by Al Cordray

Christmas. The holiday thick with green, and still green with want for more. Christmas has left a slit on my tongue I cannot satiate. It has left me washed in visions of products rigorously begging for my green. It has left me pulling back my lips and showing all my teeth. Christmas is six months gone, but it continues to wear those teeth down at night.

So what's the deal with buying a Greatest Hits album, anyway? I've committed this atrocity a number of times; I'm sure a few of you have also. Does it really sate the musical pangs? Enhance the life of the listener? Is it the type of enhancement you really want from music?

I remember buying one of my first greatest hits albums while I was in high school: The Best of The Doors. The collection is massive; double disc, and something like 100 minutes long. Everything I'd ever heard on the radio, and then some. Needless to say, I gorged myself on it for the better part of a semester. It was Doors bliss, and I felt I had received the maximum experience for the minimum price. The Doors, after all, had released six albums, and I had neither the money nor the patience to start picking up their CDs periodically and learning about them one album at a time. No, I had recently seen Oliver Stone's film The Doors, and I knew the songs that I wanted. I was a happy little fan.

[ the best of the doors ]

The Doors "Wild Child" MP3 96kbs/41sec/488kb

Some years later while in conversation with my friend Amanda we discovered we had a mutual love of classic rock, and she mentioned The Doors. "I love The Doors," I told her, and then went on for ten minutes about how spiritual and visceral I thought they were. "I especially enjoy their long, epic songs like 'The End,' and 'When the Music's Over,'" I said. "Me too," she concurred, "and like 'The Soft Parade.'" Excuse me? "'The Soft Parade'?" I asked. "Yeah." She said with some pause. "You've never heard of 'The Soft Parade'?"

No, I had no idea what she was talking about. The song was the title track of their 1969 album, and "Touch Me" is the album's only song featured on the two-disc set that I had. It turned out that what I knew about The Doors' music was quite limited. Forgivingly, Amanda lent me The Soft Parade and opened a new door for me, so to speak, that I wouldn't have explored otherwise. It turned out to be a springboard into acquiring other Doors albums, and now I laugh about how long I never even knew the music existed.

But what doesn't make me laugh is my lack of patience and discipline with the idea of truly seeking out The Doors' music. I saw their six-plus albums of material, and instead of consuming them a meal at a time, I gorged myself with one fleeting sitting. To be honest, I'm all for binge and purge in the age of the information highway...but what does it do to our appreciation of a band's music when we buy into the idea of Greatest Hits and Best of...? Do we gain a refined appreciation for their masterpieces? Do we listen to the songs in the manner that the band members intended them to be listened? In the intended song order? Mr. Morrison was long dead by the time I made my way into the music chain store in the shopping mall to make that fateful purchase. What would he have thought of my Doors experience? Would it make a difference to him whether I listen to "The End" after "The Unknown Soldier" or (as it appears on their eponymous first release) after "Take It as It Comes?" In many ways, it doesn't matter, because much of the reaction each of us has to music comes from within anyway. But are we still interested in the artist's vision? I'm not sure. For those of us who may be, how much of their vision can we really appreciate while choosing hits albums over real ones?

And what songs do we miss when we settle for "Hits?" If any of you are like me, you may have found yourself in sharp resonant agreement with several non-hit portions of many an album. For me, buying a G.H.A. (Ghaa!) means I am essentially giving up on the rest of the artist's music. It's not a starting point. Else, once I begin acquiring the artist's releases, I render my hit album obsolete and ultimately a waste.

[ there's even a cartoons greatest hits album ]

As far as The Doors are concerned, it's not like I didn't have the time. I was 16. I could have started at the beginning, acquiring and absorbing each succeeding album and finishing naturally...perhaps even sublimely. What a concept! In the end, I'd still have accessed all the desired nostalgia, and probably added a substantial stash of additional gems. And--perhaps just as importantly--I would have known The Doors at their weakest, thus propelling my admiration for their finer moments.

Which brings up another point: Is it the nostalgia we're after? Are we reliving past moments and reflecting on meaningful periods of time while swiping the plastic on a singles collection? We sure are. We're revisiting the time when those songs were fresh and the record companies were scrambling to push those singles onto radio airwaves where, after they caught your ear for the first time, you were saturated with advertisements. Back to the day when those singles were commercials of their own that sold albums by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Greatest "Hits" indeed. They felt so good about "hitting" us the first time that they're celebrating by "hitting" us again with everything that worked before. The whole beating all at once. As a music buyer, it makes me feel as privileged as a slave; and as nostalgic as an old syringe. Is it any wonder that many artists now try to find anything else to name such albums instead of Greatest Hits? Be it Best of... or The Singles, or even naming it as if it were a real album; is it becoming that obvious to us that they're trying to cash in?

Christmas, though, still churns within me. I grip my stomach and pray the gears will subsist. Separate. Leave my lungs room to stretch and breathe...but no. The nausea remains; obnoxious laughter in my belly with the urge to ascend.

Close blood brother to the Greatest Hits album is the bursting Boxed Set. Quite often, they are definitive in their collection--but the gluttony involved still robs me of that "album" listening experience. What exactly do you do when you purchase a boxed set, anyway? Do you go right home and listen to it all the way through? Do you begin rationing the music to yourself, so as not to let the excitement fade away? I find the nostalgia slips away even faster with boxed sets, as their marathon length ends up ostracizing them from regular play rotation into becoming almost instant references in "the library."

[ jimi hendrix - band of gypsys

Jimi Hendrix "Who Knows" MP3 96kbs/34sec/414kb

What happened to buying a 50-minute album and exploring it as a single piece? What happened to being amazed for a half-hour, then flipping to side two...taking mental notes of flaws and that handful of moments where a listener hears a rhythm or lyric or beat that connects one indefinitely to that recording? Where do those realizations go when we buy albums or collections with no chances taken? Are we tempted by rare or unreleased tracks? I certainly am, as I bit last month on a Stevie Ray Vaughan collection. But I can honestly say that the gimmick of rare tracks wears disappointingly thin when proposed against the concept of discovering a new album of soundscapes and unheard stories.

Perhaps the problem lies within current band activity. Jimi Hendrix is dead. I missed the boat on the time when his music was alive and pumping in more ways than on a recording. So if I'm interested, do I buy Band of Gypsys or The Ultimate Experience? It's quick and easy to get all his radio songs...where's the value in familiarizing myself with songs like "Who Knows" or "Power to Love" when I'll never even see the guy live? After an artist is dead--or a group defunct--how much meaning and value do their B-sides really carry? It's their radio success (and overplay) that is their true legacy, right? Perhaps a better question might be: Do I want a record company deciding which Hendrix songs I enjoy, or can I trust my own ear enough to decide for myself?

So, on to Christmas. During the past holiday season, I went shopping for music for some gifts. While doing so I spotted many new hits albums and boxed sets, all newly released for the pending shopping spree. Among them included greatest hits, best ofs and boxed sets for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Mariah Carey, The Doors (their second boxed set) and the ever fickle Perry Farrell (cash in now, honey). But the most disturbing was the actions of reclusive Alice in Chains. In a four-month period AiC released Nothing Safe (in September), a "best of the box" collection of their radio singles; including with it a new song and an old demo of the popular "Rooster." Also on the disc was a program "key" needed to open a special section of a multimedia disc that would be included in the upcoming boxed set. Then--just in time for the holidays--Music Bank arrives at a whopping $50, including all the music available on Nothing Safe and no way to fully enjoy the multimedia CD without repurchasing already re-released music. Isn't this the same band that only released three albums and two EPs? All I can say is lame.

[ perry farrell - rev ]

And what about Perry Farrell? His freakish sellout piece is a mix of Jane's Addiction and Porno For Pyros tunes; I guess it takes some artists two bands to garner enough hits to reap again. A true influence on much of the current indie and alternative music scene, Farrell seems to tie off an interesting career with the disappointing Rev...and essentially pumps the razor within my holiday profit-jaded tongue.

I recently had a relapse into greatest hits enmity while looking up some of Johnny Cash's old tunes. To my dismay, there were at least six or seven hit releases and two multi-disc sets for the "Man in Black." I ended up opting for At Folsom Prison, and left the store wondering if anyone actually stocks Johnny Cash's real albums anymore.

But perhaps I am too jaded. In a recent conversation with Jamie, a Utah college student working her summer here in California, I learned that some people enjoy hits albums in addition to the artist's regular releases. She has several albums by The Cure, and also purchased and enjoys Galore: The Singles 1987-1997. She described to me that she enjoys them in different ways: the albums more for the period they represent in The Cure's artistic succession, and Galore for its sustained power. Telecommunications sales representative Nicole had similar sentiments: "I like buying Greatest Hits albums to see if I'll like their music. Then I'll check out more of their stuff."

So obviously there is value in grouping our favorite songs together on a single digital recording. Many even enjoy hits albums as starting points for getting into music. Perhaps Perry Farrell's cash cluster was too much for me to fathom because of some art-compromise dogmatic ideal psychosis from which I suffer. But there still remains a problem with such collections: song choice. Such releases may be close to your ideal collection of a given artist's songs, but is close good enough? For me, they are often way too standardized. The song list chosen is rarely my choice, or my mix. And valuable non-mainstream songs are missing.

[ johnny cash - at folsom prison ]

Johnny Cash "25 Minutes to Go" MP3

There are alternatives to hits albums. The solution I have found for my own need for compilations is MiniDisc. Introduced in 1992, the MiniDisc is a digital replacement for cassette tapes, and has been a slick way for me to record compilations. I can create my own mix discs right from the albums I already own, rearrange the play order, cut unwanted tracks and record new ones in their place, and erase the disc and start anew whenever I want.

The drawback, of course, is price. A portable player/recorder now costs around $180 (which is considerably better than the $250 average of a year ago), while the blank discs are a reasonable two bucks apiece. I also have to buy the actual albums (what a shame), but I find it a preferable alternative to purchasing collections. If I don't enjoy an album, I can sell it used for credit towards future purchases.

The other obvious choice is CD burner/recorders. Though heavily priced, the recorders do offer easy digital recording, and software for CD burners allows for able editing. Once engaged in the format, you are able to purchase CDs for about a buck each (albeit in bulk), and who can argue with CD quality? [Check out the CD-Recordable FAQ for more info. --Ed.]

Another alternative is MP3 [Check out the MP3 FAQ for more info. --Ed.], which is basically free if you have a computer and Internet access (which I guess you do), but the timing may be a bit touchy at the moment; free availability of copyrighted music is currently under attack by all the finest lawyers that Sony can buy. Metallica and Dr. Dre recently sued Napster, a popular software tool for sharing MP3 files, for alleged copyright infringement. As a result, the membership rights and access of almost 320,000 users of the software have been suspended. So the future of the format's current status as free files may be up in the air...even though the availability of downloadable music continues to be in the midst of an undeniable revolution. Another drawback to MP3 is portability. MP3s basically stay on your hard drive...unless you purchase something like a Memory Stick Walkman for about 360 bones. Unfortunately, the memory card in the Walkman only holds 32 MB of space (barely enough for an hour of MP3 music), so your mixes would be considerably less versatile than that of CD-R or MiniDisc.

[ the minidisc - so much in so little ]

The argument against trying any of these formats is that it means paying more...for real albums and for equipment. Admittedly, recording has always been a part of my enjoyment of music. If you don't enjoy recording--or don't have time--then stick to whatever works for you. But if you one day find yourself tired of greatest hits albums, you may see worth in one of the formats mentioned.

Perhaps it wouldn't be an issue if music weren't so bloody expensive. If we could buy music directly from the artists instead of from companies via record stores, perhaps it wouldn't be as risky to buy albums of material that may or may not be worth the $12 to $17 they ask for it. Maybe more people would buy more albums, really delve into the work of musicians, and there would be little argument for or against a greatest hits compilation. Such a day may soon be upon us.

But for now don't expect to see me shopping for music come December.

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