Sharing a hometown with Hootie & the Blowfish before and during the period covered by their new hits collection, "The Best of, 1993 thru 2003," allowed me a unique perspective on what happens to a thoroughly unhip city when one of its bar bands accidentally becomes a pop sensation. Apologists and hangers-on exploded out of the woodwork (the "music critic" at the daily paper continually went out of his way to praise the band; he's not even mentioned in the "thank you" section of this disc's notes), while the resolute arbiters of cool bragged about pissing on Darius Rucker's soap (true story). In the end, the only thing everyone agreed on was that the band was the biggest thing to happen to Columbia, S.C., since Sherman. But nobody knew what that meant.

This 17-song collection comes close to removing all the "overnight success" and "frat-boy pussies" context that plagued Hootie & Co. during their run through the Billboard charts, and allows a minute to actually listen to the music they were making. And no, this isn't where I say, "and it's not half bad." Because it is half bad. The group's legendary "climb through the bar scene" meant that, no matter what, they were crowd-pleasers, and there's a whole pile of musical clichés in their oeuvre.

That's not to say that listening to Hootie isn't without its own pleasures. The quartet knows from an open-chord pop song and Rucker's voice is absurdly well-suited for anchoring those soaring choruses. There's certainly nothing here that'll convert any Hootie-haters to the band's sound, but at least those folks who fell in love with 'em back in '95 -- you know, those 13 million people who bought "Cracked Rear View," only to sell it en masse to used CD stores in '96 -- might not feel so bad about enjoying some hook-filled middle-of-the-road rock & roll. After all, there are worse things.

Like Creed.

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