Compilation Albums – A Record Buyer’s Guide.

Compilation albums are a bit of an anomaly in the Vinyl Community. Search through the vinyl tags on Instagram and you’ll hardly see any compilations, yet there have been thousands upon thousands of them released throughout the history of the record. I’m sure most record collectors own a compilation or two but for some reason they don’t like to show them off, perhaps they’re even a little bit embarrassed by them?

It’s fair to say that compilation albums are looked down upon by a lot of record collectors but why? After all they’re basically just a bunch of singles by different artists put together on one LP.

Well, that’s exactly the problem! Vinyl enthusiasts can be a fickle bunch and often have a preference for a specific format (mine is for 12 inch singles) because of what they offer the listener. Some of us want to take a musical journey listening to an artist’s album from start to finish, others want to get more actively involved, flipping and spinning 7 inch records including the underrated B-sides. I love hearing alternative takes on tracks in the form of remixes only available on the 12 inch singles. Albums and singles provide these very different listening experiences but compilations aren’t really one or the other. If a compilation doesn’t include alternative mixes, album versions and B-side tracks, they will have a limited appeal to most record collectors as they’ll most likely already have those tracks they like on other records!

Now That's What I Call Music 21 double album on vinyl
Now That’s What I Call Music is probably the best known compilation series.

When Compilation Albums Were Loved.

Compilation LPs haven’t always been the ugly ducklings of the record world. When record buying wasn’t a niche hobby dominated by collectors but instead was the way in which most people got to play their favourite music, compilation albums were hugely popular.

If you were a music lover wanting to be able to listen to the songs you heard on the radio whenever you wanted to, compilations were ideal. Rather than buy all the singles you currently liked with B-sides you’d probably never listen to or splash your cash on an album by an artist you only actually enjoyed a couple of  songs by, you could get a selection of your favourite hits all on one record. It made perfect sense to choose the compilation.

Compilation albums were always being advertised on TV, the radio and magazines and some went on to develop into a series of releases every few months or so because they were so popular.

I certainly bought them and so did everyone else I knew. When I was in my teens I couldn’t afford to go out and buy individual singles of all the tunes I was listening to at the time, it would have cost me an absolute fortune!  Just by buying a couple of relevant compilation albums I was able to own a lot of the tracks I wanted at a fraction of the cost and with some of the money I saved I bought singles that didn’t appear on any compilations.

Even as my record collection grew I continued buying compilation albums and now own quite a few of them. I still listen to them and I’m not embarrassed to show them off (well, there’s maybe a couple I’ll keep to myself!).

I’ve already posted some on Instagram but I’ll be making it a regular thing using the hashtag #FileUnderVarious. Suffice to say, I’m a big fan of the unloved compilation LP!

Vintage vinyl compilation albums
Once upon a time everyone bought compilation LPs.

Why Compilations Are Great!

So what’s so great about compilations? Well, I’ve already touched on the value for money they offer and how you get to play lots of top tracks one after the other without having to change records after each one, but there’s more.

A Vinyl Starter Pack.

The compilation album is a great starting place for anyone beginning to collect records. They’re like a vinyl starter pack. They give you a track from lots of different artists so you get a taster of what they have to offer before you add their records to your growing collection.

If you’re new to a particular genre of music and want to jump straight in, compilations are ideal. Without knowing anything about reggae or heavy metal you could pick up a copy of ‘Sun, Rum and Reggae’ or ‘Molten Metal II’ (I don’t know if either of those actually exist but if they don’t they should!) and instantly be able to hear some of the biggest hits from those genres.

You can find a compilation album for pretty much any music subgenre you can think of. In fact, a genre’s obscurity actually creates a market for compilations of that music’s essential tracks because the original records are often hard to come by.

A Journey Of Discovery.

Compilations can be a good way of discovering new music. Just like listening to a radio show or going to a night club, the music you hear when playing a compilation album has been selected by someone else. In many cases they will include tracks you’re unfamiliar with. Sometimes the compiler has deliberately chosen to select fresh, up and coming artists or obscure gems for the album, other times the record company is just trying to save money by scrimping on the big names! Either way, I’m always eager to hear those tracks I don’t immediately recognise and in many instances I’ve been very pleasantly surprised!

Save Money – Buy A Compilation LP.

I’ve already mentioned how compilation albums can be great value for money and this is especially true in regards to certain genres where the scarcity and price of some original singles often means they’re really only in the realm of the most dedicated and wealthy collectors.

Take the northern soul scene for example. This was a music scene based largely on little known records that were often already rare in the 1970s. DJs made a name for themselves by having the records nobody else had and they wanted to keep it that way. These records were their pride and joy as well as their livelihood and not something they were going to get rid of in a hurry.

Most old time northern collectors have spent their lives digging through boxes of 45s at record fairs, boot sales and anywhere an old record can be found, searching for that golden disc!

In our internet age with the likes of eBay and Discogs at your fingertips, you can find a copy of just about any record you’re after from the comfort of your own living room. BUT, it will come at a price, and with highly sought after rarities it can be a pretty hefty one at that! To start a northern soul collection from scratch these days would cost you a small fortune. Luckily there are plenty of northern compilations out there to choose from, so many in fact that they probably outnumber the original records that are featured on them!

Choosing A Compilation Album.

The main thing when it comes to buying compilation albums is to be selective. Compilations get a bad rep largely because there have been so many truly terrible ones made! If you buy any of the major series such as Now That’s What I Call Music then you are basically getting an album full of top 20 hits from around the time of its release. If you like the stuff that was in the charts at that time or you just want a snapshot of music from that period, you’ll have great fun playing it. If not, you might struggle to find many tracks you actually like!

Buying more genre specific compilations is the way to go if you want to hear a variety of tracks in a similar vein and can be a great source for discovering new music. The more commercial albums will have all the biggest selling tunes in that particular genre, so are great for a casual listener. For those who want to delve a bit deeper into a genre, there are usually plenty of compilations which include tracks that didn’t make it into the charts but were highly acclaimed within their scene.

Compilations from independent record labels featuring artists signed to them are often a winner. These labels usually target a particular market and use the same production team for their releases. If you’ve heard and liked a couple of records from a particular indie label, there’s a good chance that you’ll like more of their stuff.

LPs from record labels featured various tracks from their own artists
Compilation albums released by various record labels.

Things To Consider When Buying A Compilation Album.

There are certain things I always look for when buying a compilation LP.

  1. Is it value for money? If it would be cheaper to buy actual singles of all the tracks that you like, then it’s probably not. If you don’t recognise the other tracks on the record it could be worth a punt but if they’re ones you know and aren’t a fan of, then there’s not much point in owning them.
  2. Do the tracks flow well together? Good compilations will give you exactly what they say they will, the not so good ones will sneak in a few tracks which really don’t fit with the rest. Anyone who’s made a mixtape or playlist aiming to create a specific vibe knows how important it is when it comes to choosing the track listing. You don’t want to be chilling out to you deep relaxation playlist and suddenly be hit with a banging 150 bpm techno tune, no matter how good it is! That instantly kills the mood you’re trying to create and the same principal goes for compilation albums.
  3. Does the LP live up to its claims? I find it incredibly annoying when an album purports to be one thing, then you look at the track list and find out it’s really not that at all. Okay, music is open to interpretation but sometimes they defy even stone cold facts. I mean, I’ve seen ‘80s compilations which include songs from a decade and a half later! Any album that has a title stating that it’s ‘The Best’, ‘Ultimate’ or ‘Greatest’ is going to let you down big time! These compilations usually feature the big chart hits of the genre they’re representing along with a smattering of the genre’s lesser known tracks.  These albums can have up to 40 tracks on them so numbers are made up by including tunes that really have no right to be there. Buy one of these hoping to enjoy the classics of hard rock or techno and you’ll find your listening pleasure frequently interrupted by the likes of Mr Blow and Culture Beat.
  4. Are they the original tracks? To get around licensing issues, some compilations substitute the originally released tracks for alternative recordings. If you’re aware that’s what you’re paying for then that’s perfectly fine, however, some of these albums can be quite deceptive in how they’re marketed. I have been left feeling duped by compilations I’ve bought after getting them home and listening to them for the first time. On closer inspection (sometimes written only on the label or inner sleeve) I’ve seen that the tracks listed are not the original ones I thought I was getting. Instead they’ll be poor live versions or much later recordings, often recorded with a vastly different line up of the band and sounding nothing like the original. Sometimes you don’t even get the artist you’re expecting. Cover versions on compilations are one thing but some budget labels took it to a whole new level. At their peak in the 1970’s, these labels were churning out albums of the biggest chart hits of the day. None of the tracks were by the artists who had a hit with them though, instead the labels used in-house bands to try to replicate as near as possible the original recording. To be fair, in some cases it’s quite hard to tell them apart! At first glance they look like a normal compilation until you look at the track listing and see that they may credit the song writers but don’t name the bands who actually recorded them! Some of these LPs are quite fun to own as pieces of nostalgia and can usually be bought with the change in your pocket.
  5. Pressing quality. One of the big negative points when it comes to compilations is that they don’t always have the best sound quality. Often, the publishers try to get their money’s worth by cramming too many tracks onto each side of the record. To fit them all on the grooves have to be incredibly narrow and tracks may even be cut or faded out early. The dynamic range can be noticeably affected and compilations are notorious for their low volumes. Some of the really bad ones use tracks recorded directly from vinyl complete with surface noise or taken from low quality digital formats rather than form the original masters. The only way to protect yourself from low quality pressings is to read reviews of the album you’re after, buy compilations from respected labels and to ensure each side of vinyl has the amount of tracks you’d expect for an LP. Compilations that spread the tracks over several records with just a few on each are usually a safe bet and you’ll often see them labelled as ‘DJ Friendly’ and pressed at a similar volume to 12” singles.
Top of The Pops vintage compilation LP back cover
Track listing for a 1970s Top Of The Pops Compilation LP.

Buying Vintage LPs.

I’ve already outlined the reasons why buying a compilation is a great musical investment, however there is another factor that makes collecting compilation LPs an even shrewder bit of business.

As I said at the start of this piece, compilations albums are often unloved. And as they aren’t particularly sought after it means second hand copies tend to be CHEAP!

Obviously, buying a new compilation is still going to cost you the price of an average LP. If you’re after a collection of newer tracks then you’ll have to pay the going rate but, as you now know, that can still represent great value for money.

If you’re only after older tracks though, don’t waste your money buying newly released compilations. There are so many good second hand compilation LPs out there waiting to be snapped up for peanuts. Want some sounds of the Seventies?  Don’t rush out to buy a brand new ‘70s compilation. Instead, pick up a few albums that were actually released in the 1970s and you’ll have your hands on probably most of the tracks on that newer record plus a load more for half the price!

When I went into my local supermarket a year or two ago and saw the first Now That’s What I Call Music (released in 1984) for sale on vinyl again, I was very surprised. I was even more shocked when I saw the £25 price sticker! I think I paid 50p for my pre-loved vinyl copy (albeit a good few years ago now) and I’m sure you could easily pick up a clean second hand copy for no more than a couple of quid if you shop around.

The other thing I love about vintage compilations is that they reflect the era they were created in. The cover art ranges from slick graphic designs and music scene related imagery to tacky photos of scantily clad females (particularly popular in the ‘70s!), gaudy neon everything (the ‘80s obviously) and the downright awful!

While albums reflecting back on a particular decade or music scene will include all the well known tracks or ones they deem to be worthy of inclusion, the LPs that were released around the actual time the music was made usually include tracks that were really popular back then but history has now all but forgotten about. I’ve noticed this with the various scenes I was heavily involved with in my younger years. When I look at the tracks that are commonly presented as the ‘anthems’ of those scenes, I’m often left dumbstruck! It’s as though history is being re-written. These more recent compilations nearly all feature the same old tracks everyone knows, leave out shed loads of stone cold classics and include things that never, ever were well received on the scene. Buy vintage compilations from respected labels and you’re likely to get a much more accurate reflection of the music that people were actually listening to at that time.

1970 compilation LP and other vinyl albums
Vintage compilations often have interesting cover and sleeve artwork.

Love Your Compilations.

I hope I’ve given you an insight into the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the humble compilation LP and why I love them, imperfections and all! Maybe I’ve even changed some of your opinions of compilations for the better and you’ll regard them as highly as your other records.

Yes, there are some terrible LPs out there but there’s also some amazing ones to be found too if you follow my advice.

If you’re still on the fence about buying compilations here’s a quick summary of why you need them in your life!

Reasons To Buy A Compilation Album.

  1. Value for money. You can have a selection of your favourite tunes on vinyl for a fraction of what they’d cost to buy individually.
  2. A voyage of discovery. You can discover amazing tracks that you’ve never heard before, reminisce over ones you’d long forgotten or find tunes that you’ve always wanted but never knew the name of.
  3. Listen to hit after hit without moving a muscle. It’s like having your own personal DJ spinning all your favourite singles without you having to get up and change them after each one. If you’ve got the money and space for a jukebox (or live in DJ) then that’s an option, if not, it’s compilations all the way!
  4. Break the monotony. As much as we all have our favourite artists that we listen to more than others, it’s good to have some variety. Why listen to an album by just one group when you can listen to a record full of all your favourite artists!
  5. Second hand compilations are as cheap as chips… and in many cases cheaper!

File Under Various.

If you want to join the cause and fight for vinyl equality for compilation albums, start buying and posting your compilation records on Instagram. You can tag / mention us @Vinyl_Community or use the #FileUnderVarious hashtag for us and other compilation aficionados to see. We’ll try to feature as many as we can on this site and also add them to our Instagram stories.

Now, spin that compilation LP!

If you liked this article on compilation records, check out some of our other feature pieces on Vinyl Community.