Completists, scoff if you will at this category, but consider: What’s your favorite album by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles? Or ABBA? Or, uh, Tom Jones? If you believe, like some, that greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls, that’s fine, but you must accept that the album format is a complex beast. I learned this lesson in the late ’90s, when a parade of dime-a-dozen commercial alternative one-hitters – hey, remember TONIC??? – inspired some of the most ill-advised CD purchases of my otherwise illustrious CD buying career. Many artists – most artists? – can’t quite hack a full-on long-player, no matter how many perfect singles they barf out over a career.
That’s why the gods bequeathed upon us the almighty Best-Of. The Best-Of allows us to rewrite the history of pop music with rose-colored ink. We correct for the trespasses of the pre-Pet Sounds era, when the so-called “album” was essentially a trick played on consumers. You thought the single was good so you bought the album, only to find that all the creative muscle was spent putting together that perfect hit single, and now here you sit with ten or twelve shitty, phoned-in filler tracks, most of which are covers of songs that were done better by someone else. Say what you want about disposable pop in the digital age, but at least these days we actually dispose of our crap after we’re done with it, rather than recycling it decade in, decade out to fluff out Glen Campbell albums.
No, the almighty Best-Of will hear of no such sins. The Best-Of tells us that, no, ABBA was not, as was previously thought, a wasteful exercise in cavity-inducing eurocandy; rather, they were an incendiary troupe of artistes whose chosen idiom of indulgent stadium pop somehow served only to strengthen their aesthetic street cred. (ABBA Gold is the root of all poptimism.) And no, the Eagles were not a thin, airy fart wheezing from the downtrodden corpse of Gram Parsons, but a cross-genre powerhouse who did more for the ’70s than cocaine and earth tones combined. Plainly speaking, the Best-Of collection is a truth that tells a lie.
Rules & Exemptions
At the same time, however, it would be redundant to celebrate bands and artists whose album catalogs speak for themselves. The Too Obvious Rule applies in heavy measure, as does the Beatles Rule. Any band whose albums are as valuable as their hits isn’t worth mentioning. The whole point of the Best-Of is to compensate for weaknesses in the album game, so even though a Best-Of from Dylan or Bowie or either of the Elvises would trounce most of the following releases in terms of pure listening pleasure, it’s unfair to count them alongside artists whose discographies really need those Best-Ofs. Owning Changesbowie is cute if you’re just getting acquainted with your rock fanhood, but a serious person will be better served by full albums like Hunky Dory and Station to Station.
It also bears mentioning that some of my favorite Best-Ofs were not commercial releases at all, but instead were made for me by my dad, whose expertly-curated mixes remain my go-to compilations for artists like Chuck Berry, Roger Miller, NRBQ, and countless others. Sometimes – most of the time? – record companies just can’t get a handle on what people actually want to hear. Sometimes we have to take the Best-Of into our own hands. For all those other times, though, we have these:
The Beach Boys – Made in U.S.A.
Speaking of Pet Sounds: Is there any other band whose career was as, ahem, complicated by the transition to the album era? Prior to B. Wilson’s nervous breakdown, the Beach Boys were a walking Best-Of, a gang whose knack for snappy melodies and soothing harmonies was so unstoppable you can almost see Mike Love’s point re: sticking with the formula. And sure, Pet Sounds basically invented AOR and is (if Pitchfork and your dad and have anything to say about it) one of the most important singular statements in all of 20th century music – but then what? Pet Sounds created an uncomfortable paradox: one of the best albums of all time, recorded by a band who was never very good – before or since – at making albums. Thus a comprehensive Best-Of is necessary. And to be sure, there are plenty. So why this one? The key is timing: Made in U.S.A. was originally released in 1986 – long after the last significant Beach Boys single (“Do It Again,” 1968), but also two years prior to the dreaded “Kokomo.” The post-’68 tracks near the end are mostly negligible – though I confess to enjoying the 1978 cover of “Come Go With Me” (Al Jardine never got enough mic time, IMHO) – but the prior twenty tracks are all essentials. The early singles are a flawless as ever, and charting the change that took place in the band between “Help Me Rhonda” (another Al song!) and “Good Vibrations” can be thrilling. I like to blast this album in the wintertime. Call it wishful thinking.
Squeeze – Singles – 45s & Under
The Best-Of forces us to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about human life. Primarily, that life is short and, diligent little audiophiles though we may be, some of us just aren’t going to get around to Argybargy or East Side Story, not this go-round anyhow. I’m sure Squeeze made some fine albums in their day – which is to say, between 1978 and 1982 – but ever since I got my hands on a copy of the ’82 collection Singles – 45s & Under, I’ve never felt compelled to find out for myself. Maybe it’s partly because I’m scared to ruin the illusion I’ve created. I love the image I get of Squeeze from these twelve tracks: narrative-oriented, musically adventurous, and distinctly, aggressively British. Each song here is its own perfect little short film – the bittersweet kitchen-sinkery of “Up the Junction,” the coming-of-age couplets of “Slap and Tickle,” the very real and devastating melancholy of “Black Coffee in Bed.” My favorite is Difford’s “Cool For Cats,” which is probably the Britishest song ever recorded. Blame it on the Best-Of, but this is simply all the Squeeze I need.
Cream – The Very Best of Cream
It’s the truth and everybody knows it: If you own any of Cream’s studio albums, you need to re-evalute your life choices. Here’s a perfect example of a band whose historical impact is blown way out of proportion precisely because of how on-point their Best-Of game is. Consider: Cream’s entire lifespan was contained within three years, four albums, and about thirty-five songs. Twenty of those songs appear on 1995’s The Very Best of Cream, and indeed they make the trio sound like the perfect logical extreme of all psychedelic blues. Better yet, all but a couple of tracks are absolutely necessary. Few commercial bands would attempt a blues as twisted as “Politician,” or a percussion-based epic like “We’re Going Wrong.” Some day, in the not-too-distant future, The Very Best of Cream will be all that history remembers of this short-lived project, and collectively we’ll decide that they were the greatest band that ever was.
Teenage Fanclub – Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds – A Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub
The best Best-Ofs turn the band you’re listening to into your absolute favorite band for an hour or so. Behold, in this sense, Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds, an epic guide to one of the most tragically overlooked bands of the ’90s. If this compilation doesn’t convince you that the three songwriters in Teenage Fanclub were, for a time, the finest tunesmiths in the English language, call your general practitioner to check you for a pulse. It isn’t chronological, like the previous entires on this list, but instead was arranged to provide the best possible interpretation of the band’s career. Each song is like a new sunny day unfolding before you. Picking out tracks to highlight would be pointless and reductive. The guitars jangle like the chimes of freedom. The harmonies would make the Beatles jealous. Teenage Fanclub never needed acclaim; they exist in their own little world, and this collection is like a self-made roadmap for the new and ignorant traveler. This is your favorite band. You just didn’t know it until now.
Nick Lowe – Basher: The Best of Nick Lowe
Sometimes I disgust even myself with my relentless Elvis Costello fanaticism. I’ve got all of rock history at my fingertips, and yet I couldn’t help but include two of Costello’s favorite collaborators – Glen Tilbrook and Nick Lowe – on this very list. Pathetic, I know, but again we must turn to the evidence. Basher is a 25-song monster, a direct challenge to the popular perception (stateside, anyway) of Nick Lowe as “oh yeah, the dude who did ‘Cruel to be Kind.’” Here we discover Lowe as the ur-songwriter, a guy with classic songcraft in his bones, leading to a many-splendored melange of tuneful tracks that covers pure rock (“Heart of the City”), catchy novelties (“Switchboard Susan”), blue-eyed soul (“Heart”), and who-knows-whatall (“36 Inches High”). History may not remember him as the Jesus of Cool that he claimed to be, but this collection makes a strong argument.