Compilation Album

Collections of Music We've Never Heard or That Remind Us of Music We've Loved

Vintage worn 60s vinyl compilation with peace sign
Getty Images/JDawnInk

Compilation album is a general term used to refer to a music release made of up songs not intended to be seen as a single work. Compilation albums - frequently referred to as "comps" - are often made up of tracks by various artists, though they can sometimes feature a single artist. The former case includes soundtracks, label samplers, and theme albums.

Soundtrack Compilations

Music critics have cited Jay-Z's soundtrack compilation album for director Baz Luhrmann's latest film version of "The Great Gatsby" as an outstanding example of a well-thought-out soundtrack that presented a broad range of music -- from Jay-Z's and Beyonce's contributions, "100$ Bill" and "Back to Black," to Jack Black's "Love Is Blindness"-- that appealed to a broad range of filmgoers and music lovers while still nailing the emotional undertones of the movie in imaginative and surprising ways.

Not surprisingly, others, who perhaps expected a primarily orchestral soundtrack, really hated it.

Not surprisingly, many of the other soundtrack compilations rated "best" have been for youth-culture oriented films like "Hunger Games" -- among filmgoers, younger viewers are often the most passionate consumers of contemporary music.

Label Compilations

Some of the more interesting label compilations -- again, not surprisingly -- come from labels with strong, sometimes idiosyncratic not-to-say-weird identities. One great example of is Nonesuch Records, ably led during its period of greatest influence by musician/ producer/music lover Bob Hurwitz released several compilations that ably represented Hurwitz's talent for identifying and supporting great artists toward the beginning of their careers, such as John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich -- pretty much the pantheon of American Minimalism -- as well as the ground-breaking Kronos Quartet.

But the range of Nonesuch's compilations is both wide and deep, from its 2 and 4 CD compilations of 20 years of Wilco, to its early Kronos compilation "Winter Was Hard" that introduced listeners (in a single album!) to John Zorn, John Lurie, Terry Riley, Astor Piazzola, Aulis Sallinen, Terry Riley, a turntablist, Alfred Schnittke and Samuel Barber.

It can't get much more eclectic than that.

Other successful label compilations have come from labels with similarly strong identities, including Rhino Records, Stax/Volt, Atlantic Records (especially in their early Ahmet Ertegun-led years) and the related Warner label, Elektra.

Theme Albums

A theme album comp can be almost anything -- a retrospective collection of a prominent artist's hits (and, yes, misses), let's-cash-in-on-it collections of a musical genre making a comeback, collections of previously unreleased materials from well-known artists (and sometimes unreleased for excellent reasons), or some combination of all of the above.

Compilation albums can be difficult to put together, as the label releasing the comp must secure permission from all of the parties involved. This can mean juggling demands of a long list of publishers, labels, and musicians, who sometimes have conflicting interests. This fact is true even of a single-artist compilation album if the artist has worked with more than one label over the course of their careers.

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