(This section is for serious CD nerds. Really. Read on at your own risk. You’ve been warned!)
I have a sentimental attachment to CDs.
When I was sixteen in 1984, one of the employees at the electronics/music store Crazy Eddie in Nanuet, New York, told me to listen to THIS. He pushed “play” on their CD player, the first I’d ever seen in person, and the Chicago 17 album started. The first song on the album was “Stay the Night,” which opened with a hit from Danny Seraphine’s snare drum (I’ve also heard that the mighty Jeff Porcaro might have played on this track). Then silence. Then another drum hit. Then silence. By the time the keyboards kicked in, my jaw was on the floor. No turntable rumble, no ticks and pops, just vast nothingness in the background. I was hooked.
The players were expensive, as were the discs. I told myself that I would wait until I graduated from college in 1990 to buy one. Didn’t make it. I’d already bought nine CDs before I bought the player between my sophomore and junior years in the summer of 1988. (I know you’re wondering what the CDs were: Level 42’s World Machine and Wang Chung’s To Live and Die in L.A. were definitely two of them. For the rest, I’ll take my best guesses: Peter Gabriel’s So, Genesis’ Invisible Touch and Genesis, Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life, Wang Chung’s Mosaic, possibly ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, and I believe the UK version of Level 42’s World Machine, which had a different track listing.) There were two used-music stores that were walking distance from the campus in Rochester, NY: Record Archive and Compact Disc Exchange. They knew me by name.
My first player was a Magnavox CDB 471, made in Belgium (that’s where the great early CD players were made). I loved that player with all my heart. Especially great was the orientation of the buttons, so that to start a track when you’re DJing, you push downward on the pause button. Plus, it was nearly impossible to make it skip, which was a very useful feature if you were DJing twenty feet off the ground on a scaffolding (and who wasn’t back then?)
I only had one player, so for DJ gigs (which require two players) I had to borrow another one from WRUR, usually a Technics 101 or one of the common models that looked just like it. Those had a handy auto-cue feature that automatically skipped over any silence at the beginning of the tracks, which my Magnavox could not do. None of these machines had pitch control, so you had to learn the BPMs of your songs and learn how to mix quickly and forcefully to get from one song to another. I got really good at it really quickly, and I’m sure that skill helped my popularity as an on-campus DJ.
I think the first pitch control I ever saw on a CD player was on a top-loading Technics model number SL-P1200, which came out around 1990 and was built as heavy as a Technics 1200 turntable. Those Technics SL-P1200 CD players were terrible, and they didn’t last more than a year at WRUR before we replaced them.
In the early ’00s, I started collecting old CD players that I’d find in thrift stores, from when people started buying DVD players. I’ve since found units of my old Magnavox 471, plus the first old Magnavox unit that WRUR installed in their on-air studio, and eight to ten other nice mid-’80s-era units. All work, some better than others. They’re stacked neatly in a closet in the basement. They’re great-looking machines, but they have no resale value, unfortunately.
CDs were also extremely influential on my work career (my actual day job outside of the radio playground). Beginning in 1991, I worked with optical data storage at 3M (Magneto-Optical disks), the University of Arizona (focus and tracking systems for optical disks), Eastman Kodak (blank CD-R media), and Seagate (an attempt to incorporate lasers and fibers into a sealed drive). I have a Ph.D. and twenty-two issued U.S. Patents in the field of optical data storage. I should point out that the data storage world used the spelling “disk,” as in “floppy disk” or “hard disk,” while the audio CD world used “disc,” as in “compact disc.”
CDs were a big reason why I got into the field of optics. I still find the little shiny discs fascinating. And just for the record, my dissertation is titled, The Irradiance Distribution at the Exit Pupil of the Objective Lens in Optical Disk Data Storage, which I finished in 1995. It has a picture of James Brown on the Acknowledgements page, where it reads, “Because of James, I got soul and I’m super bad.”
My standing in the music world is probably unique. I’m in the position of simultaneously being a music fan who loved the songs of the ’70s/’80s/’90s, a radio guy who worked with those songs when they were hits, a record/CD collector who bought those songs multiple times on multiple discs, a modest audiophile who wants those songs to sound good, and an over-educated engineer who knows way too much about what’s inside your CD player. I learned that not all discs are the same; I’ve done hundreds of disc-to-disc comparisons, and I’ll gladly share what I’ve learned over the years. Bear in mind that this may be of limited or no interest to you, unless you, too, have a fondness for those shiny, obsolete discs.
Historically, musical formats have come and gone about every twenty-five years or so, and CDs were no exception. They were introduced in the U.S. on March 2, 1983, when CBS Records released their first sixteen titles. CDs had a great run in the late 1980s and the 1990s and declined throughout the 2000s. It’s hard to pin down an exact date that they became “obsolete,” but I’d suggest that that date would be September 9, 2009, the date that EMI released superb remastered versions of the entire Beatles catalog. It’s doubtful that the pop music world will ever produce any future CD releases that equal the 2009 Beatles albums in terms of quality of music, quality of mastering, quality of presentation of the material (in both stereo and mono where available), or in terms of cultural significance. The way I see it, CDs went out on a high note with those terrific Beatles discs in 2009.
On the odd chance that you might be interested in searching out some of the CDs that have been so useful to me over the years, I’ve prepared a rough guide for you. This isn’t meant to include everything that was ever released or everything I’ve ever owned; it’s just a set of recommendations in case you have similar musical tastes to mine and want to find some of that music on those old, obsolete CDs. There are plenty of other guides out there for full-length single-artist CDs, so most of the CDs I’ll discuss are compilations, which work very well for rounding up the hits.
I’ll be talking about the particular “sound” of certain CDs. I should point out that essentially all of that sound, and how it compares to other CDs, is determined by a mastering engineer, who is the person responsible for the exact zeroes and ones that end up on the disc. Once the mastering engineer sends it out the door, that’s that. You can’t do any tweaks on it yourself to make it sound better, because there really aren’t any adjustable parameters on your CD players; either they read the discs and produce an output, or they don’t. If there are severe scratches, you may hear some obvious-sounding clicks or skips, of course, but for CDs in decent shape, they sound how the mastering engineer wanted them to sound.
Around 1991, there were some audiophile fads that purported to improve the sound of CDs. A common one was coloring around the circumferential edge of a CD with a green magic marker, with the intent of absorbing any scattered infrared light inside the disc. You could buy fancy, expensive green magic markers for just this purpose. They had no effect on how CDs actually sounded, but if you spent enough money, you could convince yourself otherwise. Likewise, you could buy a set of Sims Reference Bands, which were specially made rubber bands that fit around the outside of the disc in order to stabilize it as it spins, with the intent of reducing the workload of the focus and tracking servos. These didn’t do anything, either. In addition to not hearing any effect with my ears, I also spent an afternoon in my 3M days actually taking carrier-to-noise measurements on discs with and without the bands— no difference. There have always been snake oil vendors, and there always will be snake oil vendors.
That’s not to say that all CD players sound the same. But if you do a comparison of two discs on one particular player, if one disc has a particular set of zeroes and ones and another disc has the exact same zeroes and ones but had some fancy post-purchase treatment applied to it, the two discs will sound the same. Not exactly rocket science, but that’s how digital media works. (Analog media may be a different story. Your records really will sound better if you clean them.) And exactly how a disc sounds is the responsibility of the mastering engineer.
There are actually a whole lot of ways for a mastering engineer to screw up the sound of a CD. I’ll list these in descending order of seriousness, in my opinion.
1. Making the sound as loud as possible.
This results in digital clipping or very severe compression/limiting. This is often known in audiophile circles as “brickwalling,” because if you look at the waveform in a digital editing program, all the peaks are at the same level, giving the visual impression of a brick wall. Doing this sucks the dynamic range out of a song, so that the soft parts are basically as loud as the loud parts. Listening for extended periods to brickwall-mastered music is thought to fatigue the ears.
Brickwalling started in the mid-’90s, with albums like Oasis’ 1995 What’s The Story, Morning Glory? Basically, it’s a cumulative result of producers and record label people saying that they want to be mastered louder than the competition. It’s led to a ratcheting up of volume levels over the years, so that it’s almost expected.
For new pop music recorded after about 1995, you’re pretty much stuck with some degree of brickwalling in the mastering. The songs just won’t exist with a proper dynamic range, so you’re out of luck. For compilations that include older songs, you’ll generally want to avoid compilations released around 1999 or later. There are exceptions, of course, but if you’re choosing between a compilation that was released somewhere around 1992-1996 and one released much later, such as in the 2000s, go with the older one.
2. Using exaggerated equalization (EQ).
Some CDs boost the low end, making the sound really boomy, boost the high end, making the sound really harsh, or both, making the sound sort of like pushing the “loudness” button on your old receiver. I’ve heard references to a “smiley-face” EQ, which is the shape of the sliders on a graphic equalizer that would boost the high and low ends. In extreme cases, I’ve heard CDs with extreme smiley-face EQ referred to as “ear bleeders.”
3. Using inferior source tapes.
In the mid-’80s, the record companies had a mad rush to get as much material released on CD as possible. Many of these early releases used whatever tapes they had handy, like a tape copy that was used for cutting LP records (and so had some EQ applied to it to satisfy the physical limitations of records, such as ensuring that the needle wouldn’t jump out of the groove in the loud parts).
In general, you want to use the lowest-generation analog source tapes that you can find, preferably the original two-track mixdown tapes whenever possible. Analog copies of those tapes always show some kind of deterioration in the sound, like a loss of clarity, a muffled high end, an increase in tape hiss, or a loss in the detail of the soundstage.
4. Using noise reduction.
Unless a source tape is so hissy that it interferes with the listening experience, I feel that there’s no need to use additional noise reduction on the analog source tapes. Obviously, if a tape is recorded with Dolby A noise reduction, you want to play it back with Dolby A decoding. But applying extra noise reduction to a master tape, just to make the background quieter and get rid of some hiss, is usually a bad thing.
There are examples of gentle use of noise reduction that really don’t hurt the sound too much, like on the 1993 Steely Dan box set Citizen Steely Dan. There are also examples of extremely heavy-handed noise reduction, which obliterates the background hiss but sucks the life out of the music, like on all but the very first CD releases of the Jimi Hendrix catalog. Noise reduction is just a tool, and in the hands of a good mastering engineer, it can solve a specific problem without detracting from the listening experience. It’s especially useful for cleaning up transfers from vinyl records, when used lightly. More often than not, though, it’s abused and causes more harm than good.
In the late ’80s, Sonic Solutions developed some software called NoNoise, which is one example of common noise reduction software used in the studios. One of the major music library suppliers for radio, TM Century, went overboard with NoNoise in the late ’80s, and many of their releases from that time-period sound like garbage as a result.
If you want to know when noise reduction is being used, a telltale sign is in the fade-out of the song. If the high-end, or treble, disappears or drops during the fade-out, then noise reduction was used. Likewise, if you hear a whooshing sound on the fade-out, that’s another tip that noise reduction was used. If the EQ remains the same as the volume drops, then usually there wasn’t any noise reduction used. Listen to the hi-hat cymbal in the drums during the fade-out; if it recedes into the background or disappears, you’ll know that noise reduction is the culprit.
For digital editing programs, try boosting the fade-out of the song by about 40 dB. If the music retains the same EQ as the volume changes during the fade, then you probably don’t have any noise reduction on that track. Ideally, with a 40 dB boost, you’ll be able to hear the music fade to an audible tape hiss, which I find reassuring.
On the plus-side, for the ’70s/’80s/’90s pop/rock hits, virtually every CD listed below does not use noise reduction. There may be isolated instances where a particular track is taken from vinyl, but there is no widespread use of noise reduction on the Rhino, Time-Life, or other CDs listed below. I can’t vouch personally for the ’50s or ’60s tracks, though, since I haven’t analyzed many of them in detail.
5. Applying additional compression/limiting at the mastering stage.
This is basically a more gentle version of offense #1 from above. All recorded music is compressed at some point, but there’s no need to take what’s on the two-track mixdown tape and add extra compression to it. This sacrifices dynamic range and moves away from the sonic qualities of the two-track mixdown tapes.
6. Remixing from the multi-track tapes.
This doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it often comes across as being revisionist. In 1987, George Martin went back to the original multi-track tapes and remixed the Help! and Rubber Soul albums for CD release. Around the same time, Warner Bros. remixed the first six ZZ Top albums for CD release. All of the above include an unfortunate amount of digital reverb and other effects that weren’t present on the original mixes. The Carpenters’ catalog is littered with Richard’s endless tinkering, making the original mixes very hard to find and identify.
My advice for those attempting to rerelease old songs: Use the original two-track mixdown tapes that were used for the original LPs and 45s. Those versions are what originally made the song a hit. Please don’t remix.
To be fair, there are a handful of very well-done remixes out there that are very true to the original mixes. Bill Inglot’s remixes of Dionne Warwick’s back catalog are quite good, as are Dennis Drake’s remixed tracks for James Brown’s Star Time box. But unless you’re Bill Inglot or Dennis Drake, don’t do it.
7. Truncating the fade-outs.
Fading a track early, or cutting off the tail-end of a fade, usually happens for only one of two reasons. One possibility is that the song is taken from vinyl and the mastering engineer wants to cover up any surface noise that you’d hear from the fade-out. The other is that there are too many songs on the disc and they don’t all fit. There are a few compilations that cram twenty songs on a disc, which is just a few too many for songs that came out in the ’70s/’80s/’90s.
8. Using a non-hit version of the song.
In most cases, this means using a longer album version of the song, rather than the hit 45 version. Some people prefer the longer album versions, but I’m not one of them. For songs released before the mid-’80s, the 45 was usually the album version or was a shorter edit of the album version. For songs that came out after the mid-’80s, there were often many more mixes in circulation, making the determination of which was the “hit” a little more tricky. In general, you’ll know it if you hear it.
For songs released before about 1972, there was the issue of stereo vs. mono. Stereo records first appeared in the late ’50s, but the early stereo records often just panned some instruments to the left and others to the right. The first few stereo Beatles albums used this hard left/right panning, and I find them unlistenable, especially in headphones. The concept of a good stereo mix, with gentle panning of instruments to form a soundstage, would take until the late ’60s to catch on in the pop world. From the early ’70s onward, stereo was the norm.
But even though most of the ’60s-era pop songs have some kind of stereo mix available, the “hit” versions, which were sold on mono 45s and was played on mono AM radio, were mono. As an example, take the Motown label. For the Motown acts, it’s safe to say that 95% of the effort was put into making a great mono mix, since that was going to be the hit. The remaining 5% was used to crank out a stereo mix, often as an afterthought. Most Motown sounds great in mono, but just so-so in stereo. This was the rule-of-thumb until about 1972, when the Motown 45s started using stereo. Not all ’60s-era stereo mixes sound bad, but in general, the mono mixes were better.
When CD compilations started to appear in the mid-’80s, most of them used stereo whenever it was available, even if the stereo mixes sounded like mud compared to the mono mixes. It would take years for many of those old mono mixes to surface on CD. Even today it’s a challenge weeding through what’s available on CD. I give a few recommendations below, but it’s by no means comprehensive.
Remember, if anyone asks: Mono was generally better than stereo, until about 1972.
9. Making the disc too quiet.
This is an easily correctable problem, since your CD playback system has a volume knob. But it’s still a minor nuisance. Some early CDs had unnecessarily low volume levels, like an early Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits CD where some of the songs had around 9 dB of headroom! This was an issue with some CDs released before 1986 or so. From 1987 onward, excessive low volume wasn’t much of a problem.
So, given these nine potential sins against sound, it’s remarkable that the 2009 Beatles mono box set managed to avoid essentially all of them! It sounds as good as this material will ever sound. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about most of the CDs released after about 1996, many of which compete in the so-called “loudness wars.” (The Time-Life CDs are the exception, although most of the their CDs released after about 1999 feel like retreads of earlier Time-Life CDs.)
I’ll now give you a handy trick to use, plus a short series of definitions that I use when discussing various masterings, and then we’ll move on to actual reviews.
Trick #1, noted above, is to crank up the volume and listen to the fade-out, which will generally tell you if noise reduction is being used. Trick #2 is sometimes referred to as a “null test” for comparing the masterings of two different CDs and is described below.
First, load both tracks into a multi-track audio editor and line up the samples as best you can. If the samples don’t seem to line up at all, or if the two waveforms look completely different, then the two masterings use two different analog transfers. It’s also very easy to tell if one fades earlier than the other, or if the shapes of the fade-outs are different.
If the two waveforms have the same shapes, with specific peaks and valleys in the same places, then you may have a case where both of them use the same analog transfer. Try adjusting one of them laterally (in time) so that the samples line up near the beginning of the song. If they stay mostly in synch throughout and are off by only a few samples by the end of the song, the odds are pretty good that they use the same analog transfer for both.
If, after you adjust the samples to line up near the beginning of the song, they remain perfectly synched up for the rest of the song, then you have a case where one is a “digital clone” or the other, or both are “digital clones” of some other digital source.
If they remain in synch throughout, invert one of them, then try adjusting the volume level of one of them, usually downward so you don’t get clipping.
If you get some cancellation but still hear some music peeking through, then one is a “differently EQ’d digital clone” of the other. In most cases, where the EQ adjustments aren’t all that drastic, you’ll be able to get cancellation down to about -40 dB or -45 dB, but not much better.
If you can get cancellation down to dithering noise (which sounds like white noise, only down at -84 dB or so), where no music peeks through and it’s just dithering noise, then one is a digital clone that has a volume change and nothing else. For instance, if you get to dithering noise with a 1.2 dB volume change, then it’s fair to call one of them “digitally exactly 1.2 dB louder” than the other. In the same CD player, these two discs will sound as close to each other as you can get, if you adjust the volume knob to match the volumes of your playback.
If you get complete cancellation, down to -120 dB, after you line up and invert one of the tracks, then the two are “digitally identical.” The same zeroes and ones throughout. They will sound identical in the same CD player, without having to adjust the volume knob.
I explain all of this terminology in detail because there are many, many compilations out there that use the same analog transfers as other existing CDs. You can use the release dates of the CDs to figure out which came first. A good fraction of those are also digital clones of other existing CDs as well.
Now I’ll give some generalized reviews of pop/rock compilations and greatest-hits discs, in case you want to hunt down old CDs. Some of these are quite pricey; others are extremely inexpensive. These break down into general categories, usually by record company, timeframe of release, and/or mastering engineer.
My rule of thumb for almost any old pop/rock/soul track (a rule important enough to warrant its own paragraph, in bold and centered):
Find it on a CD mastered by Bill Inglot and released before about 1996.
Bill Inglot worked primarily for Rhino in the 1980s and ’90s but did some superb work for Motown and a few other labels as well. In general, if it’s on Rhino and was released before about 1996, you can be pretty sure it sounds good and is worth picking up. After around 1996, though, his masterings suffered from “the loudness war” and became as loud as everyone else’s.
Bill Inglot tends to use the best source tapes in existence. He’s really unequalled in combing through the vaults to find the lowest-generation source tapes. For the Rhino compilations, Bill tends to do fresh analog transfers from those tapes, unless he’s already done that for a particular track that’s on an earlier Rhino CD. Then he often recycles. He never uses additional noise reduction to reduce tape hiss, which is a huge plus. And finally, he tends to do his mastering with a slight boost to the high end. I don’t mind the slight treble boost, but other audiophiles may not like it.
My runner-up rule of thumb for virtually any genre of music (also important enough to appear in bold):
Find it on a CD mastered by Dennis Drake.
Dennis Drake mastered a lot of single-artist discs on the Polygram family of labels, all of which I highly recommend. But if you collect compilations, you’re most likely to find his name on a lot of Time-Life collections. In general, if you find a collection on Time-Life that has Dennis Drake listed as the mastering engineer, then you can be assured that it sounds excellent. All of his discs have reasonable volume levels and perfect EQ. In fact, out of all the big-name mastering engineers whose names I recognize, I tend to like Dennis Drake’s EQ settings the best. Many, many tracks on Dennis Drake’s Time-Life compilations are digital clones of existing CDs, usually with volume changes and/or EQ changes. I view this as a seal of approval for those earlier CDs; if it’s good enough for Dennis Drake’s ears, it’s good enough for mine.
The sweet spot for the Rhino releases is about 1988-1995, with just about all of their releases being outstanding in those years. The releases before that are also excellent, but their compilation series didn’t start in earnest until the Billboard series began in 1988. After 1996, there was pressure to compete in the “loudness wars,” and Rhino discs got too loud as well, which resulted in a little clipping and or additional compression/limiting to reduce the clipping. Bill Inglot mastered just about all of the compilations I list, and they’re really outstanding.
I’ll go through the Rhino compilation catalog chronologically, highlighting only those discs that appeared in a series. (We’ll collect anything that’s numbered, no?)
Billboard Top R&R Hits: years 1955-1968, 1973, and 1974, released in 1988; years 1969-1972, released in 1989; years 1960-1969, rereleased in 1993 with slightly different track listings, due to licensing requirements.
Outstanding, superb, top-notch, and virtually every other superlative you can come up with.... Only ten tracks per disc and skimpy notes, but really terrific sound. These really raised the bar for every single compilation series that has ever followed.
British Invasion: Vols. 1-4, released in 1988; Vols. 5-9, released in 1991.
Possibly the best presentation of this genre to date. Some tracks taken from vinyl, but we’re lucky to have those tracks at all on CD.
Billboard Top R&B Hits: years 1955-1969, released in 1989; years 1970-1974, released in 1990.
Comparable to the R&R Hits series. Also outstanding, but only ten tracks per disc.
The Disco Years: Vols. 1 and 2, released 1990; Vols. 3-5, released in 1992; Vols. 6 and 7, released in 1996.
The definitive series for the short 45 versions for disco tracks. Some are re-edited down from album versions or other two-track mixdown tapes; all sound pretty good, but there are some edits that don’t quite match the 45s. “Hot Stuff” and “Le Freak” get the edits in the right points but end up being a lot longer than the 45s. “Heart Of Glass” is an edit of the Best of Blondie mix that mimics the 45, but it isn’t the original mix. “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain” are missing some elements from the original mixes. For “Knock on Wood,” the original tapes for the 45 are missing, so the “flyover” intro will never appear on CD from a source tape. The source tape to “Hot Shot” is a little garbled. “I Love the Nightlife” sounds much, much better than on other compilations, but it must have been some other tape from the vault and not the true 45; this version is missing the twenty beats from 2:39-2:49 of the 45 version. The KC & the Sunshine Band tracks are all digitally identical to their 1990 Rhino Greatest Hits CD.
Don’t take all these criticisms as complaints. I’m aware of all of them because of the enormous amount of use I’ve gotten out these discs. These tracks have been under more scrutiny than most in my collection, and I still wholeheartedly recommend all seven of them.
Have A Nice Day: Vols. 1-15 released in 1990; Vols. 16-22, released in 1993; Vols. 23-25, released in 1996.
The definitive, untouchable seventies-pop series. Musically, you can decide for yourself if this is your cup of tea, but the collection of these songs is truly outstanding.
A few years back, I went through a track-by-track detailed analysis of all 300 songs in this series. I found eighteen of them taken from vinyl, which really isn’t all that bad considering the obscurity of some of the songs and labels. “Rock and Roll Part 2” is an odd mix of unknown origins. “Tubular Bells” is not the 45 edit and sounds pretty terrible. “Devil Woman” uses severely noise-reduced source tapes and sounds awful. “Fox on the Run” has a severe treble boost. Keep in mind, this is far more scrutiny than the average person would give to these discs.
Again, despite my criticisms of particular tracks, all twenty-five volumes are highly, highly recommended.
Billboard Top Hits: years 1975-79, released in 1991; years 1980-1984, released in 1992; years 1985-1989, released in 1994; years 1990-1995, released in 2000.
Similar to the other Billboard discs, with ten tracks each. “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” is an early fade of the LP version rather than the 45 edit. “Kiss on My List” is an edit of the LP version and almost matches the 45 except for a tiny error in editing at 2:46. “Addicted to Love” is a recreation of the odd-intro edit from The Island Story, but with better source tapes. “Ring My Bell,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Wild, Wild West” are previously unreleased mixes, which are neat sounding but aren’t even close to the hit mixes; I suspect someone pulled the wrong tapes from the vaults.
The 1985-1989 are mastered a little loud and clip a bit but still sound very good. I’m not a fan of the 1990-1995 years, which clip a lot.
Didn’t It Blow Your Mind!: Vols. 1-15, released in 1991; Vols. 16-20, released in 1995.
The soul equivalent of the Have A Nice Day series, and extremely well done. All twenty volumes are stellar. There may be some faults similar to the ones I noted for the Have A Nice Day series, but I haven’t subjected these songs to that much scrutiny. All twenty volumes are really outstanding and are worth hunting down.
Billboard Top Dance Hits: years 1976-1980, released in 1992; years 1981-1985, released in 1998.
The 1976-1980 years are great and sound superb. Not a fan of the 1981-1985 collections, which are generally too loud and clip a lot.
D.I.Y.: Vols. 1-9, released in 1993.
Great, great, great pop/punk series. So many obscurities and gems! A few taken from vinyl, but we’re lucky to have them on CD at all.
In Yo’ Face: Vols. 1-5, released in 1993; Vol. 1/2, released in 1994.
The best-sounding and best-chosen series for the 45 versions of some great pop/funk. Great liner notes written by Sean Ross, too. Essential.
Disco Hits: Vols. 1-3, released in 1992; Vols. 4-6, released in 1994.
These were ten-track budget collections. Most, but not all, tracks are digital clones from The Disco Years or Billboard Top Dance Hits discs. Not at all essential.
Seventies Smash Hits: Vols. 1-6, released in 1993.
These were also ten-track budget collections. The timeframe for all these songs is 1969-1972. About half the tracks use the same analog transfers as the first eight volumes of Have A Nice Day. Some are from the first eight volumes of Didn’t It Blow Your Mind! A nice series if you find the discs cheap, but far from essential.
Soul Hits: Vols. 1-3, released in 1993.
More ten-track budget collections. All very common ’60s-era pop/soul, and all likely using the same analog transfers as other Rhino discs.
Billboard Top Pop Hits: years 1961-1964, released in 1994; years 1965-1969, released in 1995.
Pleasant, but a little square for my musical tastes. The discs sound very good, though.
Just Can’t Get Enough: Vols. 1-10, released in 1994; Vols. 11-15, released in 1995.
Rhino’s best ’80s new wave pop series, and probably the best new wave pop series ever released. Nearly all are 45 versions, some of them being extremely hard to find or previously unavailable on CD. “88 Lines About 44 Women” may possibly be taken from vinyl, and the first fifty-three seconds of “One Night in Bangkok” are from vinyl. But that’s all I found. Everything else seems to be from a tape source, and usually a very good tape source. I think that Rhino’s collections might have peaked with this series; they’re that good.
Seriously, if you’re looking to start a new wave collection on CD, start with these.
Phat Trax: Vols. 1-5, released in 1994; Vols. 6-7, released in 1997.
Old-school greatness, covering the late ’70s through about 1984. A lot of long 12” versions, which is a plus. They’re all mastered a little loud, though, and show clipping. Still, one of the best old-school collections out there.
Billboard Hot R&B Hits: years 1980-1984, released in 1996; years 1985-1989, released in 1995.
Overall, excellent. For some reason, these discs aren’t nearly as common as some of the other Billboard discs, but they’re great collections for those years. As a plus, it features the true 45 version of “Sexual Healing,” which was slightly edited for the LP version (the one that turns up on most CDs). In case you’re wondering, the true 45 version features the line “wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up” sung in the sixteen beats from 1:49-1:59, while the LP version has the line whispered (rather than sung) in that same portion.
Billboard Hot Soul Hits: years 1970-1974, released in 1995.
Also excellent, and also overshadowed by the other Billboard discs.
Radio Daze: Vols. 1-5, released in 1995.
Covers the same flavor as the Have A Nice Day series, but in the timeframe of 1979-1981. These are the only existing CD source for many of the songs and are generally highly prized nowadays. Franke and the Knockouts’ “Sweetheart” is from vinyl, but everything else is from a tape source. Buy these if you find them.
Smooth Grooves: Vols. 1-4, released in 1995; Vols. 5-9, released in 1996.
Excellent “quiet storm”-type mellow collections. About half the tracks missed the pop charts completely, which is a plus for collectors.
Hang the DJ: years 1986-1988, released in 1996.
Half-hearted attempt at a college-rock or modern-rock series. They’re not bad, but they’re not essential by any means. I’ve found quite a few tracks on these that are digital clones of earlier non-Rhino CDs, which is very unusual for Rhino.
Mellow Rock Hits: Summer Breeze, Sundown, and Ventura Highway, released in 1997.
Just three CDs in this series, with terrific sound, but very non-essential track listing for me.
Poptopia: ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, all released in 1997.
Great single-disc collections of power pop. Some tracks are digital clones of the D.I.Y. or Just Can’t Get Enough discs. Mastering on the ’90s disc is a little loud, but that may be just how those songs were originally produced.
Very Best Of...
I should point out that there were many, many great single-artist greatest-hits collections on Rhino, all mastered by Bill Inglot. I’m especially impressed by a series of them called The Very Best of…, released from around 1993 to 1995, all with similar graphics. They’re the best overview I’ve found for many of the soul artists from Atlantic and a few other labels. Here are the ones I know of:
Released in 1993: Drifters, Tommy James & the Shondells, Wilson Pickett, Rascals, Spinners.
Released in 1994: Booker T & the M.G.’s, Coasters, Aretha Franklin: The ’60s, Aretha Franklin: The ’70s, Manhattan Transfer, Shirelles, Jackie Wilson.
Released in 1995: John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Joe Tex.
There are many, many other Rhino one-CD and two-CD “best-of”s that don’t fit into the 1993-1995 category, and I’ll stand behind virtually all of the ones released before about 1996.
In addition, Bill Inglot mastered the nine-CD set The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968, put out by Atlantic Records in 1991. The sound quality is on par with the Very Best Of... discs noted above, which is about as good as this material will ever sound. I don’t think Bill Inglot worked on the second (1968-1971) or third (1972-1975) box sets, which were put out by Fantasy Records.
I lump these discs in with the Rhino discs, because of the mastering greatness of Bill Inglot and the superb liner notes. But they’re all on Motown, not Rhino.
Motown has really cluttered up their back catalog with a ridiculous number of haphazard/substandard compilations, so I’ll give you some recommendations. All of the following compilations have three things going for them: (1) They’re mostly mono until the ’71 or ’72 timeframe. (2) They use the best-sounding tapes that have ever been unearthed. (3) They’re mastered by some superb engineers who don’t add extra compression or noise reduction.
If you’re going to collect vintage Motown, start with the Bill Inglot four-disc sets Hitsville U.S.A. and Hitsville U.S.A. Vol. II, both released in 1993 (on Motown, not on Rhino). The first one is entirely in mono; the second one is in stereo except for “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Together, they cover some of the most essential pop music ever recorded. Plus, they sound stellar.
After the Hitsville sets, there were a series of two-CD sets that came out for many of the Motown artists, all with a “Master Series” logo. All are terrific, and most are mastered by Bill Inglot. In order:
Released in 1993: Mary Wells: Looking Back: 1961-1964; Marvelettes: Deliver: The Singles 1961-1971; Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: Live Wire! The Singles 1962-1972.
Released in 1994: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The 35th Anniversary Collection (a four-CD set).
Released in 1995: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: Anthology; Commodores: Anthology; Supremes: Anthology; Michael Jackson: Anthology; Temptations: Anthology; Marvin Gaye: Anthology; Marvin Gaye: The Master 1961-1984 (a four-CD set); Rare Earth: Anthology; Gladys Knight and the Pips: Anthology.
Released in 1996: Grover Washington, Jr.: Anthology; Temptations: One By One: Best of Their Solo Years; Temptations: Anthology.
Other Motown collections:
Motown Classic Hits: Vols. 1-5, released in 1995.
A terrific little set of five CDs, each with twelve mono tracks from 1960-1964, a very uncommon track selection, and excellent sound throughout, thanks to the mastering skills of Lee Herschberg.
Motown Year-by-Year: years of 1964, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1987, all released in 1995.
Very nice track selection, including a bunch of uncommon tracks. Lots of 45 versions, which is a plus. All single-CD, with sixteen tracks each.
If collecting all the Rhino sets hasn’t bankrupted you, then collecting all the Time-Life CD sets surely will! Time-Life first starting issuing pop/rock CDs in 1987, by mail order rather than in stores. Most were issued as part of a numbered series, where the volume number was part of the catalog number and each disc had its own title. There are complete Time-Life discographies available on the Internet, with full titles and track listings. For this section in the book, I’m going to list only the volume number.
The sound quality of these discs tended to be better than average for compilations, although not as uniformly terrific as the Rhino releases. The masterings were done by Warner Special Products, and sound quality is exactly on par with their other releases.
I can generalize a bit about the Time-Life releases. On the plus side: Track selection tends to be superb on all of these series. Volume levels tend to be very reasonable, with little or no clipping. The Time-Life collections that I’ve encountered from the late-’90s/early-’00s do not suffer from the same “loudness war” that plagues virtually all other pop/rock/soul releases from this timeframe. There are very few instances of tracks that use noise reduction, early fades, or extra compression/limiting. Many, many tracks use the same analog transfers as earlier-issued CDs, both from earlier Time-Life discs and from non-Time-Life discs. The liner notes are all excellent, and the discography information is the most thorough of any collections out there. On the minus side: For some of the earlier discs, released around 1992 and earlier, the source tapes that were used weren’t always the lowest-generation available, and the volume levels were quite low. For the later-released series, there is a substantial recycling of tracks from earlier-released series.
Some of the Time-Life collections that are especially prized by audiophiles are those mastered by Dennis Drake, one of the very best mastering engineers on the planet. The Dennis Drake Time-Life discs (that I have) were released between 1995 and 2002, inclusive. Of the discs that he mastered, most of the tracks are digital clones of tracks from other existing CDs, which can have level adjustments and/or EQ adjustments. I note the Dennis Drake discs below and heartily recommend any of the discs he worked on.
In general, the Time-Life collections released around 1995 or later tend to sound the best. Time-Life really hit their stride around the same time that Rhino started to slip.
The Rock ’N’ Roll Era: Vol. 7, released in 1986; Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 9-12, 14, and 15, released in 1987; Vols. 3, 6, 8, 13, 16, and 17, released in 1988; Vols. 18-25, released in 1989; Vols. 26-33, released in 1990; Vols. 34-42, released in 1991; Vols. 43-50, released in 1992.
The definitive ’50s set. Sound levels are a bit low, but the insanely thorough track selection makes up for it. The single-artist collections are especially collectible, although there have been better-sounding greatest-hits packages subsequently released for all of them. These are all single discs, with about twenty-two tracks each. I haven’t seen higher than Vol. 50. Some of these have been remastered; you can tell by “RE-1” or “RE-2” in the matrix number on the discs.
Classic Rock: Vols. 1-4, released in 1987; Vols. 5-10, released in 1988; Vols. 11-19, released in 1989; Vols. 20-26, released in 1990; Vols. 27-30, released in 1991.
The definitive ’60s set. Sound levels are a bit low on this set as well, but the insanely thorough track selection also makes up for it. All are single discs, with about twenty-two tracks each. I believe there are only thirty in this series.
Sounds of the Seventies: Vols. 1-4, released in 1989; Vols. 5-12 and 48, released in 1990; Vols. 13-21, released in 1991; Vols. 22-28, released in 1992; Vols. 29-35, released in 1993; Vols. 36-38, released in 1994; Vols. 39 and 42, released in 1995; Vols. 40 and 41, released in 1996; Vols. 43-47, released in 1997.
The Time-Life numbering scheme for discs 1-37 is “SOD-01” through “SOD-37;” for discs 39-48 it’s actually “R840-01” through “R840-10.” Disc 38 (“Celebration”) doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the series, but I listed it here based on the entry from one of Time-Life’s own printed catalogs. Disc 48 (’70s Dance Party: 1979) is really the same as disc 9 (1979), but with slightly different artwork; the songs are identical.
A few of the early discs include tracks that are identical digital clones from Rhino’s Billboard Top Rock ’N’ Roll Hits series. Vol. 31 has most of its tracks using the same analog transfers as Rhino’s Have A Nice Day series, but with the left and right channels reversed. Vol. 32 has most of its tracks using the same analog transfers as Rhino’s Have A Nice Day series. Vol. 35 has most of its tracks with the left and right channels reversed. Vol. 38 is mastered way too loud and clips a lot; avoid this one. Vol. 39 uses extra compression on many tracks; avoid this one, too. Vols. 39-47 include many tracks that are digital clones of existing CDs.
Superhits/AM Gold: Superhits Vols. 1-4, released in 1990; Superhits Vols. 5-12, released in 1991; Superhits Vols. 13-20, released in 1992; Superhits Vols. 1-20, repackaged out of order with slightly different tracks as AM Gold Vols. 1-20 in 1995; Superhits Vol. 21 (Carpenters Collection), released in 1993; AM Gold Vols. 21-23 and 27, released in 1996; AM Gold Vols. 24-26, released in 1997; AM Gold Vol. 28, released in 1999; AM Gold Vols. 29-31, released in 2000; AM Gold Vols. 34 and 35, released in 2001; AM Gold Vol. 35, released in 2002; AM Gold Vol. 32 is unknown.
Similar in flavor to Rhino’s Have A Nice Day CDs, with a lot of overlap with other Time-Life series. All are single CDs, with twenty-one or twenty-two tracks each. In 1995, the Superhits series was repackaged as AM Gold, and more AM Gold discs were issued in the series.
Note that for the discs 1971, 1972, and Early ’70s Classics (and possibly others), the first pressings of the AM Gold versions are identical to their Superhits counterparts. Later pressings swapped out one or two tracks and are identified with a reissue “RE-1” in their matrix numbers.
Vols. 1, 3, 6, 7, and 13 have many tracks with their left and right channels reversed, although I haven’t checked any others in the first 14. From Vols. 15 onward, most, if not all, of the tracks are digital clones of existing CDs.
Rhythm & Blues/Solid Gold Soul: The original Rhythm & Blues series Vols. 1-20, covering the years up to 1972, were released from 1990 to 1992. Later Solid Gold Soul series repackaged all but three of the Rhythm & Blues set and added new volumes covering 1973 onward. Solid Gold Soul: Vol. 1, released in 1990; Vols. 2-4 and 12, released in 1991; Vols. 5-11, released in 1996; Vols. 15-17, released in 1997; Vols. 25 and 27, released in 1999; Vol. 19, 26, 28, released in 2000; Vols. 29-31, released in 2001; I’m unsure of Vols. 13, 14, 18, and 20-24, all of which were originally released as Rhythm & Blues discs.
A great set, with superb track selection. All are single CDs. For the 1996 and newer releases, most, if not all, tracks are digital clones of existing CDs. Solid Gold Soul Vols. 1, 5-10, 12, 15-17, and 25-31 are mastered by Dennis Drake. Vol. 19 is mastered by Jeff Zaraya. No mastering engineer is listed on Vols. 2-4 and 11. Again, I’m unsure of Vols. 13, 14, 18, and 20-24.
Guitar Rock: Vols. 1-3, released in 1993; Vols. 4-13, released in 1994; Vols. 14-21, released in 1995; Vols. 22-25, released in 1996; Vols. 26 and 27, released in 1999.
Very nice collections of, well, guitar rock. A little overlap with the Sounds of the Seventies pop series, but, otherwise, strong collections. All are single CDs, with seventeen to twenty-one tracks each. Levels are all pretty consistent, with no clipping at all. Graphics are all the same, with lots of red. Vols. 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, and 16-20, 24, 25, and 27 have some tracks that are digital clones of existing CDs. Vol. 3 has many tracks with their left and right channels reversed. Vols. 1-16 are mastered by Steve Carr. Vols. 19-21 and 27 are mastered by Dennis Drake. Vols. 17-18 and 22-25 don’t list a mastering engineer. I don’t have the liner notes to Vol. 26.
Sounds of the Eighties: Vols. 1-6, released in 1994; Vols. 7-14 and 25-30, released in 1995; Vols. 15-20, 31, and 32, released in 1996, Vols. 21-23, released in 1997; Vol. 24, released in 2002.
It’s straight-up-the-middle pop, and all are single-CDs. On the whole, they’re very good, but not perfect. Vols. 1-4 and 25 include many tracks that use the same analog transfers as existing CDs. Vols. 5-24 and 26-32 include many tracks that are digital clones of existing CDs. Vols. 5, 6, 8, 9, and 24 include some additional compression on some tracks, compared to those earlier CDs; avoid these if possible. Vols. 14, 17, 18, 20, 22, and 23 are mastered by Dennis Drake.
Body Talk: Vols. 1-9, released in 1996; Vols. 10-17, released in 1997; Vols. 18-20, released in 1998; Vol. 21, released in 2000; Vol. 22, released in 2001.
Superb mellow light-rock series. I use these a lot for music to play during dinner when I DJ weddings. These are two-CD sets, with twelve tracks per CD. Superb track selection and sound quality. Vols. 7 and 13-22 are mastered by Dennis Drake. Many tracks on all discs are digital clones of existing CDs.
Elvis Presley Collection: Vols. 1, 2, and 5, released in 1997; Vols. 3, 4, and 6-11, released in 1998; Vols. 12-14, released in 1999; Vol. 16, released in 2000.
These are two-CD sets, except Vol. 16, which is a single CD. There is no Vol. 15. This is a lot of Elvis and includes just about all his Hot 100 singles except for about three later ones. All discs are mastered by Dennis Drake. I suspect that many of the tracks are digital clones of the RCA five-CD sets covering the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s decades.
Body and Soul: Vols. 1-5, released in 1998; Vols. 6-16, released in 1999; Vol. 17, released in 2000; Vol. 28, released in 2003.
These are two-CD sets, similar in flavor to Rhino’s Smooth Grooves discs. Sound quality seems very nice throughout, but I haven’t spent much time with these. I verified that Vols. 1-4, 6-14, 16, and 17 are mastered by Dennis Drake. I don’t have Vol. 15 or the liner notes to Vol. 5, but I have no reason to doubt that they are also mastered by Dennis Drake. Vol. 28 is mastered by Scott Shuman.
Classic Country: Vol. 1, released in 1997; Vols. 2-8, released in 1998; Vols. 9-16 and 19, released in 1999; Vols. 17, 18, and 20, released in 2000; the series continued well beyond 2003.
These are two-CD sets, fifteen tracks per disc, all mastered by Dennis Drake. I only have the first twenty in the series, and the sound is very nice throughout.
Modern Rock: Vols. 1-7, released in 1999; Vols. 8-14, released in 2000; Vols. 15, 16, and 19-21, released in 2001; Vols. 17 and 18, released in 2002.
These are two-CD sets, with twelve tracks per CD. I think these were Time-Life’s answer to Rhino’s Just Can’t Get Enough series. Sound quality is excellent overall; all of these were mastered by Dennis Drake. Several of the tracks are LP versions, unlike the Rhino series that has all 45 versions. Many tracks on all discs are digital clones of existing CDs.
Singers and Songwriters: Vol. 3, released in 1999; Vols. 1, 2-7, 9, and 10, released in 2000; Vols. 8, 11-16, and 31, released in 2001; Vols. 17 and 18, released in 2002.
These are two-CD sets, except Vol. 31, which is a single CD. Many tracks on all discs are digital clones of existing CDs. Vols. 1-3, 5-7, and 10 are mastered by Dennis Drake. Vols. 4, 8-9, 11-18, and 31 are mastered by Ron Rice. Sound quality is very good overall.
Warner Bros. produced essentially all of the early Time-Life CDs, and they tend to do a very nice job overall. Their pluses and minuses are the same as for the Time-Life CDs, with the biggest drawback being that the early discs may not use the lowest-generation source tapes from the vaults.
There are many, many pop compilations produced by Warner Special Products and released by smaller labels, like Silver Eagle, Cornerstone, Starland, Razor & Tie, Sessions, Lake Shore, Teledisc, Heartland Music, and so forth. Most of these have a catalog number (or at least a secondary catalog number) starting with “OPCD-,” followed by a four-digit number starting with 25xx, 26xx, 27xx (those three being for the Time-Life releases), 35xx, 45xx, 85xx, and so forth. There are too many to detail here.
On the whole, I’d recommend any of the compilations released between about 1992 and 1996, which will have nice sound, reasonable volume levels, no noise reduction, and reasonable EQ. Some tracks may use the same analog transfers as existing CDs. The sound quality is about the same as those existing CDs, which is usually pretty good. Before 1992, the compilations tended to use higher-generation source tapes, which was especially noticeable for songs that date back to the ’50s and ’60s. After 1996, there are more instances of “brickwalled” songs finding their way onto the compilations.
One caveat: For a handful of compilations that cram twenty songs onto a single disc, some of the fadeouts may be truncated by a few seconds in order to get the total disc length under eighty minutes. This truncation doesn’t occur on the Rhino CDs or on the Time-Life CDs I noted above. (There’s a particular bad early-fade offender on a standalone two-CD set from Time-Life called Heart Rock, released in 1988, but that’s an anomaly.)
JCI put out a nice series of pop compilations beginning in 1994 called Only Rock ’n Roll and later expanded the line to Only Dance, Only Love, Only Soul, Only Country, and Only Rock ’n Roll: #1 Radio Hits. Each disc has a very straightforward song selection, pulling tracks from within a five-year window. Actually, the songs are so up-the-middle that these discs might make a nice introductory set for you to test the waters and see if you really like the pop from the particular eras. Many, if not all, tracks appear to use the same analog transfers as existing CDs, so you won’t really find anything new on these that doesn’t appear elsewhere with generally the same sound quality. A downside to the ’70s/’80s/’90s material on these discs is that many of the fade-outs are truncated by a few seconds to save time, since all the discs have twenty tracks on them. No liner notes on any of them beyond songwriter/publisher info.
Only Rock ’n Roll: 1955-1959, 1960-1964, 1965-1969, 1970-1974, 1975-1979, 1980-1984, and 1985-1989, released in 1994; 1955-1965 and 1990-1994, released in 1996.
Only Dance: 1975-1979, 1980-1984, and 1985-1989, released in 1995; 1955-1959, 1965-1969, and 1970-1974, released in 1996; 1960-1964, released in 1997.
Only Love: 1970-1974, 1975-1979, and 1980-1984, released in 1995, 1955-1959, 1965-1969, and 1985-1989, released in 1996; 1960-1964, released in 1997.
Only Country: 1950-1954, 1955-1959, 1960-1964, 1965-1969, 1970-1974, 1975-1979, and 1980-1984, released in 1995; 1985-1989, released in 1997.
Only Soul: 1970-1974 and 1985-1989, released in 1996; 1975-1979, and 1980-1984, released in 1997.
Only Rock ’n Roll: #1 Radio Hits: 1955-1959, 1960-1964, 1965-1969, 1970-1974, 1975-1979, 1980-1984, and 1985-1989, released in 1996, 1990-1994 released in 1997
Even though Madacy is responsible for putting out some collections that include rerecordings of the hits, the Rock On series has no such rerecordings.
Madacy wrought havoc for sellers by releasing second and third batches with similar names but different tracks. If you’re shopping for these, be aware that the Rock On 1982 disc from 1996 is different from the Rock On 1982: Hot in the City disc from 1998, which is also different from Rock On 1982, Vol. 2, from 2005, and so forth.
For the original 1996 releases in this series, most, if not all, tracks are digital clones of existing CDs, usually with just a level change and no EQ change. As with JCI’s Only… series, you won’t find much new on these that doesn’t appear elsewhere with the same sound quality. I like the original 1996 releases for this series. They tend to have very nice, uniform volume levels, track-to-track, and I haven’t seen any early fades on any of them. No useful liner notes, unless year-by-year trivia is considered useful.
The 1998 discs are comparable to the 1996 discs in that they’re generally digital clones of other discs, but the loudness wars had affected those other discs, and a few highly compressed/limited tracks from those other discs found their way on to the 1998 Rock On discs. Still, very nice overall.
The 2005 discs are a mixed bag. The best thing going for them is that a few contain some extremely hard-to-find 45 versions, like “On the Loose” and “Footloose.”
This is not a complete discography for these discs; I lost track of the many, many permutations of these after the first batch in 1996.
Individual years 1970 through 1989 were released in 1996; 1990 through 1992 were released in 1997; 1993 through 1995 were released in 1999?; 1960 through 1969 were released in 2004.
1970: In the Summertime; 1971: Ain’t No Sunshine; 1972: Summer Breeze; 1973: Diamond Girl; 1974: Seasons in the Sun; 1975: Midnight Blue; 1976: Summer; 1977: Dance Dance Dance; 1978: Hot Blooded; 1979: Heart of the Night; 1980: Too Hot; 1981: Bette Davis Eyes; 1982: Hot in the City; 1983: Sweet Dreams; 1984: Sunglasses at Night; 1985: Walking on Sunshine; 1986: Mad About You; 1987: Everybody Have Fun Tonight; 1988: Endless Summer Nights; and 1989: Miss You Like Crazy, released in 1998.
1982, Vol. 2; 1983, Vol. 2; and 1984, Vol. 2, released in 2005.
These are terrific snapshots of what was riding high on the UK pop charts at the time. They released two or three of these collections every year since the series started in 1983, right when the similar K-Tel and Ronco collections were falling out of favor with US and UK audiences.
Now That’s What I Call Music: Vols. 9 and 10, released in 1987; Vols. 11-13, released in 1988; Vols. 14-16, released in 1989; Vols. 17 and 18, released in 1990; Vols. 19 and 20, released in 1991; Vols. 21-23, released in 1992; Vols. 24-26, released in 1993; Vols. 27-29, released in 1994; Vols. 30-32, released in 1995; the series continues to this day.
Vol. 4 appeared on CD, but it’s ridiculously rare, and you’ll never find a copy. Vols. 8 and 9 were single-CD sets that appeared in 1986 and 1987, respectively. From Vol. 10 onward, they were two-CD sets. These sets usually feature the UK 45 versions of the songs, some of which differ from the corresponding US 45s, and many of which were extremely hard to find on CD at the time. On the whole, highly recommended.
Tenth Anniversary series: One two-CD set released for each year from 1983 to 1993, all released in 1993. They go by the titles Now 1983, Now 1984, and so forth.
Twenty songs per disc, forty songs per collection. Highly, highly recommended. Sound quality is about the best I’ve heard on any ’80s collections, with superb source tapes used, great EQ, great volume levels (no clipping), and no additional compression/limiting. The one downside to these discs is that many of the tracks are faded slightly early to cram twenty songs on a disc. Some of the fades are shortened by only a few seconds, but some are drastic, shaving as much as thirty seconds off the end of the song. Still worth the money, though. If you hunt these down, make sure you check that the release date is 1993. There was a similarly titled series released in 1999 that has lousy sound.
The Millennium Collection series: One two-CD set released for each year from 1980 to 1999, all released in 1999. They also go by the titles Now 1980, Now 1981, and so forth.
Don’t like these at all. Similar track selection as the 1993 Tenth Anniversary discs, but I don’t like the sound at all. Avoid.
If I had to generalize about pop compilations, I’d say that Rhino did it better, but Priority did it first. At the time I started Crap From The Past, I had a few of Priority’s pop compilations that I’d found used, and so I ended up leaning heavily on them during those early 1992 shows. These are bare-bones collections, with no liner notes at all. I still have them for nostalgia value, since they remind me of my early days with the radio show, but I rarely use them nowadays.
Mega-Hits Dance Classics: Vols. 1-7, released in 1989; Vols. 8-10, released in 1991; Vols. 11-13, released in 1993.
The track selection is a little off-center, and that’s a good thing for these pop/disco/funk collections. The sound, however, is not as good as it could be. Most tracks have a good EQ, but they’re mastered too loud, and there’s a lot of compression/limiting or digital clipping. Still, when these came out in 1989, there wasn’t much else in the marketplace, and I stocked up on these as soon as I could. I used them extensively in the early days of Crap From The Past. They’re still a good source for the 45 edits of a lot of the Solar Records acts. Twelve tracks per disc on the first batch from 1989, and nine tracks per disc afterward.
Rapmasters: Vols. 1-10, released in 1989; Vols. 11-15, released in 1990.
Actually, this series is terrific for rounding up much of the early rap and hip-hop tracks. The sound levels are generally excellent throughout, with no extra compression/limiting or digital clipping. These are far and away the best releases from Priority Records.
Seventies: Greatest Rock Hits: Vols. 1-11, released in 1991; Vols. 12-15, released in 1992.
Nine tracks per disc, no liner notes, less-than-stellar mastering. Most tracks are too loud, with additional compression/limiting or digital clipping. With so many compilations of ’70s material available elsewhere, there’s little need for these discs.
Eighties: Greatest Rock Hits: Vols. 1-5, released in 1992; Vols. 6-9, released in 1993; Vols. 10-13, released in 1994.
Nine tracks per disc, no liner notes, weird track selection, less-than-stellar mastering. Overall, these don’t seem to have much going for them, except that Priority was slightly ahead of the curve in getting some of these songs onto compilations. For years, Vol. 6 was the only place you could find Martin Briley’s “The Salt in My Tears” on CD, even if it was the promo 45 edit that trimmed the guitar solo.
Mastering tends to be on the loud side, with additional compression/limiting or just clipping. Some tracks appear to use the same analog transfers as existing CDs, but the processing used for the Priority discs makes them sound generally worse than those earlier CDs. Exceptions are Vols. 10-13, which seem to be digital clones of existing CD without any additional processing and with very nice levels. Vols. 10-13 sound excellent.
Rock of the ’80s: Vol. 1, released in 1990; Vols. 2 and 3, released in 1992; Vols. 4-9, released in 1993; Vols. 10-15, released in 1994.
The first series on the marketplace to round up much of the new wave hits. Ultimately, Rhino would end up doing this much better for their Just Can’t Get Enough series, but these discs were first and were relatively common in the used market back then. I used these a lot in the early days of Crap From The Past.
After the first few volumes, they settled into a routine of having fairly common tracks at the beginning of the disc and a really obscure gem as the last track. Vol. 1 has ten tracks; the others have nine.
The sound itself on these discs is so-so. Some tracks are too loud and have excessive compression/limiting or clip quite a bit. I think just about all of them have some kind of additional compression/limiting applied to them, when compared with other CD versions of the same songs. For that reason, I avoid using these nowadays, if possible.
I’ve used all of these quite a lot over the years.
Living in Oblivion: Vols. 1 and 2, released in 1993; Vols. 3 and 4, released in 1994; Vol. 5, released in 1995.
EMI’s best new wave set, and their best US set of compilations. Very worthwhile. Vol. 6 was teased in a “Coming Soon” blurb on a Naked Eyes greatest-hits disc but was never actually released.
Pop and Wave: Vols. 1 and 2, released in 1992; Vols. 3 and 4, released in 1993; Vol. 5, released in 1995; Vol. 6, released in 1996; Vol. 7, released in 1997; Vol. 8, released in 1999; The 12” Mixes, released in 1995; Rock and Wave Vol. 1, released in 1992.
Excellent two-CD new wave sets released in Germany by Sony. Track selection is magnificent, sound quality is excellent on the first five and pretty good on others. Vols. 7 and 8 are loud and clip quite a bit. These have been repackaged a few times, and I can’t personally vouch for anything but the original releases, which I love.
Reelin’ in the Years: Vols. 1-5, released in 1991.
DCC/Sandstone’s first foray into pop/rock compilations. All ’70s rock, ten or eleven songs per disc, all mastered by Steve Hoffman. They sound excellent. All five volumes were later repackaged as Rock of the ’70s.
Rock the First: Vols. 1-6, released in 1992; Vols. 7 and 8, released in 1993; Vols. 9 and 10, released in 1996.
DCC/Sandstone’s second foray into pop/rock compilations. Mostly ’80s pop on the first six volumes, country/dance/rock/modern rock on the other four. All are mastered by Steve Hoffman. I used these quite a bit in the first few years of the show. The sound on the first six is outstanding, and is very good on the others.
Cosmopolitan: Vols. 1-5, released in 1992; Vols. 6 and 7, released in 1993; Vols. 8 and 9, released in 1994.
Another DCC/Sandstone set, mostly light rock. All are mastered by Steve Hoffman, and all sound excellent. Seven of the nine were repackaged as the series Night Moves.
I’ve found that the greatest-hits collections released in the late ’80s and early ’90s tend to sound better than those released either before or after that period. Many greatest-hits discs that were assembled in the days of analog tape (pre-1983-ish) tend to be sourced from a higher-generation tape source than those assembled in the digital era. Many discs assembled from the mid-’90s onward tend to be too loud, with clipping and/or extra compression/limiting.
There are really too many to list here, so I’ll just give you the rule of thumb for greatest-hits discs, as well as for multi-disc boxed sets: Look for a release date between around 1988 and around 1993. Many of these discs are extremely inexpensive and are well worth the purchase.
There are individual pages (left over from my old site) for the following groups of CD compilations, many including scanned cover art:
So there you have it. If you actually buy everything I’ve listed, you’ll have a great pop music collection on CD. No, make that an OUTSTANDING pop music collection on CD. Unfortunately, you’ll be buried under a mountain of polycarbonate and aluminum, and you won’t have any room left in your house for anything else.
According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, if you bought just the Rhino and Time-Life collections that I discussed, and if you were to listen to all of these discs at work during your eight-hour workday, it would take you about four or five months to plow through everything. That’s about the same amount of time it would take you to listen to all of the Friday night Crap From The Past shows, from when I got the Friday night slot in October 2002 until when I wrote this article at the end of 2011.
Time well spent? Well, I can’t really promise that. What I can guarantee is that I’ll keep hosting Crap From The Past until it’s no longer the highlight of my week. As long as there are pop stones that I have yet to unturn, I’ll be there. If you care to join me, all the better.