Ah, Friday. At the end of a long week involving signing up for every social media site known to man in the interest of shamelessly whoring myself out to the ambivalent, faceless masses of the interwebs I think I deserve a bit of a break. But since this weekend is extra long thanks to the inclusion of the eye-wideningly frivolous “Family Day” government-enforced day off (at least here in the True North Strong and Pampered), I figured I’d better put something up to tide you over, my dear readers, until I return on Tuesday. Because honestly, how can you be expected to go three whole days without an update from your favourite Uncle Alex?
Anyway, I digress. What I want to talk to you about today is the long-ignored phenomenon of the compilation album. When I was but a wee lad still getting my who’s who of musical importance from MuchMusic and ignoring my dad as he vainly tried to explain to me that Green Day was not in fact the last word in rock and roll, I used to make mix tapes for myself. Yes, mix tapes – recorded from my mediocre CD collection onto an honest-to-God cassette and then played ad nauseum on my bargain basement Knockoffman until the batteries wore out or my father threatened to beat me to death with a stack of Hendrix vinyls if he had to overhear “Longview” blaring from my headphones one more time. Keep in mind this was long before the internet and the free, unlimited availability of every kind of music known to man (and the associated lawsuits pertaining to the access of said music). This was the same era in which we had to actually go to a place called a “library” and look in these big papery things called “books” if we wanted to know something; you know, right before we went home to till the fields and repair the covered wagon.
In retrospect it was probably the earliest form of music piracy I was privy to – my friends and I didn’t individually have enough money to pony up for the latest shit shingle being implanted into our cultural consciousnesses by the local “alternative” radio station or the Much Top Ten Countdown, so we’d each go out and buy one Album Of The Month and then make cassette copies to be distributed throughout the group. We quickly realized that, often, we were only interested in the singles (because the rest of the album sounded like the same single run through a Generic Rock scrambler), hence our discovery of mix tapes on which we could listen to all the hits all the time, albeit in the same order over and over. It was considered a romantic gesture of the highest order to tune your radio to the local Top 40 station and rip every cheesy Boyz 2 Men love song you possibly could onto a cassette and present it to your schoolboy love interest with a flushed face, a few muttered words and a stark, full-on run in the other direction. I miss those days.
Eventually somebody in the industry caught onto this trend and realized young people were just as interested in variety albums as adults were – of course, not too many thirteen year-olds in my area were particularly inclined to sit down and listen to The Best Of Kenny G / Michael Bolton / John Tesh / Celine Dion / the list goes on, so the same bright bulb started the trend of cranking out youth-oriented compilations, and was henceforth hailed as a visionary I’m sure. It’s comforting to know the record industry was just as slow to catch onto trends back then as they are now.
So in that glorious brief period between mangled songs nicked from radio broadcasts and the infinite fertile field of stolen internet music was the Golden Age of Compilations, and since I’m feeling somewhat nostalgic today, I’ve decided to run down my favourite additions to that short-lived HMV genre section. In no particular order:
Big Shiny Tunes Volume 1 (1996)
It wasn’t actually called “Volume 1”, probably because MuchMusic had no way of knowing whether their demographic would be willing to shell out $18.99 of their parents’ hard-earned dollars to listen to songs that probably wouldn’t be popular in a year’s time. But they took a chance, and the first incarnation of this series was well worth it. In addition to some of the major hits of the day (I Mother Earth’s “One More Astronaut” – remarkably the full version and not the truncated radio edit, Marilyn Manson’s delightfully creepy cover of Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams”, and Bush X’s only decent contribution to rock music “Machinehead”) this compilation included some lesser-known bands (in the pop circuit anyway) that really should have gotten more airplay than they did (the Killjoys, Pluto and Limblifter all come to mind) and served as my introduction to bands I would later come to love (Moist, Foo Fighters and Beck specifically). By the time the second incarnation of this series came out the following year, I’d largely gotten over alt-rock, and the track listing was far more geared to shit I heard on the radio all day, every day, though I did continue to buy the series up until 1999 when I discovered the internet. But this CD still has a place of honour in my music collection as a tribute to an earlier era.
Empire Records Original Soundtrack (1995)
Okay, it’s a bit of a cheap move to include a soundtrack on this list, because it’s not a compilation album in the purest sense – insofar as it wasn’t put together by a record company but rather by the production team of a film. But “Empire Records” has the distinction of being perhaps the best John Hughes school coming-of-age flick of the ’90s (a close second is “Dazed and Confused” but “Records” was actually set in the present day, so it wins). This album is both unique and important because the music featured on its track list wasn’t what you’d call top-of-the-charts kind of stuff: despite coming out in ’95, most of the major music acts of that year and one or two years previous didn’t make the cut. Instead I was treated to a wide variety of subgenre music I’d never heard before, or at least not very often. With the possible exception of the Gin Blossoms (whose big hit “Till I Hear It From You” was all over the radio) I was completely unfamiliar with almost everything on the album, but I was hyped to discover bands I’d been a little too young to catch up to on their way through the charts – Better than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Evan Dando (of Lemonheads fame) were my big picks from this record. And the big musical number of the film, Coyote Shivers’ “Sugarhigh”, was the pinnacle of party songs in my grade-school years, even though Mister Shivers sort of surrendered to obscurity by the late 90s. My only beef with this soundtrack was that a lot of the bands whose songs appeared most prominently in the movie (Queen Sarah Saturday, The The, AC/DC, Dire Straits) were conspicuous in their absence. I guess the rights to “Romeo and Juliet” were affordable for the film release, but not so much for a soundtrack almost nobody bought.
Frosh Volume 1 (1998)
Thanks to the runaway success of the Big Shiny Tunes series, Polygram Records felt quite comfortable titling its first foray into the compilation circuit “Volume 1”. Quite obviously Kurt Cobain was right when he said that if you package something right, the kids will eat it up. My generation had gorged itself on MuchMusic’s packaged offerings, but we were swiftly growing up and out of Much’s demographic. The response to our impending college years was Frosh, a curiously diverse collection of party-themed songs spanning almost three decades of music. As the name suggests, Frosh was created with freshman college kids in mind, who would spend the first year of their parents’ money or government subsidy on cheap beer, bad pizza and family-size boxes of condoms. I deliberated for quite a while before picking the first volume of the series for this list, not because there wasn’t a good cross-section of music on the other volumes, but because every other volume featured at least one song I absolutely hate (“Time Warp”, I’m looking at you). Contrarily, Volume 1 features a pretty impressive variety of “jump up and down like a drunken Bacchian” music – while they mostly fall under the category of “hit” for their particular decade, a point I’d usually take issue with, sometimes hits are hits for a reason. I defy you to not start doing your absolute worst Irish jig when you hear Spirit of the West or The Proclaimers come on the speakers – or your absolute worst white-boy-scream-rap-impression along with “Fight For Your Right (To Party)”. RAWK.
The Tarantino Connection (1997)
If there is an undisputed heavyweight champion of soundtrack gurus, that crown absolutely has to go to Quentin Tarantino. Say what you want about his movies; the man can pick music. His soundtrack choices are often obscure but always awesome, and the songs he chooses to include almost always rocket up the charts (often years after their original recording date). Think about how iconic songs like “Misilou” or “Stuck In The Middle With You” became after Quentin stuck them in such groundbreaking flicks as “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” (though he’s been quoted as having believed Jerry Rafferty probably didn’t appreciate the connotations he brought to “Stuck in the Middle”, and frankly I think he’s right). I was a huge fan of Tarantino’s movies when I was younger, and I had it in my head to go out and pick up the soundtracks to all his films because they were all fabulous, but then I remembered that I was thirteen and didn’t have that kind of disposable income. Thankfully, with the release of “The Tarantino Connection”, a compilation album featuring some of the best-known songs from his movies – as well as several tracks’ worth of commentary about his choices – I didn’t have to. The standout track on this record, to me, was the Cowboy Junkies’ outstanding cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” (from the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack but also notably from their outstanding “Trinity Sessions” album) but every song on this record is fantastic both as a standalone musical piece and for the fond – or disturbing – memories from the movies they elicit. Internet notwithstanding, I’d recommend picking this album up for your collection, if only for the really cool cover art and the great liner notes.
Family Values Tour (1998)
Let me put this out on the table – I am not a fan of Korn. I wasn’t in 1998 and I’m not now. I understand Jonathan Davis’ influence on the nu metal genre (or whatever they’re calling it this week) but I never thought they were particularly good outside of one or two tracks from their debut album. But one thing I can give them credit for unequivocally is the formation of the Family Values tour. This was a really groundbreaking thing in ’98 – up until that point most major festivals (Lollapalooza, EdgeFest) had catered to the middle-ground alt-rock community; Family Values was the first tour to give the thrashers and metal heads a taste of a tour designed Just For Them. The CD/DVD release was one of the best I saw in the late ’90s, and a lot of what the tour had to offer is music I still enjoy today: the track listing featured the likes of Incubus, Orgy, C Minus, Ice Cube (yes, that Ice Cube, pre-shitty-film-career) and the ever-entertaining German attack force Rammstein. This choice is a bit of a departure from the rest of the list, I know, but hey – believe it or not, sometimes I’m feeling aggressive and rather than taking it out on you, my dear readers, I prefer to channel it by listening to very angry music at inappropriate volumes while leaping around my apartment screaming along at the top of my lungs. In my boxer shorts. In the dark. Okay, I’ll stop.
So What Did We Learn?
There’s something kind of cool, even in this day and age, about mix albums. Sure, you can make your own playlists on your iPod, or do the same while streaming from Grooveshark, but I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned – I still like having an album I can hold in my hand, whose album art and liner notes have been created by professionals and not by some iTunes algorithm. Yes, these days purchasing a compilation CD is probably a colossal waste of money, but it still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling to recall the days when music wasn’t at our fingertips twenty-four hours a day, when you still had to save your allowance for weeks to afford the latest release – and compilation CDs gave that purchase just a little more bang for your buck. In fact, I kind of miss them, so any of you lovely readers interested in sharing the musical love with me, feel free to put together a list of your favourite songs and send it along to me. You can reach me at email@example.com, or in the comment section below. Anybody who provides me a decent list gets one in return, courtesy of me and my Correspondents. Thanks for reading, and enjoy your extra-long weekend (unless you’re not from here, in which case enjoy your regular-length weekend).
Oh, I Almost Forgot
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the very first mix-tape compilation I ever received, made for me by my friend DJ D-Monic – entitled “AJ’s Alternative”, it bore the prestigious distinction of introducing me to a wealth of awesome music including (but not limited to) the Beastie Boys, Portishead, the Tea Party, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. Bear in mind this was 1994 or so, when some of those bands were far better than they are today. Since those days, D-Monic has gone on to become a huge presence in the break scene nation-wide, founding his own production company, PurePhunk, and ripping up dance floors all over. Check him out and give him props; Uncle Alex commands it.