Friday, 18 April 2008

The art of a great compilation CD (Part 2 of 2)

As promised in my previous post, I will now provide a list of my top 10 favourite compilations of all time. All of the compilations in this list are pretty close to perfect in my opinion; please don't hesitate to pick them up!

10. Cold Chisel - Chisel

For 73 minutes of fantastic Aussie rock, it really doesn't get much better than this superb disc. If you have any relatives or friends who live overseas and want to know what popular Australian music is like, this is the disc to give them. It starts with a bang with the classic cock-rock radio staples Standing on the outside, Rising sun and You got nothing I want. There's a few ballads around the middle of the disc (Breakfast at Sweetheart's, Choir girl) which show that these guys could write beautiful melodies as well. It keeps a few classics for the latter half of the disc, including Flame trees which is possibly my favourite Chisel cut. And, knowing that they wouldn't be able to top it, they saved their most well-known song until the end with Khe sanh. A gutsy move.

9. Madonna - The immaculate collection

The only compilation in this list that I don't have in my personal collection (although my wife has it); I felt it would be a travesty of justice if I left this one out. Say what you want about her as a person, and her more recent musical endeavours. The fact remains that this is a note-perfect collection of some of the best pop that the 80's and early 90's had to offer. Even the "never before released" tracks of Justify my love and Rescue me sit comfortably alongside her earlier classics such as Like a prayer, Borderline and Holiday. This is the template for how good pop compilations can be.

8. Tom Petty - Greatest hits

I was surprised when I picked this CD up recently how many of these songs I knew. It's a great feeling when you buy a CD expecting that you only know 2-3 songs and you end up knowing 5-6, and liking them too! This chronological ordered CD of Mr Petty's greatest hits is probably the only CD of his that you need to get; the melodies never end and you can't help but smile as it gets you caught up in its groove.

7. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Chronicle

The finest swamp-rock/blues fusion band released their fair share of great albums, but no disc is more satisfying than this stupendous collection of 20 classic old-skool radio station staples. Starting with a few songs from their traditional blues debut album, practically every song on this album screams out "classic" to the discerning listener. So many bands have tried to emulate the sound that these guys perfected on their fantastic run of singles, all of which are collected here. These guys are almost up there with the Beatles in terms of their sheer consistency, which is represented perfectly on this compilation. My only gripe with this album (and many other critics have commented on this) is including the 11-minute version of I heard it through the grapevine which unfortunately disrupts the flow of the CD, considering that most of the other tracks hover at around the 3-4 minute mark. But it's a small gripe relative to the beautiful tunes contained within.

6. Elvis Costello - The very best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Declan McManus has released many compilations throughout his career, but this one (now unfortunately deleted) tops the list. Why? Because it ticks that one "great compilation" box I mentioned in my previous post: it focuses on his golden years. Elvis changed record labels halfway through his career, recording with Columbia 1977-1986 and Warner Brothers from 1986 onwards (he changed record labels a few times more recently as well). With the record label change came a change in his sound as well, and this compilation wisely (in my opinion, anyway) focuses on his golden years from 1977-1986 (okay, so Goodbye cruel world wasn't so golden, but luckily there is only one track on here from that overproduced mess of an album). Like the Tom Petty compilation mentioned earlier, you may be surprised at how many of these songs you know. And as for the ones you don't know, well isn't about time you were introduced to the genius of Elvis Costello? This is also a great entry-point into his vast discography, and the songs you like on here will help steer you in the right direction when purchasing some of his proper albums which you will inevitably want to do. Pick it up on eBay if you can.

5. Crowded House - Recurring Dream

I absolutely envy anyone who hasn't yet heard anything by this Aussie/Kiwi band (although it's unlikely as they had some pretty big international hits early on in their career). Before getting this album, I knew a few of their songs: Don't dream it's over, Better be home soon...and a few others as well. But really, how can one band write so many fantastic songs and so many memorable melodies? This compilation, while not chronological, does a great job at covering a great cross section of their first 4 albums (the only 4 albums until Time on earth was released last year); it includes 4 tracks from each album, and 3 never-heard-before tracks. In doing so, they didn't make any of their albums redundant which meant that there was so much more to explore when you inevitably fell in love with them. And the 3 tracks aren't poor quality cast-offs strategically included to make the hardcore fan buy the album; Not the girl you think of you are may actually be my favourite Crowded House song of all time. That, my friendly reader, is a big call.

4. Queen - Greatest hits I

I received the double disc set of Greatest Hits I & II as a birthday present one year. Greatest Hits II covers most of their 80's output, which includes some classics (Under pressure) and some less than impressive material as well (Radio ga ga). But Greatest Hits I, which focuses on their peak 70's output, doesn't really have a dud in the bunch (I'll forgive them for Flash, because that was specifically for a movie soundtrack). Freddie Mercury was a genius, one of the finest singers of his (or any) generation. And the other guys were pretty bloody good as well. You probably know most of the tracks on this compilation, and some of my favourite songs of all time are contained within this hour-long set.

3. Bob Marley - Legend

A perfect example of showing restraint when it comes to releasing a compilation from an artist as influential as Bob Marley. They could have so easily released a double-disc set of his material, but instead they kept it to a lean 14-track 62-minute compilation. All of his classics are here: opening with the lovely Is this love, moving on to the beautiful live rendition of No woman, no cry...the tunes roll of this album like one of his joints before he smoked it. This isn't only some of the finest reggae music of all time, it's some of the best music.

2. The Cure - Standing on a beach

While the Cure are also a great "album band", they have also released many fantastic singles, and this disc collects the singles from the early part of their career, 1979-1985. This is one of the compilations in the list where the singles are played chronologically, and it really helps for a band who have been through so many different phases as the Cure. On tracks 1-4, they showed us why they were one of the best post-punk bands. On tracks 5-10, they moved into their more well-known (and pigeon-holed) gothic phase. The rest of the disc showed them edging more towards pop territory, which reached its peak on their The head on the door album from 1985 (the last album represented on here). They mastered every genre they tried, and proved to be influential to many bands who formed after them. And because it focuses on their earlier period, you still get to hear Disintegration from 1989 (arguably their best album) untarnished by hearing songs out of their context.

1. Sly & The Family Stone - Greatest hits

Really, just go out and buy this one now. I don't care what music you're into; country, metal or techno. Just get it. You can buy this so cheaply now - I was lucky enough to get it for $5 which is easily the best value in terms of dollars per listen that I have ever had in my entire music collection. I almost feel guilty, and feel that I should send Sly Stone a cheque to compensate for how cheaply I got this disc.

Anyway, this is life-affirming music of the highest order. That sounds like a wanky think to say, but it's true. Sly & The Family Stone were a multi-racial funk/goodtime band who broke all sorts of boundaries when it came to music. This is a 12 track 40 minute compilation, which makes it pretty short by compilation standards. It borrows from their earlier albums up until 1969's Stand!, and includes a few tracks which are unavailable elsewhere including the absolute classics Everybody is a star and Hot fun in the summertime. By stopping at Stand!, it avoids some of their darker moments like those on 1971's There's a riot goin' on; that make this the ultimate party album.

Even if you end up buying all of their albums after hearing this (and believe me, you will), this compilation is worth getting just so you can get those tracks. Seriously, go out and buy it now and let me know what you think. You will not regret it, and you will have a new favourite band.

Honourable mentions:

The Police - Greatest hits
The Kinks - Greatest hits
Pet Shop Boys - Discography
Paul Kelly - Songs from the south
Badfinger - The best of Badfinger

Friday, 11 April 2008

The art of a great compilation CD (Part 1 of 2)

Greatest hits, The best of, The very best of...whichever way you put it, there's no doubt that compilation CDs play a big part in many music collections.

I have talked in previous posts about how I was never a big fan of compilation CDs. I have also talked more recently about how I've become more fond of compilation CDs even since I've been converted to the joys of the iPod. My fondness for compilations has grown even more over the past year, and I have started to appreciate the joy of a well-chosen compilation as an entry point for performers with a large discography.

This is a two-part post. This, the first post, will provide the ground rules about what makes great compilations great and bad compilations suck. My second post will provide some concrete examples of some of my favourites.

Part 1: Ground rules for a great compilation

For every great compilation, there are countless others where the artists/bands (or possibly record companies) just can't get it right. I have started to appreciate that, like an album, there is an art to a great compilation CD.

Here are some of my ground rules for a great compilation. Note that this article is strictly talking about compilations of songs by the same performer (artist or band), not those 100% hits or Songs for the aussie truckie who likes pies compilations that are so ubiquitous in this day and age (and which I avoid like the plague).

Don't spread the compilation too thin.
Many artists have had very long careers spanning decades - some examples being Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. These artists have always had their peak period, and periods where they were lacking in inspiration. There's a simple rule here: keep the compilation focused on their golden years! There's no point including dud uninspired tracks just for the purposes of covering their entire career, especially when you do so at the expense of more tracks from their golden years.

Track order matters.
Many critics insist on compilations being chronological, so you can see how the performer progresses. I tend to agree with this, but I don't think this should be a strict rule. All I insist is that the compiler pays attention to track order. Make the compilation flow in a logical way. Don't just use the CD as a dumping ground for songs - show some care!

Don't fill the CD just because you can.
This comment definitely applies to albums, but it also applies to compilations. Don't feel compelled to release an 80 minute compilation CD if you only have 60 minutes of quality material. I'd take a focused hour-long effort over a patchy 80 minute compilation any day of the week.

Keep the compilation to a single disc.
This is sure to be a controversial point, but I stand by it. Why? Because you play a compilation CD to get a sampler of great songs by the artist. All killer, no filler. Unless the artist can truly justify a two-disc set (and there are some that could pull it off), I'd rather have a single disc. Otherwise the great moments will get spread over two discs, making my decision about which one to put on all that more difficult. Some examples of the 2 approaches: the Hoodoo Gurus' excellent and focused single-disc Electric soup vs. their patchy double-disc hits and rarities set Ampology. INXS also had a great single disc set, which I traded in for a double CD of some great and some less inspiring tracks.

Don't obsolete proper albums by the performer.
A compilation should be an entry-point into a performer's discography, but it shouldn't include too many tracks from a single album, thus rendering that album almost obsolete. Save some tracks for the real fans who want to buy their albums and still experience the joy of hearing most of the tracks on the album for the first time. Some examples of this are Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicle (almost making Cosmo's factory obsolete) and The Police's Greatest hits (Synchronicity).

Keep the rarities off the disc.
Following up from the last few points - a compilation shouldn't be about rarities. That's what albums and B-sides compilations are for! You have to reward the person who goes out and buys the proper albums by the performer. If you give the casual compilation purchaser these rare tracks, it feels like you are cheating the real fan. Also ties in with the previous point about not rendering albums obsolete with a compilation. Focus!

Include exclusive track(s) not available elsewhere.
This is an interesting point which I may or may not always agree with, and it all comes down to order of purchase. If the compilation CD is the first CD I buy of the performer, having a track unavailable elsewhere is a great thing. It means that the compilation CD itself will never become obsolete if I end up buying all their albums anyway. But if the compilation CD comes out after I already have many of their albums, the exclusive track is a real slap in the face to try and extract more money from me even though I already have (almost) all of the tracks on it!

Avoid premature compilation.
Maybe there is a nasal spray available for this one; I do recall reading something in my email about it. Coldplay released a best-of (in the UK only, from memory) after 3 albums. Silverchair did the same. Yes, it's usually not a decision made by the performer, but a greedy record company trying to cash-in on the Christmas buying season. But it just doesn't make any sense. If you've only got 3-4 albums of material to choose from, surely it isn't all going to be A-grade material. And the artists who don't make it past their 4th album? Well eventually their albums will go down in price, so why not just buy them all. There are some exceptions to this rule: The Smiths only released 4 albums, but had some great compilations. But that's because they had a lot of non-albums singles to include on there as well.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for part 2 in this series. What makes a compilation great for you?

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Upcoming 2008 album releases

Well, it's about that time of the year when music geeks like me start to get pretty excited about the upcoming scheduled music releases of the year. Unlike last year's post where I listed all of the artists who were potentially releasing albums that year, I'll instead talk about a select few artists who have confirmed that they will definitely be releasing an album in 2008 and what they have told the press about the albums.

Michael Jackson - Tabloid junkie
In what has to be one of the biggest publicity stunts of his career, Wacko Jacko's latest was apparently heavily influenced by O.J. Simpson's ultra-controversial book If I did it. This album takes its title from one of his lesser-known songs from double album HIStory, but where that song was against the media in all of its forms, this is a "hypothetical concept album" about what Jacko's life would really have been like if he had really committed all of the acts that he has been accused of in the media. Whether you believe him or not is beside the point; this is a gutsy move from a man who we had all pretty much given up on.

Weird 'Al' Yankovic - I'd like to be serious now

Mr Yankovic has built a career on writing parodies of songs by other artists. Which makes his upcoming 2008 release I'd like to be serious now even stranger: Al has decided to release the first serious album of his career. Tackling all sorts of topics from the Iraq war to climate change, this is Weird Al as you have never heard him before. Which is not very weird at all.

Spinal Tap - Shark sandwich
These guys started out as stars of the brilliant mockumentary movie This is Spinal Tap. Ironically, they wrote songs and performed better than many of the artists they were satirising! They followed their 1984 soundtrack album (the one with the cover that couldn't get any blacker) with the disappointing 1992 reunion album Break like the wind. But now they are doing the unthinkable: they have decided to start releasing albums with the same fictional titles as those mentioned in the original 1984 movie. This is the funniest blurring of fiction and reality I have heard about in a long time; I look forward to many reviews consisting entirely of those immortal words: Shit sandwich.

Radiohead - Out of rainbows
The sister album to 2007's infamously-released In rainbows, Out is reportedly the yang to In's yin (whatever that means). Either way, let's hope this one is better than Amnesiac, which was always Kid A's less talented little brother. Early reports suggest that they will be taking the "choose how much you pay" thing even further with this release. Maybe they'll pay us to download it, and include subliminal ads throughout the music?

Metallica - Scrapbooking
The title of this album suggests that this would be an "odds and sods" collection collecting all of the B-sides and other unreleased tracks from their 25-plus year career. At least that's what the fans were hoping for. Unfortunately, the reality is much more scary. Apparently this is their much awaited "middle age" album, where they have mellowed their sound down to Counting Crows-esque soft rock. And the title? Apparently that was coined by drummer Lars Ulrich, who has discovered the joy of cutting out frilly bits of fabric and sticking them in a scrapbook. I wish I was joking.

Bob Dylan - In the 'hood
He started out as a folkie (Freewheelin'), then went electric (Highway 61 revisited). He dabbled a bit in country in the late 60's (Nashville skyline), become a born-again Christian in the late 70's (Slow train coming), released some pretty forgettable stuff in the 80's (too many to mention) before finally discovering his form again in the late 90's (Time out of mind). For a man who is now in his 5th decade of recorded music, where can he go from here?

Hip-hop apparently. Yes, the man with the "love it or loathe it" voice has decided to try his hand at rapping. Reports about this album are still a bit vague, so it's a bit too early to determine whether the guy who was once dubbed "the voice of his generation" will rap his way into a 4-album winning streak.

Robert Smith vs. The Smiths - Frail spool
Robert Smith, lead singer of gothic rockers The Cure, never had many nice things to say about Morrissey, lead singer of the brilliant 80's band The Smiths (even though they had the whole name thing in common). He was famously quoted as saying (of vegan Morrissey) "if Morrissey says don't eat meat, then I'll eat meat because I hate Morrissey". Nasty stuff indeed.

Which makes this album all the more surprising, as the former enemies have decided to collaborate on their new album. Frail spool has been described by its creators as "campy gothic folk". Which pretty much sounds like what you'd get if you threw Disintegration and The queen is dead in a blender.