A band like No Doubt was made for an album like The Singles 1992-2003. While they made good albums -- and each of their albums had its own character -- they shined as a singles band, which is only appropriate for a band raised on new wave, the last golden era of singles. Unlike the grunge and indie bands that populated the first two waves of the alt-rock explosion of the early '90s, No Doubt wasn't directly inspired by punk, indie, or any underground rock movement; the band was fueled by new wave, in all of its trashy, poppy glory. Above all, they were inspired by ska revival groups like Madness, with their blend of skittish Jamaican-inspired beats and sense of English popcraft, but they also picked up various strands of early-MTV pop, whether it was bits of new wave Blondie, the Police, and Elvis Costello, or the metallic guitar wallop of Van Halen. It was a cheerful, giddy sound that marked a sea change from the sound of the early '90s, when even catchy melodies were cloaked in a sense of gloom. So, with the success of their second album, Tragic Kingdom, in 1996, they kicked off the second wave of the alt-rock boom of the '90s -- the time when the music meant good times, not angst and alienation. While some of the bands that rode on their coattails were unabashed one-hit wonders and commercialized revamps of underground sounds, No Doubt was something rare: a hip mainstream singles band. They were an outgrowth of new wave, releasing indie albums before their big break, and they stayed true to their inspirations while cleverly adding elements of contemporary hits to their sound -- and, in doing so, became a '90s version of a new wave band that placed equal emphasis on hooks, style, videos, and cool, radio-ready singles.
And while they made some strong albums -- in fact, with each record they grew stronger -- their medium was radio singles, as the stellar collection The Singles 1992-2003 illustrates. Spanning 15 tracks, the disc is sequenced like a concert, favoring forward momentum over chronological history, and that's a point in its favor since it shines a spotlight on individual songs, not eras. More than anything, this highlights No Doubt's consistency as a singles band, since the defining breakthrough single, "Just a Girl," is as exciting as both the band's pre-fame "Trapped in a Box" and the sexy neo-electro grind of "Hella Good." It also shows that even if lead singer Gwen Stefani grew increasingly assured and sexier over the years (compare the seductive "Underneath It All" to the breathy, naïve "Don't Speak") and even if she was always rightly the focal point, the band itself is a muscular, versatile, tuneful outfit, rooted in ska revivals like "Spiderwebs" but equally convincing when turning out spiky pop like the glorious "New," the hard-rocking "Sunday Morning" and "Ex-Girlfriend," the sighing ballad "Simple Kind of Life," or the rubbery, reggae-inflected "Hey Baby." All these hits are here on The Singles, along with expertly selected album tracks and concert favorites, plus a fine new cover of Talk Talk's "It's My Life" that makes the group's new wave influences explicit. There's not one major song missing, and the whole package is solid proof that few post-alternative bands were as joyous a singles band as No Doubt. It's a great collection -- the kind of compilation that satisfies fans of all stripes and converts skeptics. It's the greatest-hits package that they deserve. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine