Tag Archives: CDs

The Very Greatest Best Hits of… – the single-artist compilation album

This began as a piece to mark the 40th birthday of R.E.M., which I gather from Twitter was on Sunday. It went somewhere else.

I’ve spoken before, many times, about growing up as a music fan in the pre-internet era. I don’t know how many readers I have who are younger than me – probably only a very few regulars – but it can’t be stressed enough how different it was to now.

New music was a scarce commodity then, at least if you were a kid like I was. I earned £11 a week from a paper round when I was 14, so if I wanted to buy a new record while also keeping a bit of cash aside for stuff like guitar strings and my share of band rehearsal costs (a very reasonable £21 for a five-hour session at Maple in Southend, Essex), I’d have to squirrel away a few pounds here and a few pounds there for maybe three or four weeks to afford a new CD. Since not every store had a listening post, purchases were often blind, and if you didn’t immediately like the record you chose, you’d have enough invested in it to really work at getting it.

Being impatient to get my hands on new music more often than a dozen or so times a year, libraries, record fairs and second-hand record stall Gumbi’s (which stood in a covered market on an insalubrious road close to Southend high street) became important resources to me. I was definitely not above getting CDs from the library and taping them, but I was enough of a completist about the bands I liked that if I was into an album I taped from a friend or a library copy, I’d eventually buy it anyway.

In this world, the single-artist compilation disc – a form that is practically obsolete now – was a really useful way to get a handle on an artist’s body of work without blowing all your cash on one abum that may be patchy at best, or overhyped and rubbish at worst. Consequently, I picked up more than a few as a teenager, from wherever I could get them cheap.

It was at Gumbi’s that I found a copy of The Best of R.E.M., released by the group’s former label IRS after the band’s success with its second Warner Bros. release, Out of Time. It was £7, near enough half the price of a new CD (which tended to retail at around £12 back then in HMV or Virgin). Not having any alternate versions or rarities like Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, The Best of R.E.M. was greeted with a sniff and a shrug by reviewers and long-time fans, and probably bewilderment by newer fans, who wondered why the only song on it they’d even vaguely heard of was The One I Love, but to me it was a godsend. It handily distilled R.E.M.’s here-be-dragons IRS era into 16 songs – one from the EP Chronic Town, and three each from the five albums they released between 1983 and 1987.

Murmur, the first of those, would go on to become an absolutely foundational record for me, one of my favourite albums ever, with Fables of the Reconstruction close behind. I’d still put Murmur in my top ten favourite records ever. It pulls of an absolutely stunning trick – while a fully formed work in its own regard that captures the band’s absolute quintessence, it pulls all over the place, with influences drawn from folk-rock, country, gospel, post-punk, bubblegum and straight-up, honest-to-goodness 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll.

Representing such a record as Murmur or Fables in just three tracks is a tough job, and if I was going to pick three songs to encapsulate Murmur I’d drop Talk About the Passion and replace it with Sitting Still or Shaking Through. And yeah, the Fables picks give little hint of that record’s bone-deep weirdness. And I Believe but not Begin the Begin or These Days? Huh? But still, the compilation did more than just open up the band’s back catalogue to me; it was a window on a world that seemed distant and strange because I had few first-hand memories of it.

Single-artist compilations are held in low esteem by many music fans; if an artist’s work is worth hearing, it’s worth hearing as they intended, goes the argument. Album by album, perhaps even in the order they came out. But actually, that’s not how most music fans engage with music, and never has been. For Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 in the second half of the seventies, read Spotify’s This is Eagles* playlist now.

A Spotify playlist has the same utile value for the consumer as the single-artist compilation album did, in that it gives him or her a simple way to get the measure of an artist that they’re not familiar with. But what the compilation has over the Spotify playlist – or indeed those double-CD best ofs that became common in the late 1990s – is concision. Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 has 10 songs in it. Spotify’s This is Eagles playlist has more songs on it than I can count, and one of them is Chug All Night**. OK, so some great single-artist compilations were long (Neil Young’s Decade ran to three discs for its vinyl release), but they were the exception; most avoided doing the skilled compiler’s work of reducing an entire oeuvre to a dozen or so songs. A well-compiled best-of on one disc or two sides of vinyl is the platonic ideal of the form for me.

Ultimately, even the most perfunctory, will-this-do compilations raise a fascinating question for the listener: are these songs just the tip of the iceberg, or do they represent everything this artist did that’s worth hearing? For a music fan just getting to grips with an artist’s body of work, what could be more exciting than getting the chance to find out that answer for themselves?

Best of

*Spotify becoming the only person/thing that has ever referred to the band as simply “Eagles” and not “the Eagles” other than Glenn Frey.

**Anyone who lived through A Good Day in Hell – The Official ILM Track-By-Track Eagles Listening Thread on I Love Music remembers Chug All Night, an otherwise forgotten Frey song from their debut, with a combination of hilarity and horror.

The White Album – The Beatles

Yesterday evening I caught up with my friend Yo Zushi on the phone. As usual, we went through a bunch of subjects: jazz harmony, songwriting processes, logistical stuff related to this. But the bit of the conversation that got me thinking the most was about the creepy atmosphere of certain late sixties’ artists, particularly the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We talked about the White Album and discussed that thorny old issue: would it have been better as a single record?

For me, the answer’s no. There are, to be sure, a lot of albums that are simply too long, that could have done with a few songs being removed and the remaining edited somewhat to trim their running times. The bloat of the late CD era (roughly c.1998 to c.2005) is a well documented phenomenon, caused by the slow realisation that the technical deficiencies of vinyl no longer applied and so running times didn’t need to be kept to around 22 minutes a side. People stopped making albums as if the delivery medium would be the LP, and simply filled the CDs up. Probably most music fans can think of a bunch of albums from that era that just feel bloated and distended, particularly hip-hop/R&B fans; Yo and I spoke particularly about R.E.M.’s Up, which we both agree is their final interesting album, with a bunch of strong, atmospheric, slightly loungey songs that did something that was new for them, and was a brave response to Bill Berry’s departure. At 65 minutes, though, it’s too much of a slog to sit through in one sitting without the attention wandering. I’d excise Lotus and Sad Professor and would be happy to have had shorter versions of most of the remaining; Airportman, Daysleeper and At My Most Beautiful are fine at the lengths they are, but why on earth is Diminished six minutes long?

Then the White Album question. Yo’s in the camp that would prefer a single-album version. I’m not. When we went through out preferred tracklistings, I concluded that I could make a case for removing 11 of out of 30 tracks, but that the record would then not have worked as a single LP in the vinyl age (it would still have been too long), and that a lot of the context that make the great songs great would be missing. To misquote Greil Marcus on Electric Ladyland, the White Album is a mess, but it’s a sprawling, fascinating mess. To take away The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (and I understand why many want to) may make the record ‘better’, but at the expense of changing what it is, its character, its shifts in mood, which combine to create one very singular mood.

The interest in listening to the White Album derives from how those songs play with each other, how McCartney’s raucous Birthday is succeeded by Lennon’s despairing (or faux-despairing) gutbucket Yer Blues, which in turn gives away to McCartney’s solo acoustic Mother Nature’s Son, before being unceremoniously followed by Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey, with its frantic bell and babbling voices. The White Album may not be the finest demonstration of songcraft in the Beatles’ career, but it showed how expertly they constructed songs into albums.

The White Album has so many facets to it that it prompts debates between fans as to what its strongest elements are. Yo is a fan of Lennon’s acoustic fingerpicking songs, written during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh: Dear Prudence and Julia. Both songs have pretty big reputations, Prudence’s at least partly based on the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover. I don’t care that much for either of them. The slippery, elusive Lennon of Happiness is a Warm Gun, Sexy Sadie and Cry Baby Cry interests me far more. Similarly, of McCartney’s rock songs only Back in the USSR stands up as a composition, and it’s hampered by the author’s ham-fisted drum track (recorded while Ringo was absent, having temporarily quit band and session). McCartney’s acoustic songs, on the other hand — Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird, I Will, Martha My Dear — are all beautiful little miniatures, with all of his talent for expressive, expansive melody intact. Blackbird may be a weighty metaphor, and Martha My Dear may start out being about a sheepdog and end up being about nothing at all, but all these songs share a lightness of touch that’s completely disarming. (Junk, which appeared on McCartney’s first solo album, was demoed at this time too, and is almost impossibly lovely. I wish it had made the cut).

Which leaves George Harrison to encapsulate the White Album issue. He has four songs on the record, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. He never wrote anything better than the hushed, devotional Long Long Long; he never wrote anything worse than Piggies, which is without a single redeeming feature. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is ponderous, and hampered by El Clappo’s deep-as-a-puddle ‘blues’ guitar, but it succeeds on the strength of its chorus, and certain live versions down the years have caught fire and shown the song’s underlying robustness; Savoy Truffle (about, rather than featuring, Eric Clapton) would be the worst entry in his Beatles songbook if Piggies hadn’t got there first. Played four: won two (one by a whisker); lost two, ignominiously.

Ultimately the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with the White Album. In the iPod playlist era, with any amount of alternate versions and demos available, we can all create our own favoured White Album (or Smile, or whatever), but I can’t believe any other tracklisting could create the fragile spell the unedited White Album weaves over the course of 94 minutes. And if the concluding trio of Cry Baby Cry, Revolution 9 and Good Night don’t leave you feeling a wordless, inexpressible panic and leave you looking over your shoulder into the shadows in the corner of the room, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

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You know who these people are and which one’s which, don’t you? Good.