Thursday, April 7, 2011

Best of the Best (of)

I have a love/hate relationship with compilations. With an album-oriented artist they seem to go against the grain and ruin the intended statement of an epic whole, for better or for worse. Some records, such as Thick as a Brick, simply need to be listened to beginning to end with no skipping, no excision of the "hit." But yet, there are at least a half-dozen major label compilations that include a chopped, quick version of the namesake track. So many of us have labored and listened through the whole darn thing, it just doesn't seem fair that someone seeking a quick fix can click right to it and then get rewarded immediately afterward with "Aqualung" or "Bungle in the Jungle." They should at least have to sit through A Passion Play. With other single-oriented artists, I feel quite differently. It only makes sense to make a one-stop shop for those who released the best of their music two or three minutes at a time.  Link Wray or Mitch Ryder's best (Rumble and Rev Up, respectively). Then, there are the artists who think they're album-oriented but whose hits are all anyone ever wants - or needs (Eagles and Steve Miller, anyone?).

While I prefer to grab bona fide original long-playing albums by a long stretch, there are a handful of compilations that regularly find their way into my stack of music for the day. Four all-time favorites:

Misfits/Collection - Misfits - 1986

While they have a few great albums proper, the Misfits eponymous 1986 collection (usually referred to just as Misfits or Collection) is a perfect example of a singles-oriented compilation for a completist collector. You get the essential singles, the previously unreleased cuts and the album highlights, though many are different recordings or mixes. A minimalist package, you get nothing in terms of history, some raw, beautiful graphics and twenty tracks, every single one of them absolutely essential to any self-respecting punk rock collector. Of course, you're still missing "Last Caress," which is included on the nice, but less consistent, companion, the creatively titled Collection II.

The Hits/The B-Sides - Prince - 1993

I believe I have accumulated the complete works of Prince. The ones that aren't in a vault in Minneapolis, anyway. And while this has made for hours and hours of incredible listening (with hours more yet to come), I spend a lot of time in the car and rarely have the concentration or patience required for many of Prince's records in that setting. Prince is one of the few artists who can create albums that speak in a particular voice and make a coherent statement as a whole yet contain stellar single tracks that can stand tall all by themselves. A three-disc juggernaut, Hits/B-Sides has nearly every single you could want through '93, album favorites and some great new tracks, particularly "Peach" and "Pope." The first two discs were released separately as The Hits 1 and 2 but are bundled in this version with a third disc comprised entirely of b-sides, easily enticing those who otherwise "own it all."

The Very Best of Montrose - Montrose - 2000

The Very Best of Montrose is the exception among compilations.  It represents an album-oriented band with four great albums between '73 and '76 (and one sketchy entry from '87). All of the original Warner Brothers albums are great but, frankly, following the debut, uneven and brief listens. Very Best collects exactly what its name states and represents the cream of Ronnie Montrose's hard rock project from alpha to omega. Folks like me will always want to hear the originals but, realistically, none of them will see play ever again as long as this is an option. For the Montrose-curious familiar only with "Rock Candy" and "Bad Motor Scooter," this will provide about 70 minutes more of the same and that's just about as good as it gets.

Decade - Neil Young - 1977
Decade is the gold standard to which all compilations should aspire.  It collects all of Neil's highlights from 1966 to 1976 and throws in a heaping helping of rarities - and not just throwaways.  Where would we be without Buffalo Springfield's "Down to the Wire," "Love is a Rose," "Winterlong" or "Campaigner?"  Add in essential, otherwise unfindable b-side "Sugar Mountain" and the sole essential track from Journey Through the Past, "Soldier," and you have the most generous, well-sequenced and perfectly balanced collection ever assembled.  Even with the Archives rolled out and box sets on the shelves for nearly every artist with more than three albums to their name (including Buffalo Springfield), no other collection has even come close to equalling the perfection that is Decade. It works well as a lone Young entry into a casual listener's collection or as a jumping-off point for the new Young fanatic. No matter what, it's the first Neil Young album anyone needs and the one album everyone needs.

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