Think we’re at a musical low tide now? In December 1997, I’d become a jaded, beaten-down critic, having given up on rock for the moment and permanently given up on music writing for a career. It paid shit, plain and simple.

Worse yet, it was impossible to escape the Spin Doctors, Offspring, No Doubt, and Hanson on the radio dial. Indie, modern, alternative — whatever we called the good stuff — was dead, gone, embalmed, and buried. Joey Ramone had become an online stock trader by then, which to this day some fans still swear killed him in 2001, not lymphoma. Pretty fly for a white guy.

“You gotta go see Ben Folds Five, this guy’s a young Joe Jackson,” a pal in the music biz told me, knowing a statement like that would titillate me, given my fondness for keyboard players and my diehard devotion to Jackson. It was just a couple of months before the peak of the Five’s popularity with their one big hit, “Brick.”

Folds was all that. Standing in line at the Avalon nightclub in Boston waiting to get into a WBCN-FM Christmas Rave where he was performing, I watched him and his bandmates — Ben Folds Five was a trio! not a quintet! a harbinger of things to come — pile out of a van and walk in the front door, high school girls screaming and fainting in his path.

Later, opening the night’s festivities, Folds blew the other bands (Catherine Wheel, Everclear,  some other forgettable chumps who looked downright cadaverous) off the stage with his sheer rock force. A slacker dervish, Folds spent the show dancing on top of the baby grand piano, playing his autoharp, and making a lot of weird, rhythmic sound effects with the mic — the learning of which must have involved years of dicking around with loud amps and speakers and most certainly being yelled at by supervising adults.

It was off-kilter, punky pop without guitars. Funny songs like “Underground,” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” – in which the bullied twerp back in elementary school ends up the famous rock star exacting revenge on his former classmates – bit the hand that fed them, joyously celebrating the indie-rock scene upon which the group built their rep, while at the same time lambasting the social misfits who populated it.

Below Ben Folds’ insouciant, self-deprecating act there clearly lurked a James-Brown-serious performer chasing perfection in his musicianship and possessing a drive to seriously entertain us, not just get a couple of cheap laughs. At the center of the Five, Folds masterfully worked jazz into his songs, along with Elton John riffs, freakin’ Wild West saloon music, boogie-woogie, and every other piano lick known to man. The high school girls had no idea he was whipping through the lexicon of American popular music at breakneck speed; they just knew it sounded good. Despite the theatrics and feigned half-interest, he had us watching it all. We dared not look away or we’d miss something cool. Somehow, this group pulled off a heady show in a way their lighthearted contemporaries such as The Presidents of the United States of America could never do, even though their schticks were cut from the same bolt of the musical fabric. It was awesome. Ben Folds reawakened the rock fan in me.

A couple of records later, the Five broke up, and he released Ben Folds Live, documenting his legendary solo — literally, Folds and his piano — tour, whose highlight was a thunderous rendition of “Philosophy” and its “Rhapsody in Blue” solo mashed up with a positively insane piano rendition of the Dick Dale surf-guitar classic “Miserlou.” Then came the studio album Rockin’ the Suburbs, an amazing amalgamation of the 1970s and 1980s pop-rock sounds, the title tune perfectly lampooning the heavily mixed 1990s punk-funk-metal of the Offspring’s ilk.

During those years, Folds was so cool, inviting us into his living room with gorgeous songs from his solo years dedicated to his kids Louis (“Still Fighting It”) and Gracie (“Gracie”).

And then he got divorced, a bad split judging from the mostly humorless songs from 2008’s Way to Normal such as “You Don’t Know Me,” a duet with Regina Spektor and the raging “Bitch Went Nuts,” two harsh cuts that seem quite obviously about his failed marriage but which heclaimshadnothingtodo with it.

Either way, it was time to leave Folds’ living room. Listening to the record was akin to hearing a half-drunk neighbor bitterly ranting about how miserable the ex was making him.

Flash forward to 2011: Folds has righted the ship with a few off-kilter — in the Ben Folds sense — projects such as collaborating with William Shatner on the actor’s Has Been album, and Lonely Avenue, an album featuring music by Folds and lyrics by Nick Hornby. He also judges a capella groups on the prime-time network reality show The Sing-Off.  So after a decade and a half, it seems appropriate to reflect on Folds’ musical output and put it in perspective for new fans who might not have been around for his whole run — those who might have met him through the television show and want to sample the Folds flavor but are confused by his odd record-store selection of live concerts, studio albums, EPs, and rarities sets such as the Five’s Naked Baby Photos.

Fittingly, the 3-CD The Best Imitation of Myself neatly summarizes Folds’ career with a greatest-hits disc, a live set, and a rarities compilation. The good stuff. It contains most of the songs mentioned above, such as “Brick,” an amazingly emotional-yet-tasteful personal-experience essay about the misery and sadness surrounding the abortion his girlfriend had back in high school. It miraculously comes across as a powerful cautionary tale, despite Folds’ clear intentions of penning three minutes of apolitical slice-of-life. That came from the Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen, as did “Kate,” a love song to a quirky girl in which Folds doesn’t sing about how he wants to be with Kate, but rather how he actually wants to be Kate.

Then there are several cuts here from the Five’s eponymous debut, which for my money is an even more marvelous work than Whatever, a fine record itself. It’s a little unfair to say it’s all been downhill since then — but it has been. Folds, sadly, grew up like the rest of us. Not quite as much, thank goodness; he hasn’t completely lost the insouciance that first attracted those 1990s fans.

Two notable omissions include the original studio version of the Ben Folds Five song after which the set is named, perhaps Folds’ finest composition — instead, there’s the flat 1992 demo, complete with cheesy Elton John synth strings — and “Rent A Cop,” a hilariously raucous trip through the mind of a mall security officer from Super D, one of four EPs Folds released in the wake of Rockin’ the Suburbs. Other than that, The Best Imitation of Myself is a winner. It captures the high points without spending too much time dwelling upon the pits through which Folds dragged his fans at times.

And that’s a good thing. Take it from a diehard fan.


Writers Note:

Oh, and if you do happen to be a diehard fan and have been living under a rock, let me be the first to let you know there’s also a companion BenFoldsFiftyFiveVault,” another set of rarities and live tracks released in conjunction with The Best Imitation of Myself available for purchase and download. At least some of the stuff was previously unreleased; completists will have seen some of it before.

There’s no defending the merit of more versions of live Five and Folds solo tracks (two versions of “Jesusland”?) as well as tossed-off covers of Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova” and the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.” You either need this stuff or you don’t. Like the Ben Folds Five had three people, this has, er, 56 songs. Despite his circuitous trail to 2011, Folds still throws fastballs.