Is ‘The Best’ the best?

It’s that time of year when the cash registers start ringing (OK, yeah, I know they generally bleep these days) with the purchases of stuff people don’t actually want but some well-meaning relative thinks they might. Things which sell at a steady rate all year round suddenly start flying out of the shops (or indeed the websites’ warehouses): large piles of unnecessary packaging containing small quantities of toiletries; chocolate truffle selection boxes; scarves (various); ceramic mugs with not very funny slogans on… and “Best Of” CDs. Two friends of mine, who do not know each other, posted Facebook statuses this week which taken together raise some interesting questions. Questions to which I don’t claim to know the definitive answers, if indeed there even are any, but if there’s any bunch of people who can help us figure them out it’s you, my dear LTW readers…

V. wrote: “Christmas top tip from ITV adverts. . . ‘If you only own one Frank Sinatra album make sure it’s the BEST of Frank Sinatra ‘ – does that apply for all other artists too?”

Pink Floyd 'Best Of'

D. wrote: “To anyone thinking about buying the new Pink Floyd “Best Of”, my advice is this: Don’t. Really bizarre sequencing, obvious song choices, and shockingly little from the Syd and Psychedelia era. Seems to be a cheap pre-Christmas cash in to me. You can get the two-disc ‘Echoes’ compilation from 2002 for £5 on Amazon or any record shop and it is far, far, far, far better. Don’t be conned. That is all!”

V’s question is an interesting place to start. The obvious answer is that it depends on what you want. In the quoted context of an ITV advert, “best of” is used to mean “all the well known hits”, which is probably exactly what the people this ad is aimed at want – and to be honest for the most part that probably means the best songs, too. The idea of making “albums” that were more than just a collection of singles plus filler, or an artist having sufficient control / desire to release things that went against the commercial grain, hadn’t really taken off in Sinatra’s day. This would still be the case to this day with pop chart artists where that’s still the basic premise and methodology of “an album” – if you want one Kylie album, for instance, then yeah, the Best Of would probably be the one to go for. There is doubtless a market for a Sinatra connoisseur collection and indeed for each of his individual records, but it’s not the Chrimbo rack at the supermarket.

For music with a little more depth of focus, though; especially that made after the mid-60s when the idea of an album as an entity started to take shape, “best” is meaningless: just look at any band’s fan forum and there’ll be a thread somewhere where fans list their top tens. There’ll be a small number of near-universal favourites (always disputed by one awkward sod) and then a wild variety of other nominations. Look at the “best of” CD of any band you’re a fan of and you won’t consider it their best of at all, as Pink Floyd fan D’s reaction to “A Foot In The Door” (its very title a cynical and blatant pointer to its purpose: “buy this first and you may then wish to buy loads more of our stuff”) demonstrates.

The Stranglers 'The Very Best Of'

I don’t own many ‘Best Of’s’ fewer still if you exclude collections I only own because of some geeky completist thing with the bands in question. One of those would be a good place to start: “The Very Best of The Stranglers”. The reality of this 2006 compilation is basically a collection of most of their single A-sides from their inception to its point of compilation, plus “Hanging Around” (the only non-single on there. A great tune, sure, but why this in particular as opposed to any other great album tracks). And yet early single favourites “5 Minutes” and “Nuclear Device” are missing whilst the generally unloved MOR of “Let Me Down Easy” which barely scraped the top 50 is present. Why not just stick ALL the single A-sides on? Or if space is a consideration, just the ones which made the Top 40? I do appreciate that the general consumer has probably not heard “Just Like Nothing on Earth” (number 81 in 1981) and doesn’t really need to, but the omission of “5 Minutes”, both a fans’ favourite and a chart hit – number 11 in the days when that meant selling a truckload – is mystifying. Thus, even this outwardly quite logically assembled collection is far less so when you look at it properly. It’s certainly not the ‘Best Of’, it’s not even the best possible selective singles compilation. But will it do for someone who just wants “No More Heroes” and “Golden Brown” and, ‘oh, what else did they do, oh yeah, I used to like that one’? Course it will.

Best Of’s chosen by the band or an associate are a different kettle of fish entirely. James’s “The Collection” is described by Wikipedia as “an unusual mix of hit singles, key album tracks, B-sides and some rarer tracks” and to be honest I couldn’t have put it better myself, at least without using the word “demented”. I’m not entirely sure that those fans obsessive enough to require the band’s contributions to the “Randall & Hopkirk Deceased” soundtrack or a 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album actually need another copy of “Sit Down” or “Laid” in their lives, and vice versa. I sincerely doubt that anyone, hardcore fan or casual listener, would consider it the “best of” (and it seems there was actually an earlier “best of” which took the more traditional route of gathering most of the singles, though again the inclusions and omissions were a little random). It is, however, a “foot in the door”: if you like some of these songs you will probably like more of James’s work, and as the band has had several distinct eras you now have a vague idea which album proper to start with should you wish to pursue this interest further.

James 'The Collection'

So having established that Best Of’s aren’t really the best by any yardstick, but that they do (for the most part) fulfill a certain market requirement, let’s return to V’s question. If you only own one ****** album should it be the Best Of?

Most of the time for music fan / geeks the concept of only wanting, or even planning, to own one album by an artist just doesn’t exist. There might be many bands by which we do only own one album, but it was rarely a conscious decision to pick one and only one. More that we got one then either never wanted to or never got round to getting any more. We might still hope for a “foot in the door” when latterly discovering the work of an artist with a lengthy career behind them, and back in the day this might have meant buying a Best Of. These days we’d be more likely to look for a fan-assembled playlist, or simply research online (via forums, reviews etc) which are the supposedly representative or essential tracks and test-run them on a streaming site (or rip a download if so inclined). Commercially available Best Of’s are therefore not really aimed at us. (There are of course exceptions. I’m never going to call myself a Motorhead fan, but the cheapest way to have “Ace Of Spades”, “Motorhead”, “Overkill” and “Bomber” around the house was a bargain priced collection).
So how about this for a first stab at an answer: if you only own one album by an artist it shouldn’t necessarily be the Best Of, but if you only ever want to own one album by an artist, then it probably should.

What do you think?

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Cath Aubergine grew up in Cheshire near a chemical factory which sometimes turned the river orange; this may or may not have had lasting effects. It was however usefully close to Manchester where she published her first fanzine “Bobstonkin\' Aubergines” with a school friend in 1989. After spending most of the 90s trying to grow up, she admitted defeat in 2001 and started going to too many gigs instead. Cath started writing about music again for manchestermusic.co.uk in 2003, and now co-manages the site as well helping out with local bands, campaigning against pay-to-play promoters and holding down a proper job to fund her excessive music habits. Cath is obsessed with ten inch vinyl and aspires to have one day stayed at every Travelodge in Britain apart from the shit ones on motorway junctions.

2 COMMENTS

  1. In fact Sinatra did make fully cohesive albums in the 50s – Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, Songs For Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, Where Were You?, In The Wee Small Hours, No One Cares, A Swingin’ Affair etc – much of it down to Voyle Gilmore’s production, the superb arrangements by the likes of Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins
    and Frank’s brilliantly perceptive way with a melody and a lyric.You can pick these up on CD at crazy prices, 50 plus years on they still stand as truly great albums and the full work of art as opposed to an extract/best of!

  2. I believe Substance by New Order may be an exception. Since they did not include their hit singles on their albums, it was the most effective means of having their most enduring hits, Temptation, Blue Monday, True Faith and others. That, and it is far more satisfying to listen to Substance than anything on Movement or Power, Corruption and Lies.

    There have been other instances, such as Queen’s Greatest Hits II, where I believe the compilation far outshines the content of The Works, A Kind of Magic, The Miracle and Innuendo. The albums are relatively weak in comparison to the singles, but that’s just indicative of where the band had gone. After their grandiose concept albums, they had tapped into the singles market.

    Often, “best ofs” are needless, especially in the cases of groups such as the Libertines or Joy Division where there are two albums in their discography. However, for some, it may be advisable to buy a best of, like Depeche Mode’s 86>98 or Pet Shop Boys’ Pop Art. There are times where the large discography is simply too alienating for the noob fan, they just don’t know where to start.

    While they may make more authoritative music listeners uneasy, the whole exercise is necessary for the induction of new fans.

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