Last week, I surprised myself by waxing rhapsodical on two formative compilations released during my teenage years: No Alternative and DGC Rarities vol. 1. Digging into my memories of those two collections made me recall how compilation albums in general have helped stoke and sate my music fandom over the years.
Back in the late ’90s/early 2000s, when Napster was prevalent but digital music was not yet as pervasive as it is today, compilations served me two purposes: they were the main way I obtained hard-to-find songs, and they were one of my main conduits of exposure to new bands. I would spend hours combing the used compilation racks at CD Spins and Nuggets — a labor of love and a task that I savored, bargain-hunter that I am — often snagging a comp for a buck or two with the song I’d been looking for. Of course, each comp a dozen more songs — a few of which were often gems that sent me down an entirely different path. There were also certain epic compilations that, much like No Alternative, laid the groundwork for bands I would soon fall for while providing complete experiences in and of themselves. Label promos aside, comps are basically mass-marketed mixtapes. The same rules of serendipity apply.
Here are some of my favorites from each category. I’ll start with the cheap snags — the real treasures. (All links are Amazon affiliate links)
Atlantic’s Year in Review 1994: A simple record label promo disc, but it had Lucas’ “Lucas With the Lid Off,” which I’d been wanting for years. Other gems on the disc include All-4-One’s “I Swear,” two versions of Collective Soul’s “Shine” and Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down.” Yeah. Although it does have Frente!’s cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” which was a nice bonus find. Cost: $2
Over the Edge: I bought this at Target for $6 or $7, mainly for the Refreshments’ “Banditos,” but I also got… well, not much. Some cruddy songs by Tonic, Orbit, Dishawalla and 311. But “Banditos” might just be worth it. Cost: $6-7
Leather and Lace: The 80s Greatest Rock Hits: I bought this at the old Planet Records in Kenmore Square (before it burned down), mainly for Pat Benetar’s “We Belong,” but I also got “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Bette Davis Eyes,” “Only the Lonely,” “We Got the Beat” mand a bunch of other rock and pop anthems sung by women. Pretty badass. Cost: $4
Action Figures Sold Separately: I only bought this for R.E.M.’s “Wall of Death,” a Richard Thompson cover, but I also got some Mazzy Star, Radiohead and Dinosaur Jr. Not bad for… Cost: $1
Hits Post Modern Syndrome: The Death of Rock ‘N’ Roll: I remember where I bought this one, too: the In Your Ear in Comm Ave. I bought this for Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money In My Hand” (still an awesome song), but I believe this compilation kicked off my Paul Westerberg obsession, thank to the inclusion of “Love Untold.” Another gem: Superdrag’s “Sucked Out.” Cost: $6
Today is the Tomorrow: More fuel for the Westerberg fire, this time with “Lookin’ Out Forever,” but what made this a must-buy at the time was Ben Lee’s “Cigarettes Will Kill You.” This has a bunch of great songs, including Jimmy Eat World’s “Lucky Denver Mint” and Liz Phair’s “Johnny Feelgood.” This may have been my Sparklehorse introduction, as well, with “Sick of Goodbyes.” Cost: $1
KCRW Rare on Air vol. 4: I came for Joan Osborne’s “St. Teresa,” but I was captivated by Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” more Mazzy Star, Jeff Buckley’s “So Real” and an amazing version of Sarah McLachlan’s “Good Enough.” This may have been my introduction to the world of Neil Finn, owing to his duet with Tim on “Only Talking Sense.” Cost: $8
Calvin Klein Jeans: The Rock Your Pants Off Collection: This one, I actually tracked down on eBay. I had been hunting for Peter Murphy’s “The Scarlet Thing in You” (one of my vaunted songs of 1995) for years, and thanks to Calvin Klein, I was finally able to acquire it. This comp is a real mixed back, with Jewel and Skid Row thrown in alongside Poe and The Charlatans UK. I didn’t care. I was just happy to have my beloved “Scarlet Thing in You.” Cost: ???
Born to Choose: R.E.M. and Natalie Merchant joining forces on “Photograph” is enough to make me plunk down a few bucks, but this awesome comp also had songs by Matthew Sweet, Sugar and Lucinda Williams. Sweet. Cost: $3
And here are some of the comps that I pursued and enjoyed on their own merits:
VH1 Crossroads: Remember that brief, glorious period of time — in between its adult contemporary beginnings and reality TV present — when VH1 was awesome? This album represents the best of that, with incredible live versions of “Run-Around” by Blues Traveler, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something, “I’m On Fire” by Tori Amos, “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” by Pete Droge and Gin Blossoms’ “‘Til I Hear It From You,” just to name a few. The standout, though, is Chris Isaak’s “Somebody’s Crying,” which showed me that behind the softcore porn drek of “Wicked Game,” there was an awesome singer-songwriter.
Women and Songs: I think I got this at the old Tower Records, and it definitely played to my folky sensibilities. K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving” was a hook, but I also heard the Corrs, Emmylou Harris, Kacy Crowley, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Jann Arden for the first time. Some bigger hits like Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” enable this compilation to offer something for everybody.
Newbury Comics: the Early Years vols. 1 & 2: In 2003, Newbury Comics released two amazing compilations — one of 18 EMI-Capitol songs from 1977-1984, the other of 18 Rhino tracks from 1977-1986 — and sold them for $5 apiece. They never went beyond volume 2, but I consider myself lucky to have these amazing albums that include classic cuts by Iggy Pop, Devo, Talk Talk, The Misfits, XTC, the Specials, the Buzzcocks, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Joy Division, Madness, Husker Du and so much more.
Listen to What the Man Said: This 2001 tribute album to Paul McCartney recruited the likes of Owsley, Robyn Hitchcock, the Finn Brothers, the Minus 5, Matthew Sweet and They Might Be Giants to tackled the catalog of the elder statesman of pop. It’s a delightful listen that, nearly ten years later, hasn’t lost its appeal or value.
No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees: So much good stuff on this benefit compilation, including Pearl Jam’s (then-overplayed) cover of “Last Kiss,” Peter Gabriel’s “Black Paintings,” Ben Folds’ “Leather Jacket” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Mary.” Yeah, there’s KORN and Bush and Rage Against the Machine, but since it’s a benefit record, you can’t complain too much.
The Unplugged Collection, vol. 1: Much like VH1 Crossroads, this comp represents the best of the best. So many epic performances are represented here, including Soul Asylum’s “Somebody to Shove,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Elvis Costello’s “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” and Paul McCartney doing “We Can Work it Out.” The crowning point, of course, is the final track, R.E.M. performing “Half a World Away.” Pure magic.
What are your favorite compilations?