400 blows: A few greatest hits

After reading Elisabeth Vincentelli’s contribution to the 33 1/3 series, ABBA GOLD, I’m left thinking less about defending ABBA (because I really don’t think they need to be defended any longer; they’re kind of pop royalty, having finally been critically acknowledged), and more about defending greatest hits compilations in general, much of which Vincentelli discusses in the introduction. I used to be opposed to compilations for the simple reason that I wanted to be a part of a band as much as possible and thought the only way to do that would be to listen to entire, original albums, particularly in chronological order; if I couldn’t be a part of U2’s progression through the 80s, I wanted to at least be there synthetically. But in reality that’s sort of impossible: just being alive and breathing assures you’ve heard dozens of songs by artists out of chronological and even cultural context.

Today I think compilations are a good starting ground for unfamiliar artists; the only problem arises when these compilations are the best a group has to offer. These so-called “singles bands” shouldn’t exactly be written out of the canon, maybe just re-imagined to a hearkening of a not-so-long-ago time when singles were all that mattered and albums were those things that nobody really bought. However, thanks in part to The Beatles and Brian Wilson, who helped create the modern concept of an album, we now have a po-mo concept of compilations:

There’s perceived to be something distinctly second-rate about compilations, like sending a pre-printed thank-you note instead of a hand-written one: It smacks of an after-thought, something that can’t be taken quite seriously. Worst of all, it smacks of something done for purely mercantile reasons. Since bands and record companies have recouped their recording and promotional expenses, compilations are what happens when someone wants to make quick cash. They’re also what happens when a band is in a creative quagmire, or on hiatus, or gone: the reminder of something that was, not the promise of something that could be. (Vincentelli 7)

I can think of plenty of artists the dreaded “compilation” has affected negatively; Chihiro’s post-EMI split releases that really were outright manipulative cash cows, Ayumi Hamasaki’s A BEST, which she vehemently opposed, going so far as to appear in tears on the front cover, and pretty much all of hide’s compilations which serve as nothing more than posthumous dividends. And that’s just three artists off the top of my head. But conceivably, there may have been some bands that really were just the sum of a dozen really great songs. That isn’t to say that their contribution to music history is really any less (not if we’re looking at quality over quantity) but simply that they may not have been built for rock operas or extended concepts, instead, flourishing in the reduced brilliance of three or four minute mini-epics. Vincentelli notes that “acknowledging that your favorite band’s most important album is a compilation somehow casts a pall on the band itself – and thus on your judgment for championing that group” (5) but I don’t necessarily think that’s true, depending on the artist (and so doesn’t she, not really). I don’t think a lot of people  (especially critics) would pick a greatest hits album by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or even Michael Jackson as their favorite, even if, statistically speaking, that album is the artists’ best seller.  But in acknowledging that greatest hits do have merit somewhere in this great big universe, and that ABBA’s GOLD is already de facto number one (don’t believe me? read the book), here are ten more of my favorite greatest hits compilations:

Golden Earring: The Continuing Story of Radar Love (1989)

I may be pushing this one a bit too far; how easy could it possibly be to scale down a band who, up until 1989, had released nineteen original albums? Probably if most of the albums weren’t all that great. In the 60s, Golden Earring (known as The Golden Earrings) sounded like  any other British band, except nobody really cared about a little band from The Hague, except maybe people in the Hague. In the early 70s, Golden Earring, like many bands, re-focused their style and released “Radar Love,” a song you may recognize from classic rock stations or the second Wayne’s World movie. It wouldn’t be until 1983 that they released their first U.S. #1 with “Twilight Zone” a very rich, very long, rock epic that has become something of a musical swan song (very sad for the “oldest rock band in the world“), aptly noted by its inclusion as the last track on the CD and not the first. The Continuing Story of Radar Love isn’t necessarily the ultimate collection of Golden Earring songs (again nineteen albums; twelve songs) but it does offer a broad representation of their sound (rock with an honest, sometimes pop, sensibility in its melodies), encompasses two of their most beloved songs, and by omitting any mention of ‘greatest hits’ or ‘definitive collection,’ even purports an answer to Vincentelli’s point that compilations are the end, and not the beginning.

T.M.Revolution: UNDER:COVER (2006)

What’s so great about this greatest hits compilation is that it’s not even technically a greatest hits compilation; instead, Takanori Nishikawa, the main man behind the name, re-sung, re-arranged, and re-mixed fourteen songs in his catalog. While the choices aren’t all that great, the new versions of each of the tracks are. T.M.R’s style hasn’t really changed significantly, though Nishikawa’s other band abingdon boys school, probably had an influence on making the songs heavier, faster and more electric. There is no in between on UNDER:COVER: tracks like “THUNDERBIRD” have been restrained and taken down to the barest essentials, while “Twinkle Million Rendezvous” has a full orchestra. It may not be the best place to lead someone unfamiliar with the band’s work, but it certainly makes it worth purchasing for long-time fans.

Blondie: The Best of Blondie (1981)

Nobody will deny Blondie’s contribution to music history; however, though the studio efforts may have be more important, they’re certainly not as fun. It also says a lot that despite more than half a dozen more compilations following its release, 1981’s The Best of Blondie still has every single track that made Blondie so enjoyable. From the disco-inspired “Heart of Glass” to the punk-smeared “Hanging on the Telephone” the best of Blondie really does have every popular and well-loved Blondie song, in all its evolutionary glory.

Tommy heavenly6: Gothic Melting Ice Cream’s Darkness Nightmare (2009)

This album is almost farcical considering Tomoko Kawase only released two albums under this moniker (and she released a greatest hits for her Tommy february6 persona that same day). I think this compilation was meant to be a sort of end in a musical perspective (and one in a very poor direction, I was to learn). However, this compilation really does encapsulate the best of the two discs she did manage to release. Sure, it might be missing those really cool B-side acoustic versions of “Lost my pieces” and “+gothic Pink+” but it includes both singles and good album-cuts (“fell in love with you”/”2Bfree”) without being bogged down by too many fictitiously good B-sides. Though it may seem redundant to ardent fans of Tommy heavenly6’s work, it trumps the worst aspects of the sometimes filler-tracked self-titled Tommy heavenly6 and Heavy Starry Heavenly.

Whitesnake: The Definitive Collection (2006)

I’m not sure most 80’s rock bands weren’t sewn for greatest hits; most people remember Def Leppard, Skid Row, and Poison for a handful of singles, schmaltz, and not much else. But while a lot of commercial-oriented bands took themselves too seriously (Bon Jovi) or not seriously enough (Motley Crue), Whitesnake kind of fell in between. They had David Coverdale, a glam-ham by any other name, and his girlfriend, but they also had a classic rock upbringing (at least initially) that influenced what would later amount to a really hard-sell of commercial rock. You could argue that Whitesnake’s Greatest Hits released in 1994 gets the job done, but I prefer the sequencing of The Definitive Collection for a few reasons: 1) it opens with more blues-rock pieces that says something about the band’s origins, 2) it chooses songs from more than just three albums (as good as they were), and 3) um, why not a few extra tracks? While 2008’s 30th Anniversary Collection took things a bit too far (3 discs? really?), The Definitive Collection remains…a definitive collection of really great Whitesnake tunes that doesn’t make you feel excessively bad for liking something so perversely wonderful.

B’z: The Best “ULTRA” Pleasure (2008)

Speaking of excess, there’s a difference between too much and just enough; sometimes less really is more, at least in the case of B’z. For a band that has been around twenty-one years, owning all sixteen of their albums is quite unnecessary. This 2-disc compilation contains some of the best singles of the band’s career, all remastered to perfection (and I really mean that; some remasters just make things louder or less fuzzy, but these songs really sound phenomenal with a good pair of headphones), trumping 1998’s single-disc The Best Pleasure, while including some of the band’s later work on disc 2.

Nanase Aikawa: ID (1999)

Nanase Aikawa’s first hits compilation features all of her best songs with a few notable exceptions from 2000’s Foxtrot (for obvious reasons), but it hardly matters much; Aikawa’s style was already changing with the new millennium and ID chronicles her short, but fruitful career as an 80’s metal-influenced 90’s alterna-chick. Since I was never interested in her post-90’s output, it only makes sense that ID says everything good about Aikawa without eluding to what would later become subdued, restrained pop rock.

Stevie Nicks: Timespace: The Best of Stevie Nicks (1991)

I had two choices: I could pick Crystal Visions or Timespace, and without hesitation, I chose Timespace; Crystal Visions is bogged down by not enough great songs and too many live cuts (though I do really like the live version of “Rhiannon,” it’s not even a Stevie Nicks song, belonging to the Fleetwood Mac canon). Timespace, on the other hand, contains everything good and wonderful about the mystical “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll” that not even multi-platinum albums like Bella Donna and The Wild Heart could do. It features some of her best collaborations (with Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, and Prince – yes, that’s him playing synth on “Stand Back”), along with the surrealist mix of rock and magic that has made her so entertaining (both musically and personally). Fleetwood Mac may have been more pure in its genre, but Nicks challenges the foundations of that trade through her unique vocals, bluesy swagger and mystical inspiration. I’ll always enjoy Nicks more for her most successful tunes than the albums that comprised them.

Pet Shop Boys: Discography: The Complete Singles Collection (1991)

If ABBA threw their arms around the flighty, four minute pop song, the Pet Shop Boys carried the dropped torch into the 80s. Nobody is going to deny that the Pet Shop Boys wrote some excellent albums, all which contained great songs – but the Pet Shop Boys will be most remembered for their mastery over what would be the singles’ last flourishing decade. Discography, released right before the start of their most disappointing albums, is the epitome of all things quick and consumable about pop music, tinged with a misty aura of italo disco; everybody knows these songs are unmistakably from one of the gluttonous decades that would later result in both backlash and an endless revival. But Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant never tried to do anything but make really fun music and they accomplished just that with an elegant pride. With an injection of wit, sarcasm, and intelligence, every single song on this compilation is more than an ode to the great theme of pop (love and all its permutations), it’s also an ode to the ennui of suburbs, religious guilt, making money (or trying to), loving someone (because he/she pays your rent), and political headlines (though in a somewhat pointedly disaffected way). ABBA may have made it look easy, but the Pet Shop Boys made it look appealing.

Journey: The Essential Journey (2001)

This might be a bit far-fetched; The Essential Journey doesn’t have any songs from their first three albums (a real pity, as I find them genuinely interesting and meritable classic rock); but what it lacks in musical self-awareness, it makes up for in personal self-awareness: Steve Perry’s vocals put Journey on the map and the band kind of knows that. The Essential Journey caters to the lowest common denominator by compiling really great singles from a band that not everyone will admit to liking, but whose songs have become staples of American rock (I imagine “Don’t Stop Believin'” might be one of the most definitive American rock songs, but that’s debatable and I’m still working through the counter-arguments – for one, that Journey sure isn’t an indestructible band, being marred by a few poor records that have driven them and their fans into a closet, and two, that their very inclusion on this list is something of a double-edged sword that denies their right to that privilege; clearly, I believe a greatest hits collection is better than any one of their original albums, putting the issue of single-bands versus album-bands at odds all over again). Journey was never an album-oriented band, though their albums as a whole were huge sellers, particularly from 1978 to 1983. There are some strange choices that mar disc 2 (“Chain Reaction” is a good song off of Frontiers, but “Troubled Child” is much more powerful), but that’s even if you get that far – disc 1 is really all you need, and the only reason I didn’t pick 1988’s Greatest Hits is for its exclusion of “After the Fall.” There’s nothing really essential about most essential compilations (especially those with more than one disc) – except for this one.

Do you think the ‘greatest hits’ compilation has any true merit? Which artists do you think flourish in the greatest hits format – and which don’t?

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3 thoughts on “400 blows: A few greatest hits

  1. Noonan June 23, 2009 / 4:35 pm

    I find The Cure to be a great singles band. Their albums just don’t do it for me the way their singles do. Maybe I could say that with some more confidence if I listened to more of their albums, but the one or two I’ve sat through hasn’t given me much reason to do so. But damn, their singles are the shit.

  2. Anna June 23, 2009 / 11:08 pm

    Ooh good one, I agree.

  3. vinyabarion July 18, 2009 / 11:30 pm

    I just can’t believe that you didn’t put Koda Kumi in your list of de facto artists who release a compilation album everytime they get a #2 single…

    And, I can’t believe that BEST FICTION, you know, Amuro’s compilation, isn’t on this list… lol j/k 😛

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