In praise of compilations

The `various artists' album is the most pointless species in the pop world, a cringing party animal with no particular place to go. Stuff and nonsense, says
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The Independent Culture
Ever since the long-playing disc was introduced in the Fifties, the record industry has been trying to convince us to buy entire albums by the same artist, tricking us into believing we'll get all the satisfaction of the single we've heard on the radio, multiplied by a factor of 10. I've often fallen for that line, and usually regretted it. For every artist who's managed to stay interesting throughout an album, there are 99 who didn't.

The solution is to get the singles on "various artists" compilations, most of which are, in effect, drive-yourself radio shows: hits from a specific genre (jungle, techno, reggae) or from a particular period (the Sixties, last year, or the past few months) minus the deejay patter. Perfect for parties.

For years, many compilation records were shoddy - randomly thrown together by marketing department juniors and handed over for graphic designers to exercise their most blatant sexist fantasies. But as the market for compilations has swelled during the last few years, the quality has dramatically improved. A few specialist companies, notably Ace Records in Britain and Rhino in the United States, take care in finding original studio master tapes, devote time to compiling and annotating the collections, and package them with taste. Even some of the mass-market compilations, like Virgin's Now and Best... Ever series have high production values.

While the "Hits" type compilations are convenient, there's a different kind of compilation that can play a more creative role, introducing artists and even whole genres previously heard about but never actually heard. Back in the early Sixties, Rock and Roll Forever, a compilation on Atlantic, literally changed my life. I already knew "Shake Rattle and Roll" by Bill Haley, "I Got a Woman" and "Money Honey" by Elvis Presley, but had no idea that they were copies of records by Joe Turner, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. Amazed at their exuberance and originality, I felt outraged to have been deprived of them, and wondered what else I had been missing.

I took a chance on The Blues Vol 1 on Chess, and discovered Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Authentic R&B on Stateside introduced Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester and Lightnin' Slim, inspiring contemporary cover versions by fledging British R&B groups, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. I confess to having been derisive of these cover bands at the time: having been hoodwinked in ignorance, I became prejudiced by knowledge.

And while those compilations enabled me to catch up with an unknown past, others kept me up-to-date with the present. Back with Atlantic, Solid Gold Soul and the budget-priced This Is Soul introduced Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and Don Covay alongside Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Reggae tended to be almost exclusively available on compilations, often at a budget price: at 15 / 6 each, Tighten Up Volumes 2 & 3 enticed with a couple of radio hits and rewarded with tracks known only to dancers at all-night blues parties ("Barb Wire" by Nora Dean, "Freedom Street" by Ken Boothe). Two years later, the soundtrack for The Harder They Come was a faultless selection which lifted reggae out of the novelty music category with Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Sitting in Limbo", which more than held their own against the best soul records of the day.

With the notable exception of Bob Marley and the Wailers, reggae has continued to be sold mostly on various artist compilations, and for several years, the Greensleeves label has kept the non-specialist reggae buyer in touch through its mid-price Sampler series.

In a generally over-crowded market, there are still a few under-populated sections, to which I've just added two 2-CD sets for Polygram's mid-price Debutante label: And The World's All Yours and And This Time It's For Real. The first is an introduction to some of the best current music from around the world, which is sometimes but not always "world music": UFO in Japan feature Ralph Sebbag from Morocco, rapping in French; Archie Roach in Australia uses a guitar riff borrowed from a Nashville rock 'n' roll record; Mari Boine from Norway sings with a guitarist who may have been listening to Ry Cooder. A nucleus of nine "Mediterranean" artists show influences bouncing back and forth between Europe and North Africa.

The singing on many of the tracks on this worldwide collection is reminiscent of the heyday of American soul. The brief for the second collection for Debutante was to recapture the spirit of that golden era when Berry Gordy's Motown made Detroit feel like the centre of the world's pop industry, and lyrics of R&B songs reflected life in the cities without attempting to make it worse.

Ideally, a compilation simultaneously acts as a kind of "primer" to a newcomer, sprinkling a few familiar names among the unknowns, while at the same time tempting the knowledgeable collector with a few hard-to- find gems; and with minimum duplication of tracks already in their collections. It's a tricky art, but one of pop's most satisfying experiences is getting to know a good compilation so well that the last bars of one track evoke anticipation of how the next one starts.