I’ve always found the music compilation an interesting animal. Sometimes an artist releases a compilation at the height of their career, other times at the low point. Sometimes its released by the label, other times the artist wants it. Depending on the form, frequency of release, time frame and relevance of the artist, the mere release of the compilation may say something about the state of the artist.

It’s easy to see why, at the very least, record labels like compilation. For the longest time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the #1 selling album of all time – now it’s the Eagles’ Greatest Hits. The production costs are easy – you don’t have to pay $85 an hour while the artist tries to make the next Appetite for Destruction, instead most if not all of the material has already been recorded. Plus as we’ve seen the payoffs can be very long term. In many respects, it can also be a rehash of the “one good song” syndrome – most of the people who bought the Eagles’ album probably did it for “Hotel California”.

It’s also easy to see why customers like the compilation, too. In many cases you want a certian number of hit songs by the artist in question, but feel that the purchase of all of their albums would be expensive and counter-productive. Plus it’s cheaper for the record company in question to make one CD of select songs instead of making more “remastered” copies of older albums that may never sell. Sometimes when an artist becomes famous in America, the rest of the world gets a compilation album, instead of all their old CD’s.

Recently the trend has been the “crash course” compilation. There have probably been more Elvis compilations than actual Elvis songs, but a new compilation, Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits, is still selling like hotcakes. That many people in 2002 want a crash course in Elvis (plus it has the new dance mix of “A Little Less Conversation”). This alludes into the next trend – the 2 CD set. Used to be a greatest hits compilation had to fit on an LP (which is why the Eagles’ release runs under 50 minutes), but the advent of the CD meant that most “double-LP”‘s could fit on a single disc. The next step was 2 CD’s. As is already the trend with DVD, people tend to think that a single disc compilation is not as good.

Another trend is the unprecedented cooperation of record labels. This may be due to better lawyers, or perhaps the advent of MP3. The new Rolling Stones compilation, Forty Licks, is hardly the most comprehensive compilation the Stones have ever released, but the main significance (other than the fact that the number of songs, 40, matches the number of years the group has been together) is that it’s the first ever compilation to span the Stones’ entire career. In 1973 the Rolling Stones made their own record label and owned their catalog outright after that point. The problem is, some of their best material is still owned by Abcko records. Abcko and Virgin (their current label) finally got together to do this release. Aerosmith went from Columbia to Geffen and back to Columbia. Any compilation they’ve ever done (including the Pandora’s Box boxed set) has only ever concentrated on one “section” of their career. In late 2001, Geffen released Young Lust, a compilation of their Geffen years (oddly reminicent of Big Ones, a previous compilation). Geffen had every right to do it, but Aerosmith had every right to bitch about it publicly. They decided to do their own “proper” compilation, Oh Yeah! Ultimate Aerosmith Hits, but leave a nice gap in the Geffen years. Geffen finally came through at the last minute and so Aerosmith was able to do the compilation they wanted, complete with Geffen songs.

Some artists are guilty of too many compilations. KISS is probably the most guilty. The number of compilations they’ve released over the years is staggering. They just released another one last month, the single-disc The Very Best of KISS, in the wake of the announcement that they wouldn’t be breaking up after all. Remember that less than a year ago we got the KISS boxed set. You may ask, “what’s the harm in releasing so many compilations?” The answer is in the exclusive content. Every artist (especially every very popular artist) has a legion of devout fans. You ever see an artist release an album in multiple limited edition covers and think “surely no one buys them all”? The devout fans do. Fans of rap group Insane Clown Posse have been known to buy multiple copies of every album, one of each type of packaging and then another to listen to – the others they leave sealed. ICP is one of the most proacitvely collectible groups, and entire websites have been set up to discuss minute variations in packaging and place rarity values on them. In any event, every compilation these days has exclusive content – a new song or two, an outtake, a kickass live performance, you name it. The devout fans must have these things, and despite the fact that they already own 90% of the songs on the album, they still plop down the full wad for the CD. Do it enough times though and you start to feel backlash – a number of formerly devout KISS fans refused to buy the boxed set no matter what was on it.

Sometimes a compilation album is a cry for help, a gasp to see if anyone still cares. Tom Petty was seeing his popularity decline in the early 90’s, so he and the Heartbreakers released their Greatest Hits albums and it sold tons, fueled on by the hit single (and black comedy video) “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. Plus, it worked – Petty’s solo followup Wildflowers, also sold a ton. However, his popularity declined again and 2000’s 2-CD Anthology didn’t move any discs. He just released a new album, The Last DJ, so we’ll see how things pan out for him. Mariah Carey has had more #1 hits than any other female artist in history, and a 1999 compilation flaunted this. Then she signed to a $100 million contract, but her first movie and album, Glitter, flopped miserably so her label, before giving her a gold parachute and a swift kick, came out with a second, 2-CD set in 2001, just two years after the last one. A sadder case is Motley Crue. Their album Dr. Feelgood was (and still is) the best selling album they’ve ever done. However, their greatest hits compilation, Decade of Decadence sold lowsy. Then, to make things worse, they fired Vince Neil, their lead singer, and replaced him. It didn’t work, so they fired the new lead singer, re-hired Neil, and recored a new album, American Swine. It didn’t sell – they took a risk on the new singer and the public forgot about them. So, they quickly assembled a new greatest hits album, Greatest Hits. One of the hits was the new song from their previous hits release. It also didn’t sell. Motley Crue’s Behind the Music special is sill in heavy rotation, due to their decadent lifestyle and the fact that no one can seem to get tired of hearing Tommy Lee talk about boinking Pamela Anderson. Too bad Lee left to become a rapper.

And then there’s the sad example of false advertising. For example, the album Wang Chung’s Greatest Hits does in fact have the hit “(Everybody) Have Fun Tonight”, but to say that Wang Chung ever had another hit is just a lie. This is why some artists forego the “Greatest Hits” title and instead go for the “Best Of” name – this way it’s a compilation of their “best” stuff, not neccessarily the things that were “hits”. This logic has its place – many of Elvis’ best songs were never #1 hits, or even charted, so they were left off of this latest compilation. However, some of his cheesiest songs were #1 hits, so they’re included. Given that the American Public makes N’Sync superstars, they’re not always the best judge.

There’s the boxed set. Since I’ve touched on this before I’ll be brief, but the gist is this – come out with a set of multiple CD’s and place it in a nice, sturdy box with a book(let). It’s more exhaustive than a simple greatest hits compilation can be and it’s still a better deal than buying all the albums (less chaff, more wheat). Some artists can get away with just an extended hits compilation with some new content (which is why the Led Zeppelin boxed set is the best selling of all time), other times rare content is required. Boxed sets are usually significant since labels won’t do them for lesser established artists. For every album that doesn’t sell, they lose profit on one CD – for every copy of the KISS box that doesn’t sell they lose profit on five. Possibly the most overdone set I’ve ever seen has been Tom Petty’s Playback – 6 CD’s, 3 greatest hits, 3 rarities and unreleased. Most diehard Rolling Stones fans can’t sit through six discs…

Finally there’s the posthumous release (which we’ve already touched on with Elvis). Sometimes the releases are pretty legitimate – not too many of them, well constructed, tasteful. However, hit any gas station and see how many Elvis cassettes are next to the checkout counter and you can see what I mean by exploited (I always find the gospel ones amusing, given that Elvis died of a drug overdose). Sometimes the term isn’t so much “exploited” as it is “overdone and tired”. For a while I found it quite amazing that new Hendrix material was being released some 30+ years after his death, now it’s just downright tired and annoying. Hendrix and 2Pac are two artists who constantly see new material being released posthumously, alongside greatest hits albums. I don’t see how in the heck they could have possibly recorded this much. The other end of this spectrum, obviously, is the posthumous release people have to beg for. There is a ton of never released Nirvana material that Courtney Love has been sitting on. She along with the other two members of Nirvana, own the rights to it and while the former Nirvana members wanted to release a 10th anniversary boxed set for Nevermind, Love nixed that idea. The exact reason why is unknown, but the assumption is that her carrer is lagging and she’s tired of being known only as the “ex-wife” of Cobain, so she doesn’t want to feed that notion. However, she recently relented and this November will see the releae of Nirvana, a single-disc hits compilation with the one new song, “You Know You’re Right”. A Boxed set will follow in 2004. This higlights the other trend set by Alice in Chains – a greatest hits CD as a preface to a boxed set (though KISS went the other way recently).

The only thing that bugs me about this is that, as the music industry becomes more centralized you’ll see more and more of this. The music industry won’t want to innovate, they’ll just want to repackage the past and find the next sex toy to tempt the high school masses. Ticketmaster has a concert monopoly, Clear Channel owns half of the radio waves, and 25% of the record industry is owned by a wine cooler company. Maybe Tom Petty’s latest album, The Last DJ, a pseudo-concept album ragging the music industry, is dead on. Or maybe he’s just tired it won’t include him anymore.