Normally, I find “greatest hits” and “best of” or “essential” compilations to be useless. If someone asks me about an artist, I’m going to tell them to check out whatever album by that artist that I either like most or that I think they would like most. And when I tell people to check out an album, I’m assuming they will listen to the entire album — from start to finish — at least once. You see, I still believe in the idea of an album. I’m not a teenager who just cherry picks singles and never buys albums. If I like the single, I want the whole album, to see what else the artist has to offer. And I like listening to albums from front to back. Yes, I make playlists. In fact, I make lots of playlists. But before songs are added to my playlists, I’ve usually listened to the albums they’re from at least a couple of times. The point is, even though I make and listen to playlists, I’m still a big fan of listening to entire albums. And I like the idea of artists making albums, rather than just making a bunch of potential singles that will all appear at the front of the CD — they call this front-loading in the music biz — with a bunch of half-assed songs behind them. And, believe it or not, there are still thousands and thousands of artists who make albums, crafting an album of which the individual songs are just parts, like pieces of a puzzle. These artists think about what order the songs should appear in. They decide how they want the album to flow and arrange the songs in whatever order they decide on because that’s how they want you to experience them. The last thing they want you to do is just download one song and listen to it out of the context of the album. That’s one of the reasons Metallica had been so opposed to Napster. As artists, they wanted people to experience their albums, not just whatever songs they managed to download from Napster. And that’s how most true artists still feel today.
Getting back to the topic of “greatest hits” albums, such collections clearly defy the idea of listening to albums from start to finish. And they make it easy as pie for people to just go ahead and listen to the hits and never check out the artist’s other songs. I just don’t like that.
I’ll admit that there are artists whose work I first explored via hits collections. The Eagles immediately comes to mind. And Elton John. In the case of The Eagles, I never really got into them, so I didn’t go exploring their albums, if I’m being entirely honest here (and I am). But in the case of Elton John, I own at least 10 of his albums now and have listened to them all from start to finish, just the way they were made to be listened to.
I suppose hits collections are a good thing if and when people who buy them decide to check out the artists albums after listening to them. But if someone buys one so they can just get the hits and deliberately avoid the artists’ other songs then I don’t like that.
The other thing that bugs me about hits albums is when they simply arrange the tracks in the order that they were released, or at least going from the artist’s first album to their last. The Killers recently released Direct Hits and that’s how it’s arranged. It starts with tracks from Hot Fuss then it goes to Sam’s Town then Day & Age and finally Battle Born and then there are a couple of new tracks. And the new tracks are great, which is why I bought this. But I hate that the songs are in the order they’re in. That doesn’t do anything for me. Anyone could make a compilation that way if they have the albums. What I much prefer is when the artist’s arrange the songs in an order that they think flows best, putting thought into what order the songs should appear in. When they do this, arranging the songs in non-chronological order, I am intrigued. I like to listen to those sort of hits collections because I’m curious to see how they’ll flow, to see how the artists have arranged them. Also, hearing the songs in a mixed up order often makes you see them in a new light. Sometimes I don’t want to see songs from albums I love mixed up, don’t want to see them differently at all. But usually I’m curious to see how they feel in the order the artists have chosen for their best of compilations. With Direct Hits by The Killers, I just feel like zero thought went into it. It’s great that they’re giving you two stellar new tracks, but I wish they would have arranged the songs in a different order, framed them differently. Put some thought into it, tried to arrange the songs as though they were truly parts of an album and not just cherry picked singles.
Suffice to say I like it when artists put thought into the order the songs will appear on when they release their hits collections. Which brings me to Mika’s new compilation, Songbook, Vol. 1, which happens to be one of those compilations where the songs are not in chronological order (or in the order the singles were relased). No, some serious thought went into the order the songs appear on here. At least I’m assuming it did. Admittedly, it could have been the record company that chose the order these songs appear in, but I highly doubt it. If that were the case, the biggest hits would have been up front or else it’d be in chronological order. But, of course, I can’t be sure. I’m just assuming that Mika himself picked the order the songs are in here. And, you know what, this is a lovely mix. Which is what it is, really. Some of these songs weren’t even singles or hits. Which is probably why it’s being called a “songbook” instead of a best of or greatest hits. In any case, that’s fine. I love the fact that this compilation includes some songs that weren’t singles in addition to being arranged in a rather clever order that flows perfectly. This is truly an enticing CD that Mika fans should definitely get a hold of even though it was apparently only released in Italy thus far. Definitely worth the import price.
Songbook Vol. 1 opens with “Relax, Take It Easy,” which was the fifth song on Mika’s debut album, Life In Cartoon Motion. And it’s a fitting introduction here. It makes it as though Mika is inviting you to come into his world. Take off your shoes. Have a glass of wine. Relax, take it easy. Check out my tunes. Another reason it’s the perfect introduction: it showcases everything Mika can do brilliantly. It starts off with him playing piano then he starts singing softly and an electronic beat joins the mix, pounding away, and once it hits the winning chorus, bingo, Mika shows off his amazing falsetto, which rivals the Bee Gees. So, there you go, Mika revealed. Now keep listening as he does all of these things even more impressively as the collection continues.
The second song here is “Grace Kelly,” which was a massive pop smash that went to number 1 on the UK singles chart. Mika kind of takes what he does with “Relax, Take It Easy” and kicks things up a notch or five with higher falsetto notes, bigger beats, a faster tempo, etc. Conceptually, it’s a song from the point of view of someone who tries to be like Grace Kelly. I’ve always assumed it’s about Mika himself. Regardless, it’s a pleasant mix of inspiring and amusing. Here’s a sample: “I try to be like Grace Kelly / But all her looks were too sad / So I try a little Freddie / I’ve gone identity mad.”
The compilation is 20 tracks long, so I certainly can’t walk you through all of it. Besides, sometimes I feel like reviews are just spoilers. You wouldn’t want to read too much about what’s going to happen on your favorite TV show next week, so why would you want to read too much about a new album you’re going to check out. Admittedly, I do tend to write long-winded reviews, but I do try to write just enough to entice people to check out the albums. I do have a few more things to say about Mika’s Songbook Vol. 1 though.
I hate to point out specific songs and encourage you to listen to those songs without listening to the whole compilation, but the compilation is obviously just that, so these songs have already been cherry picked from the albums they appeared on before they were arranged here. Still, there are some highlights here that deserve mention.
For starters, there’s “Stardust” featuring Chiara, which is a lovely bi-lingual ballad. I believe the other language is Spanish but I suppose it could be Italian. Forgive me for not being sure. In any case, it’s a lovely song and one of my favorite pop duets ever, Mika and Chiara’s voices meshing together perfectly, as though they were designed for the very purpose of singing duets together, to which end I think they should make another. What I suppose I like most about this song is its playful vibe. ‘When will I see you again,” they both sing at various points throughout the song and that’s slightly melancholic but, otherwise, it’s a very feel good sort of song, almost in the vein of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” And, speaking of “Get Lucky,” “Stardust” is followed by the joyous song “Celebrate” which features “Get Lucky” hero Pharrell Williams. And, seriously, “Celebrate” is like the first cousin of “Get Lucky.” Granted, “Celebrate” is more about having a blast, having a big party, celebrating your ass off, whereas “Get Lucky” is very sexual. But they’re both tracks that have just enough going on musically without going overboard. They’ve got their beats and their funky bass and there are little flourishes of this and that, but they don’t flood you with too many sounds. These are light tracks, easily accessible, not over the top sonic assaults like so many pop songs today. I think that’s one of the reason why “Get Lucky” was such a hit and why Lorde’s “Royals” is such a hit — these are songs that are beautifully arranged with just the right amount of music. No unnecessary blips or bleeps. And they’re not so sonorous that you feel like they’re trying to blow your subwoofer. These are songs that don’t need their levels jacked up to make them catch you attention, unlike so many pop songs these days where the levels of the beats and instruments are jacked way, way up, trying to make the song louder and more attention-grabbing. It’s like there’s a contest to see who can have the loudest song. And neither “Celebrate” or “Get Lucky” were designed to participate in that contest. On the contrary, they despise it. And that’s more or less the case with all of Mika’s songs. They’re all exquisitely produced and don’t need bells and whistles to get your attention. I’m not saying that they don’t have layers of sound. They do. But not every sound has to be amped up to 10 at all times. These songs have breathing room, so you can appreciate the instruments and beats and everything that’s there. They’re not cluttered. Even Mika’s collaboration with frequent Lady Gaga collaborator RedOne is kind of subtle. Usually, RedOne’s stuff has monstrous beats, that’s kind of his thing. But the beats here on their song “Kick Ass,” which is from the movie with the same name, are just boisterous enough, not set to maximize your subwoofer.
I’ll mention one more song: “Popular Song” featuring Ariana Grande, a lovely young lady who’s been taking the pop scene by storm of late. Like his duet with Chiara, Mika gives Ariana plenty of room to sing here. This isn’t like a rap track with a cameo where the person who’s featured just throws down a verse and is out of there. Ariana sings plenty of lyrics solo. More importantly, her voice gels with Mika’s masterfully. This isn’t a grandiose Celine Dion duet, but you get the feeling that these two could pull off doing a serious, epic ballad together if they wanted to. But “Popular Song” isn’t that. No, it’s a super fun song with jumpy beats and light-hearted vocals. “All that you have to do is be true to you / That’s all you ever need to know,” Mika sings during the song that is actually opposed to the whole idea of being popular. They’re singing about how being popular isn’t important, that what’s important is being yourself. So, bravo them for that. And bravo to Mika for making so many perfect pop songs that never fail to lift people’s spirits. Cheers to him for being himself, falsetto and all, being a true artist, writing his own songs, and not just some record company product. It’s tempting to say that the world would be better off if we had more Mikas and less, say, Miley Cyruses. But if that were the case then Mika wouldn’t be such an original, such a diamond in the rough. So, instead, what I’m wishing for is for artists like Mika to continue to have hits, challenging the latest record label crafted stuff. I’ll take Mika songs over Dr. Luke’s any day.