Feb 092009

What makes a decent compilation album? By which I mean, a collection of tunes that is, well, more than just a collection of tunes. I have recently been reviewing Dark is the Night, the latest of the Red Hot Organization’s fund-raising records. It’s a who’s who of the young, gifted, and groovy, including Bon Iver, Stuart Murdoch, Feist, Cat Power, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, and more. It’s a magic pudding of an album, a cut-and-come-again collection. I am enjoying its parts but does it represent anything more? Is that what good, even great, compilations do? Or am I just looking at the moon through a keyhole?

A magic pudding

By compilations I mean collections of more than one artist or band.

I tread warily around reggae compilations from Studio One. When does a collection of rare “classics” become the scraping of the barrel? I am rarely curious enough or cashed up enough to fund out. And I run screaming from most tribute albums. Gram Parsons, The Smiths, The Go-Betweens, Serge Gainsbourg…I’m outta here. When is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, grasshopper?

I have fond memories of the early Hal Wilner sorties Lost in the Stars (a collection of songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, and Stay Awake, the music from Disney films. Highlights here include Los Lobos’ “I Wanna Be Just Like You” (from the Jungle Book) and Bonnie Raitt, who I otherwise don’t go out of my way for caressing “Baby Mine” (from Dumbo) into exquisite moods. The take out from these two records is that I come away with a greater appreciation of the idea being compiled. There may be one or two stinkers in there too, but I’m prepared to forgive in the name of eclecticism. There’s a Martin Hannett anthology, Zero, that is an interesting tour of post-punk (Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Kitchens of Distinction) that I am not ashamed to own.

What compilations have lasted longer than a fake tan?


  39 Responses to “Compilations That Don’t Suck”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    I’m a big fan of that Brazillian comp that kicked off David Byrne’s career as a label head and curator many moons ago. It exposed me – in a positive way – to a genre of music I used to run away from hearing. I’ve not followed it up with multiple purchases of Brazillian music, but at least I’ve kept my mind open whenever I hear that stuff. In general, the comp that exposes me to a pocket of music I’d never heard before is the most attractive/useful comp to me.

    Mikeydread, thanks for stepping up to The Main Stage and kicking off your first RTH thread!

  2. This may be appropriate for the previous post, but there was a tribute album to The Carpenters (!) several years ago called If I Were A Carpenter (hawhaw). It had several tracks by the popular alternative/grunge acts of the day (Sonic Youth, The Cranberries, Red Kross). Plus the obligatory Matthew Sweet contribution (for years I thought that guy just showed up for every compilation/tribute that came out).

    The vocals are atrocious and out-of-tune, but the collection os a compelling listen from top to bottom. I own not one single record by the non-rockin’ Carpenters, but I own this and enjoy it every time I hear it.


  3. hrrundivbakshi

    I always liked the W.O.M.A.D. comp from the mid-80s. That turned me on to a lot of great music. In contrast, the SST samplers from back in the day usually sucked a lot more than should have been expected.

  4. sammymaudlin

    Do soundtracks as compilations count?

    They work really well for me, if it was good movie, as then the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    The American Graffiti soundtrack in particular has been a with me since seeing the movie of the big screen.

  5. underthefloat

    Oddly, I was just listening to Rhino’s “D.I.Y.: Anarchy in the UK: UK Punk I” and “D.I.Y. Punk II” and thinking how terrific they are. I think it’s not only a terrific collection of songs but also captures that moment in music very well. That works for me anyway, not sure if that’s totally what you are going for or not.

    I totally agree with you about Tribute Comps. 99% of them fall VERY short of the original renditions and are just dreadful. Or at best the almost always leave me wanting to hear the original versions.

  6. dbuskirk

    I love compilations, at least the rare ones that work. Most major and minor rock genres have some scene-defining comp. I particularly like the long out-of-print RAINY DAY compilation that came out of the frequently dubious Paisley Underground scene from L.A. in the 80’s. Mazzy Star fans would probably dig it, its a David Roback project.

    More recently that Arthur Magazine comp., THE GOLDEN APPLES OF THE SUN was a nice and varied cross section of the “freak Folk” scene in 2004, stuff like Six Organs of Admittance, Joanna Newsome (perhaps best in short doses, no?), Vetiver and the like.

    Just about all of those comps from the Soul Jazz label are wonderfully curated, it seems like there is an endless barrel of New Orleans r & b worth hearing, and being a reggae fan opens a bottomless can of worms. Props to that Numero Group label as well, loved that collection of independently pressed Joni Mitchell wannabees they put out.

    I’d say most Major Label comps suck cuz there always seems to be some politics about including a cut from some lame label signing, whether they fit in or not.

    AMERICAN GRAFFITI was a big one for me too, I played that to death as a kid. Took me a while to figure out Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids were just ringers. They did a good HAPPY DAYS though.

  7. Hrrundi: If you’re talking about “Music And Rhythm,” I’m right there with you. A wide mix of world music with nice contributions from Western sympathizers. I’m not sure how you all feel about remixes, but the dub version of “Mirror In The Bathroom” is a classic in my book and possibly a deep cut for that band. This album kept me company on many a late-night bus ride in high school. Bonus XTC content, too!

    “Children of Nuggets” is one of my favorite recent comps and I believe there is no Matthew Sweet on it at all.

  8. A great early punk compilation is “Burning Ambitions” from the early 80’s.

    I’m also very fond of “The Stiff Gneration” – so fond that I have a few hundred in my basement!

  9. Oh – and of course, American Grafitti – one of my fav albums of all time.

  10. BigSteve

    Speakingm of Stiff. those early Stiff compilations were brilliant — A Bunch of Stiffs and especially Stiffs Greatest Hits. I listened to The Akron Compilation recently, it’s held up quite well.

    Sometimes label comps work, if the label has a vision instead of just a business plan. Like a lot of people I have fond memories of that Wanna Buy a Bridge comp from Rough Trade.

    Mikey, to me the problem with those Studio One compilations is that there’s so much crossover rather than quality issues. As far as I can tell all material from Studio One varies between awesomely great and merely very, very good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard outright bad Stdio One tracks, but the best ones turn up over and over on comps mixed in with the merely excellent.

    I’ve got lots of great African compilations, bu they work because they’re composed of singles, and I don’t know albums by the individual artists, if there ever were albums. And I agree with the Mod that those Luaka Bop comps were cool.

    Tribute albums are a whole nother thing.

  11. BigSteve

    In general comps covering a musical style you’re not familiar with can br great, if you’re not really familiar enough with it to pick apart the selections. I think I mentioned recently the one Doughboys, Playboys and Cowboys: The Golden Years of Western Swing. It sure seems well-selected to me, but I wouldn’t know if it wasn’t. Its 4 CDs are probably all the western swing I’ll ever need.

    And Shanachie and Yazoo and Folkways have put out scads of terrific comps from their back catalogs of traditional folk and blues music.

  12. I have gone pretty deeply into Brazilian Music after exposure to Byrne’s 1st Brazilian Compilation, Beliza Tropicale. I love a lot of what I’ve found, but that for me that comp still stands head and shoulders above ANY other Brazilian album, compilation or not. I think it’s an amazing selection.

    I also like thematic tribute records, especially the Wilner compilations. The Weill and Disney ones you mentioned were good. There is a Mingus one called “Weird Nightmare” that is my favorite Wilner Compilation. He used a widely varied cast but tied it altogether by using the sound of instruments invented by the avant-garde Composer Harry Partch to flesh out a lot of the arrangements. It has a similar sweep to his Stay Awake Disney Compilation. The early Monk one was only so-so but the early Nino Rota one was good. His later comps, I’m thinking the second Weill one and the one focused on the guy who composed Moon River, (I’m blanking on the name) seemed to be a little weak, more a random collection than a coherent package.

    Another one I swear by is the Roky Erickson compilation, “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.” That one has some really great versions that approach the spirit of the originals and eliminate some of the sound and general disorganization that plague some of the original recordings.

    A bad tribute to a band I really like was the Minutemen Tribute “Our Band Could be Your Life”. Just not enough personality or interesting rethinking in most of it to add anything to the originals.

  13. I enjoy the POPTOPIA Cds that Rhino put out in the late 90’s. Just 3 volumes of power pop.

    The Three McCartney Tribute CDs are good (Ok, I was the label owner / producer of one of them) Listen To What The Man Said (National Artists), Love In Song (Atlanta Based Artists)and Comming Up! (underground pop bands)

    I also really like the Springsteen Tribute “Light Of Day”…well,most of it anyway.

  14. You know, jungle, I remember those Macca comps. I always picked them up, but never bought them (sorry). The one with the independent artists featured my beret-clad, guitar playing brother Phil Keaggy, didn’t it?

    Damn, I wish I would have bought those things! Maybe I will seek them out…


  15. I like a lot of that Sweet Relief comp. I have a hard time dealing with Victoria Williams voice but I really like her songwriting.

  16. I liked that Gram Parsons tribute from a few years back, the one with Lucinda Williams, Beck, Elvis Costello etc.

    Hey jungleland, I have those McCartney tributes! Some great stuff on there. Sloan’s “Waterfalls” is the one of the only things they did that I like.

  17. Mr. Moderator

    The original, vinyl Nuggest rules. All those box sets based on the original concept are nice to have but go too far.

  18. pudman13

    I agree—NUGGETS is the best comp ever, but I think the first two box sets are nifty too.

    There were a lot of really good new wave-era comps. Two that stand out for me are BIG HITS FROM MID AMERICA VOLUME 3 (which compiled a bunch of Minnesota bands and included a number of mix n’ match songs as well…it felt like a family) and BESERKLEY CHARTBUSTERS, which similarly combined a bunch of artists who just plain worked well together.

  19. Hey jungleland, I have those McCartney tributes! Some great stuff on there. Sloan’s “Waterfalls” is the one of the only things they did that I like.

    Those are the other ones (I did the Atlanta one) The Two that Tribute LLC did, that’s my friend Kirk Waldrop’s project. I have a Japan only version that has both CDs and a bio for each band. Missed my chance to buy the Hoffner they used for the cover.

    That was the 1st CD he ever put out. took over two years to put together and hundreds of meetings, but he got to meet some cool rock star folk like Matthew Sweet, Glen Tillbrook, Barenaked Ladies, etc.

  20. underthefloat

    Hey pudman13,

    I’m a MN guy and I really dug the “Big Hits of Mid America Vol 3” comp back in the day too. As you may know, it’s not on CD other then you can buy it directly from Twin Town as more of CDR burn from the original recording.

    For me highlights include: NNB’s “Uruguay 1983” and “Listen”, The Wad’s “Chains”, Curtis A “Land of the Free”, Suburb’s “Ailerons O.K.”, The Pisons “She’s got Sex” and the 3 tracks by The Suicide Commandos. A lot to love.

    Someone mentioned the Roky Erickson tribute. I’d have to agree that it has several songs that work pretty well as far as tribute albums go.

  21. saturnismine

    comps….i really liked SST’s “The Blasting Concept” when it came out: a perfect encapsulation of where SST had come from and where it was going.

    I have a couple of great Immediate Records comps from the ca. ’67, one of which includes Nico’s “I’m Not Saying,” (written by Gordon Lightfoot) which I think must have influenced Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum.”

  22. Mr. Moderator

    The more I think about it the more I think I used to have that W.O.M.A.D. comp on cassette – and it was really good. It had some stuff I already liked, such as XTC (“It’s Nearly Africa”???). If memory serves it also had a Peter Gabriel song I liked more than most Gabriel songs. The song I remember liking most, though, was something by Peter Hamill, the Van Der Graaf Generator guy. I’ve never heard that song since. I don’t even remember what it was, but nothing I’ve heard by him solo or with VDGG has matched that one. If any Townsperson has this comp digitally and wouldn’t mind doing another Townsman a favor, I’d be obliged!

  23. No Alternative
    The Thing That Ate Floyd
    SubPop 200
    The Beat Generation Boxset
    Gothic Rock Vol 1
    K-Tell’s Horizons
    Easy Rider Soundtrack
    Trainspotting Soundtrack
    Ronco Super Disco Hits
    The First DFA remix album
    K-Tell High Energy
    K-Tell Midnight Hustle
    20 Motown Hits

  24. sammymaudlin

    I have both of the Blasting Concept comps, on wax. SST was like west coast punk family.

    The first comp was super cool. The second one pretty much bit except for the Meat Puppets cool cover of “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” And The Minutemen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” cover.

  25. dbuskirk

    Looking through my “Tributes” section (how embarrassing to admit I even have such a thing) most of them are there because of a few good tracks. The ones that sustain themselves are the Merle Haggard tribute, TULARE DUST (the material is so good it brings out the best in artists like John Doe, Lucinda Williams, Marshall Crenshaw etc), the John Denver tribute TAKE ME HOME (w. Low, Bonnie Prince Silly, and The Innocence Mission) and the Skip Spence OAR record, which is widely considered the greatest record of all time ’round these parts but is given added clarity by Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Greg Dulli nad Durocs and others.

  26. dbuskirk

    Hey, that Philly comp YOU’RE SOAKING IN IT has held up very well, a lot of unsung talent on there. Where’ the CD reissue of that?

  27. mikeydread

    The WOMAD album (a double) is one that I remember as a house of many rooms. I think Jah Wobble was in there somewhere. It’s a compilation that made me think about the boundaries of ‘world music’ as it was called then, where they start and where they might stop.
    I guess I was feeling a bit antsty over the compilation thing. Was it a kind of musical one-night stand? Perhaps I need to lighten up and remember that if all else fails there is always the fast forward button.

  28. saturnismine

    i just thought of that ‘bridge’ comp of neil young covers, which probably turned a generation of post-hardcore indie rockers onto neil, and was probably the first step towards neil’s coronation as the “godfather of grunge.” all that aside, the comp had a nice cover of ‘winterlong’ by the pixies and a cover of ‘barstool blues’ by neil young.

  29. One of my favorites comps is Bomp’s Roots of Power Pop. It brings the goods.


  30. The Harder They Come Soundtrack

  31. There’s a label, Gear Fab Records, that has put out a bunch of compilations of old unknown ’60s garage band stuff. I have two of them – Psychedelic State – Georgia In The ‘60s and Psychedelic State – New York In The ‘60s, Vol. 1. I haven’t check in a while but there were discs covering six states, with some states having multiple volumes.

    The two I have are great. I’m not at all one to extol obscurity for obscurity’s sake so that’s not the appeal of these. There’s some really great garage songs here. Sometimes the influences are too obvious but many times not. They take me back to a time where the oddball band like this could have a big hit in the ’60s, growing from a regional hit. Many of the cuts on these discs would not be out of place if thrown into the middle of a top 40 list from 1966.

  32. diskojoe

    I have all three Nuggets box sets, as well as the whole Rhino D.I.Y. series (the Boston & NY ones are my fave raves). I would also include the following:

    1. Rhino’s Soul Shots from the 80s;
    2. Don’t Press Your Luck-a Sundazed compilation of the best of the Trod Nossel Studios of CT from ’66-68
    3. Songs The Bonzos Taught Us-A compilation of the original versions of the songs that the Bonzo Dog Band covered.

    P.S.: I like that “wrong side of the party” motto

  33. Hey dbuskirk,

    Can you recommend some good Numero Group releases? Their website’s pretty compelling, yet I’m never sure where to begin dipping in.

    Is this any good? http://www.numerogroup.com/catalog_detail.php?uid=00265

  34. Comment from: cdm
    The Harder They Come Soundtrack


  35. I had a cassette that I got at Kmart the week I moved to Atlanta called ” Hot ‘Lanta Home Cookin” that was a K-tel, all southern rock comp. need to see if it is in the big cassette burial ground (aka basement)

  36. dbuskirk

    Whole Oats:
    “Can you recommend some good Numero Group releases? “

    I was lukewarm on the Catherine Howe disc, it has beautiful arrangements that straddle early seventies pop and folk sounds but her voice lacks personality and the songs are just okay. I like the Moody Blues style poems she works in.

    I’ve liked GUITAR SOLI, their Fahey-esque guitar comp., TITAN: IT’S ALL POP, collecting the 70’s pop Titan label, and the two in the “Cult Cargo” series, which feature 70’s soul from Belize and the Bahamas. Their collections of rare regional soul from the 60 and 70’s all have been keepers to me but I’m pretty deep into the genre.

  37. 2000 Man

    I love all the Nuggets boxes. I think Rhino also did a fantastic job on their Punk box, No Thanks! That’s awesome stuff. Another garage rock thingy I like is a three cd box called Storm in the Garage. It’s pretty much bands I never heard, but there’s some great stuff on it.

  38. trolleyvox

    The Cherry Red comp Pillows and Prayers has held up remarkably well over the years for me.

  39. mikeydread

    Of course Pillow and Prayers. The ur compilation of post-punk! How could I forget that?

    When it came out in the UK it sold for 99p. Incredible! If you want it now you have to buy a 3-CD set which costs a small fortune. But it had Tracy Thorn, Ben Watt, Monochrome Set, Felt (I think), Thomas Leer and a wonderful spoken word piece by Quentin Crisp called Stop the Music for a Minute. Wonderful and timeless. Or, a wonderful artefact of the times. Maybe I do need that box set.

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