Are (Good) Compilation Albums Becoming A Lost Art?
These days, practically anybody with a decent online and hi-fi setup can make their ‘perfect’ compilation. As sites like wikiHow tell us, all it takes is nine steps:
Listen to a wide range of songs
Consider the audience
Create a message with the mix (optional)
Gather a rough draft
Edit the playlist (optional)
Arrange the tracks
Title your mix (optional)
Share your compilation
One, two, three, nine, presto! Simple, isn’t it? Well, that currently seems to be the approach, with actually creating a message, the one that goes beyond a personal, ‘I care about you’, giving an appropriate title, editing the list and based on those, imaginatively arrange the tracks becoming ‘the optional’ steps.
Sure, that might be an approach that suits a personal need, the one where the sharing remains on one to one (maybe two or three) basis, or if you really want to impress the Mixcloud crowd, but what about the truly commercial stuff, one that is released by actively operating record companies?
Overrun with Sloppiness
The situation seems quite dire at the moment. Hastily assembled ‘greatest hits’ albums, that are usually not that great, even more hastily assembled tribute albums, without a carefully thought out concept on who should perform and what, with masters at that job like Hal Willner now sticking to live tribute shows, or the ones bearing an overexaggerated title like ‘The Greatest….Album Ever,’ for which the key concept is that you have an adequate license for all the songs.
But, the first question that comes to mind is – are specialist compilations with a thought-out concept, careful message, and painstaking compiling/editing still necessary? My personal answer is a resounding yes.
The situation seems quite dire at the moment. Hastily assembled ‘greatest hits’ albums, that are usually not that great…
Listening, thinking, discussing, archiving modern music has become a part of science anyway. Take a look at academia.edu, type in rock or hip-hop music and get an almost unlimited list of academic papers on the subject. But to be able to comprehend and discuss, you have to listen first, and some material that goes beyond the daily top hits has to be researched, discovered, and meaningfully presented.
Still, another question comes up – why would a ‘regular’ record company bother to do so, or engage somebody to do it for them if it doesn’t have an audience and doesn’t sell?
“Well-thought-out” Compilations Still Make a Difference
Well, it seems that it actually does. Maybe such compilations will never reach Taylor Swift numbers, but they still make enough revenue for reissue labels likeAce Records (UK) to keep churning out excellent compilation releases and remain solidly in business for 40 plus years or so. Their Dave Godin Deep Soul compilations or their Songwriter Series are perfect examples that well-thought-out, meticulous compilations do still have a solid audience.
Somehow, it seems that this approach is currently most developed on the British Isles, with the two most representative examples having to do with members of electro-pop/ambient bands for whom searching crates of music is a part of a daily job anyway.
The first such duo is Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of electro-pop wizards St. Etienne. They started out curating compilations (again, Ace Records) first under the band’s moniker, and then under their own names, and it is the latter Ace ones that are quite impressive. These start out with an almost strictly musical theme, like Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs Present English Weather,dealing with the middle nether ground between psychedelic and progressive rock of the late ’60s, to politically themed compilations like Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs Present Paris In The Springwhich tries (and achieves) to collect the sounds that have a connection with the French student revolution of 1968.
…it seems that this approach is currently most developed on the British Isles, with the two most representative examples having to do with members of electro-pop/ambient bands
On the other hand, there are Gary Cobain and Brian Dougans, who mostly operate as The Future Sound of London, but have done a series of albums under the name of The Amorphous Androgynous. As the latter they have done eight multi-album compilations that explore any music that might have a connection with the psychedelic genre – from Bo Diddley and Richard Harris to Miles Davis. And it also seems that these are doing very well, thank you.
Work like the one these two are doing is hard and painstaking, but it is worth seeking out and going through in detail, as it is at least one good reason why commercial compilations should still exist.