Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I have a vexed relationship with compilations--box sets, mix tapes, et al. We are talking about music here---it would be nearly impossible to "compile" Anna Karenina or L'Avventura--easy to consume in its individual unit, the song.

I usually phrase my vexation in terms of my being "an album guy." I have always been frustrated by soundtracks, uncompiled singles, and greatest hits. I want everything to be Rubber Soul (the US version): thirty minutes long, no filler, catchy, smart.

One early appeal of punk music for me (which was later extended, even more exaggeratedly, into my interest in hardcore) was the promise of NO FILLER. Granted, every song might sound the same, but there was no chance of a "Revolution 9," or even of songs decidedly a cut below. Or so it seemed to me then. [This is how one would advertise the Ramones of course--all their songs sound the same---but in reality they have a thousand sound-alike "misses" whose failings would be hard to pin down.] One could almost advance this formula: the more sound-alike the songs on an album, the more likely that any given song will succeed, but the less likely that any one song will stand above the others. So: the more coherent, easily-apprehensible, and individualized the songs are on an album, the harder it is to not fuck up. This is why Sergeant Pepper's is so acclaimed--not that it is the best album, but that probably no one will ever write such a diffuse, quirky, song-by-song-by-song success again. I mean, go ahead and try.

Anyways, I'm a Rubber Soul man myself. And I hope that explains my dislike of compilations.

No? That's unclear?

Let's describe an album, the kind of album that I like. We'll use Rubber Soul, but I also could mean Velvet Underground or Harvest or Closer or Highway 61 Revisited or Between the Buttons or Ziggy Stardust or Pornography or Transilvanian Hunger . (see how I don't name the artists? It's called being pretentious.)
  • While all the songs may not sound "the same," they are definitely in a style distinguishable from the band's other work in a loose sense. Perhaps a song or two could drift over to another record, but in general the record has a "feel" that is cohesive. So, "I'm Looking Through You" would not belong on Revolver.
  • There's no filler. I happen to prefer the shorter US version on Capitol Records, without "Drive My Car" or "Nowhere Man," two obtrusive singles, and also missing "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone," two great songs. But "It's Only Love" and "I've Just Seen a Face" belong more than any of the above-mentioned songs, excepting "If I Needed Someone," a sorely-missed omission. Nonetheless, even with this shuffling about, none of the players are "filler."
  • I hate to use vague terms like "creativity" and "personality," but in this sense I mean these words *against* terms like "experimentation." Rubber Soul is certainly not pushing any envelopes, but it is exploring, nonetheless. Folk-rock, in its humble way, and within extremely commercial confines, allows a great deal of interesting, inimitable song-writing, without treading old ground or engaging in exercises. It is meant to be listened to by other human beings, and so has a personable, charming quality that is never condescending. Can you say all that about the last record you bought? (And while I do enjoy a lot of stand-off-ish music, I have to say that I find it increasingly irksome. Not that [and only an idiot, a real dolt, would get this from what I'm writing, but here's your warning]-- not that I am advocating a general "pop" aesthetic, but wouldn't all music be better if an imagined listener were kept in mind? And that is far from a "general" listener, but I do mean a listener and not merely a bundle of appreciations. That is, I emphasize the aural here. A "listener" and not a "record buyer."
This leaves a couple of things to say about compilations. 1) I *would* rather listen to the crappy, Johnny Cash duet of "Girl from the North Country" on Nashville Skyline as an album track than, say, "Quinn the Eskimo" as a "Greatest Hit." 2) There is (as always) the problem of genre here. Soul, reggae, rap, "KBD," are all singles genres not given to producing records like the ones I described above. So, Cam'ron is not going to produce a concept record any time soon, but Green Day and My Chemical Romance both put out concept records recently---and that is within pop-punk!! (Although maybe the most famous pop-punk record is a singles compilation, The Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady. Nonetheless, their albums do meet my criteria.) Jazz, metal, rock/pop, Finnish hardcore: these are all album genres (and not at all times). And obviously some kind of compilation is necessary for 60s girl groups: many did not release full-lengths, and even the best groups (The Supremes) put out abysmal full-lengths.

I don't intend to do a sociology of youth culture, and I have discussed one aspect of this argument previously (as "ipodization"). But if many compilations (Greatest Hits, anything you would order from TV or buy at a truck stop) serve as introductions or mixtapes to the unpretentious consumer, and some box sets are merely everything by an artist, there is a certain market for compilations of obscurities, rarities. Take any of the Soul Jazz compilations. None of these is a "good introduction" to the represented genre, except in a sonic sense: that is, you may learn what Roots Reggae sounds like, but the *most* famous artists are excluded. The best example of this is that Big Apple Rapping does not have the Sugar Hill Gang song--whereas any mainstream "New York Rap 1979-82" comp or box set certainly would (just look at the No Thanks! tracklist).

When it comes to representing whole genres, scenes, movements, or moments, the album in the sense I described above is worthless. It leaves too many holes (many great artists never get around to putting out albums). But also worthless, in any sense other than the synecdochic, are the kind of scatter-shot compilations (usually of "rarities" as opposed to "hits") that come out on vinyl and are pitched to, basically, me. Here I can only say, these records (examples 1, 2, 3, 4) make me nervous. I like these records, it's cool when people play them for me, I enjoy purchasing them, but the very specter of the infinite capacity of unseen tastemakers to cull from an inaccessible (to me) archive, spinning out innumerable such "volumes"--- it terrifies me, even as it drains my bank account. And I just want to run to my room and put on My War.


furtanic said...

Don't all those comps that you link to (the calypso, hustle, soul jazz, etc ones) fulfill your requirements for albums despite not being collections of song from different bands?

All the songs are generally same-y (esp. to a neophyte), there's no filler, and they have a listener in mind.

Though I agree they make me feel awkward too given the relative obscurity (for me) of the source music. (But you can find a fair amount of boogaloo and nyc afrocuban stuff on reissues of the albums - fania, etc.)

Ignorant Armies said...

Right, that's why those records are enjoyable to listen to (no filler, similar sound), but UNCANNILY are not the same as "Rubber Soul"--the artistic subjectivity is new for every song, where for a band it is new for every album (or new "period").