Few record companies can be said to have made as significant and lasting a contribution to black popular music as Atlantic Records. Certainly, Motown created a sound that defined an entire genre, and production companies as diverse as Specialty, Philadelphia International and Sugar Hill made their mark at various junctures, but it's hard to think of another label that had such a continuous impact. From seminal sides by Joe Turner, Ray Charles, the Coasters and the Drifters, to classic recordings by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave, through the more recent successes of the Spinners, the Trammps and Chic and Steve Arrington, Atlantic has been consistently producing R&B hits for some 37 years now.

All of which makes the company's handling of its back catalogue positively shameful. Where other labels have instigated projects as basic as Motown's reissue series, as inventive as Arista's Everly Brothers and Lee Dorsey packages or Epic's "The Jackie Wilson Story," or as wide ranging as RCA's Elvis Presley archive series, Atlantic can do no better than its current "Best of" series, cheap compilations of hits by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs and Joe Tex.

Cheapness is the operative term here. Each of the five albums is assembled similarly, with stylized graphics by Ian Wright on the cover, old black-and-white photos on the back and a list of song titles. No mention of producers, personnel or recording dates is provided. There isn't even a credit for whoever compiled the reissues.

It seems almost as if no one would own up to these albums, which is understandable. "The Best of Booker T. & the MGs" (Atlantic 7 81281-1-Y) is little more than a repackaging, with a new track order, of an identically titled 1968 release. In fact, it's a good bit less. Never mind that it ignores such hits as "Time Is Tight," "Soul Limbo" and "My Sweet Potato"; it lacks even the superficial gloss of the original's liner notes.

That's still better than "The Best of Aretha Franklin" (Atlantic 7 81280-1-Y), which offers a mere 12 selections to the 14 cuts proffered variously by 1969's "Aretha's Gold" or 1971's "Aretha's Greatest Hits." Worse, the song selections are absurdly skewed to Franklin's funky side; while that pays off with the inclusion of "Until You Come Back to Me" and "Rock Steady," it's hard to excuse the omission of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Don't Play That Song," especially in light of the inclusion of the marginal "Save Me."

Otis Redding fares somewhat better with "The Best of Otis Redding" (Atlantic 7 81281-1-Y), but that's cold comfort given the way Atlantic has hoarded Redding's recordings. Although the company specifically excluded Redding from the Stax/Volt material Fantasy Records was allowed to reissue, Atlantic has only issued a single album by Redding since 1972, a companion to the by-then deleted "In Person at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go," called "Recorded Live." This "Best of" barely improves on that track record, offering less music than either the "History of Otis Redding" or an earlier double album "Best of," and curiously omitting such classics as "Tramp," "Shake" and "Tell the Truth."

Sam Moore and Dave Prater get perhaps the shortest shrift of all. It was bad enough that Atlantic released a "Stars-On" tribute-to-soul LP featuring a "Sam & Dave Revue" minus Sam Moore. "The Best of Sam & Dave" (Atlantic 7 81279-1-Y) adds further insult to that injury. Not only does it offer a mere dozen cuts to its identically titled predecessor's 14, but it drops the likes of "May I Baby" and "A Small Portion of Your Love" in favor of the trifling "Soul Sister, Brown Sugar." Sam & Dave fans would be better off seeking out the import release "Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" (Edsel ED 133), which successfully mines B sides and album tracks for underappreciated gold.

The fifth release in this new series is in many ways its most puzzling. Given the all-star status of the other four, most fans would expect the fifth album to anthologize the work of Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke or even Ben E. King. Instead, what we get is "The Best of Joe Tex" (Atlantic 7 81278-1-Y), as inappropriately titled an album as you're likely to find. How, after all, can anyone excuse an alleged "Best of" that ignores such R&B chart toppers as "Skinny Legs and All," "A Sweet Woman Like You," "I Want to (Do Everything for You)" and "I Gotcha"?

That's not to say that all the recent Atlantic soul reissues are a waste of time. "Atlantic Soul Classics" (Warner Special Products 9-270601-2), a CD-only release, is as appropriate an anthology as any fan could wish. Stretching from Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll" to Archie Bell & the Drells' "Tighten Up," it tends to emphasize songs over artists, but nonetheless conveys a surprisingly complete picture of the label's legacy.

Then again, perhaps it works so well because Atlantic itself didn't assemble it.