year. For these discs, which are chiefly available at Starbucks stores, the Rolling Stones, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, and others have been asked to choose a selection of songs that "matter" to them, resulting in a disc that's "like a mixed tape from your favorite artist." So, a fan might be drawn in by the chance to glean new insight on an artist by listening to his or her favorite songs. (Their picks are explained in a fancy little booklet inside the packaging.) Or maybe the CD buyer figures that if he likes Sheryl Crow, than surely he will also like whatever she likes.
It's an interesting idea, and one that's apparently connecting with at least some people: The Crow disc has sold more than 23,000 copies, and the Stones disc more than 50,000. (Tony Bennett is the next song-picker, in a disc due out late this month; a Johnny Cash set is slated for the fall.) But in practice, do celebrated pop stars really have better, more revealing, or more wide-ranging taste than a run-of-the-mill music fan?
The Stones disc is an interesting place to start. As anyone with a passing knowledge of rock music knows, the Stones were born of a love for, and a willingness to mine, American blues and R&B. And the 16 tracks here, most of them at least a quarter-century old, are dominated by African-American artists. There's James Brown doing "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag (Part 1)," Little Richard singing "The Girl Can't Help It," Al Green's "I'm Still in Love With You," plus a Robert Johnson track, two from Muddy Waters, and so on. The picks are mostly solid, but after a while they start to resemble the soundtrack to some future sequel to The Big Chill. (God forbid.) The only real revelation is a hilariously raunchy Andre Williams song, "Jail Bait." (You can hear it on the Starbucks site.) This was picked by Keith Richards, who, in the disc's accompanying notes, blithely guesses that Williams is probably dead, but might be alive in a prison somewhere. (As the notes make clear, he is neither of those things.)
The Jagger-picked "By Your Side," from Sade is the only track of remotely recent vintage. His explanation—it's "very romantic," and he breaks it out "every time" he has one of his special-person liaisons—makes him sound less like a connoisseur than a creepy bachelor with a rote set of "moves": After dinner at the Outback, play the Sade record and then casually mention the water bed, etc.
The Lucinda Williams set is much better. There are a few familiar chestnuts (Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat," Chet Baker's devastating rendition of "My Funny Valentine"). But there's much more to suggest that Williams is actually still open to (even hungry for) discovery, songs like Yo La Tengo's "Tears Are in Your Eyes," and a pretty number called "These Things," by a newish Australian singer named Anne McCue. One of my favorites on the disc is "No Other Love," by Chuck Prophet, whose name I didn't recognize but who turns out to have been in the underrated '80s rock band Green on Red.
The most recent disc features songs picked by Sheryl Crow. A profoundly mainstream songwriter, she has profoundly mainstream taste. Carol King's "So Far Away," James Taylor, Elton John, the Crowded House ballad "Don't Dream It's Over," Rod Stewart's stalwart "Maggie May." It's the sort of stuff you might hear playing in the background at Walgreens—or maybe these are themes from several generations of eighth-grade dances. Scan the list of titles and artists, and you feel as if you'd heard it without even putting the disc on. Sort of like Crow's music.
Actually, this points to the unintended lesson of "Artist's Choice." What the series tries to do is split the difference between two forms of compilations. One form is mass-produced: everything from old K-Tel packages to the millions-selling "Now That's What I Call Music!" series and those discs that Pottery Barn and Banana Republic have put together to capture the "sound" of their stores. "Artist's Choice," actually, is a product of a Starbucks subsidiary called Hear Music, which has released earlier themed compilations with titles like Sidewalk: Music From Here to There.
The other form is compilations made by actual fans—swapped by friends, given by music nuts to their romantic targets—a process that the narrator of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity memorably described as being something like writing a letter. It certainly sounds cool to get a letterlike mixed tape from your favorite artist. But it turns out that famous musicians aren't guaranteed, or even especially likely, to have more compelling musical knowledge than anyone else; their mixes are hit and miss. What's more, if you know the artist's work (which is probably why you bought the disc), then the compilation can end up being pretty predictable. It's more like getting a form letter. Or, in the case of Mick Jagger, a letter you wish you hadn't opened.