Today I was listening to my huge Beatles playlist on Spotify on shuffle. The track Within You Without You by The Beatles off the Sgt. Pepper's album and I started thinking about how much I love the song and how it took me back to the years of both CDs and the concept of "greatest hits albums." Kind of a weird segway, but to me a song like that can't really be respected or even understood without knowing George's more well-known classics.
I feel like those collective albums have a bad rep, implying you're not a "true fan" if you have one, because it's not a "real" album that the artist or band released. It's just a collection of top hits. But I feel like that's a great way to get into different artists and different genres. You can expand your music mind with these sort of albums. And I definitely did.
These albums got me into artists like Boyz II Men, Patsy Cline, and many more. Though I don't have all their albums or really any others, I still understand what they both represent and what they're about.
Undoubtedly, modern listeners gain much from the history that’s just sitting on streaming services, waiting to be accessed. Amateur curators and music journalists are taking the time to trawl through the past to assemble shareable playlists that serve the same needs as old reissues. In some respects, this is an improvement over the old way of doing things—after all, it's now possible to augment a collection of big '70s hits with cuts by Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or Paul McCartney and Wings, all artists who were unavailable for previous comps due to licensing restrictions—but the digital past is notoriously mutable.
Take “The Bomb in the Heart of the Century,” a terrific Spotify playlist of music from the year 1950 assembled by Michael Daddino a few years ago. Celebrated among music critics, this playlist is strikingly similar in breadth and ambition to a classic Rhino compilation. But within months of its debut, some of its featured songs were dropped from the service. Why bother with an archival project through a streaming service if it can all disappear without notice?
The myth of the Celestial Jukebox—that idyllic stereo in the sky that provides instant access to all recordings ever made—lies upon the assumption that because music is theoretically available for all to hear, the past is preserved and easy to access. Reality isn't quite so simple. Since the dawn of recording, our musical history has always been inherently tied to the existence of physical, sellable product: The initial release created the history, and the reissue facilitated the writing of history, whether it was through carefully constructed archival projects or the existence of re-pressings of popular titles. Pink Floyd saw its catalog jump from EMI to Columbia back to Capitol/EMI, each getting somewhat ballyhooed and publicized reissues each time, the ad campaigns and endcap placements keeping the titles prominent; now they are just there, waiting to be called up by the user, if they care. When Van Morrison chooses to revive his catalog at this point, stories are shared on social media, then the music fades back into the vast digital chasm.
Commerce remains a dirty word within the canon of pop music—greedy record companies are continually painted as the villain by artist and fan alike, a middle-man standing in the way of the art. But there's no way around it: Recorded music is, by design, a product. Music, whether it's popular or underground, is recorded, packaged, marketed—and, if it's successful either commercially or artistically, it often is re-packaged and re-marketed, its value proven through its repeated entry into a competitive marketplace. Histories, criticism, collectors, and fans help create canon, but what we know about pop music is beholden to that marketplace. A hit isn't a hit if it doesn’t sell records the first time it's on the charts, and it's not part of the enduring popular consciousness unless it continues to sell, even in meager numbers. The way we understand our past is through the albums available in the bins and through reissues—the old records that have become new again (Pitchfork).
Just something I've been thinking about. Though CDs aren't relevant anymore, these albums are still essential on Spotify and probably other streaming platforms. Spotify curates tons of playlists called "The Essential: _____" and you can basically find the top hits of any artist if you search that. It's a really great way to get into new artists and genres.