A Winchester bootfair record that had been on “the list” since I first heard it a few years ago at friend’s late-night listening session. Compellingly (and compulsively?) unorthodox rhythmically, Eli is more Off-Broadway than off-its-head, betraying few hallmarks of its “Summer of Love” vintage (apart from an adventurous spirit) and more of the pop-soul vibe of a few years hence. Suffice to say, Nyro’s songwriting, vocal, arranging and instrumental talent is as prodigious as it is unique. An influence on a generation of quirky female singer-songwriters (and Todd R.) by effectively defining left-field in this context, a little Laura goes a long way, her idiosyncratic vox turning a bit shrill and precious at times. Still, this wilful, wonderfully alive, red wine record is perfect if you’re in the right mood. Which is right now.
The title of This Is Where It All Started is vague and somewhat misleading. First of all, the antecedent of “It” is left tantilisingly unexplored and secondly, most of the music comes from the late 60s/early 70s quite a while after the time whatever “It” was had already pretty much got started. Still, an excellent overview of soul on Atlantic without recourse to the label’s biggest hits.
The recent acquisition of this pair of iconic and worthy early 70s Atlantic Records compilations got me to worrying about the changing face of music compilations–from cheapo kitsch and genre defining scholarship in the past to their present ubiquity and consequent devaluation over the last 10 years or so. Will the comps of today have resonance with future middle-agers? Of course, the Thrifty Vinyl pages are littered with compilations of all stripes, K Tel soul albums, TV themes, Boogie, all kinds really (just click on the Compilations category to get a full flavour of the breadth) that “my parents had” or “was the first time I heard rap” or etc.
Though there is plenty of overlap, I would divide Popular music compilations into the following types: Label Promotion (see above); Top 40/Popular Reviews, both Contemporary and Retrospective; Genre Definition-e.g. C86, Spiritual Jazz, Good God!, or, er, The Best Dubstep Album In the World…Ever; Sound-a-Likes; themed Magazine Comps; Single Artist Best Ofs.
Many contemporary and retrospective Top 40 comps from the past (e.g. those from Ronco, K-Tel, Time-Life, etc.) were, of course, available at knock down prices through mail order television ads or cut out bins. These days, the Now That’s What I Call Music series (which commenced in 1983!), and its attendant spin-offs, have a lock on the Top 40 market (with Ministry of Sound largely cornering the dance market) outselling most single artist albums several fold. It peaked in 1999 with Now 44 selling 2.4 million copies in the UK. Full-price but shortly available cheap at bootfairs, their very ephemerality remains part of the Now charm. I have done my own alternate series of CD compilations of Now! CDs of the two to three songs (e.g. Amerie’s “One Thing”) per collection I like which I like to call No, That’s What I Call Music.
At this point in history, one could argue that the various artist compilation is stronger than ever with wide-ranging, brilliantly collated records by boutique labels such as Sub Rosa, Revanent, Jazzman, Blood & Fire (RIP), Mississippi, Numero, etc., etc. The twin models for this strategy are Harry Smith’s idiosyncratic folk music collection and the Origin Jazz Library (OJL) label which virtually jump-started a renewed interest in American roots music in the 50s and 60s. Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets did likewise for garage rock. Significantly, these projects were the brainchildren of single-minded individuals. The music fan of today is overwhelmed with a glut of budget, past-copyright titles by right thinking companies like Proper (who’ve done great Bepop and Ellington collections) and magazine CDs from the likes of DJ, Muzik (RIP) and Mojo who offer monthly themed collections. I get Mojo and some of their comps ( like this and this among many others) are really good (though their whole-album or one-artists covers comps are almost always poor). It’s a proverbial embarrassment of riches, the tyranny of choice. But if you’re a serious collector who must have an entire disc of “Heroes and Villains” “feels” or 6 discs of Charley Patton’s Paramount sides and the attendant “orbit” than this a golden age where astronomical sums are no longer required to satisfy your cravings. I mean, you can get the complete Byrds collection, bonus track and all, for under £30.
And it’s all about the music, right? Well, yes and no. I like decent sound, completism and I’m a sucker for the packaging. But while I am one of those obsessives, I’ve come back around to better pruned compilations and albums-as-they-were re-issues–a couple years ago and I would have had the SMiLE Sessions box set, these days I’m happy with just the two Lps.
Given it’s ubiquity, I’m happy that my son has not resorted to illegal file sharing; but he’s found a clever hedge–the online mixtape. So he can download and legally listen to his awful Odd Future and Wocka Flocka music, picking and choosing his favourites for the old iPod. This is the thing that will resonate most to his middle-age self. And so it continues.