Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection Label: Mercury/Universal
As a heavy metal band whose greatest glories were in the '80s, one finds that there's an undeniable impulse by the mainstream to lump Def Leppard into the category of "hair metal,” but, in reality, Def Leppard transcended heavy metal when they released Hysteria. People might still call them metal, but they’re wrong.
Def Leppard are rock.
And not only are they rock, they’re “Rock Brigade,” they’re “Rock of Ages,” they’re “Let’s Get Rocked,” and, lest we forget, they’re “Rock Rock (Till You Drop).” (They’re also “Rocket,” but we can only give them half-credit for that one.)
Despite no small amount of rocking over the years, however, flying the DefLep flag during the lean years hasn’t always been the easiest task...though it’s not been for lack of quality material. Albums like 1996’s Slang and 1999’s Euphoria were all over the place, experimenting with loads of different styles and succeeding more often than not, but the band just wasn’t shifting the units anymore.
Unlike a lot of their peers, however, Def Leppard performed some really savvy marketing maneuvers. They did a tour of state fairs, they played Wal-Mart parking lots when they released their 2002 album, X. In other words, they knew where they’d find their fans, so they played to them, and they found tremendous success by doing so.
Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection isn’t Def Leppard’s first best-of collection – that honor falls to 1995’s Vault – but, while not really providing what its title promises (“definitive” is a word that should be retired from these sort of collections, if only to lower the blood pressure of easily-riled music critics), it’s certainly a much more expansive examination of the band’s career than its predecessor.
The band wisely opted to avoid a traditional chronological presentation in favor of scattering tracks amongst the two discs in…well, frankly, there appears to be no discernable order whatsoever. It comes across as a little haphazard, sure, but it avoids the problem of putting all of the Pyromania and Hysteria material on Disc 1, then, a few years down the line, having the majority of people who’ve bought the set ask, “Hey, has this second disc always been here?”
If you already own Vault, then you have all but two songs on Disc 1 of Rock of Ages; it even follows the exact same running order, just slipping “Heaven Is” between “Animal” and “Foolin’,” then tacking “Switch 625” – which closes Side 1 of High and Dry, if you remember when your musical medium of choice still had two sides – on at the end. “Photograph,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Love Bites,” and so on and so forth. There’s not much on here that isn’t indispensable Def Leppard. Even the ballad, “Two Steps Behind,” is better than you remember, just as “Let’s Get Rocked” is as silly as ever. (Even now, few lines in the history of music sound as ridiculous as Joe Elliot asking the question, “I suppose a rock’s out of the question...?”)
Disc 2, while not as chock full of hits as its predecessor, mixes things up considerably. It opens with something from Pyromania, then jumps back to High and Dry for a few songs. There’s even some visitation of On Through The Night, courtesy of “Wasted” and “Rock Brigade.” More important, however, are the songs from Def Leppard’s more recent albums. The group dropped off the commercial radar after Adrenalize, but they continued to produce some solid harmony-laden rock albums, generally represented by at least one solid single. If you need a nice trifecta to get you started, consider “Now,” from X, “Promises,” from Euphoria, and “Work It Out,” from Slang. Special kudos must go to the band for including “Paper Sun,” also from Euphoria; it may well be the best thing the band recorded during the ‘90s, sounding like the perfect mélange of the Pyromania and Hysteria sounds. If you’re looking for a song to download to convince yourself that Def Leppard have still got “it” – whatever the hell “it” is – “Paper Sun” is the one you want.
The most notable omission from Rock of Ages is the early MTV staple, “Me and My Wine,” which, to date, still has not appeared anywhere but on the B-side of the single of “Bringing on the Heartbreak.” This certainly would’ve been the perfect opportunity to bring it to CD, so it’s a little shameful that it couldn’t have been fit in somewhere...perhaps in place of the collection’s obligatory new track, a cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the cover, but it’s on the set mostly to whet the fans’ appetite for a forthcoming all-covers album by the band; given that they’ll probably buy the new album, anyway, the inclusion of a familiar rarity like “Me and My Wine” would probably have been appreciated far more.
Rock of Ages is no substitute for owning Def Leppard’s earlier albums in their entirety, but it’s an excellent summary of a truly great rock band’s career.