Thursday, March 12, 2015

If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From… David Bowie

By Curt Alliaume

The way I started listening to The Beatles:

Back in the summer of 1973, WNEW Channel 5 television in New York (back before it was owned by Fox – at that point it was an independent station) reran old episodes of the cartoon series The Beatles from the 1960s.  Now, I had heard Beatle songs on Musicradio 77 WABC, but since they didn’t always front- or back-announce who it was, I often didn’t know.  The cartoon was cheesy – well, it was average by 1960s standards; today it would be considered pretty awful – but there were always two songs on every show.  Watching every day allowed me to make connections (“Oh, they did Eleanor Rigby?  And We Can Work It Out?  Cool.”)  By the end of that year, I had bought The Beatles 1962-1966 (a.k.a. the Red Album, the first of their two-LP greatest hits sets) and gotten The Beatles 1967-1970 (a.k.a. the Blue Album) as a birthday present.  That allowed me to start going through all the old songs, and then picking out the best albums to buy.

David Bowie is a good example of a musician who benefits from the same method of discovery.  Most of his albums differ greatly from one another – if you like Aladdin Sane, you may hate Heathen; if you dug Let’s Dance, you may not be interested in Ziggy Stardust.  But start with a good, wide-ranging greatest hits set to figure out what’s best for you.

That said, I may not be a good example of this – I have three different Bowie best-ofs on CD, but I own exactly five studio albums:  The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (on cassette, so I probably haven’t heard it in over 15 years), StationtoStation (three-CD set, including a live show from 1976 at New York’s Nassau Coliseum – this is a great buy as a download), Let’s Dance (on vinyl, so I probably haven’t heard it in over 15 years either), and the first Tin Machine album.  Don’t do as I do.

As you might expect, Bowie’s been with a bunch of labels (in America, my count is Deram, Mercury, RCA, EMI America, Savage, Arista, Virgin, Columbia), but the good news is Bowie seems to own all of his back masters except for his very first album and a couple of singles before that (all of which were recorded between 1964 and 1967; they have little to do with his sound since then), so most of the anthologies are pretty complete.  And even his latest anthology has a smattering of the early material.  (Actually, it looks like he’s licensing out his material now – Columbia is the latest winner.  Good for me; our library allows five song downloads weekly [edit: they used to; the Freegal app was discontinued in 2018], and Columbia participates in this.)

I thought there was only one obvious choice, but apparently record company politics have trumped common sense, so the best of the best-ofs is actually the newest and longest:

I was going to say something else until about five minutes ago, when I took a good look at what Amazon was selling – more on that in a moment.

In any case, while this is a lot of Bowie, it’s also pretty much everything from his whole career.  59 songs (on both the 3-CD set and the MP3 download – some idiot at Amazon didn’t count the songs on the CD correctly, but a close look at the listings shows they match the MP3 download).  The only quibbles I have so far are a) the liberal use of single edits over the album versions, which is a recurring issue with his hits sets (I don’t know how it was decided to lop 40 percent of “Young Americans” from the album version back in 1974, but it sure is annoying), and b) “John I’m Only Dancing” is gone altogether.

Both the CD and the MP3 download are $19.99 on Amazon (actually, the CD is $19.88, but obviously there will be shipping), which for three CDs is a great deal.  Me, I’d buy the CD, which comes with a book of some sort (I haven’t actually gotten this yet, of course – I could download it free from my library over the next three months, I suppose) over the MP3.  Note it’s in reverse chronological order, which I find infuriating as hell, but if you download the MP3 files, there’s nothing stopping you from reversing them right back.  And you can also spend an extra buck and download the full-length “Young Americans” off the original album of the same name.

One negative point:  there’s also a two-CD version with 39 songs, a two-LP (vinyl only) version with 20 songs, and a one-CD version with 21 songs (the latter is, in theory, only available in Japan, Argentina, and Mexico), all of which contain the same title (covers are shown above; the one I'm recommending is at the right).  To which I say, What the heck?  Why on Earth would Columbia, or Bowie, or whoever, think it’s a good idea to release four different products under the same name?  I don’t care if different configurations are going to different countries; in this day and age most people are buying their music on the Internet, not at a record store, and there’s no guarantee that the seller is listing the item correctly (for proof, see my note about the track listing for the regular version two paragraphs back), and it’s certainly easy enough to get items issued specifically for one country in another.  (Like when I bought that Bangles greatest hits set, issued only in Europe, when I was in Singapore.)  God forbid you should buy it off eBay or some other third-party seller (“Gee, I thought it had three disks.  Don’t give me bad feedback!”).  It turns out this is a recurring theme of Bowie’s hits collections:  I’ve found at least three that have been issued with varying set lists under the same name, so be very, very careful about what you buy.

Rant over.  Now, let’s go back to the 1970s and look at his other anthologies.  Links go to Wikipedia entries.

Changesonebowie (1976) – this actually may be his biggest selling album in the States, and it’s a good one.  11 songs and over 45 minutes long (that was good for vinyl, although it sometimes created problems if you were making a tape – anyone out there remember C-90s?), with all the great hits.  Of course, you have to remember Bowie had only made top 40 three times to that point – standards like “Space Oddity” and “Diamond Dogs” didn’t even chart.  Anyway, this was available on CD for about a minute and a half in the 1980s, until Bowie shifted his catalog over to Rykodisc.  Includes the first version of “John, I’m Only Dancing,” which up till then was only issued as a single – actually, early vinyl pressings had a different version with a Bowie sax break.

Changestwobowie (1981) – If Bowie hadn’t officially left RCA by the time this was released in November 1981, he certainly had one foot out the door.  10 songs, 44 minutes, marred only by the fact that he hadn’t had any top 40 hits since the first hits disk (and of the three US chart hits he’d had, only two are included – where’s “TVC15”?).  Also released on CD for a moment in the mid-1980s. And it had “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” which is a completely different song, also only available to that point as a single.

Golden Years (1983) and Fame and Fashion (1984) – released less than a year apart, along with the Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture soundtrack, all by RCA, in order to hitch a ride on the Let’s Dance gravy train (that album was his first with EMI America).  These releases, to me, fall under the categorization The Rock Yearbook 1986 bestowed upon a 1985 release of videos and concert footage from Bowie’s 1983 Serious Moonlight tour – “absolutely last chance, everything must go, free salad tongs with every purchase.”  (I really wish I’d kept that book…)  They also noted Bowie’s lemon custard-colored hair from that period, which was carried over onto both of the album covers, thus further misleading buyers.  Golden Years is a mishmash of mostly nonhits, Fame and Fashion pulls the best of what can be pulled off the two Changes hits sets and throws it onto one disk.  They’re both out of print.

Sound + Vision (1989) – okay, now we’re talking.  Bowie had leased his back catalog of the RCA years to indie Rykodisc, who created this pretty amazing (for the era) three-CD set, plus a CD-Video (or CD-ROM, depending on when you bought it) set which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.  Reissued in 2003 by Virgin/EMI with a completely different track configuration, cover, and no video component, but the same name (why call it Sound + Vision if there’s nothing to watch, EMI?).  I didn’t buy one then, but I bought a copy the Naperville Public Library decided they no longer wanted for a dollar a few years back – I’ll have to take a look again to see which version I’ve got.

Changesbowie (1990) – this is actually still available, and when it was released it was a pretty good option (the best of the RCA years, plus the Let’s Dance hits and “Blue Jean.”  A plus:  the full-length album versions are used here for everything except the Let’s Dance songs, which in fairness average nearly six minutes apiece.  On the negative side:  “Under Pressure,” his 1981 hit with Queen, isn’t here (probably record label issues), and Bowie thought it was a good idea to remix “Fame” to make it sound more current.  Thus, “Fame ‘90” – which I don’t think anyone wants to hear again.  Since it stops after “Blue Jean,” it really doesn’t cover all the bases.

The Best of David Bowie 1969-1974 (1997), The Best of David Bowie 1974-1979 (1998), The Best of David Bowie 1980-1987 (2007) – three one-disk best-ofs from the eras indicated, if you want to narrow things down a little.  These still use the single edits for most of the songs, so you may be getting more songs, but edited versions of the songs you want.  These were all stitched together for The Platinum Collection (2005), which is more expensive than Nothing Has Changed.

The Deram Anthology 1966-1968 (1997) – Universal Music Group (not surprisingly) has kept this in print, since Bowie doesn’t control most of the music on it.  It’s a bunch of singles he made in the years indicated, before he was even David Bowie (at that point he went by his given name, David Jones – until some little guy from The Monkees made him decide to change it).  “Space Oddity” is here, but that’s it for hits.

Best of Bowie (2002, more or less) – and here’s another one that irritates me.  The two-disk version I own would have been my pick – 38 songs, covers everything up to 2002, and I’d live with the truncated versions if the two-disk set was still available.  At least on Amazon, it’s not.  Here’s the lowdown from Wikipedia:

In each of the 21 territories that the album was released, it was given its own track listing, based upon which songs were most popular locally. In a number of countries, there were two versions – a single disc version, and a double disc version. All in all 63 tracks appear in at least one of the 20 different versions. The country the edition came from can be identified by a small national flag on the spine, except for the Argentine/Mexican, Eastern European and UK editions, which are "flag-less". [My two-disk version has no flag – of course, I got mine from BMG Music Service (R.I.P.).] All the tracks are digitally remastered either from 1999 or, for the single edits, 2002, with the exception of "Under Pressure", which is also at a lower volume than the rest of the disc.

Swell.  Anyway, if you can find the two-disk set, fine, but make sure you buy it from a used-CD brick-and-mortar store, because you can’t be sure what you’re getting otherwise.

iSelect (2008) is exactly what it sounds like – an anthology chosen by Bowie, mostly from the 1970s.  Originally a giveaway with a 2008 edition of The Mail on Sunday in the UK, it’s an interesting selection, but you’re probably better off getting a hits collection or the original albums than this.

Here’s what I’ve put on my one-disk best-of.  Two caveats: I would probably make different selections today, and I’m as much of an idiot as the people who compile his CDs; I have the single edits of “Young Americans,” “Golden Years,” and “Heroes” here too.

  • “Space Oddity” (from Space Oddity)
  • “The Man Who Sold the World” (from The Man Who Sold the World)
  • “Changes” (from Hunky Dory)
  • “Ziggy Stardust” (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars)
  • “Suffragette City” (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars)
  • “The Jean Genie” (from Aladdin Sane)
  • “Diamond Dogs” (from Diamond Dogs)
  • “Rebel  Rebel” (from Diamond Dogs)
  • “Young Americans” (from Young Americans)
  • “Fame” (from Young Americans)
  • “Golden Years” (from StationtoStation)
  • “Heroes” (from Heroes)
  • “Ashes to Ashes” (from Scary Monsters)
  • “Under Pressure” with Queen (from Queen’s Greatest Hits)
  • “Let’s Dance” (from Let’s Dance)
  • “China Girl” (from Let’s Dance)
  • “Modern Love” (from Let’s Dance)
  • “This Is Not America” with The Pat Metheny Group (from The Falcon and The Snowman soundtrack)
  • “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger (single only)


1) I have the CD-Video  version of Sound + Vision (which means I have the original).  It also means the disk probably won’t play in my computer – I might as well get a Betamax while I’m at it.

2) Thanks to Brian Madison, who reminded me of The Singles 1969 to 1993, a 1993 Rykodisc release.  I blithely noted to him that it’s out of print, but so are a bunch of other best-ofs, so why not add it?  In any case, it looks like they use mostly full-length versions of his songs (excluding “Heroes”), has “John, I’m Only Dancing,” and goes through 1987’s Never Let Me Down with the inclusion of “Day-In, Day-Out” (whether that’s a plus is up to you).  This would be worth looking for in used CD stores.

3) This is added January 11, 2016; Bowie's death from cancer was announced a few hours ago.  Amazon's dropped its prices for Nothing Has Changed since I wrote this (whether it was awhile back or today I couldn't say), but because both the two- and three-CD sets have the same title, it's confusing.  Here's what it looks like as far as I can see:  two CDs as MP3 download are $9.99, three CDs are now $18.38 for the disks (which, again, come with some sort of book) and $17.99 for the download. On iTunes the two-CD download is two bucks more expensive, but the three-CD download is three dollars cheaper, which is the way I would go to get the music immediately.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From ... The Beach Boys

Last Edited 1/19/19.

When The Beach Boys charted their first hit, “Surfin’,” Barack Obama was in diapers, the Beatles’ drummer was Pete Best, most Americans had never heard of Vietnam, and the most popular television show in the United States was Wagon Train. So it’s been awhile.

There are several sections to the band’s career: the hit-laden surf, sun, and girls years (1962-1965), the Brian-Wilson’s-a-genius years (1965-1967), and the Brian’s on drugs/unavailable, so we have to get new material where we can get it (everything after, with occasional Brian resurgences). Most of the greatest hits sets now focus on the first two periods (with the exception of 1988’s “Kokomo,” to which Brian contributed nothing), but that wasn’t always the case, so buyer beware.

So while the group has had 24 top 20 hits in the United States, “Good Vibrations,” their huge #1 hit in 1966 (less than five years after “Surfin’”) was the 16th – and two of the remaining eight were a medley of their hits (during the early ‘80s medley craze) and a “Wipe Out” remake with the flash-in-the-pan rap act The Fat Boys. (It’s not likely you’ll find either of those on any hits sets – I know the medley is totally out of print, for example.)

Please also note that, Capitol Records (the Boys’ home for most of their careers – they did spend time with Reprise and Columbia under their Brother Records imprint, but all of that material has gone back to Capitol over time) is now owned by Universal Music Group, the Joe Stalin of the Big Three record conglomerates. (Of the remaining two, Warner Music Group [Warner Brothers, Elektra/Asylum, Atlantic, and Reprise] and Sony Music [Columbia, Epic, RCA, Arista] are either Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; I haven’t decided which is which.) So there will probably be more Beach Boys greatest hits sets than the overload we already have, and the quality may vary. Actually, that’s already starting to happen.

And an amusing note: there are two versions of “Help Me, Rhonda” floating around – one was from The Beach Boys Today! In 1965, with a slightly different title (“Help Me, Ronda”) and a different (and lousier) mix. Brian Wilson kept fiddling with it, rerecorded the whole thing, changed the title, and created a classic. Some of the anthologies mistakenly have used the “H”-free version. Make sure you’ve got the good one.

Finally, do know I have all of the Boys’ studio albums released between 1962 and 1974, so until recently the only “hits” set I had on CD is the 1990 box set Good Vibrations. That said, I can pretty much tell from the track listings what to get and what to avoid.

In the meantime, this seems as good a choice as any:


30 songs on a single disk, which was very kind of Capitol Records (as you’ll see, they weren’t always so benevolent). The only top 20 hit missing, aside from the two mentioned above, is “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” which peaked at #20. There are downloads that might be a better buy, but on disk itself, you won’t get more bang for your buck ($10.91 at Amazon as of this second).

And, since I promised there were thousands of best-ofs from the band, here they are. I’m only included best-ofs that were released on CD at some point in the United States, otherwise this would be an Endless Blog Post. All links go to the Wikipedia entry.

Best of the Beach Boys, Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 2, Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 3 – released in consecutive years between 1966 and 1968 by Capitol, none over 30 minutes, and with some overlap between them. I know Volume 3 was never released on CD, and I don’t think Volume 2 was either. But Amazon still claims to have one copy of Volume 1 on disk, so if you’re an absolute completist…

Endless Summer (1974) – I think everybody had a copy of this on vinyl after it first came out in 1974, because almost all of the band’s studio albums were out of print at that point. I still have mine, with the poster. It nails most of the hits between 1962 and 1965. That said, it’s a) confusing (all of the songs are from before ”Good Vibrations,” but the cover art shows the six Boys the way they looked in the ‘70s with lots of facial hair), and b) a total rip-off (the 20 songs on the two-album set clock in at less than 48 minutes, which means they could have fit the whole thing on one LP rather than two). Still available on Amazon if you want to spend 53 dollars. The one-disk CD version tacks on “Good Vibrations,” for what it’s worth.

Spirit of America (1975) – One more cash grab by Capitol, and this one doesn’t have “Good Vibrations” on it either. This leans more heavily on car songs and “Americana” material (remember, this was released a year before the Bicentennial). Oddly, this is available on Amazon for $7.99 for a single disk (although not for download), and for that price it’s a reasonable (albeit odd) sampler. Again, mostly from the early 1960s, although the 1969 single “Break Away” (a great flop single) is included. (The band wasn’t on Capitol by that point and had little control over what the label did with their back catalogue; they released a greatest hits set culled from their album releases from 1966 onward – so “Good Vibrations” was there, but “Break Away,” as a standalone single, made it here. That album, Good Vibrations – Best of The Beach Boys, never made it to CD.)

Ten Years of Harmony  (1981) – out of print now (although it did make it to compact disk), this is a bunch of songs from the post-Capitol Records era. Since there weren’t many actual, you know, hits during that time period, this may be for collectors only, but it’s got enough oddities to make it worth searching for.

Made in U.S.A. (1986) – the first hits set to mix Capitol and post-Capitol hits, this is actually a pretty good sampler. Contains two songs recorded specifically for the album, one of which can’t be found anywhere else (“Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Rescue,” but there’s a reason for that). The other one, a remake of The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” is enhanced by a Roger McGuinn 12-string solo, but loses steam with a mid-1980s arrangement and Kenny G-like sax solo. Out of print, but used copies are pretty easy to find (I got mine for a dollar).

Good Vibrations – Thirty Years of The Beach Boys (1993) – whoever was running Capitol’s reissue program in the early 1990s has it all over their 1970s counterparts. All of the band’s studio albums (along with a couple of mediocre live albums and the useless Party and Stack o’ Tracks – the latter was instrumental versions of their classics with the vocals imperfectly wiped off) were rereleased on CD in 1990 with two albums per CD, and bonus tracks as they fit. Plus, this super five-disk box set was released, with every familiar song you could possibly want (with the possible exception of “Let Him Run Wild,” in deference to Brian Wilson, who hates the recording), plus a whole disk of unreleased takes and almost every important track from the then-mysterious Smile sessions. Way too much for the casual listener, but essential for serious fans. It’s now over a hundred dollars for the physical box set on Amazon, but less than half that to download, which comes to less than 37 cents per track. Try to find a used copy; the accompanying liner notes are useful, too.

The Greatest Hits – Volume 1: 20 Good Vibrations (1995) – this sold a lot of copies in the States and the track listing is reasonably solid, but why buy a 20-song one-disk set when you can get 30? Amazon still has it around on disk, but not for download.

Endless Harmony Soundtrack (1998) – outtakes, alternate versions, etc. , so it’s not really a greatest hits set. And since I have the aforementioned box set with similar (although not identical) material, I don’t have it either. Still in print and available for download, so somebody must like it.

The Capitol Years (1999) – a 4-CD box with no rarities; this appears to have originally been issued through those experts on rock and roll, Reader’s Digest (although it’s on Capitol, so it should be legit). Out of print, and skippable.

The Greatest Hits – Volume 2: 20 More Good Vibrations (1999) – assorted hits that didn’t rate being included on the first volume four years before. I wonder how many people bought this based on the title only to discover “Good Vibrations,” despite the disk’s title, isn’t on it. (Gee, thanks Capitol!) Out of print.

Greatest Hits Volume Three: Best of the Brother Years 1970–1986 (2000) – and if you thought Volume 2 was skippable, this one’s even worse. Two Top 20 hits, both remakes of oldies (“Rock & Roll Music” and “Come Go With Me”), and all but two are on the Good Vibrations box set. Does not include “Kokomo.” (On the other hand, it also doesn’t include their misguided foray into disco, the 1979 remake of “Here Comes the Night.”) But it’s still in print and you can download it – pinch me!

Hawthorne, CA (2001) – like Endless Harmony Soundtrack, alternate takes, studio chatter, and assorted stuff for the uberfan, but not a hits set. Still available for download and on CD at Amazon if you’re so inclined.

Classics: Selected by Brian Wilson (2002) – since Capitol apparently had found an unquenchable market for Beach Boys reissues by this point, it was nice of them to let Brian compile one. Hardly their best (half the track selection is from the late 1960s and early 1970s, a fallow time for them commercially), but if they’re Brian’s favorites, so be it. Contains one new recording, “California Feelin’,” written around 1974 but never recorded by the band; it’s done here by Brian and a bunch of session guys. A reasonable download at $8.49.

The Warmth of the Sun (2007) – another “here’s what we couldn’t fit on the first one” disk; in this case since the first one was The Sounds of Summer, you’re getting a lot of familiar non-hit tracks.

The Original U.S. Singles Collection: The Capitol Years 1962-1965 (2008) – another one for the diehards, since this has both mono and stereo versions of most songs (Brian Wilson is deaf in one ear, so he generally preferred mono). It appears each single is on one CD, so that means each disc is about ten or twelve minutes long – hope you have a 12-disc CD player! Obviously overpriced for the casual fan.

Summer Love Songs (2009) – oh heck, you can listen to them all year ‘round. The only rarity is a Dennis Wilson song, “Fallin’ in Love” (Dennis had his moments in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a songwriter, before falling prey to drugs).

50 Big Ones: Greatest Hits (2012) – released during their 50th anniversary tour (you might remember this one; Brian, Al Jardine, and the long-missing David Marks rejoined Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, only to have Love boot the other three back out the second the tour ended). If you’re willing to spend the money, this covers all the bases, although it’s a little more expensive than Sounds of the Summer. Greatest Hits is an unnecessary 20-song single-disk abbreviated version.

Made in California (2013) – yet another box set, with different rarities and alternate takes than the Good Vibrations box set. I’ll pick one up if I see it cheap, which given it goes for $100 on Amazon seems unlikely.

I’m not linking to Icon (2013) or The Beach Boys: Millennium Collection – 20th Century Masters (2014), because they only prove my earlier point about Universal Music Group being a bunch of money-grubbing jerks. Both of these exist only to be purchased at truck stops in parts of the country where radio stations don’t come in. They’re cheap, but so damn short (certainly less than 30 minutes apiece) and are nearly identical (Icon has “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Be True to Your School” while Millennium Collection has “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” the other nine tracks are the same on both). Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Finally, it looks as though the band (or Capitol) has recently released several anthologies of songs from 1967 and 1968, which was one of Brian’s most creative periods – but they’re piles of outtakes and alternate versions, not hits.  Also, in 2018 Capitol released The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which mixes the band’s hits with (obviously) orchestral backgrounds. I don’t have the slightest interest in that one, but I may take it out of the library to confirm the nauseous feeling I’m getting writing about it.