There are many excruciating musical moments in the lifespan of North Norfolk Digital’s mid-morning radio host, Alan Partridge. The octave-dropping key-change in his Abba duet, the frankly astonishing rendition of “Wuthering Heights” and of course, his enduring belief that Wings were only the band that the Beatles could have been.
But more painful than even these near-fatal blows was the follow-up to the Wings assertion when he was asked what his favorite Beatles album was and he replied that he would have to say “The Best Of The Beatles”. Music lovers and, especially keen students and archivists like myself, winced the world over.
Admit it, your favorite album is never a “Best Of…”, a “Greatest Hits” or a “Golden Hour” and yet almost without exception they are an assembly of the highlights of an artist’s career – often driven by the successes of individual songs.
Surely that would outweigh any one-off offering.
Years of assembled high-points as opposed to a moment-in-time edition of material.
You would think not.
The album experience seems to have so much more for us to enjoy – its associated memories from first hearing to inevitable purchase, its artwork created to signify the mood of the artist around the work, even the sequencing of the tracks could affect your view of an artist’s latest release. This piece of work may delight you or disappoint you – it started off unknown and then returns to you like an old friend, laden with stories of its acceptance into your listening circle.
A “Best Of…” is just that. There should be no risk, no real exploration. It is supposed to be familiar and deliver an inarguable experience about that artist’s supposedly most recalled work.
But I think to believe this entirely is to be too much of a musical snob and for me, there are several examples that disprove this theory and where a compilation does more for an artist than any of their lovingly-created yet perhaps less enduring long-players.
I’m sure for most of you growing up in the 70s, the 20 Golden Greats of The Beach Boys, The Shadows and Diana Ross & The Supremes were regular fixtures in parental record collections and by and large they are pretty faultless. They are collections of their biggest hits, their most successful songs and best selling singles and – “Pet Sounds” and “Smiley Smile” notwithstanding – these were bands whose best work was achieved at 45rpm and what could be better than assembling them altogether into one value-for-money listening experience.
They are also successful because there is very little experimentation and very little stylistic difference from beginning to end. Of course, the recordings mature and provide light and shade (that after all is why they sold consistently in their millions) but ultimately the Shadows focus on the masterful sonic twang of Hank Marvin, the Supremes is velvety preening soul and the Beach Boys are majestic vocal harmonies.
For sure, a collection of classic 45s can be a definitive representation of an artist for whom that was really their most representative milieu – step forward Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons or even the unimpeachable Temptations – but that’s not always the case.
Let’s look at the giants – The Beatles and The Stones. There is no doubting the comprehensive nature of “1” in capturing all 27 of The Beatles transatlantic number one singles, nor indeed the quality of the material contained in there but I doubt it is as interesting a listening voyage as unraveling “Revolver” or simply smiling all the way through “Hard Day’s Night”. One is deliberately experimental – trying out new sounds and techniques – the latter, the first all self-written of their long-players. There is an artistic richness and a vision contained in these original releases that can never be achieved in a compilation’s history lesson.
For The Stones, the effect is perhaps even more startling as the band that produced angry mod-ish R’n’B like “Get Off Of My Cloud” was very different to the hippyish experimenters of “We Love You”, the disco denizens of “Miss You” or even the plaintive contemplators of the excellent “Streets Of Love”. It’s an interesting historical journey but for me, simply doesn’t have the artistry of “Beggars Banquet” or the shock of “Some Girls”. Actually, they also make the experience slightly more unsettling by including (fairly ordinary and forgettable) new purpose-made material into their classic historical compilations – both “Forty Licks” and the 50 year anniversary “Grrrr” could easily have done without the inclusions from their less relevant modern-day selves. I would far rather they got together and made a full new album to vet and consider.
That said, when both were still predominantly 45s bands in the mid-60s , they were capable of producing interesting atmospheric and tighter compilations that will have sounded as rounded and complete as any of their regular LP releases of the time.
So compilations can work well when they cover a shorter lifespan of the artist – where the changes are not so marked and therefore the experience is not jarring but has more of the integrity of an original album. So a contemporary release while the band is still at the height of their powers can be equally interesting – an example of this would be a release like “Sladest” which came out in 1973 when Slade were in the middle of a seemingly indestructible run of hits. The band themselves, (like Madness with the excellent “Complete Madness”) used it almost as an opportunity to draw a line under their work so far – a mid-career pause as they purposefully strode off to explore pastures new.
That said, now that I am more familiar with both bands’ works, I would much rather chew over “In Flame” or “The Rise And Fall”.
So, putting the obvious Singles aggregators to one side, can a compilation really ever transcend an artist’s regular releases?
I believe so and you only have to look at the two Daddys of both Bob Marley’s “Legend” and Abba “Gold” to realize this. Both artists made fine albums – Marley’s run of “Uprising”, “Kaya” and the mighty “Exodus” are exceptional and yet it is to “Legend” that even regular listeners return simply because everything you could ever really want is here. The experience is seamless and hugely enjoyable. It’s rightly titled.
As for Abba “Gold”, I personally think that there albums were always a bit hit and miss – although they all improve as their careers progressed especially the excellent final album “The Visitors” (maybe a later subject for this humble blog) but again all you really need is the compilation – there are very few highlights excluded (though it does have the nails down a blackboard of “Thank You For The Music”).
That said I think there will be very little debate about either of these inclusions not least because they have continued to sell by the bucketload in every single format and combination ever since their original releases.
There are however, some less obvious compilations which for me transcend any of the artists other work and feel like a tailor-made collection in their entirety. You may like to investigate these five further.
I’ve written about Grace Jones before and my admiration for her talents have been expressed already. However, perhaps because of her desire to experiment, her regular albums can come across as a little uneven – not everything she attempts, works straight off the bat. However, with “Island Life”, all her best slinky grooves and accompanying subterranean rhythms are assembled to produce an entirely satisfying off-beat album that really does better anything else she has put together. “Private Life” blends into “Love Is The Drug” which lopes into the tango beat of “I’ve Seen That Face Before” and all before you’ve even hit “Pull Up To The Bumper”. Sensuously slick.
Perhaps because Disco is genre that really did focus on singles rather than albums, the compilations seem to far outweigh any of the individual albums that were often littered with filler tracks of truly limited memorability. The Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, actually regularly attempted to make more conceptual album recordings and, with “Bad Girls” in 1979, made one of the very finest of its type. However, but 6 months later, the highlights of that album (including “Dim All The Lights”, “Sunset People”, “Hot Stuff” and the title track itself) were put together in a segued compilation of her best work to date which included her Giorgio Moroder classics (“I Feel Love” included) and the relentless eleven and a half minutes of “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Barbara Streisand. Superb fun, continuously sequenced and so guaranteed to get any party started – even the less familiar sound like you’ve known them forever.
Honestly, I feel a bit of a ‘pseud’ putting this album down but I came across it quite by accident and have played it constantly ever since. There are several who have tried to interpret Jacques Brel’s dark catalogue, including David Bowie and Marc Almond but none beat this. Scott Walker was one of THE pop idols of the mid-60s in the Walker Brothers but found his good looks and teen stardom at odds with his desire to be more musically experimental and delivered several solo albums in the late 60s – imaginatively titled Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4. The fact is that nothing on any of these albums are as strong as the material he borrowed from the Belgian genius and often he tries to copy them with limited success. But when he kicks off… Pow! “Jacky” Biff “Mathilde” Bang “The Girls & The Dogs”. He can spit out the lyrics with all the sardonic knowingness of their author.
Of course, everybody is a Nick Drake expert nowadays but anyone who tells you they were a fan at the time is probably a big fat liar as he tragically sold probably no more than 20,000 copies of his three albums in his lifetime. This is exactly what it says – a wonderful introduction to the work of one of the most startlingly original singers and writers. The fact is that he was tragically overlooked during his short career and the popularity for his poetic aural landscapes only emerged nearly two decades after his sad demise. His three albums are all exceptional so my reason for inclusion on this occasion is simply based on quantity. His albums particularly the dark “Pink Moon” were notoriously short and put simply, it’s just more pleasurable to have more Nick Drake to listen to without having to change the disc. Here are the four seasons of England etched in vinyl – sometimes bleak, sometimes bright and always profoundly moving.
Famously, compilations are often bundled together by unsympathetic record executives to complete contractual obligations – a rush-release for Christmas markets for instance. Accordingly, their subjects often dissociate themselves from them. However, when Oasis ended their relationship with Sony, Noel Gallagher decided that rather than just let the record company butcher their canon, he would select their best work, himself. Consequently, it’s not a greatest hits but really a greatest songs – so we have much more from the first two albums of their career, a couple of later inclusions and nothing thankfully from the overblown “Be Here Now”. Chart-toppers such as “The Hindu Times” (a song I simply cannot recall ever to hum the melody) and the Blur runner-up “Roll With It” are deemed not fit for purpose. Instead, at the very height of their powers, Oasis were writing better B-sides than most other acts could put out in their entire recording lifetimes and it is a delight to welcome “The Masterplan” and “Acquiesce” for instance – rather than the derivative “Whatever” -into a listening experience which allows them to stand alongside wonderful non-singles such as “Champagne Supernova”. It;s undoubtedly a brave move but Noel really curates Oasis in their pomp… If they could only have always exercised such wonderful quality control. And you get a beautiful Peter Blake cover.
As always, I am determined to put sounds you might have forgotten out there but in truth, a compilation is always the best way to introduce yourself to a band. I’ve never found the desire to listen to anything other than the “Best Of The Eagles” when you need a little California easy rock in your day and no matter how many albums they produce nothing is as good as their selected highlights. As something like 1 in 7 of the worlds households have an Eagles compilation it’s not really worth analysis by me – however popular.
So to look down on listeners who simply prefer highlights is musical arrogance of the worst kind – at least they ARE listening. The disappointment is not to follow up with further exploration but even that isn’t for everyone.
Nor always wise…
The key difference is that more often than not a compilation is the dream child of a marketing executive looking to cash in on an artist’s popularity whilst a regular long-player more often than not has the love and attention of its instigators running through every aspect of it and so can tell us more of the mood of its authors or reflect its surrounding atmosphere. An album is an historical artifact and so has all the joy of living history rather than an exhibition, where the story has often already run its course.
But honestly, as long as you keep listening, I don’t care…