John Mellencamp's progression from disreputable teen-idol wannabe to guilty-pleasure hitmaker to vital heartland rocker to dusty VH1 fogey has been difficult to track. Most of the singer-songwriter's best songs are available on filler-heavy records scarcely worth the effort it would take to salvage them, while Mellencamp's one previous attempt at a hits collection, 1997's The Best That I Could Do 1978-1988, leans heavily on the bestselling trio Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, and The Lonesome Jubilee, which are his strongest albums, though not entirely the source of his finest songs.
The double-disc Words & Music more than adequately replaces The Best That I Could Do—it picks up every track on the first set, and adds breezy Top 40 efforts from the '80s, like "Hand To Hold On To" and "This Time," as well as stellar '90s tracks like "What If I Came Looking," "Love And Happiness," and "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)." Words & Music still undervalues 1989's Big Daddy (Mellencamp's last great album, and maybe his best, aside from Scarecrow), and his post-1996 work remains largely forgettable. Still, this is one two-CD set that merits the extra space, if only because it puts charming trifles like "Ain't Even Done With The Night" and fiercely plugged-in anthems like "Rain On The Scarecrow" into a more complete context.