If you do the math right, the most important new song of 1998 was Imajin’s “Shorty (You Keep Playin’ With My Mind).” A not-what-you’d-call-a-hit single by a factory-stamped quartet that’s yet to release an album, it’s nonetheless turned up on Club Mix 99, Ultimate Dance Party 1999, Now, Jive Dance Party Hits, MTV Party To Go ’99, and Pepsi World: The Album. Somebody really wants them to be the next Next, and half of mattering is acting like you matter. The hits-’99 compilations are arguments for what the last year or so in pop has sounded like. Label-affiliation niceties, target audiences, and finite CD length give each an ideological skew, but no matter which way the licensing money flows, the fact that Imajin fit in on half a dozen says something.
Living with a bunch of hits-of-the-year comps is like living with big jars of candy: too much is too much, but a little is always a good idea. Particularly now that many of the best pop songs can’t be had as singles per se, they’re a godsend, a stack of quick thrills without the baggage of albums attached. For most singles artists, albums are there for context, or as an aid to understanding. A great three-and-a-half-minute song, with no context at all, makes you jump up and down in reverence of its perfection-beyond-understanding, and a string of 10 or 15 can be heavenly. The trouble starts when you get to 20 or 30.
There are certain kinds of performers that the hit-comp format discourages from the get-go: country singers (no “You’re Still the One,” no “How Do I Live”), big names (no “Ray of Light” or “My Heart Will Go On,” which shows up only in Déjà Vu’s Hi-NRG version), artists protecting their albums’ legs (Savage Garden, Lauryn Hill), Puffy pals (for those, there’s the bludgeoningly effective Bad Boy Greatest Hits Volume 1). There are others that it encourages, notably divas with a certain kind of very simple uptempo dance groove behind them: it turns out that “Show Me Love” by Robin S. and “Show Me Love” by Robyn are, in fact, different dance hits. The quintessence of this style is Crush’s “Jellyhead”— excuse me, “Jellyhead (Motiv8’s Pumphouse 7” Edit)”— which has shown up on something like 20 compilations, six of them in 1998, including the misbegotten Total Dance Explosion, on which it’s identified as “Crush” by Jellyhead. Written by a rhyming dictionary hooked up to an 808, it still chokes me up sometimes.
Hit comps aren’t generally straight cross sections of the charts— the pop market is too fragmented, or label types perceive it as too fragmented, anyway. It’s interesting, then, that the most all-over-the-place comp of the moment is also the most successful: Now is No. 24 and rising on the latest Billboard chart. (Don’t confuse it with Wow 1999, a double-disc set of contemporary-Christian hits of the year, an alarming number of which sound like Ani DiFranco on a very bad day. Beware: there is now such a thing as Christian swing.) The domestic franchise of Britain’s long-running Now That’s What I Call Music series, Now is haphazardly sequenced, but that doesn’t even matter. Boom: there’s “Mmmbop,” there’s “All My Life,” there’s “Fly Away,” there’s Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” with the “goddamn” wiped, there’s Fastball’s “The Way” and its magical chorus. It’s all peak, and it makes a whole lot of single-artist albums pretty much irrelevant. Now is almost the kind of demographic free-for-all Top 40 used to be— the fluffiest of fluff next to grouchy alt-rock next to love-man balladeers next to novelty breakouts next to . . . well, no hip-hop, actually, but that Imajin track’s got a good beat.
On MTV Party To Go ’99, though, hip-hop gets its due. “Shorty” gains an extra verse courtesy of Keith Murray. In fact, the zero-rap-content stuff doesn’t show up until halfway through the disc, and the No Limit tank drives through twice. Mixer Chris Walsh’s marvelously slick, varied flow implies that the important developments of the year happened in rap, and that everybody else was trying to catch up. The only intruder is Sugar Ray, who sound like they’ve misplaced their hips. Otherwise, rock appears only obliquely— the Steely Dan loop of “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby),” the bit of Police-ish guitar in “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” Noreaga’s sick electro riff and mic-blowing yelps on “Superthug.” Complicated this stuff is (I lost count of the hooks on Big Punisher’s awesome “Still Not a Player” in the early 20s); difficult it is not.
Though it’s crowded with Austin Powers samples and synth flourishes, ESPN Presents Jock Jams Vol. 4 is nowhere near as complicated, because its point isn’t songs and tension/release: it’s beats, chants, cheers, B-E A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E. The hits are as simple as a wheel (Quad City DJs’ “Space Jam,” for people who thought “C’mon and Ride It” was too wordy), and the nonhits— Brooklyn Bounce’s “Get Ready To Bounce,” Hypertrophy’s “Beautiful Day”— are rubber-stamp-phrase-plus-loop affairs. Its argument is that pop isn’t fun on its own so much as the soundtrack to fun, and a way of telling you you’re having fun. For aerobics music, it’s weirdly anaerobic itself— a sealed arena, with no hint of a world without cheerleaders outside.
The way-uneven Club Mix 99 (on the Cold Front imprint of the eternal K-Tel) tends, as its name suggests, toward club hits that didn’t have much impact at radio, like Ultra Naté’s “Found a Cure.” It’s also got the inevitable appearances by Backstreet Boys and Imajin (this time with an extended mix of “Shorty”), and a bonus disc of Euroclub nonentities all licensed from one label. Its counterpart, Club Mix: The 90’s, leads with its sole post-’96 track, but it’s all legitimate pop/club crossover hits (with the exception of a “Macarena” not by Los Del Rio, or even Los Del Mar, but— ahem— Los Chicos). Moment to moment, it’s at least as juicy as the single-year comps, but sustained close listening isn’t just beside the point, it’s irritating: compiler Steven Boister’s thesis seems to be that danceable music found its model for the decade with Black Box and Technotronic and never got off the track. Marching along with the set’s parade of canned bounce, diva whoops, and catchphrases, even great singularities like “Missing” and “I’m Too Sexy” come off like minor tweaks to a monolithic formula, and returning from it to the ’99 discs makes them seem that much grimmer.
Especially Ultimate Dance Party 1999. The latest in Arista’s annual series (last year we got an Ultimate Hip Hop Party too) overlaps Party To Go ’99 by five artists, but its focus is more on making sure that the party never stops: it’s relentless and seamless, with more dramatic gestures per unit of time than any other comp, as genial and ultimately unnerving as a person who never stops smiling the same smile. Baited with a couple of huge Arista hits that are here and nowhere else, compwise (Next’s “Too Close,” the actual No. 1 on this year’s Billboard Hot 100, and Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here”), it insists that anything that falls outside the appropriate rhythms and BPM count must be compelled to conform, by Procrustean means if necessary. Naturally, it closes with “Shorty,” listed as “Feat. Keith Murray,” though this time he appears only in the background. Where Jock Jams ignores the world outside its groove, Ultimate assimilates it like the Borg. Remixers Hex Hector, Love to Infinity, and Razor-N-Guido hack up perfectly nice songs by Lisa Stansfield, Aretha Franklin, and Monica, respectively, so they fit the template, and others seem to have been whittled into shape. This strategy works, up to a point: as an album, it’s totally playable, totally consistent, totally efficient. Of all this year’s comps, Ultimate is the one that delighted me most at first, and now it’s the hardest for me to take for more than a few minutes. You’ll have to forgive my loss of appetite. Too much candy.