Sunday, 17 April 2011

Compilation albums? Good or bad?

This is a new style of post that I'd like to start writing - not all the time, mind you, just semi-regularly - called "Digest" where I discuss and opine on topics of note that I think are worth thinking about.

This post comes as a response to Don's comment from my recent Blondie post. Drop over to his site Try To Be Amused and say "Hi".

Tonight on Star 104.5 FM they have a regular series at 6pm called "Cover To Cover". The text from their website says: "Every Sunday night at 6 we play from start to finish one of the greatest albums ever made!"

The reason for this post is that I have strong opinions on this week's edition, where they are playing "ZZ Top's Greatest Hits".

Personally I have no issue with ZZ Top, or their greatest hits for that matter. If anything this 1994 release is missing many great tracks from their early career that can be found on "The Best of ZZ Top" released in 1977, but I digress.

Where I take issue is the labeling of "ZZ Top's Greatest Hits" as "one of the greatest albums of ever made". The issue is not the music (which is incendiary) nor the station and its programmers, but that the album in question is a compilation.

The album, from its inception as a long playing LP in 1948, was always about the creation of a long-form work; something that would have required a good deal of planning and thought in order to produce a work that plays well for an extended period of time, and something that would be considered worthy of a larger price tag than that of a single or an EP. Jazz and classical artists have always employed this principal, and if one was to study the book "1001 Albums you Must Hear Before You Die", a large portion of the albums in the section for the 1950s are jazz albums.

Popular music artists, usually by the hand of their record labels, didn't put a great deal of thought into the LP. Probably assuming that the teenagers of the time, if they could afford it, would buy anything with their idol's face on the cover, the albums that were churned out were often piecemeal affairs. The first few Elvis LPs were thrown together from newly recorded sessions with RCA and older tracks from the Sun Records vaults. Even the first Elvis LP in England wasn't even the same as the US version! This was largely the standard practice until the Beatles started to concentrate on the LP as a serious recording medium.

Starting with their second LP "With The Beatles", The Beatles worked to create albums as a great piece of work that could be played from start to finish and were always quite annoyed that the American record company would either alter the track lists of the British LPs to omit tracks, or they would cobble together tracks from various sources to create entirely new LPs altogether. Where the Beatles released 14 albums (counting two compilations) and 2 EPs and copious singles of unique material in the UK between 1962 and 1970, In America they released 21 albums. No album was identical on both sides of the pond until "Sgt Pepper..." in 1967.

In the days of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, it was highly common that singles were not present on the albums. As singles were only present on the market for about 6 months at most, once they were gone, they didn't return. The market then demanded some form of singles "collection" whereby all these stray tracks could be collected and thus the compilation was born.

Don't get me wrong - a compilation has its place. For example, it is a great place to get an introduction into a substantial catalog of works by a band or artist. If one likes what they hear they can delve into the albums to find many more hidden gems.

For some artists, the best albums they ever made were compilation albums. The dubious and checkered discography of James Brown is a classic example. Despite making LPs since 1959, he rarely ever thought about making a fully sequenced, cohesive statement on an LP. Every one of his studio albums (at least up until 1974's "The Payback") were albums thrown together from many different recording sessions. In some cases, no two tracks had the same personnel and were quite often dubbed with "canned" applause and reverb to make them sound live, when in fact they were recorded in a studio. His great singles, like "Hot Pants", "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", "Super Bad" "Sex Machine", "Soul Power" among others, were actually long jams, sometimes as long as 15 minutes, but were released as singles with 3 minutes each side, and faded out to make a nice smooth ending. In some cases, the same faded endings were added to the LPs of the same name too, never giving the listener the benefit of hearing the full, unedited tracks. Thus, his compilation albums "In The Jungle Groove", "Funk Power 1970", "Make It Funky - The Big Payback" and "Foundations of Funk" are actually the best albums to listen to because they compile the tracks as they were recorded, with no dodgy studio fiddling or razor blade editing, and they ROCK! But again, they don't have the forethought of a proper album - they are each just a collection of previously recorded music thrown together on an album.

Johnny O'Keefe was the same - a "best of" album will always appear on a list of "Great Aussie albums" because he made vital, essential singles, but never a great album.

The album has evolved over a long period of time, but for contemporary/popular musicians, oftentimes it is a piece of work that captures an artist's work at a point in time. Once it's there, it cannot be changed. It captures the songs, the attitudes and the energy of the artist at that moment - they'll never be quite the same again. That's the great thing about it! The heart and soul of the music as it was, there and then, captured for prosperity. It is usually a conscious effort to create a full piece of work, when creating a studio LP.

A compilation album will never ever be what a studio LP was intended to be. How can a record that is slapped together from bits and pieces across a wide period of time ever hope to be? It can only ever be a summary, an overview, a mere window into a bigger body of work that can lead to bigger and more interesting things for the listener. Let's face it: "Queen's Greatest Hits 1" is brilliant from start to finish, but a listener is missing out if they never hear "A Night At The Opera". Taken as a complete whole, "...Opera" is mind-blowing and a totally essential listen, but only 2 of its songs appear on "Greatest Hits". By only sticking to "Greatest Hits" you make such amazing records like "...Opera" redundant and the listener does themselves a great disservice.

There's no denying, however, their importance in introducing many a new listener to some awesome music, and that's why in my personal list of 100 albums there will probably be a few of them because, in my view, the studio albums of the bands in question (such as Blondie or Joan Armatrading) overall just weren't all that great, but a compilation was killer!

Therefore it is my conclusion that a compilation can't necessarily be called one of the "greatest albums ever made". A more objective few of the greatest albums of all time, however, should not include compilations unless there is a very good reason for it.

My view is that if you wanted to play any ZZ Top record on "Cover to Cover",
choose "Eliminator", "Tres Hombres" or "Fandango", not "Greatest Hits".

Any comments, criticisms or anything, leave a comment at the bottom of this post. Cheers!


  1. Band comps are a great way to get the "greatest hits" in an affordable package. By affordable, I mean $$$ if you still actually spend money on music, or timewise, as you can get the "overview" in an efficient manner. I still will d/l a comp from a band if I don't know 'em that well. Than I can either keep that as a flyover, or get into the band and then drill deeper. I vote: "good idea" for comps.

  2. Totally agree, Nazz. They are a great overview, and in that respect they are great.

    My main argument however (which I think should have been a bit more succinct in retrospect) is that I think it's a bit rich to call a greatest hits album one of "the greatest albums ever made". After all, an executive summary can't replace the whole document now, can it?

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Wow, baby, you weren't wrong when you said our blogs were very different! But I love the idea of getting more into music so I'm going to follow you. No guarantee that I will have a clue what you're talking about, though... but let's do it! x

  4. Thanx Maxabella for dropping by. Love reading your blog and I hope you get something positive from mine too! Cheers.