Monday, June 08, 2009
I now have a Twitter account. I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing with this account, but my ideas so far are to tweet thoughts about music too short for blog posts, give notice of what I'll blog about shortly, tweet about live performances I am going to or music I am buying, and give thoughts on music I am listening to. Maybe I'll even live-tweet an album when I first listen to it.
If I ever get Trout Mask Replica, I am definitely going to live-tweet it.
Sunday, June 07, 2009
77 Favorite Albums: Compilations
Note: I have not written all the reviews of my favorite compilations. In the interest of putting content on my blog, here are the two reviews I have completed. This post will get moved to more recent dates as it is updated, so try the link on the sidebar instead of bookmarking the post.
Compilations are often the bane of music reviewers and fans. Even some of the best are completely redundant for fans that have most of the albums. However, many compilations are also a waste of money for people who don’t have any of the albums, due to bad song selection, unrepresentative collection, or sometimes just too expensive due to the inclusion of unessential songs. Most music reviewers will not review straight compilations of widely-available tracks because they either feel it is beneath them (and may be correct), or they have already reviewed the albums that the songs come from and don’t want to write another review about them. The unfortunate result is that if the casual music listener is interested in acquiring just the best songs by a band, they often lack good information on what compilations to get.
However, reviewers often do get involved when outtakes, rarities, and singles-only songs are packaged onto discs along with well known album tracks. When this happens, fans end up paying money for whole CDs where sometimes less than a quarter is music they don’t already have. The record companies are often criticized for this, but I don’t blame them that much.
The record industry is not a non-profit organization, and it needs to make money. Unless you are talking about a band that has a huge hardcore fan-base, like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, the audience for rarities- and outtakes-only collections is small (Note: the lack of a comprehensive non-album Rolling Stones song collection from their time with Decca is exhibit A in why Allen Klein and ABKCO are assholes). On the other hand, the people who buy greatest hits collections will not give a damn if outtakes and rarities are put on the disc if it does not make the album more expensive, and often the singles-only songs are greatest-hits material. The economics of releasing a greatest hits and rarities mixed compilation are usually better than for releasing a rarities-only compilation, so it is obvious why so many more of the former exist and so few of the latter. The alternative is that only the most successful bands release rarities and non-album songs for wide distribution.
Incidentally, the best alternative to these compilations is to package outtakes, rarities, and singles as bonus tracks to albums, which is the standard practice on a lot of recent album re-issues. I’m not even going to go into the arguments purists make that this violates the integrity of the artist’s original work.
So, what about these compilations that mix rarities and greatest hits? Some are very good, and even worth their price, while some suck. Non-coincidentally, the same can be said for non-album song-only compilations, which often are given the same attention as albums. However, only fully or partially redundant compilations will be reviewed here, as my favorite non-redundant compilations will be reviewed along with other albums. In this post, I will review compilations on three points. First, the highlights of the compilation: the best or most interesting songs and quality liner notes. Second, should you get the album, for both the casual listener’s and the fan’s point of view. This will address the overall quality of the song selection, the quality of the non-album tracks, how essential the material is for fans, etc. Lastly, I’ll recommend an album that pairs well with the compilation, on the basis of album quality and limit of overlap.
Death to the Pixies – Pixies
Note: I am reviewing here the first disc of this 2-disc compilation. The first disc is a best of collection, and the second disc is of a 1990 concert. The live disc will be reviewed as a separate album at a later date.
The Pixies were one of the all-time greats of alternative rock, and invented the soft-loud dynamic shifts that are a hallmark of grunge music and other alternative music that followed. However, the Pixies were so much more than just a musical style. They wrote some very weird songs, but they were never goofy (although some of their songs are hilarious jokes), and they never sounded banal or like a self-parody. If I forced to use an adverb, I’d say they were post-modernly weird. Their lead guitarist, Joey Santiago, often played in a dark, almost apocalyptic style that was a great complement to the weirdness that flowed out of the band’s singer and songwriter, Black Francis (actual name Charles Thompson). Above all the weirdness, almost all of their songs are very tuneful at their core, which distinguishes them from a lot of other alternative bands. Also, the Pixies never made the same album twice. All of their albums, even their short debut, have distinct styles and range of moods.
However, the one thing they were not was consistently emotionally resonant. Unlike most alternative rock bands since, they preferred songs that were about something weird, like watching surrealist films or finding out you are the product of incestuous union, than songs about real emotions, with a few notable exceptions. However, most of their songs do really rock, and pack a ton of energy. If you are a big fan of Nirvana or other ‘90s alternative bands, odds are good you’ll just find the Pixies to be weird. On the other hand, if you are a fan of bands that experimented with rock styles and unusual lyrics, such as the Talking Heads, you may find the Pixies to be one of the most enjoyable and intelligent rock bands of the last 20 years.
Highlights: It’s a best of compilation, so basically everything. Okay, maybe they could have left off “The Holiday Song” and “Cecilia Ann” to include a few more songs from Bossanova and especially Trompe Le Monde, but everything else is great. In particular, “Where Is My Mind,” “Debaser,” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven” are landmark songs in alternative rock.
Also, a short essay about the Pixies written by Gary Smith, the producer of the Pixies debut, is included. The essay was written in 1997 and muses on the early days of the Pixies immediately before they began recording, their impact on alternative music, and the degradation of the popular alternative music scene. The essay discusses the shock elements of their music and the loud-quiet dynamics, but doesn’t mention the surrealism, irony, humor, and satire that are the quintessential elements of the Pixies’ music that most of the bands that followed in their footsteps didn’t keep in mind. While not comprehensive or essential, the essay is well-written, and it contains a hilarious description of an early performance of what can only be “Vamos” (A later live performance is included on the live CD).
Should you get it: For the casual listener, this is a good compilation of the first half of the Pixies short career. However, it gives only cursory attention to their last two album, which were done in a significantly different style, and leaves out many great songs from those albums. Also, there are some fan-favorite songs from the earlier albums that are not included either. Given both that the compilation is out of print and that the newer compilation, Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies, has all the songs on this compilation and more, I’d recommend that one over this if all you want is the Pixies best songs.
For the Pixies fan, the second disc of this is a live album of a 1990 concert that is mainly songs from Come On Pilgrim to Doolittle. This album was the only extensive recording of the Pixies in concert until the reunion tour, and the only one of the band in its prime. If you can find the album used with the live disc, I’d pick it up. Expect a review of the live album in the future.
Pairs with: Trompe Le Monde. The Pixies last album is a great one, and the compilation has just two songs from it. Trompe Le Monde is also special because it is the Pixies most diverse album, and has more emotionally resonant songs than all of their previous albums. Between the live disc and the best of compilation, most of the songs from the Pixies best album, Doolittle, are on here, rendering it unnecessary for the non-fan.
The Best of Blondie - Blondie
Blondie hardly needs any introduction, as they were one of the most successful New Wave band. The most distinctive element of Blondie was the supremely confident singing of Deborah Harry. What’s not well-known about Blondie is that the band was very diverse, experimenting with a lot of different genres throughout their career, and that they were arguably the first New Wave band. In fact, as George Starostin pointed out, their debut album proves that New Wave, insofar as it could be called a single style, did not develop from punk. That album was released in 1976, the same year as the Ramones debut album.
Highlights: This compilation has basically every pre-1981 song they did that made the top-5 in the US or UK charts. I think most are pretty good, though your mileage may vary. It also contains re-mixed versions of four songs. “Sunday Girl” contains vocals from a French lyrics version of the song that was released as a B-side. Its sort of a neat effect, as Deborah Harry really does a good job with the accent.
Should you get it: If you’re a casual listener, this is probably the compilation to get if you are not going to get any Blondie albums. It does an okay job of giving a representative sample of each phase of Blondie’s career, excluding their last album before their break-up, which I’ve read was not a good album. The only real flaw is that there are not more songs from their early career, when the band was more wise-assy than later on.
For the Blondie fan, there is no reason to get this album unless you really want to hear "Sunday Girl" with French lyrics and can’t get a-hold of the French-language single version. The three other re-mixed songs are not noticeably improved, although “Rapture” has an extra verse, which may interest the completists out there. Other than that the only song you won’t find on the albums is “Call Me” from the film American Gigolo.
Pairs with: Parallel Lines. Or Plastic Letters if you want to address the flaw of not representing the early material enough. I will warn you that I have not heard these albums and I am making this recommendation based on reviews I have read, so caveat emptor.
soon next: A Compleat Collection - The Kinks