06 February, 2012

The Best of the Best-ofs: Morrissey

Every one of these compilations will contain Suedehead, Every Day is Like Sunday, The Last of the Famous International Playboys and The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get.  After that, it becomes a question of who compiled it, what label it’s on, and which phase of his career he wants to remind people of at the time.  What all of these collections remind us of, in their own strange way, is how Morrissey can be both a neglected treasure and (dare I say it?) devious, truculent and unreliable. 

“Suedehead” The Best of Morrissey - 1997
You know it was the mid-90s because it was named after the best-known single.  Released by EMI at around the same time as the underrated Maladjusted was released on another label, which suggests they exercised a contractual option, this is probably as good a compilation as you could expect at the time.  It features all the notable singles, the rare cover of The Jam’s That’s Entertainment and the UK version of Tomorrow, which features an early fade of the vocal and the curious piano coda.  It was the first album to include the singles, Pregnant for the Last Time and the duet of Interlude with Siouxsie Sioux.

At all stages of his career, Morrissey has tended towards self-parody – sometimes deliberate, sometimes unintentional.  This collection avoids that tendency better than most.

For: First compilation, includes several non-album tracks.
Against: Seemingly minimal involvement from Morrissey himself, currently out of print.

The Best of Morrissey - 2001
Released right in the middle of his exile from recording, this North American release manages to avoid the problem of Morrissey’s mid-90s label-hopping and includes material from his time at EMI, BMG and Mercury.  As such, it’s the only collection to include selections from the whole of Morrissey’s solo career at the time of release.

It’s a genuine best-of, featuring singles, album tracks and rare B-sides such as Hairdresser on Fire and the brilliant Sister I’m a Poet.  It’s nice to see the inclusion of underrated singles like Sing Your Life and Alma Matters, despite conventional wisdom saying they were forgettable.  Do Your Best and Don’t Worry is a curious choice when there are better songs to represent the Southpaw Grammar album but it’s nice that it’s included at all, as well as the Maladjusted-era B-side, Lost.

For:  Broad selection
Against:  Difficult to find in some areas

Greatest Hits - 2008
Firstly, Greatest Hits is nothing of the sort.  It’s mostly a collection of what you might call the comeback years, but adds Suedehead, …Sunday, …Playboys and The More You Ignore Me, licenced from EMI.  The pop sheen of these earlier songs jars with the edgier production of the newer work.  Two previously unreleased tracks, All You Need is Me and That’s How People Grow Up were later included on the Years of Refusal album.  Although all the other tracks are bona fide chart singles, I Just Want to See the Boy Happy and In the Future When All’s Well don’t stand up among Morrissey’s best or his greatest hits.  It would have been better to leave the EMI-era stuff out completely and make it a true 21st century compilation.

Also, Greatest Hits has been given the everything-as-loud-as-everything-else mastering treatment which is almost tolerable on the recent tracks but does nothing for the earlier ones which had a bit of subtlety.

Greatest Hits comes with the option of a short bonus live CD recorded at the Hollywood Bowl, which makes it a slightly more attractive option for people who have all the music on the main disc already.  The special edition also came with a weblink to register for “A very special Morrissey release,” which hasn’t eventuated. 

For: Collects all the hits of the comeback years, bonus live disc.
Against: Brickwall mastering, not actually his greatest hits.

Very Best of Morrissey - 2011
It’s promoted as an overview of the classic years, which is both a euphemism for the EMI years and an implication that the years since have been less than classic.  A message from Morrissey on a fan site lamented the possibility that this might be his first album not to chart on release.  For this, he blamed EMI’s distribution which is a fair point, but the other factor is that there’s very little new here.  Obviously, you’re not supposed to expect anything new from best-of compilations but we should expect a new collection to do a little more than, to quote the classics, slip them into different sleeves. 

It does have the advantage of being selected by Morrissey himself and it’s a typically idiosyncratic mix.  The usual hits are there but the singles from Your Arsenal are left out, but the two grungiest tracks from that album, You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side and Glamorous Glue are included, the latter being released as a single to promote the album.  Kill Uncle is ignored completely but the melodramatic B-side from the same era, I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty is featured.  Three other B-sides including Girl Least Likely To (written with Andy Rourke) and the full nine minutes of Moon River make the list.  It’s interesting that Moz has chosen Break Up the Family from Viva Hate, when he hasn’t shown any particular affection for the song previously.  Curiously, only one track is included from Vauxhall and I, despite it being regarded as one of his best works.  There is the US versions of Tomorrow and My Love Life,  with the latter having a later fade.  As with the reissue of Bona Drag (see below) the concluding verse of Ouija Board Ouija Board has been cut out entirely.

The attraction for fans who already have all of this already is the solo version of Interlude (identical to the duet version, but with Morrissey singing the entire song) and the option of a bonus DVD with remastered videos, four of which have not previously been available on DVD.

The album has an interesting flow to it, mostly starting out with the rockers, moving on to polished pop and concluding with torch songs.  It really would be a great collection if not for the fact that it covers the same material as many others.

For:  Decent remastering, compiled by Morrissey, bonus DVD.
Against:  Haven’t we heard all this before?

If you had to choose one, choose…
Well, not Greatest Hits because it isn’t.  Other than that, they all do the job well.  “Suedehead” is the closest to an actual greatest hits.  It was deleted just prior to the release of Very Best Of but there are still plenty of copies around.  The Best Of gives what it probably the most objective overview and I’m very tempted to choose that one.  Very Best Of has the advantage of being the one Morrissey has been the most closely involved with, so you might as well get that one.  At least it will make him happy.  Or perhaps not.

   Suedehead from "Suedehead" The Best of Morrissey

   Suedehead from The Best of Morrissey

   Suedehead from Greatest Hits

   Suedehead from Very Best of Morrissey

See also,

Bona Drag - 1990
With a new album due and not enough material to fill it, Bona Drag became a compilation of the singles and B-sides that Morrissey had released every three or four months in 1989 and 1990.  There was already ample precedent for this in Morrissey’s career.  The Smiths albums Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen were both collections of non-album tracks.  At the time of release, Bona Drag was completely redundant to anyone who had been buying the singles but today, it stands as a collection of some of Morrissey’s best work.  This was a time when many of his B-sides were as good as anyone else’s A-sides.  The lyrics of Interesting Drug are probably more relevant now than they ever were.  My one complaint is that the beautiful Will Never Marry is faded early and we miss out on the minor key coda.

World of Morrissey - 1995
1994’s Vauxhall and I was regarded as a triumphant return to form and Morrissey was reinstated as a national treasure, so it’s typically contrary that he would follow it up less than a year later with this bizarre, slapped together collection.  There was close to enough non-album material since Bona Drag to fill an album, but rather than do that, World of Morrissey is padded out with three tracks from the live album Beethoven Was Deaf and album tracks from Your Arsenal and Vauxhall and I. 
It’s a worthwhile sampler if you can find it going cheap, but otherwise pretty pointless.

My Early Burglary Years - 1998
Another North American release, this collection immediately scores points for being the first album release to include Nobody Loves Us, one of Morrissey’s best ever songs which was criminally hidden on the B-side of the unremarkable single, Dagenham Dave.  (It has since been added to the expanded edition of Southpaw Grammar.)  An excellent collection of rare tracks including the live version of T-Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, plus a couple of album tracks from Southpaw Grammar.  Unfortunately, as with World of Morrissey, the version of Jack the Ripper is the live version available on Beethoven Was Deaf rather than the much rarer studio version.

Swords -2009
Morrissey clearly saved up a lot of songs during his seven years without a record label – enough to make this full album’s worth of B-sides and bonus tracks from the singles released off You Are the Quarry, Ringleader of the Tormentors and Years of Refusal.  Most of them are just as good as, if not superior to those albums.  The exception is Sweetie-Pie, which is unlistenable, but Ganglord, Shame is the Name and Good Looking Man About Town are excellent.

As with Greatest Hits, a carrot for those who bought all the singles is another short live disc, this time recorded in Warsaw.  The sound quality of this live disc is pretty awful but this is almost refreshing in a way, now that most live recordings are so polished as to make you wonder.  Predictably enough, the live set focuses on Moz’s recent albums but two interesting inclusions are Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself and You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet Baby.

Bona Drag - 20th anniversary edition - 2010
There’s something awfully meta about a remastered, expanded, anniversary edition of an album that was really only a company-pleasing stopgap in its day.  There are six additional tracks added but what is not mentioned is that several of the original tracks have been changed as well.  Piccadilly Palare has gained a third verse that was edited out of the original, although this is not the “no Dad,” version which has been posted on some fan sites.  The entire “table is rumbling” section has been cut out of Ouija Board Ouija Board and the ambient guitar strums have been chopped off the intro of Suedehead.  Sadly, the full-length version of Will Never Marry has not been restored.

Of the bonus tracks, most of them are worthy additions, especially The Bed Took Fire and the demo version of Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness, which was written for Sandie Shaw.  The problem is that by tacking these tracks on the end of the album, it ruins the end of Disappointed.  The self-deprecating “Goodnight, and thank you,” had been the perfect conclusion to the record.  I don’t know why Let the Right One Slip In has been included.  It’s a nice enough song, but all the other bonus tracks come from the same era as the rest of Bona Drag while …Slip In is from the Your Arsenal sessions.

from Bona Drag 1990

Suedehead from Bona Drag 2010 remaster

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