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

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