What’s the Story, Modern Rock?

It’s Christmastime—that is, the Christmas shopping season—which means greatest-hits albums. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen or heard of hits packages by such venerable popsters as Elton John (actually a live album), Santana, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Megadeth, David Sylvian, and Joe Ely. But the season’s singular singles compilation is 1, a collection of all 27 Beatles No. 1s; it sold almost 600,000 copies in its first week of U.S. release, entering the charts at, yes, No. 1.

Chart position aside, what’s interesting about 1 is its narrative. The musical tale begins with the innocence of “Love Me Do” and “From Me to You,” gets ambitious with “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper,” turns trippy with “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love,” and then scurries back to its origins with “Get Back” and “Come Together.” It’s the story of ’60s rock; no other band—and no decade—has ever produced a body of work rivaling its coherence.

The Beatles saga is well-known, of course. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that 600,000 people—let alone the millions who are expected to soon own 1—really need to be reminded of it. But the band’s career remains so much more satisfying than more recent ones. Numerous acts that have made most or all of their music in the ’90s have also released compilations this fall, and these discs present much less cogent parables.

Retrospectives from the likes of Buffalo Tom, Matthew Sweet, Therapy?, and Blur are agreeable on their own terms and generally good investments for admirers who are not hard-core fans. But only Blur’s The Best Of has much of a tale to tell—which it deliberately jumbles by not taking the songs chronologically, save for the token new track, “Music Is My Radar,” which closes the first disc. (The second CD offers live versions of 10 tunes, most of them also represented on the first one.) The band’s journey from dream-pop (“She’s So High”) to jingo-pop (“Country House”) to electro-smoothie (“The Universal”) to its own country-house variation on grunge (“On Your Own”) is deliberately subverted, perhaps to make the band seem more bold and less reactive than it actually was (and is).

Blur’s album tells a different story in Britain, where most of these songs were radio hits. One thing 1 has that Time Capsule: The Best of Matthew Sweet, 1990-2000, Therapy?’s So Much for the Ten-Year Plan: A Retrospective 1990-2000, and Asides From Buffalo Tom: Nineteen Eighty-Eight to Nineteen Ninety-Nine all lack: a sense of consensus. Beatles and Blur fans can argue that the respective bands’ best songs were never released as singles—the Beatles, epochally, were the first group to stir such discussions—but the tracks on their retrospectives have official standing. These are the songs that everyone—which is to say, steadfast followers and casual admirers, but not people who vehemently prefer the Stones to the Beatles or Oasis to Blur—have in common.

That logic doesn’t work in the United States, where only one Blur best-of tune (“Song 2”) would be widely recognized; there’s no national radio playlist that links the American pop-music audience. The title of Buffalo Tom’s compilation says as much, punning on “A-sides”—songs that mean everything to everyone, at least for a week or so—and “asides,” possibly interesting but ultimately inconsequential remarks. In other words, indie rock spent the ’90s nattering to a small circle of friends.

To be sure, there are many ’90s acts that dwelled far deeper underground than Buffalo Tom, Matthew Sweet, or Therapy? that spent at least part of the decade recording for major labels and were assured of regular attention if not significant sales or airplay. It was not only the cultists who heard them. Indeed, the very notion of a best-of suggests the possibility of a less-committed listener who just wants the highlight reel, not the whole movie.

A best-of presents the opportunity to recut, fracture the narrative, and excise moments that look embarrassing in retrospect. Like Blur’s, Therapy?’s album shuffles the chronology, making the implicit argument that all the band’s music is of a piece. Matthew Sweet’s album skips his first two LPs altogether, abbreviating the process of evolution that led from synth-pop to blues-, uh, pop. The package is less interesting that way, but maybe the singer-songwriter hates his early solo stuff. Or maybe he couldn’t get the rights. Or maybe it just didn’t fit the concept.

The concept for all four bands is their careers so far, but also the ’90s themselves. It’s striking that only Blur, whose album chronicles the years 1991 to 2000, didn’t provide dates somewhere in its collection’s title. Even Buffalo Tom’s disc, which has the effrontery to start in 1988, substantially overlaps the other three. Even if the ’90s-as-post-punk era began in 1991—you remember Nevermind—these albums all qualify as summations of the decade.

So what happened in the ’90s? Well, Buffalo Tom did Hüsker Dü’s folkie-hardcore, gradually paring away the noise. Blur aped the Kinks, the Beatles, and a couple of different David Bowies, mucked up with My Bloody Valentine at the beginning and with Pavement at the end. Matthew Sweet filtered the Byrds through Television’s “Satisfaction” and the Voidoids’ “Ventilator Blues.” And Therapy? married power-pop and metal—a great idea back when the Sweet and Blue Oyster Cult originally had it. Oh yeah, it did a little Hüsker Dü, too.

Reducing them to their formulas does these bands a disservice, however. In fact, I like all these records, especially Therapy?’s and Sweet’s. But none of them take an unexpected journey—or even prepare for one. All four bands work variations on existing models, hoping to distinguish themselves by invention, personality, or sheer vehemence. Like novelists in the wake of the wildly inventive early 20th century, contemporary rockers proceed not so much as if nothing ever happened but as if nothing ever will again. Sometimes it works. But it’s not exactly the makings of a stirring saga. —Mark Jenkins