I’ve often said that I’m not a big fan of best of/greatest hits albums. Why? Oh, I don’t feel like getting into that right now. I thought I did but I don’t. So…right. Ok, well, this post is focusing on the best of album’s attractive cousin, the compilation album…that is collections of (non-album) singles, and/or b-sides, EPs, radio sessions, stray soundtracks songs, etc, etc, etc. But wait…is this attractive cousin good from afar but far from good? (Seriously, I apologize for that one…) Yes, definitely maybe, but that’s sort of the beauty and the danger of a compilation album, you can sometimes get an assortment of outstanding material that represents the best of everything said artist was about at any given time in their career, or just a bunch of flaky ‘fans only’ fluff that most folks will buy and listen to once before taking it to Great Escape and hoping it doesn’t get a pass. For completists these albums are essential, but more often than not they don’t contain everything that could and should be included in such a collection, and releases like this are usually half baked cash ins from the label looking to fulfill a contract, throw out a stopgap between proper albums or squeeze a few more bucks from fans after the band has split up.
But, as alluded to, there are exceptions, and here are a few of my favorites…
Tones of Tail – Everything!: I love side projects. I’ve been planning on writing an entry on them almost since the inception of this blog, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. (Funny, “blog” still isn’t recognized by spell checker in MS Word…get with it, Gates!) There are occasions when a side project will actually trump the band(s) that said member(s) came from…enter Tones on Tail, a deal Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash started with roadie/pal Glen Campling while Bauhaus was still around, put out a couple of dark, quirky singles and then added drummer Kevin Haskins after Bauhaus fell apart to release the Pop album in 1984 before themselves disbanding where, as we all know, Ash and Haskins picked up Bauhaus bassist David J and formed Love & Rockets. So…having said that, as compilations go, Tones on Tail’s double disc Everything! is just that…every single track the band ever recorded…sorta. There are a couple radio edits here and there, but all you need is here. The first disc is the Pop album, easily the most accessible of the group’s output and the one that sounds closest to either of the two aforementioned and related groups more known to the general public, most notably Love & Rockets (well…sorta). Groovy, sexy, morose, there’s a little something here for everyone, from low key synth pop (Lions), to sinister non-rock (The Never Never is Forever), to wicked dance (Performance), to the flat out bizarre (Slender Fungus) and just downright lovely (Rain). Disc two is the singles, extra tracks and remixes, more often than not on a more experimental bend, but ever charming in their eeriness. Disc two also contains the underground dance hit (later sampled by Moby) GO! complete with “ya-ya-ya-ya!” chorus, as infectious a piece of murky pop as you’d care to hear. Anyone who is either/or a Bauhaus or Love & Rockets fan should certainly check this album out, but folks who are neither yet enjoy mostly fun, slightly dangerous and all around good synth oriented dance pop will definitely find quite a bit to shake a cheek to with Tones on Tail.
The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs: I got this album for my 17th birthday, a gift from Susan and Cybil (sup, ya’ll?), and from here my lifelong love affair with the Smiths officially began. Though a collection of singles, b-sides and BBC Sessions, here in the States this one is basically considered an album proper, or rather double album as it’s a full 24 songs in length. The wonderful thing about Louder Than Bombs, as compilations go, is that there are absolutely no throwaways, and not only are some of the greatest highlights of the Smiths’ career found here (they were a fantastic singles band after all), but most every other song that isn’t “one of those” (again, I leave it to you to decide what is what) would have fit nicely tucked amongst the tracks of any of their four albums. Plus, though it does not run chronologically, Louder Than Bombs is a nice run down to the development and maturation of the Smiths sound from beginning to near end, and works very well as a starting point for anyone looking to pique their curiosity. Also, as a side note, this is THE compilation to own, and while Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen have their redundant charms, the two or three (or is it ten?) best of and singles collections out there, while containing the same heartbreakingly wonderful music, are cheats to fans and do not showcase much of the Smiths’ sound in the way it was intended. But I still love you, JM.
Morrissey – Bona Drag: Moz chimes in again, this time with his first collection of solo singles post-Smiths. As with the aforementioned Louder Than Bombs, Bona Drag works as a) a proper album and b) an excellent place to start checking out Morrissey’s solo career, especially early on. I would almost argue that it’s really all you need until Your Arsenal, but then JT will start fuming and sputtering and that just isn’t pretty. Plus, Viva Hate has some very essential album tracks and Kill Uncle has that one song that isn’t too bad…I can’t think of what it’s called though (‘cos there really isn’t one, tee-hee). But for proof that the magic of the Smiths was in a large part due to Morrissey’s talents – vocally, lyrically, melodically, etc – you really have all you need here, with gorgeously fantastic A-sides – Piccadilly Palare, Everyday is Like Sunday and Suedehead – but equally as strong (sometimes even stronger) B-sides – Will Never Marry, Hairdresser on Fire, Yes I am Blind. True, it’s a bit dated in parts (oh, 80s…), but this isn’t so much a distraction to the songs as a reminder of the times…times when Moz was clever, concise and constantly catchy. (BAM…take that alliteration!)
The Pixies – Pixies at the BBC/Complete ‘B’ Sides: Our favorite band from Boston has not one but two super great compilation albums. Cool, huh? First – Pixies at the BBC is possibly my favorite of the two because while most of these songs are widely available elsewhere, in many cases the versions are more than just BBC raw, they’re drastically reworked from their album contemporaries, allowing a unique perspective to some familiar tunes in a truly embryonic form. As an introduction to the band (not sure why I’m holding on to that idea here in this post) Pixies at the BBC might not be the most ideal first listen, but honestly isn’t too far off the mark either, representing many of the key elements that made (make?) this band so important. And so second – as if four gr-gr-great albums and one on par EP weren’t enough, the Pixies were known for some pretty groovy B-sides, which is where the Complete ‘B’ Sides comes in nicely, collecting all their A-sides’ backers plus a few strays for a collection that rocks and socks almost as solidly as Surfer Rosa or Doolittle (well, ok, that’s a stretch). With excellent tunes like Manta Ray, Weird at My School and Into the White, plus inspired covers of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You and Winterlong, among others, it’s easy to see why the Pixies are considered one of the greatest “classic alternative” (or any genre) bands of all time. Different (sometimes weaker) versions of various album tracks and a few seemingly partially developed one-offs toward the end somewhat lessen the impact of this collection, but that doesn’t mean that Complete ‘B’ Sides isn’t a worthwhile, even a vital, part of any Pixies fan’s CD shelf…almost more so than Trompe le Monde. (There, I said it.)
The Church – Hindsight: The Church have several comps out there and heck, 1984’s Remote Luxury is really a consolidation of two EPs, but here in the states we like to mash things up. Anyway…if you can find it, pick up Hindsight because this one serves a dual purpose. First off, and somewhat to its detriment, it’s a collection of album singles and select tracks, all stellar music and serving well as an introduction to the band between 1981 and 1986, so basically pre-Starfish. But second, and most importantly, it’s a collection of said singles’ b-sides and other stray tracks, some of which have popped up here and there as bonus material on various re-releases, but most of which remain as obscure as Hindsight is itself. Running chronologically, this album not only displays many of the highlights as the Church developed their post psychedelic sound, but also a few ideas and tracks that while good, fun or interesting in their own right, just weren’t up to snuff either musically, thematically or from a recording perspective. This just goes to show that even when a band is in a creative streak and can seemingly do no wrong (ok, Maybe These Boys…), there are still a few clunky skeletons in the closet. Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great obscurities to be found, but looking over the track list right now it’s obvious that numbers like In a Heartbeat, Fraulein and You’ve Got to Go, while certainly bred from the same fingers as Of Skins and Heart and Blurred Crusade, were just a bit too raw and unpolished to do much more than hang the back end of a single. Meanwhile, on disc two, Autumn Soon, As You Will and The View shimmer as much as anything from their respective sessions and yet don’t quite fit the feel of the albums they fell from. So, at the end of the rant, what you’ve got with Hindsight is a peak at some of the best of the best, but also a bit of the grit that is certainly at the basis of any song by any band before that perfect arrangement, recording or producer gets hold of it and pushes it to the next level. And sometimes it’s just a band song.
Joy Division/New Order – Substance: In the 70s and 80s, especially in the UK, non-album singles were still very much en vogue and, often as not, a collection of these worked as well as any given album, sometimes even better. Enter Joy Division and New Order, who, for all intents and purposes are “the same band” except of course the former contained enigmatic singer Ian Curtis and the latter was the remainder of the band spending the rest of their career trying to get out from under his shadow…and somewhat succeeding – but that’s not what I’m here to talk about (I don’t think, we’ll see). Releasing two albums called Substance is certainly a nod from folks in this camp that while the two bands are certainly very different, they both come from the same place, which is indeed a very dark place, and which is very evident on Joy Division’s outing. The nice thing about this Substance on CD is the inclusion (though split up a bit) of the An Ideal for Living EP, the band’s first proper release, full of cranky riffs and shouted punky bravado. The rest of the collection is songs from various singles, b-sides and Factory Records samplers, including the big one, the daddy-o, the one even my mom has heard (ok, not really), Love Will Tear Us Apart (and I’m hoping it gets stuck in all your heads, ha-ha!). But also present are equally important (nay, even more so as they represent a more accurate presentation of the band) songs like Digital, Transmission, Dead Souls, Komakino and the lovely Atmosphere. Admittedly this Substance is a bit scattershot, partially because it doesn’t run chronologically, but mainly because Joy Division’s sound was often all over the place, minimalist yet dense, and that density was achieved in several different ways and more cohesive on their two proper albums. Here it’s a bit of a bomb blast here and a firecracker there, so the continuity is somewhat lost, though the music (with a couple of exceptions) is fantastic. With that thought in mind, New Order’s Substance 1987 does run chronologically, from the late Joy Division song Ceremony to the relatively big hit True Faith. It’s a fascinating journey from the depths of emotional depravity as they shed the skin of their former band (and singer) and began to develop a sound and style that became uniquely their own, morphing into a type of pop that actually made dance music cool. I’ve lamented more than once that New Order seemed to spend a lot of time perfecting their singles but not as much time with their proper albums, which in the mid 80s sounded more like riffed off afterthoughts than attempts at making solid music, and even the re-workings of knockout songs found here on Substance 1987 are brittle, almost demo-like in comparison. I guess what I’m almost saying is that Substance 1987, while the perfect introduction to the brilliance of New Order, might also be about the only thing you need with a couple of notable exceptions (call me if you want to know what they are). Also, for those of you who dig b-sides and remixes, Substance 1987 has a second disc that basically runs the same track list on the reverse side, a mixed bag collection vocal dubs, instrumental versions and a couple of the band’s best songs of their early period, Procession and 1963.