Imagine an album that could contain tracks by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello, as well as Frank Sinatra, Cream, and Van Morrison. That's part of the lineup on this various-artists sampler of music used in the television series The Sopranos, music that dates from each of the last five decades of the 20th century, from Bo Diddley's 1950s hit "I'm a Man" to Eurythmics' "I've Tried Everything" from their 1999 reunion album, Peace. Familiar songs like Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year" are given a new flavor by being sequenced between very different yet oddly complementary songs. The most interesting moments, however, come with the less familiar material -- cast member "Little Steven" Van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul's "Inside of Me," Elvis Costello & the Attractions' live take on "Complicated Shadows," Wyclef Jean's rap over Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair" on "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," which refers specifically to the mafia family story line of the show. The result sounds like an hour with the radio station of your dreams, which is what this kind of album aspires to be.
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The Sopranos is not only the finest show on the tube; the modern saga of New Jersey mafiosi boasts some of the coolest music ever transmitted via the boob tube. This inaugural Sopranos soundtrack album collects 14 first-rate tracks heard on the program, and the result is unusually cohesive for a compilation album. The leadoff cut by England's idiosyncratic roots-funk-electronica band A3, "Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)" -- otherwise known as the intoxicating theme song of The Sopranos -- sets the tone for the rest of the album. It's an undulating, ominous combo of synthetic blues and gospel, underlaid with a menacing bass line and topped by the Reverend D. Wayne Love's equally menacing vocals. What follows is satisfyingly varied but still of a piece -- and in the spirit of the show as well -- the emphasis being tough, stark, blues-edged material. Septuagenarian Delta bluesman R. L. Burnside turns in a spooky, harmonica-laced, highly atmospheric "It's Bad You Know," propelled by the seductively off-kilter sound of tropical gourd percussion. Bruce Springsteen's grimly compelling "State Trooper," from his album Nebraska, sounds great here, as does Wyclef Jean's "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," entwined as it is with ironic snippets of Sly Stone's "Family Affair." Springsteen guitarist Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt, who has a role in The Sopranos as a loyal Mob lieutenant) and his Disciples of Soul check in with "Inside of Me." Also on hand are Los Lobos, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, the Eurythmics (with a sad, gorgeous "I've Tried Everything"), some muscular oldies (Cream's "I Feel Free" and "Mystic Eyes" by Them featuring Van Morrison), and, of course, Francis Albert Sinatra, whose masterpiece of nostalgia, "It Was a Very Good Year," ushers in season two of The Sopranos. All that's missing is the sinuous, hipster-cool "Buena" from the late, lamented Morphine -- the next soundtrack album, maybe?