The Thinking Man's Take On: Compilations

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A couple weeks ago, I unveiled the fact that Americans have purchased 4.5 million Snuggies (proper name: Slankets).And although I mocked the backwards bathrobes, inside I get it – they’re warm, cheap, fuzzy, and bizarrely alluring.This week, I was hit with an even more shocking fact.Every single U.S. edition of the horrible “Now That’s What I Call Music!” compilation franchise has sold over a million copies.And in the United States there have been 29 discs released.In the UK, there have been 72.

Hopefully I don’t need to tell you this, but Now That’s What I Call Music is everything that is wrong with music.It is not warm.It is not cheap.It is not fuzzy, and it is certainly not bizarrely alluring.

But do not despair, friend, because all is not lost. The more recent NOW compilations have struggled, and sales have been in steady decline.In fact, today’s modern age poses a great threat to compilations in general.In a world where almost every track produced is available as a standalone piece - via Amazon, iTunes, or elsewhere on the internet – compilations no longer need to serve as a way for people with generic taste to get an assortment of music.Rather than buying The Best Hits of 1974-1977 for your weird uncle, you can make him a mix with whatever iTunes Genius tells you he’ll like and it’ll be personalized!

Are the days of worthwhile compilations gone forever?  No.

Today marks the release of Dark Was the Night, without a doubt the most buzzed about compilation of 2009.Dark Was the Night is a collection of new tracks from the top artists in the indie rock game, produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, and released today on 4AD.It’s stunning.Awesome.Powerful.Worth buying, without a doubt.

In a week and a half, another compilation, Heroes, will be released by Astralwerks, with the tag-line “The Ultimate Covers Album”.From what I’ve heard so far, it will be stunning.Awesome.Powerful.Worth buying, without a doubt.

(A third compilation worth hearing was released on January 30th – Sweetheart, a love song covers comp produced on Starbucks’ Hear Music label.It’s really really good.Not quite stunning, awesome, powerful, but pretty solid.)

So what makes these compilations worth spending money on, in a world where dollars are tight and internets are plentiful?Let’s break down what they do right into five categories, patted, rolled, and marked with a C:

1. Cause

Dark Was the Night and Heroes both have huge points in their favor off the bat.Both are donating proceeds to charity – essentially rewarding philanthropy and support for good causes with songs of appreciation from the artists.Or bribery to do good deeds if you’d rather be a pessimist. All of Dark Was the Night's proceeds benefit the Red Hot Organization, a group dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture.A portion (unclear how much) of Heroes’ sales goes to War Child Canada, which works with children in war stricken areas.If you don’t think those two causes are worth donating to, you don’t deserve any of these tracks anyway.

The Sweetheart compilation benefits Starbucks’ Hear Music label, a somewhat less lofty organization.Although, depending on how much you value your Double Tall One-Pump Non-Fat No Whip Mocha To Go, possibly a cause worth donating to.

For those of you who are curious, all proceeds from Now That’s What I Call Music go directly to Satan.

2. Content

Points to all three great compilations here, as content is clearly king.My least favorite compilations are the promo-packs that pretend to have a different goal.You’ve probably seen them bouncing around.The first track is by someone you’ve heard of, track 12 or 13 is usually either Death Cab or Sufjan, and the rest of the cuts on the compilation are punk garage bands from New Jersey or high school bands waiting to make it big.Don’t fall for them.

Dark Was the Night takes the cake here, putting together a star-studded 31 tracks from artists as famous and diverse as David Byrne (Talking Heads), Kyp Malone (TV On The Radio), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), and Feist (Colbert Christmas Special).Oh, and also Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard and Sufjan are on this too.Seriously, though, this playlist reads like the list of artists I’d most like to hang out with/listen to/be friends or maybe more than friends with.

Heroes has some even bigger names, although fewer artists in total.Beck, Hot Chip, Lily Allen, and Estelle, among other huge acts, lend their talents here.And Sweethearts isn’t far behind, with Katy Perry, She & Him, and Department of Eagles rocking the microphone.And Death Cab, of course.

Good work getting good artists.Even the best cause doesn’t equal a great compilation without a good follow-through.

3. Change of Pace

Along the same lines as content, these compilations do a great job of creating a change of pace from the norm.They present artists outside of their usual context, allowing for greater expression and experimentation, with the end result of a more interesting disc.

Again, Dark Was the Night leads the way in this category, with amazing pairings of hot artists.The opening track features the Dirty Projectors collaborating with David Byrne.The second track has The Books and Jose Gonzalez covering Nick Drake.The third has Ben Gibbard and Feist sharing the mic.Three pairings that listeners wouldn’t normally hear completely blow up the first three cuts on this compilation.

Sweethearts takes a different approach, subtracting rather than adding.Here we get to hear AC Newman (The New Pornographers’ frontman) on his own, followed by Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses recording a solo track.These fish out of water swim well, and provide something out-of-the-ordinary for record enthusiasts.

4.  Creativity and Covers

I think the most striking thing about these compilations that really sets them apart is their creativity and originality.  As far as I know, all 60 tracks on these three comps are brand new cuts.And all of them are either covers or new tunes, not rehashing of earlier works by the same artist.

Everybody loves to hear covers, and Heroes and Sweetheart both use that as a mission statement to put together some of the coolest covers since Radio One did that 40 years/40 covers project.Heroes has Lily Allen’s brilliant The Clash cover, Duffy covering Paul McCartney, and TV On The Radio’s beautiful cover of Bowie’s titular track “Heroes”.  Sweetheart kicks off with AC Newman taking on “Take On Me”, lets Katy Perry loose on Sam Sparro, and showcases Jem putting her style on Coldplay’s “Yellow”.

Dark Was the Night features Sufjan cutting loose on a 10 minute track, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings funking things up on a cover of Shuggie Jones’ “Inspiration Information”, and Stuart Murdoch slapping new lyrics on the tune of the traditional Celtic “Wild Mountain Thyme”.

This, in my mind, is what differentiates Dark Was the Night, Heroes, and Sweetheart from other collections.These albums aren’t culling 15 albums down to a single collection of hits, they’re starting from the ground up with a concept, and building an actual record.And it really shows in the production.

5. Cohesiveness (Cohesivity? Cohesivitude?)

Because of the construction-not-destruction mindset, these compilations really hang together as full albums.They are listenable from front to back, without leaving you feeling like you’ve just been chewed up and spit out by a spin cycle of pop hits.These tracks are made for music’s sake, not to steal the show.And that, in the end, is what makes them worth the effort.

Please go out and support these causes and these artists.Think of it as getting free music for being a good person.Think of it as building up good karma for the future (or making up for bad karma in the past).Think of it as increasing the chances we’ll see more star-studded compilations that are worth a few dollars in the future.Or don’t think, and just do it.You won’t regret having these discs to spin to your heart’s delight.

Elbow - Running To Stand Still (U2 Cover)

Death Cab For Cutie - Love Song (The Cure Cover)

My Brightest Diamond - Feeling Good (Nina Simone Cover)

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his more succinct daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.  His favorite compilation of all-time is Pure Moods Volume II. Photo by KrieBel