The two-disc Essential Kris Kristofferson
summarizes this revered outlaw's contribution to straight-no-chaser contemporary country music in 37 cuts -- all but one (a 1999 live track from his Austin Sessions album) dating to his '70s and '80s prime. Disc 1 is worth the price of admission alone and is required listening for any country music fan. Here are the songs that changed the way the mainstream spoke of matters of the heart, the flesh, and the devil: "Me and Bobby McGee," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "To Beat the Devil," "Casey's Last Ride," "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," "For the Good Times," and a live version of "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33" represent a turn toward frank, vivid narratives about the real, messy world of loving, losing, and battling for peace of mind. Kristofferson's voice was fairly weathered even in his younger years, and its cragginess compounded the cosmic ennui informing his parched viewpoint. Disc 2 doesn't offer monuments on the order of its predecessor, but it does contain such overlooked gems as "Border Lord," "Broken Freedom Song," and "Nobody Wins." Kristofferson's stirring turn with Johnny Cash
, Waylon Jennings
, and Willie Nelson
on Jimmy Webb's epic, haunting "Highwayman" is another highlight, and the above-mentioned 1999 track, "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends," marks a moment when Kristofferson reasserted his gift most persuasively. The early work retains all of its potency -- and has even gained a bit in light of the formulaic turn of mainstream country writing today -- and the '80s work begs to be reconsidered. This set lives up to its title, and then some.