Best Of What?

When I walk into my local record purveyor I notice something that I feel really needs to be discussed, namely the huge amount of “best ofs” that sit on the shelves nestled in with the rest of a band or artist’s discography. What are we music fans to make of this? Are they a brilliant condensation of the greatest tracks into a neat one or two disc package? Are they a cheap money making exercise conceived by greedy record executives? Or are they a tasty sampler of an artist’s repertoire? The answer, I think, is all of the above.

Firstly I must note that I have in my collection a great number of “best ofs”, “greatest hits”, “the essentials”, and “golds”, and some of them have helped to introduce me to some of my favourite artists. However, I can’t help feeling that these little boxes of best sellers aren’t really giving me the whole story.

Since the Beatles albums as a complete stand-alone object have become a major part of the way we view and interact with music, and this is a great leap forward from the singles driven industry that came prior. People were given the opportunity to listen to every movement of a symphony, so to speak, rather than just one song and a b-side. They were able to listen to a fully realized piece of art, to listen to a particular band or artist working at a particular time in a particular place working with particular producers and technology. Best ofs remove this from the music. They take the best selling songs and remove them from their context and package them up with other de-contextualised tracks. What you are left with is a record that is catchy, but out of time and place – it is merely a glimpse of art and not the portrait that an album can be.

Best ofs do have a place though. They can serve as a way of collecting music that, due to the circumstances in which it was recorded, never got to be in the context of an album. An example would be The Centennial Collection which contains all of the recorded work from blues artist Robert Johnson. This record is, in itself, not a work of art, because Johnson was recording in a time when the concept of “album” didn’t really exist, but each individual track on the record is a masterpiece and they deserve to brought together so that people can enjoy them.

Best ofs can also serve as a way of putting the chronology of an artist in perspective, i.e. showing the progression from a band’s formative years to the end of a career (Joy Division’s Substance is a good example). This only works, however, if there exists enough work to actually show this progression, which brings me to my next point.

The British glam-goth band Placebo formed in 1994 and released four albums between that time and 2003. Then they released a best of. Then they went off and made two more albums. Why would you make a best of if you haven’t finished making music? Are you saying that anything after this point is never going to be any better than this? If so, that’s just sad. I mean, really guys – wait ‘til you’re done to put together the best of.

So, to conclude, best ofs are not necessarily a bad thing, but, in my mind, they usually have little to no artistic merit as records, and as such I will not be reviewing best ofs save for a few precious exceptions.

I’m all done ranting now,
Cheers, Lachlan J.

Who looks at everything a band has released and then decides what is “best” (essentially dictating what you should listen to)?
Looking at some of these collections I can tell you that it sure as hell ain’t me.


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