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October 6, 2011 • Music Diary, Reviews

Music Diary PSA: Beware the (Not So) Greatest Hits!

As we approach the holiday season, I have already started getting a deluge of emails about upcoming music releases for the Fall season – including Holiday albums and Greatest Hits collections. It brought my mind back to something I wrote for a long-defunct site back in 2005 at about the same time of year – and sadly it is more true than ever! At the time, there was a new release I had gotten as a gift right before reading the USA Today article mentioned below. Here we go:

Six years ago USA Today ran an article called “‘Best Of’ albums not so great these days”, which talked about how the scope of what a greatest hits collection means has changed. As the article mentions, it used to be a milestone, and not only did it provide a retrospective of work, but often allowed new listeners to experience the artist at their very best. I think of many of the great albums of the 70’s that I grew up with – the Eagles Greatest hits was mentioned in the article, but also Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks, the Beatles 62-66 and 67-70, even the Who’s Kids Are Alright soundtrack – which did more than just bridge the years, they allowed a whole new generation to experience great music. Too many of the greatest hits now seem to be compensating for the fact that many current CD’s only have one or two good songs. Put out a CD a year for a few years, and you are ready to have a ‘greatest hits’ CD … which is really just a collection of the non-crap from your CD’s. Sort of like John Lennon’s ‘Shaved Fish’.

So why does this matter? Well, after seeing ‘The Kids Are Alright’ when it came out in 1979, I was hooked – I was 13, had taken up the bass pretty seriously for a while, and was ready to rock. For several years, even as I evolved from rock through fusion to jazz and whatever the avant-garde stuff I listen to now is called, I always had a soft spot for the Who. They are one of the few rock groups represented amongst my 300+ CD collection. But I haven’t bought anything of theirs in nearly 20 years. However, family and friends seem to forget that you grow up and change, so I have gotten various Who related items as gifts through the years. What I recently (Note: 2005) got was “Moonlighting: The Anthology – Roger Daltrey”, a two-CD compilation of the singer’s solo work. (Note: now available only as an import … so you’re safe.)

Given that I brought up the USAToday article, can you see where this is going?

Roger Daltrey is one of the truly great rock front-men, encompassing a vocal power and physical presence that have become a fundamental part of the rock music landscape. Singers from Robert Plant to David Lee Roth and beyond have emulated that style over the years. One thing Daltrey wasn’t – was a songwriter. So when he ventured out into solo territory, he used other people’s songs, with mixed results.

There is some good stuff in this collection – but not many surprises. Some of the stuff I already had – I had ‘McVicar’ and ‘Under a Raging Moon’ on album and had already digitized ‘Free Me’, ‘Bitter and Twisted’, ‘My Time is Gonna Come’, and ‘Without Your Love’ from McVicar, and ‘After the Fire’, and the title song from ‘Under a Raging Moon’. I had also gotten ‘Say it Ain’t So, Joe’ and ‘Giving It All Away’ from iTunes courtesy of my enthusiastic Diet Pepsi drinking, and knew of his version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ from the Lost Boys, although I never had a copy.

So what does that leave? Not very much – most of his 70’s stuff is throw-away, tending to be slow and melancholy songs I found boring and uninspired. I found McVicar to be his best album, even if the movie never even made it to the US. But everything of quality was well played when the album was new – which was also true for ‘Under a Raging Moon’. I had checked out but ultimately not gotten anything newer, and the selections featured here merely confirm this – mediocrity abounds. There are a number of live songs here, some of which are decent enough, but none that are worth buying – and none that I even bothered ripping to my iPod. There was a previously unreleased song that left little impression on me. The one truly new addition to my iPod was ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’, which was even more powerful than I remembered.

So, I had 8 of the 37 songs already, and I digitized and replaced those that had come from vinyl. Add to that the one new song, and it is still less than 25% of the collection that I found even worth recording from CD.

… and I thought that it was the low quality percentage that resulted in collections in the first place?

OK, now back to the present day – and you just KNOW there was a specific trigger that memory for me! While reviewing the 10-CD Blue Note box, I got a notice about another 100-song collection of Blue Note Music … but this one was on 2 CD’s. How, you might ask? They chopped the songs to about a minute and a half! Called the Blue Note RVG Collection, this 2-CD, 100-song abomination has lousy sound, a decidedly

So is there good stuff for the holidays? Sure! Depends on where you look … and what you like. I am not going to START trying to cover everything available, but here are a couple of examples that were released in the last couple of weeks.

First, there is the ‘career coverage’ box type – this aims to provide a retrospective look at the career of an artist or group. We bought my father-in-law a Hank Williams box that covered everything back in the 90’s that falls into this category. And last week, UMG released Sting: 25 Years, a 3-CD/1-DVD set that ranges from the 2005 solo debut ‘The Dream of the Blue Turtles’ right up through last year’s ‘Live In Berlin’.

The three CDs cover the territory well, pulling liberally from his best work (in my opinion Ten Summoners Tales from 1993 marked his last great album). And while it is always possible to quibble over track choices (such as leaving out the studio version of Russians), in general it is a solid collection. The DVD with a 2005 concert recording is a high quality set with great audio and video production values.

Of course, the biggest issue is the price – all of that great packaging and notes and so on add up to $112 at! Here is the trailer for the collection:

On the other end, you have the ‘detailed event chronicle’ box. I reviewed Jimi Hendrix at Winterland recently, which is a great example of a boxed set focusing on a singular piece of time.

Two weeks ago Sony Music released an intriguing bit of history they called “Miles Davis LIVE in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 [CD+DVD]”. This contains three full-length shows from the tour on CD, plus another show on DVD. This music was legendary on the bootleg circuit for ages as it captures the infamous ‘second great quintet’ at a pivotal moment, working new and classic music together, treading old ground with reverence while breaking new ground fearlessly. I haven’t watched the DVD yet but the audio quality of the concerts on CD is stellar.

Here is the trailer for the collection:

And I’m sure there are countless other collections being released – just like every other year!

Which really brings me to another important point – with these two sets the purpose (other than making the publishers money) is clear: career coverage, or deep dive on a singular event or time. Each has a different audience, and it is important to know your audience when buying these as a gift. Some might appreciate broad coverage, others a more deep look at an event, and still others the single-CD version available of stuff like Hendrix and Miles.

What is YOUR worst CD Box Set nightmare?

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