This week I’ve been thinking about ‘Best of’s’ and how important a role they’ve played in my musical education.
From the very first CD’s I ever owned, to some cracking second hand vinyl I’ve recently picked up, the best of compilation has been a solid staple in my record collection for the best part of 20 years. Yet until now I’ve barely even considered their existence.
Rarely discussed or lauded amongst critics and fans alike, the Best of compilation is something of an elephant in the musical room. I mean, other than Alan Partridge, who has ever admitted to favouring a hits package over a studio album? It’s just laughable right?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation whereby someone has said, “ah, man you should really check out the Best of so and so, it’s fucking amazing!” and how utterly ridiculous and pretentious is that? Because there are shit loads of Best of’s that are amazing, and we really should check them out.
I’m gonna break the taboo and share a few of my favourites and talk about the compilations that have had the biggest effect on me and my musical journey.
An obvious place to start would be the first Best of I ever heard, and I reckon that would have been a Buddy Holly tape my Mum used to play in the car.
Straight away I’ve an example of what makes some Best of’s so essential, and that’s when it comes to an artist who doesn’t have a particularly great back catalogue of albums but does have a fuckload of amazing singles that you really need to have in your life. That Buddy Holly tape really was a joy, containing about 14 or so 2-3 minute long classics, more than enough to fulfill the short journeys between your house, your school and your local Sainsburys. It really was the perfect introduction to Buddy Holly and he’s been a man I’ve loved ever since. Rave On pop pickers, and nice one Mum!
I’ve loads of compilations that I’d put into this category, usually made up of artists making music pre 1970, whereby it was the single that was king, not the LP. I’m talking about albums such as the Best of Sam Cooke, Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits, or The Legendary Roy Orbison. All essential requirements for any respectful record collection, and some rather convenient and easy go to long players for all those hit singles that it’d be a ball ache to acquire individually.
I do love a good singles compilation, there’s no shame in it. Of course there are plenty of artists that have album tracks regarded as their best work, but singles as a rule are near always the most accessible and popular songs in an artist’s back catalogue. Doesn’t that by definition make them the best songs? It’s why you find that so many Best of’s are basically just a collection of an artists singles rather than their album tracks.
A great singles compilation that I have a lot of affection for is The Cure’s Staring at the Sea – The Singles 1979-1985. Not only is it a collection of songs from a band on a remarkable run of form, releasing gem after gem after gem, but it’s also a gateway for the uninitiated to delve into a heady back catalogue without knowing where to start.
For me, all I really knew of The Cure before listening to Staring at the Sea was Boys Don’t Cry, The Lovecats and Close to Me. And despite liking these songs I wasn’t in much of a rush to go out and buy a Cure album proper. This CD was just what I needed, it broke me in gently but soon revealed The Cure’s genius to me. These aren’t your average Top 40 hits, there’s real depth to be found across these singles. And say you like A Forest and Play for Today? Great, you can then go and listen to Seventeen Seconds. If In Between Days and Close to Me is your thing, try Head on the Door.
Compilations like this are a great help to those seeking music that came before their record buying time. For me, they’re an obvious starting point for a first time buyer to discover a particular artist who you’re yet to familiarise yourself with. This is another positive of Best of albums then, with the Best of being used as a ‘reference point’.
As a teen, the only Prince I knew was his meaty Hits & the B-sides 3 disc set, but it was a great starting point for me to get into an artist with so many acclaimed albums under his belt. Ditto Neil Young’s Decade. This really was a leap into the unknown, I didn’t know anything of Neil Young other than his name and that some of my favourite bands liked him. At least with Prince I knew a ton of hits from the radio.
Decade was something else, but what a record it is. Despite being something of a great album in its own right, Decade enabled me to discover an artist with a dozen acclaimed albums to his name in one handy, lengthy, but digestible collection.
Same goes for The Fall’s 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t be Wrong. Obviously I’m not gonna say that The Fall have a dozen acclaimed albums to their name, and to call it a hits package would be laughable, but this Best of really is a great place to start for somebody who’s never listened To The Fall before. I’m sure I’m not alone in being fairly intimidated by the band’s sheer volume of available material? A collection like this is a welcome friend. And probably better than most of The Fall’s albums too (sorry Mark E Smith fans.)
I don’t feel that I can continue this post without mentioning the Daddy best of of them all, and I’m not talking about Queen’s Greatest Hits here which is supposedly in 4/5 households or some such statistic, but the holiest of holy compilation albums that ever was and ever will be; The Beatles 1962-66 and The Beatles 1967-1970.
You may know them as the Red and Blue albums. That’s right, The Best of The Beatles which we take such delight in mocking Alan Partridge about.
Supposedly compiled by maligned Beatle manager Allen Klein in response to sales of unauthorised Beatles compilations threatening his bank balance, The Red and Blue albums are an astonishing collection of Beatles originals, whittling down well over a hundred beloved Beatle tracks from 13 studio albums to a taut 8 sides of vinyl, containing arguably the best, most vital music ever recorded.
A sound decision after all then and a tremendous achievement in itself. It must have been an unenviable task putting these albums together, but somehow Klein managed to pull it off. Granted he only included two songs off Revolver (one of which was Yellow Submarine!) which in hindsight is obviously something of a faux pas, but I’m just nitpicking here really, he was never going to please everyone. I believe that The Red and Blue albums are like holy texts, they’re music to live your life by. Bigger than Jesus? Certainly are for me.
Now, even all this considered I’m not going to argue that Best of’s don’t come without faults. For starters they’re obviously a cash in for record companies. And the sheer volume of Best of’s available devalues their worth, especially if there’s a ton to choose from for the same particular artist.
Take David Bowie for example. How many Bowie Best of’s and compilations are available? I can think of at least six off of the top of my head. It’s just unnecessary. The best Bowie compilation I can think of is ChangesOneBowie and it only has 11 songs on it. Short and to the point, it’s just a fantastic go to LP when you need a quick Bowie fix in your life. Perfect for those moments when you probably don’t wanna listen to the second side of Low whilst cooking your dinner.
Death understandably allows for record companies to further saturate an overcrowded market. You can’t deny that there is always a surge in demand for an artists work in the event of their death, a demand that record companies delight in taking advantage of regardless of whether there is already a suitable product available. But rush release a new Best Of they must, and often with horrifically uninspired artwork to boot. Reissue, repackage, repackage as The Smiths once sang.
Are there any deceased artists who’s legacy hasn’t been tarnished by over zealous record companies? One artist that I can think of that defies the norm in this area is Bob Marley, who’s Legend, the Best of Bob Marley & The Wailer’s really is the only Bob Marley Best of you ever cross paths with. I believe that have been further Bob Marley retrospectives since its release, but surely all you really need is on Legend? I’d imagine you’d have to be a real hardcore fan to want to investigate any further. I’ve dabbled, but I found nothing that stands up to the brilliance of Legend. It really is the Best of Bob Marley.
I think it’s best to start to wrap things up now, I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I’ve still a final few collections that I’d like to pay my respects too, records like The History of Otis Redding and Bo Diddley’s Golden Decade. Artists, just like Buddy Holly, whereby you can say hand on heart that your favourite album of theirs is their Best of. If I was asked for my favourite Elvis Presley album I’d have to say the Best of Elvis Presley. Well, The Essential Collection I think it’s called.
I can’t finish without doffing my cap to the Best of’s two British greats. The Kinks Ultimate Collection does a fantastic job of compiling all their essential singles along with some extra tasty additions on Disc Two. Regardless of how much I love albums like The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and Something Else…, it’s the singles that really excite me and I find that The Kinks Ultimate Collection and the older, more concise Golden Hour are The Kinks albums I listen to the most.
Which leaves me finally at Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake. A compilation which the snob in me says I shouldn’t prefer to any of his three classic albums, and yet I do. It’s just a well sequenced set of his best songs, a truly beautiful collection.
I’d love to know what you think. What Best of’s, if any, you used to enjoy or still give the time of day too. Are there any that you’d recommend? Because here’s a place where we can have that conversation; whereby someone can say “ah, man you should really check out the best of so and so, it’s fucking amazing!” Because loads of Best of’s are amazing. And we really should check them out.
Thanks for reading x