Album of the Week, February 28: The Compilation Conundrum

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.

ABBAGoldSqueeze45s1. 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.

ChangesOneBowieMartynIsland2. 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.

DrakeWayCroceP&M3. 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.

CostelloTakingBuzzcocksSingles4. 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.

ClaptonCrossroadsrtBBC5. 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.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending January 11, 1986

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Say You, Say Me Lionel Richie 4
R & B Say You, Say Me Lionel Richie 1
Country Morning Desire Kenny Rogers 1
Adult Contemporary That’s What Friends Are For Dionne & Friends 1
Rock Silent Running Mike + the Mechanics 3
Album Miami Vice Soundtrack 10

dream-academy-northern-townThis week sees an unusual tribute enter the Top 40. Singer and guitarist Nick Laird-Clowes and keyboard player Gilbert Gabriel began recording together in the late 70s. They settled on an ethereal soundscape, eventually recruiting reed player Kate St. John and dubbing themselves the Dream Academy. They shopped around for two years, eventually landing at Warner Bros. with the help of Laird-Clowes’ friend, David Gilmour.

Their debut single was Life In A Northern Town, which moves from #46 to #38 this week, its seventh on the Hot 100. It’s a beautiful, haunting song, propelled by the strange magic of St. John’s reeds. The track eased up the charts, peaking at #7 in late February. The Dream Academy managed one more Top 40 hit and a bit of success in the UK before disbanding in 1991.

What makes Northern Town especially interesting is that it was dedicated to Nick Drake. Laird-Clowes was inspired by the late folk singer’s legacy years before the posthumous VW ad opened the floodgates for his legacy. With its low-key percussion and dreamlike delivery, the Dream Academy’s tribute could almost have appeared on Drake’s Bryter Layter.

Song of the Day, October 6: One of These Things First by Nick Drake

DrakeThingsToday’s song is One of These Things First from Nick Drake’s ambitious second album, Bryter Layter. The disc repeats the successful formula of the debut: the fragile strength of Drake’s songs, Joe Boyd’s clean production, and gorgeous, sympathetic string arrangements by Robert Kirby. Boyd brings in a wider variety of supporting artists and expands the musical styles a bit. The result is a mixed bag, but when it works, the songs shine brightly indeed.

A sort of existential exploration, this track finds Drake pondering just who he wants to be. That’s not an unusual place for the singer to find himself, but the clever wordplay and layered meanings — why is he making this journey? for whom? — make it one of his finest moments.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, September 11: Pink Moon by Nick Drake

DrakePinkSingleToday’s song unexpectedly launched a massive posthumous career. After Nick Drake recorded his stark, brilliant third album, Pink Moon, he retreated further than ever from the public eye. He died two years later, leaving behind a beautiful, fragile legacy that influenced many 80s alternative musicians but sold in the low thousands. His catalog gained some traction when the Dream Academy released their hit single Life In A Northern Town [#7, 1986], dedicated to him. A dozen years later, however, everything broke loose.

In 1999, Volkswagen boldly introduced an ad for the Cabriolet on the Internet, one of the first major ad campaigns so launched. The campaign was called “Milky Way” and the first ad featured a simple, haunting soundtrack — the title track from Drake’s final album. The mashup was flawless and demand for Drake’s work went through the roof. Since then, his albums have received nice repackagings, attained much better sales, and appeared on numerous best-of lists.

A plain guitar-and-vocal track with naturalistic imagery and a whisper-sung lyric, it’s a perfect introduction to Drake’s work, catchy and mysterious all at once. Enjoy this lovely song today.

Ten years later, producer Joe Boyd and arranger Robert Kirby — who worked on Drake’s first two albums — staged a tribute concert and tour with a number of musicians. This resulted in a solid album of Drake covers entitled Way to Blue. While Drake’s songs are very personal, they lend themselves to good covers when sensitively handled. Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren turned in a stunning reworking of Pink Moon. Their vocals blend seamlessly and Thompson’s guitar work is wonderful. Enjoy this loving tribute as well.

Song of the Day, May 31: Day Is Done by Nick Drake

DrakeDayDoneToday’s song is Day Is Done from Nick Drake’s amazing debut album Five Leaves Left. As with all his finest songs, the power of this track relies on its deceptive simplicity. Lovingly produced by Joe Boyd, it features just Drake on guitar and vocals and a powerful string arrangement by school friend Robert Kirby. With an unusually strong vocal delivery, Drake contemplates the legacies we leave.

It’s a dark meditation, foreshadowing his stark third (and final) album Pink Moon; resting in the generally brighter material of this album, it reads as something of a challenge, however, and demonstrates the maturity of his work from the very outset. In his autobiography White Bicycles (a great read by the way), Boyd reads the song retroactively as a sign of the angry strength that Drake carried and seldom showed.

When the party’s through
Seems so very sad for you
Didn’t do the things you meant to do
Now there’s no time to start anew
Now the party’s through.

When the day is done
Down to earth then sinks the sun
Along with everything that was lost and won
When the day is done.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, March 19: Things Behind the Sun by Nick Drake

DrakeThingsToday’s song is Things Behind the Sun by Nick Drake. It is one of the creepiest tracks on his somber masterpiece Pink Moon. Filled with dark images and disjointed scenes, it reflects Drake’s crumbling ability to deal with the world when he recorded the disc.

It’s also one of the most energetic, with the singer racing through the mixed-up concepts, chased by his own guitar. The whole effect is disconcerting and compelling at once.

Please beware of them that stare
They’ll only smile to see you while
Your time away
And once you’ve seen what they have been
To win the earth just won’t seem worth
Your night or your day
Who’ll hear what I say.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, January 31: Know by Nick Drake

DrakeKnowToday’s song is Know by Nick Drake. It appears on his brief masterpiece, his third and final album Pink Moon. In many ways, this short (2:21) track is a distillation of the whole album.

Know that I love you
Know I don’t care
Know that I see you
Know I’m not there.

An aching vocal and a simple, dark guitar figure move these words into the listener’s heart. Enjoy this powerful plea today.

Album of the Week, October 21: Pink Moon by Nick Drake

Singer-songwriter Nick Drake is a perfect example of the van Gogh trifecta: troubled artist, died young, substantially more popular after his death. Born in Burma to British parents, he moved to a small English town at the age of two. A decent student, he pursued literature in school and music as a passion. He attended Cambridge but his interest in the folk music circuit derailed his education before he graduated. Prone to depression and insomnia, he was a sporadic performer. Paired with producer extraordinaire Joe Boyd, he released a debut album to great fanfare and miserable sales. The next album did even more poorly and after Pink Moon he basically retired from music and life, retreating to his mother’s home. He died of an overdose at the age of 26. Subsequent generations have credited him as a major influence including Peter Buck of R.E.M., Robert Smith of the Cure, Kate Bush, and Paul Weller. That attention, paired with an unlikely use of one of his songs in a VW ad, resulted in a repackaging of his catalog and sales far above the fewer than 15,000 units moved during his life.

Title Pink Moon
Act Nick Drake
Label Island Release Date 2/25/1972
Producer John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Pink Moon
  2. Place to Be
  3. Road
  4. Which Will
  5. Horn
  6. Things Behind the Sun
  7. Know
  8. Parasite
  9. Ride
  10. Harvest Breed
  11. From the Morning

Pink Moon was a departure from his first two albums. They tended toward folk pop, with many guest musicians and fairly lush production. For the third album, Drake spent two late-night, two-hour sessions in the studio with no-one but engineer John Wood. The finished project, 11 songs clocking in at less than 30 minutes, was just Drake on acoustic guitar and vocals. He later added piano to the title track with the help of Joe Boyd. In many ways, this simple, harrowing beauty of an album was the truest to Drake’s spirit. A perfect set of songs, it asks nothing but to be taken as it is and offers the listener a glimpse into a dark world of the soul, shot through with aching moments of light.

The title track kicks things off with what is either an otherworldly promise or an eerie warning. This song was used nearly three decades later in a VW commercial. It seems an odd pairing, but the quiet, meditative song transforms in to a celebration of a night drive brilliantly. That journey takes us to Place to Be, an unsually determined song that finds the singer promising an effort to improve his life. Road, another song of metaphorical travel, juxtaposes Drake’s sense of the world with the views of those who can “say the sun is shining if you really want to.” The destination comes in the form of Which Will, a tender song of yearning and love, my favorite track on the disc.

From there, things begin to unravel. Things Behind the Sun is laden with subtle menace and warnings of people and things that aren’t all they seem. Horn is a brief guitar piece, oddly creepy in its lack of vocals. The desperation mounts with Know, a tragic song in four lines:

Know that I love you
Know I don’t care
Know that I see you
Know I’m not there

Parasite arises from that almost aggressive detachment to question the singer’s place in the world. Arising from the ground where he is “the parasite of this town,” Drake begins another journey. Free Ride (listed on the back of the album simply as Ride) simultaneously skewers the illusions his subject lives among and asks that subject for help. Harvest Breed finds him falling toward something — like most of the album — both promising and threatening. The song cycle ends on a quietly high note with From the Morning, a celebration of beauty that seems to offer some hope after the dark journey of the previous songs.

After dropping the tapes off with his label, Drake withdrew, not performing or promoting the resulting album. Nearly three years later he died at home, reportedly of an overdose although his family has contested this claim. He left behind a small but powerful collection of songs and one of the simplest, most compelling albums ever made.

FURTHER LISTENING: Since Nick Drake only recorded three full albums, anyone interested in his work should collect them all. His debut, Five Leave Left, is nearly as powerful as Pink Moon. It has richer instrumentation and more varied lyrical themes. A remarkable first effort, it’s well worth a listen. Bryter Layter is more problematic. The production is very rich and the songs often veer into more jazz-oriented sounds. When it works, it’s amazing, but the over-production and occasionally questionable accompaniments make it Drake’s most uneven disc.

Since his popularity boom a decade ago, many compilation discs have been issued as well. Frankly, none of them work as well as any of the three discs they draw from. Skip the random repackaging and get the originals. A couple of discs of home recordings also exist; although they were lovingly compiled and restored by his sister, the quality of the recordings is quite poor and most of the tracks are incomplete or covers — consider these for the diehard fan only.

Song of the Day, October 17: Road by Nick Drake

Today’s song is Road by Nick Drake. It’s another quiet masterpiece from his brilliant third — and final — album, Pink Moon. Much of the album deals with journeys, both real and metaphorical, and Road is one of the clearest examples of that theme.

With sombre grit, Drake expresses skepticism about the advice he receives from an anonymous third party, choosing to trust his own instincts instead. Even with this determination, he seems concerned about the success of his path, but declares his intent to make the best of it.

You can say the sun is shining if you really want to
I can see the moon and it seems so clear
You can take the road that takes you to the stars now
I can take a road that’ll see me through

For an album known for its subtle pain and introversion, this is a pretty strong declaration. It demonstrates the complexity of Drake’s material and helps anchor his legacy. Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, August 12: At the Chime of A City Clock by Nick Drake

Today’s song is At the Chime of A City Clock by Nick Drake. It appears on his second album, Bryter Layter, which is his most musically diverse. While some of the experiments and departures from straightforward acoustic folk don’t always click, City Clock is an absolute standout. Merging a jazz sensibility with a bluesy melody (reminiscent of the work of his friend, John Martyn), Drake creates a sense of atmosphere that works perfectly with the lyrics. The additional instruments, including a nice bit of saxophone and subtle string arrangements, serve to underscore the mood.

The song is a great snapshot of life in the big city, an experience that Drake was at best ambivalent about. He captures a series of vignettes and interweaves them with his personal feelings, demonstrating his writing at its most affecting.

In the light of a city square
Find out the face that’s fair
Keep it by your side.
When the light of the city falls
You fly to the city walls
Take off with your bride.

But at the chime of a city clock
Put up your road block
Hang on to your crown.
For a stone in a tin can
Is wealth to the city man
Who leaves his armour down.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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