Friday, September 12, 2014

You've Been Comped!
10 of the Best Compilation Albums from the Punk/New Wave Era

The compilation album is a wonderful thing.  In the times long before you kids had your newfangles digital doohickeys that allowed you to set up playlists of your favorite songs we had, of course, the mix tape.  But before even the mix tape, the compilation album was the only way to go to have a mix of artists and songs all in one place.  Part musical sampler platter, part musical buying guide, the compilation was a great way to be introduced to new bands that you were pretty much assured you were going to at least tolerate, if not like enough to go out and find their record. (One friend of mine built the foundation of his record collection on his stated goal to buy "every record by every band on that fuckin' Burning Ambitions album!")

My collection, too, experienced growth as a result of more than one compilation album brought into the house, and I can say from my own experience as a DJ on WDCE in Richmond, VA, that the comp is certainly the disc jockey's friend - a portable record collection in itself if you will.

Today, we celebrate the compilation album with this round up of ten of the best.  You could begin with these ten and branch out from there to create a record collection that would be the envy of all your friends. So let's get to it! In no particular order:

1.  Burning Ambitions: A History of Punk (1984) – If you are looking for one compilation to point to as a basic primer on UK punk rock, this double-record import on the Cherry Red label is the one to pick, hands down.  Though they weren’t able to get the licensing to include the Pistols, The Clash or Siouxsie & the Banshees (a fact bemoaned in the album’s liner notes), they were able to include just about everyone else!   The Exploited, The Damned, Adam & the Ants, Generation X, The Stranglers, The Lurkers, Cockney Rejects, Sham 69 – they’re all here.  Even a couple Yankee acts (Dead Kennedys, The Heartbreakers) show up in the mix.  I remember whole weeks going by when this album did not leave my turntable.  Why would it? It’s a virtual punk rock jukebox!  Essential.

2.  Rodney on the ROQ (1980, 81, 82) – As young punk I remember being pissed off that I lived on the wrong coast to hear the legendary radio station KROQ out of L.A.  I read about the station and the fact that they played -- an actual radio station that actually played -- all these bands I was into.  Longtime DJ and scenester Rodney Bingenheimer led the charge with his Rodney on the ROQ show.  The closest I ever got to hearing the show live was in the form of the three comps put out on the Posh Boy label under Rodney’s name.  All three are excellent, with the first being the best of them:  when you begin with Brooke Shields leading into Agent Orange’s “Bloodstains,” you know you’re in for a helluva fun ride.  Volume One also features The Adolescents, Black Flag, The Simpletones and Cristina’s killer rendition of “Is That All There Is ?”  Volume Two keeps the pace going with Social Distortion, Shattered Faith, The Minutemen, The Little Girls and The Stepmothers; Volume Three counts Ill Repute, Kent State’s killer “Radio Moscow,” Channel Three and a very early cut from The Bangles (when they were still called The Bangs).  Each splits the difference between a definitely punkier side one and new-wavier side two, and each contains a special issue of Flipside magazine.  All three are well worth picking up.

3. IRS’s Greatest Hits Vols. II & III (1981) – A two-record set that begs the question, “Whatever happened to Volume I?”  (Bonus points to the first person commenting with the correct answer.)  IRS (The International Record Syndicate, silly) was one of the most awesome record labels of the early 1980s, and this compilation of artists on their roster at that time is flat-out mind-blowing array of talented artists with the chops and the attitude to not only ride that somewhat tenuous line between punk and new wave, but to stomp it fully into submission.  The Damned, The Cramps, The Fleshtones, Oingo Boingo, The Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Payola$, Squeeze, Skafish, Alternative TV, The Humans, Fashion, Klark Kent and more!  This one was a standard party album for many years around these parts…

4. This is Boston Not L.A. (1982) – A wicked good encapsulation of punk rawk done Boston style and, honestly, one of the best hardcore albums ever.  With bands like Jerry’s Kids, The F.U.’s, Gang Green and The Freeze, how can you possibly go wrong?  Loud, hard, fast and fun – we used to call this stuff “skate punk,” and while it certainly was a youthful scene this old punk still smiles when he hears it.  The Freeze’s stuff is the best here, in my opinion, including classics like “Idiots at Happy Hour” and an otherwise unavailable version of “Trouble if You Hide,” but there really aren’t any duds here either.  The CD adds the 7-inch Unsafe at Any Speed comp released not too long after the album. 

5. No New York (1978) – In the late 1970s, New York City was not a pretty place.  But there were a lot of scenes happening all at once.  You had the Studio 54 disco scene, you had the CBGB’s punk scene, and you had your mind-melting, ear-splitting No Wave scene combining the best parts of both with a little (OK, OK, a lot) atonal saxophone skronk added to the mix.  And you had Brian Eno there to document the latter in this nearly indescribable album.  The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (featuring a shrieking Lydia Lunch on vocals), DNA, and Mars each contributed four cuts of mutant funk-punk squawking and screaming and searing sound.  Some will find it painful to listen to, others (like me!) will revel in its anti-art defiance, but anyone who hears it will not forget it.

6. Not So Quiet On The Western Front (1982) – 2 records. 47 bands in 74 minutes. An insert booklet that doubled as the first issue of Maximum Rock’n’Roll.  About the finest damn hardcore compilation you’re ever going to hear, and proof that those who said all those bands sounded alike either weren’t paying attention or were fucking posers, man.  Just a recitation of the band names will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was into the scene at the time: 7 Seconds, Pariah, Code of Honor, Bad Posture, Flipper, Angst, No Alternative, MDC, and on and on.  It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s excellent.  And oh how we used to laugh (and still do) at the Naked Lady Wrestlers’ “Dan with the Mellow Hair.”  This one has been given a really nice CD reissue with every track intact.  

7. Marty Thau’s 2 X 5 (1980) – Marty Thau had been around the record business forever, and was an early proponent of New Wave, helping many artists get heard through his Red Star record label.  For this compilation he selected two songs from each of five New York City-based bands (hence the album title) and damn if he didn’t go 10-for-10 picking them!  Your big name band here is The Fleshtones, who check in with an early version of “Shadow Line” and a typical ‘Shtones romp, “F-F-Fascination.”  Bloodless Pharoahs go a bit over the top with their purposefully odd vocals, but they did count a young Brian Setzer among the cats in the band.  Neither The Student Teachers nor The Revelons ever made big splashes on the scene, but their contributions here are fantastic (especially Student Teachers’ “Looks,” centered around the great couplet, “I know I got my looks and  you got yours/I guess it just wasn’t what I was looking for…”  A couple of tracks from The Comateens, who would go on to become a second-tier band of some note, round out the collection nicely.  A must-own. 

8. Declaration of Independents (1980) – This early comp collecting assorted regionally well-known independent label acts looking to break big nationally is thoroughly undeserving of its relative obscurity nowadays. (Granted, being on the fairly small but perfectly named Ambition label meant the album wasn’t headed for a high-profile life from day one.)  The biggest name on the album then – and now – would be Pylon, whose debut single “Cool” is found here.  But the music is start-to-finish solid, ranging from the sparkly power pop of Luxury’s “Green Hearts” to the bar band toughness of Robin Lane & the Chartbusters’ “Rather Be Blind.”  There’s rockabilly from Tex Rubinowitz, surf instrumental goodness from D. Clinton Thompson, Kevin Dunn’s giddy synth take on Chuck Berry’s “Nadene,” and – only a few months removed from the Three Mile Island nuclear scare – Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band teaching us to do “The Meltdown.”  Don’t miss Washington DC’s Razz (featuring a young Tommy Keene, trivia buffs!), whose contribution “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)” is a song begging to be covered for today’s crowd.  

9. Let Them Eat Jellybeans (1982) – Jello Biafra curated this collection released smack dab in the midst of the classic hardcore era. The big names here read like a who’s who of that scene: Circle Jerks, Black Flag, D.O.A., Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys themselves all make appearances slashing along at top speed.  From Flipper’s “Ha Ha Ha” providing an uneasy funhouse-mirror opening to Voice Farm’s eerily unsettling closer “Sleep,” the album never lets up.  Even a brief side-step in pseudo-reggae (The Off’s wonderful “Everyone’s A Bigot”) is a bit jolting in its frankness, and the guaranteed-to-offend track from The Feederz (“Jesus Entering from the Rear”) simply has to be heard to be believed.  A stunning collection. 

10. URGH! A Music War (1981)  - Soundtrack to the movie of the same name, the double-LP set compiles live performances by a simply fantastic collection of new wave bands ranging from the famous (The Police, Devo and Joan Jett are all here) to the infamous (Skafish’ s “Sign of the Cross” nearly got the whole project banned in some places).   Interesting to note who was left off the album despite appearing in the film:  punk poet John Cooper Clarke, the utterly mysterious Invisible Sex (seriously, has anyone ever heard anything else from them apart from their URGH! performance?) , and the only true punk band in the picture, the Dead Kennedys, were all left off the vinyl.  Still, it sits now as a nearly perfect time capsule of what early 1980s radio would have sounded like in a perfect world.  Avoid the truncated CD reissue and seek out the original vinyl. 

So, there's my list - how about yours?  What are the compilations that got your record collection started?  Which ones do we just have to hear?  Tell us about them in the comments!


  1. Those look pretty awesome, Bryan! I love compilation albums - including music soundtracks. Two of my fav label compilations are "More Songs About Anger, Fear, Sex, & Death" (Epitaph) & "The Grunge Years" (Sub Pop). Natural Born Killers & Grosse Point Blank both had super soundtracks. My favorite compilation of all time though was a mix tape that my friend's sister had made that sadly died a horrible death (so I've been told.) It even had a name - "Qu'est-ce que c'est" (i think that's what it was anyway)

  2. Hard to wrong with either Epitaph or Sub Pop! Not too familiar with the NBK soundtrack, but GBP is a good call as well. As for your friend's'll want to keep an eye out for a planned post honoring the grand old days of the mix tape - yet another thing kids today just will never get to experience the joy of! Thanks for your comment!