Personnel: Mike Pickering (saxophone, background vocals); Paul Heard (keyboards); Shovell (percussion).
Liner Note Author: Paul Lester.
Photographer: Ray Burmiston.
Seven years after the million-selling The Best of M People, the Manchester foursome returns with a second hits retrospective. Considering they haven't released a studio album since 1997's Fresco, the actual demand or need for one is rather questionable. Indeed, the main difference seems to be that lead singer Heather Small is now credited in her own right, a move suggesting a full-time re-formation is unlikely to occur any time soon. Instead, The Ultimate Collection seems designed to promote her rather disappointing solo career, with both the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed "Proud" and the rather more forgettable "Holding On" included along with 16 of the band's hits on a track listing that only differs slightly from the previous compilation. Only final single "Dreaming" and their covers of the Kinks' "Itchycoo Park" and the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" have been omitted, while two of their lowest-charting singles, "Excited" and "Love Rendezvous," are now included. It's hard to believe now, considering their rather MOR reputation, but their debut, Elegant Slumming, was seen as rather cutting-edge dance music at the time, and indeed won the very first Mercury Music Prize back in 1993. Its saxophone-and-piano house sound hasn't aged too badly, and "Movin' on Up" and "One Night in Heaven" are still as joyously infectious as ever -- as are Bizarre Fruit's gospel-inspired "Sight for Sore Eyes" and the uplifting if rather overplayed anthem "Search for the Hero." Small's powerhouse vocals remain the most distinctive in the business, and they're perfect for the uptempo stompers such as "Angel Street" and "Open Your Heart," but they do tend to overpower and sometimes smother the more tender moments, such as the quite lovely acoustic ballad "Just for You" and the soulful "Testify." And while the band undeniably created its own unique and instantly recognizable sound, the similar dance-pop production sometimes makes it hard to distinguish between certain songs. Overall, this second collection justifies M People's position as one of the most popular bands of the '90s. But without any new material or unreleased tracks, it will surely only appeal to the casual fan who never quite got around to buying their first. ~ Jon O'Brien