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?

1 comment:

  1. Compilations are a great starting point, but if you're a fan of the artist, the piles of compilations begin to suck hard. I'm a huge Robert Palmer fan and aside from Addictions Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, there is no need for additional compilations. Most of the RP compilations I collect begin to retread and run into one another, to the point where I no longer rip them to my Creative jukebox. Especially stay from the ones that include songs from albums post-Heavy Nova!


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