My Favorite 15 Compilation Albums (in no particular order)

Music fans love lists. Don’t believe me? Watch High Fidelity, the best movie about music fans, which even includes a “Top Five Songs about Death.” So, here it is, my favorite compilation albums of all time.

past masters vol 1

The Beatles. Past Masters, Volume II.

The Beatles were a great album band as well as a great singles band. Volume 2 collects the singles from the Beatles’ later period, from late 1965 onward, starting with “Day Tripper” and ending with super strange “You Know My Name, Look up the Number.” Only three of these songs, “Across the Universe,” “Get Back,” and “Let It Be,” appeared on an album. All of them are different from the “original” Phil Spector versions on Let It Be.

The lovely cut of “Across the Universe” found here is the best available, though the song appeared in different forms on Let It Be and Let it Be Naked. “Revolution” was released as a single after being reworked from the slower, hornier (figuratively and literally) White Album version, “Revolution 1.” But the single version of “Revolution” is a much heavier rock and roll song. With its opening “turn it to 11” burst of distorted Lennon guitar, it’s the best rock song the Beatles did.

For those that have doubts about Ringo’s abilities as a drummer, just listen to his work on “Day Tripper” and “Rain.”

blondie

Blondie. Best of Blondie.

Debby Harry is the sexiest woman in the history of rock. I mean, look at the cover. Am I wrong, or is one of band members copping a feel? Added to her sex appeal was the fact that she was smart, scary, funny, and seemingly bilingual (does she really know French?). Oh, and she could sing and write great songs, too.

Best Of covers many musical bases, from disco to New Wave to rap (yes, rap) and hard rock. The band’s best known song, “Heart of Glass,” the first track on their Best of, misrepresents the band as a disco act. Blondie was more than that. See footage of them live in the late 70s and you see a band that’s much more Live at Leeds than it is Saturday Night Fever.

Blondie was also more than Harry doing a Every-Punker’s-Wet-Dream act every night. She had a damn good band behind her. Drummer Clem Burke’s work on “Dreaming” is worthy of Keith Moon. Songwriter and guitarist Chris Stein provides guitar licks reminiscent of the Pretenders. And there’s a keyboardist! The band had energy but was also versatile. The result is that Best of is something like a New Wave Revolver, bouncing the listener from disco to rock to ska in just a few tracks. But then again, that’s what great compilation albums do.

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Various artists. Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era.

The film High Fidelity begins with the 13th Floor Elevators’ blues classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Why does it kick off the best movie about music fans? Because it’s a break up song in a movie dealing with break ups. The other songs on this disk are just as weird and intense.

The subtitle of the album is Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. It was issued in an era that produced big, acid rock band names like Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quick Silver Messenger Service. Don’t remember the Chocolate Watchbands? Well, they can be found on Nuggets playing “Let’s Talk about Girls.” 

Nuggets is available is various formats. The edition I have collects the best tunes from the various volumes onto one disc. And it’s quite a disc, with garage classics like “Louie, Louie,” “Dirty Water” (the best song ever about Boston), and “Wooly Bully.” It’s an album every serious music fan should own.

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Link Wray. Rumble! The Best of Link Wray.

Link Wray should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. But he isn’t. Because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is stupid.

Listen to this album and you will hear the ground work for Pete Townshend’s guitar crunch. “He is the king,” Townshend once said. “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar.” Wray was a southerner, born in North Carolina. His parents were of the Shawnee tribe, which partially explains why Wray cut such songs as “Shawnee,” “Apache,” and “Comanche.”

Wray’s dad suffered PTSD in World War II. Wray himself served in he Korean war. He contracted TB, which led doctors to remove one of his lungs. With limited vocal power, Wray relied on his guitar to do the screaming for him.

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Wray employed a raw, minimalist, heavily distorted guitar sound. His songs were usually under 3 minutes long, but they are the kind of short bursts of electricity that inspire you to pick up a guitar when you’re a lonely teenager with too much time on your hands–just the stuff to appeal to impressionable lads across the Pond or the suburbs of Eisenhower America. Wray’s first hit, “Rumble,” was banned by some stations because it was feared it would incite Sharks & Jets-like gang wars. Ah, the 1950s….

Wray’s hipster cred was established in 1994 when not one but two of his songs were featured in Pulp Fiction during the faux 1950s diner scene that is so self-consciously hipster that you get an electric greasy heroin hamburger buzz just from watching it, baby.

Despite his health troubles, Wray made it to the impressively old rock star age of 76. His vinyl records are hard to find these days. But you can’t go wrong with Rumble!

Johnny Cash. The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983.

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Johnny Cash, for his ability to play and sing, write brilliant original songs, cover other artists well, appeal to rockers, punkers, and country folk, and put out an amazing number of albums (good and bad), is the most successful solo artist of all time. Yes, there’s Bowie, yes there’s Elvis and Dylan. But Johnny had a strong beginning at Sun, an inspired middle with Dylan and the folkies, and a celebrated end to his career in the hands of Beard Master Rick Rubin.

Bowie was great. So was Dylan. But neither of them are about redemption, or being American. Johnny Cash was the last of the frontier heroes.

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Astrud Gilberto. Astrud Gilberto’s Finest Hour.

This is the album that got me into bossa nova music, which I have enjoyed immensely. That’s all.

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Allman Brothers Band. A Decade of Hits, 1969-1979.

For me, this is all the Allmans you need. The live set at the Fillmore is impressive, but it doesn’t contain any of the crisp, radio-friendly songs that made up the best of the AB canon–songs like “Midnight Rider,” “Rambling Man,” “Melissa,” and “Jessica.” “Jessica” has been overplayed over the years on crappy FM stations. But I never get sick of any of these songs. And as for the Fillmore concert, A Decade of Hits includes some of the best moments from that seminal performance.

marshall tucker

Marshall Tucker Band. Anthology: The First 30 Years.

This is now available as a two CD collection, but the first disk is all you need. With that one CD, Marshall Tucker Band makes a good case for being the best southern rock band of the 70s, with the possible exception of the Allman Brothers. “Can’t You See,” “Take the Highway,” and “Heard It in a Love Song” are the best known songs by the group. But much of disk one is just as good. The band is at its worst when it gets slow and bluesy. When they were playing well, as on the track “Twenty Four Hours at a Time,” they were as good as any people making music in the 1970s.

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Del Shannon. Runaway: The Very Best of Del Shannon.

“Runaway” has always been one of my favorite songs. And if you like that song, which was featured in America Graffiti, and was a staple of oldies radio, you might like the rest of this compilation. Yes, the cover is dorky, and the early 1960s is not known for being a flush time for rock music. But the early 60s deserve better. Shannon was something of a bridge between the first rock period of the mid-50s and the British Invasion of the mid-60s. Shannon sang “From Me to You” before the Beatles did. And I actually like Shannon’s version better.

What gives this music edge is not just the minimalist arrangements, but the dark tone to much of the material. “Runaway” has a nice minor chord feel, and some of the songs here are as brutal as any love songs of the 1960s. Shannon might be wearing a sweater and tie on the cover, but there’s a darkness behind that smile.

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The Who. Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy 

As was true of the Beatles, the Who was (hate to us the past tense: the boys are still touring after all) a great singles band and album band. It was the group’s 1969 album Tommy that put them over the top into superstardom. The 1970, RCA cashed in on the Who’s newfound success by issuing Meaty, Beaty, which collects some of the band’s greatest works from the early period.

Some of the songs appeared on albums, such as “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” and “Pinball Wizard.” Others, such as “The Seeker” and “Pictures of Lilly,” did not. If you’re the type of person that thinks The Who Sell Out is the band’s best album, you’ll probably think “I Can See for Miles” is the group’s best. For me, though, “Substitute,” also on Meaty, is their best song. Others on Meaty are strong contenders for the Who’s best work, though. I’ve never been a huge fan of the rather crude “Boris the Spider” (a fan favorite) or “I’m a Boy.” But “Pictures of Lilly?” Well, classic rock doesn’t get much better than that.

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Creedence Clearwater Revival. Creedence Country.

Of all the Creedence albums, this is the one I have played the most. And I’ve played it a lot. Some of the songs stretch the definition of country. “Ramble Tamble” is more hard rock than country. But then again, this is a compilation album, which by definition ties to put sonic unity where there might be none. Yet, “Ramble Tamble” is the kind of thing you would hear on Outlaw Country radio today. So really, it’s country music that had to catch up to Creedence, not the other way around.

Alt-country bands love CCR for many reasons: the band was rootsy, holds up well, and never got too twangy. The cover of this album could’ve been taken in Austin two weeks ago, or Brooklyn.

I make sure this album is in my car at all times. It’s great to drive to.

freddie king

Freddie King. Ultimate Collection.

Freddie is my favorite King. He was more of a rocker than many other blues players, but he has a gift of seeming to be understated and virtuoso at the same time. Clapton covered his “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” and “Key to the Highway.” But Clapton’s versions pale in comparison to Freddie King’s originals. Freddie had a terrific voice, but his instrumentals could be great, too–case in point, “Hideaway,” which was a hit.

zombies

The Zombies. The Singles Collection

I said earlier in this essay that Link Wray should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So should the Zombies, even if all they had ever recorded was”She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season.” The band had an image as squeaky clean and nerdy. But they had soul and their songs were not bubblegum.

The Zombies only recorded for about 3 or 4 years and had one cohesive album, Odessey [sic] and Oracle. They were more of a singles band, which is why there are a good number of Zombies compilations out there. When they were at their best, they were as good as any of the British Invasion bands. Case in point: “Leave Me Be” and “Whenever Your Ready.”

patsy cline

Patsy Cline. 12 Greatest Hits

Patsy Cline is my favorite country vocalist, and “Crazy” is one of the best songs ever. This is the kind of album you’d like to play all night on a juke box at a quiet bar on a crisp October night.

blue shadows

Blue Shadows. On the Floor of Heaven.

Who the heck are the Blue Shadows you ask? It doesn’t matter. This two disk set is roots rock at its finest. At first listen, you might think it was recorded in the mid-70s, but it was actually done in the 1990s. The Blue Shadows are perhaps a footnote in the early years of alt-country. But they deserve better. These are three minute masterpieces–understated, literate, and tightly played. I especially like to play this on gray days in the winter when I need a pick me up.

That’s it. Rock on, y’all.

About amerikanrambler

Amerikan Rambler is a Virginia-based blog and podcast hosted by Colin Woodward. Colin is a historian, author, and amateur musician, who works in the archives full-time. Author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he is now writing a book on the historical, family, and musical roots of Johnny Cash.
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