February 28, 2016 2 Comments
They have many names: Greatest Hits, Best of, Singles, Gold, and more! What these albums have in common is that they provide a snapshot of a musical act’s output. As I’ve written my way through my favorite artists and albums, I’ve avoided focusing on any of these overviews, saving them for the Further Listening section as appropriate. Sometimes, however, a compilation is a wonderful way to enjoy the music. The best of the Best Of’s come in five flavors.
1. The Hit Machines
Perhaps the most prevalent — and one of the first types of long-player available — are the collections of songs an act has released as singles intended for radio play. Many acts have enough big hits to fill a disc or two, creating a nice overview for casual fans or for people mostly interested in the familiar material. These discs serve as great overviews of solid genre performers (like Donna Summer), or acts that frankly put their best music out as singles (thank you, ABBA). Sometimes a compilation will catch a song that never made it onto another album (Blondie and Call Me), and they often have a new track or two that will become a hit (Dan Fogelberg’s nice Greatest Hits). It can also be a great way to get a snapshot of a band that was a hit machine outside the United States, like Squeeze (Singles, 45’s and Under) or the Jam (the amazing Snap!). Let the buyer beware, of course since single releases of songs may be remixes or shortened versions. Madonna’s Immaculate Collection is a notorious example of great music badly collected.
2. Career Overviews
Many acts have long, interesting careers that include songs that were never hits or a mix of hits from each side of the Atlantic. Major stars like Bob Dylan and David Bowie fit here nicely, and each curated one collection themselves (Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 and ChangesOneBowie respectively). Some long careers never included radio play, like the chameleonic John Martyn. A good compilation can also be a way to preserve a particular slice of a career, like the Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums. Like the hit machine collections, these are a great way for a casual fan to connect with an artist or for a newcomer to get started.
3. Short Careers
Not everyone sticks around as long as the Rolling Stones. When an act has a small catalog, a collection can be a strong introduction or a nice overview. Artists who died young — like Nick Drake or Jim Croce — are great examples, as are bands that only had a couple of albums and some singles, like the Zombies. File this category under Your Mileage May Vary, of course. I can’t imagine not owning all three original Drake discs or the entirety of Odessey and Oracle. I’m very happy with a smart overview of Croce’s music however, blending the hits and some solid album cuts.
4. Oddities and Outtakes
Many artists, especially the most prolific, have a backlog of unreleased tracks, demos, and b-sides. For these, a compilation is often the only way to get everything, especially for completionists. Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties, Robyn Hitchcock’s Invisible Hitchcock, and the Triffids’ Beautiful Waste and Other Songs (which includes two EPs) are great examples. Sadly, these albums often go out of print as content is repackaged. Costello’s maddening multiple versions of every album are a prime example. The “bonus track” phenomenon can round out a great album (Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains) or clog up half a disc with fragments and experiments (most Alan Parsons Project re-issues).
Related to this category are bands that release numerous non-album singles. Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady is a perfect overview of the band, with the best moments from their early albums and all those singles that never had an album to call home. Earlier performers, like Nat “King” Cole or Jo Stafford often fit into this group almost by default.
5. The Mega-Pack
Starting in the late 80s, the box set became a phenomenon, taking most of these categories and dumping them into four- or five-disc collections. These are usually very mixed bags — as Barenaked Ladies warn us — often including multiple alternate versions or sonically challenged live takes. Sometimes, however, they really hit the mark. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads is one of the best examples. Because he played in so many different bands and had a long solo career on multiple labels, collecting a good sample of his work is nearly impossible without this box. For listeners who want a thorough overview of a long career, big packages are a great way to get a solid collection without buying dozens of albums.
Artists with extensive live or broadcast catalogs can benefit from a box as well. Richard Thompson’s Live At the BBC is a perfect example, capturing his many radio performances, including beautiful alternate versions and some not-otherwise-available tracks. For the not-quite-casual fan or the enthusiast, a well-crafted box is a great thing. (I dote on out-of-print multi-disc sets of Martin Carthy, June Tabor, and the Watersons.)
In the digital, buy a track at a time, stream to your heart’s content era, the concept of the compilation may seem a bit dated. I’ve certainly built my own compilations for artists I enjoy, especially when there isn’t anything available (the Connells) or when I own several albums and want a sampler of the rest (Jethro Tull). Still, there’s something to be said for a collection that’s been assembled with intention. Whether the artist says “here are my favorites” or radio play sets up a great playlist, sometimes a pre-set compilation is the perfect way to enjoy the music.