Thursday, 14 June 2007

You Compile Me

As anyone who has ever had the ‘pleasure‘ of listening to one will tell you, compilation CDs that are given away free with magazines are completely fucking rubbish. They only ever come in three stultifying flavours:

1) Impenetrable Mix CD
These promotional mixes are ‘put together’ by Soulwax, DFA, or whichever trendier-than-thou act the magazine has decided to pay in order for them to lend their name to the sorry spectacle. Invariably these mixes will feature countless songs you’ve never heard before as well as some that you have, sadly remixed beyond all recognition by truly woeful Dutch producers (eg. ’Franz Ferdinand - Do You Want To? - Max von Rust’s Rustpumper Dub’).

2) Unlistenable Taster CD
Compiled by devastatingly on-the-pulse journalists, who have most definitely scoured the genre/label/country in question for the very best new acts it has to offer and NOT just stuck a load of shit bands on a CD because the record company PR told them to. Usually made up of bands who make a worse sound than that of your own family being brutally murdered by a marauding sex lunatic, the only upside is that none of them will ever become famous.

3) Disappointing Festival CD
Hit singles! Bands you’ve heard of! Choruses! But wait… what’s this? ‘B-side’? ‘exclusive album track’? ‘previously unreleased’? The front of the CD might scream big names and summer anthems, but the back tells a different story. Devoid of hit singles, or indeed anything that would interest anyone but the most ardent fan of the bands involved, these compilations often provide little more than:

:: a Kaiser Chiefs B-side
:: the token dance track
:: the worst song off Oasis’ last album
:: a frankly-quite-embarrassing American rock song
:: countless indie dirges
:: something ‘esoteric’
:: a ‘previously unreleased’ song by a semi-popular band

Previously unreleased. Two of the most misleading words in the language. Sure, if it’s a rare Dylan recording that’s been sitting around in some virgin’s garage for thirty years, by all means pop a little sticker on it and tell the world. But if it’s a piss-poor demo by some two-bit Shoreditch indie merchants, perhaps the words ‘TOO SHIT TO SELL’, in bold capital letters, would be more appropriate.

However, there is a fourth type of free CD. A rulebreaker. A maverick. This is the type of CD that while listening to it you realise is actually quite good and which makes you wonder about how much you would be prepared to pay for it, hypothetically (obviously the name for this type of CD is a bit long-winded compared to the others, but it will have to do).

CDs that you realise are quite good and which make you wonder how much you’d be willing to pay for them (must work on that) are very rare, only appearing every few years or so. There was one given away with Arcade magazine, way back in the 90s, that really set the standard. It was a 27-minute promotional mix comprising the entire soundtrack for the game WipEout 3 (FYI, the ‘E’ in the game’s title was capitalised for hilarious “It’s the nineties!!!” drug reasons).

It might not sound like much now, but at the time it had everything: a nice concept, big name artists (pretty much every top dance act going had tracks in the game), good tunes and it was a neat bit of promotional tat to play around with. Better than a fucking ’console skin’ (read: big messy sticker) anyway, which was the free gift given away to promote the previous WipEout game.

Then the NME did a CD in 2001, called ‘The Soundtrack to the Summer’, which was brilliant because it came during one of the paper’s biggest-ever identity crises, meaning it featured music by, amongst others: Squarepusher, Sticky Fingaz, Oxide & Neutrino, DESTINY’S CHILD and The Strokes. Sadly, this brave “let’s rate music on the basis of whether it’s any good rather than who it‘s by” approach didn’t go down well with NME’s largely-Luddite readership and normal service was resumed, at least for the next couple of years.

The NME has just this week done a covermount ’compiled’ by Muse (hmm). It’s got songs by bands you haven’t heard of, live versions and album tracks by bands that you have, a ‘previously unreleased’ song, a tune that sounds like a band pretending to be a car (or something), SOME ACTUAL CLASSICAL MUSIC and no fewer than two - TWO - spoken word tracks… and yet somehow it still manages to be completely brilliant.

Probably because most of the songs - whether live, unreleased or sung from the mouths of nobodies - are as good as they are utterly bonkers. Daft primal rock (Death From Above 1979), recent electro (Does It Offend You, Yeah?), Far-Eastern beatboxing (Bjork) - this mix is a heavily-sagging bag of tricks. Even the previously unreleased track, by Muse themselves, is much better than being ‘too shit to sell’ - it’s a brilliant bit of Alien vs. Cowboy Wild West surf rock, and at least worthy of being an album interlude.

The spoken word tracks, by Lord Buckley (“he basically invented rap”) need to be heard to be believed. Even then you won’t believe them. Amazing, in a weird and slightly worrying kind of way. How many of the people who buy this week’s NME will actually listen to them in their entirety remains to be seen, but if you’ve got any sense, you’ll be one of them.

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