The way for small, chic labels to thrive in the ’90s has apparently been to operate on two people’s taste. Sub Pop was at its peak when it was all about what Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt liked; K, until recently, was Calvin Johnson and Candice Pedersen’s baby; Merge, under Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, turned 10 this summer, and celebrated with Oh, Merge, a compilation of alternate versions and leftovers arranged by band name. It’s an egalitarian gesture, though it mostly just demonstrates that Merge’s rockers hang out in the latter part of the alphabet—Rocket From the Crypt provide the disc’s peak with a 35-second punk fusillade—and that Merge bands in the L-M-N range specialize in relaxed, cleverly orchestrated pop tunes. But Oh, Merge is just a little memento compared to Matador’s and Warp’s multidisc 10th anniversary blowouts.
The reason Matador’s name has cachet— the reason the label has fans, even though it hasn’t had a particular stylistic focus in a long time—is that it puts out records by bands that Chris Lombardi and Gerard Cosloy like: what two people with picky but unpredictable aesthetics have both been listening to lately. Everything Is Nice‘s first two discs construct an idiosyncratic greatest-hits out of the label’s relatively hitless past few years. It’s a mix tape, basically, and a come-on for the curious. Helium’s sleepy, candy-colored fantasy “Cosmic Rays,” for instance, is an out-of-the-way album track and not too representative, but it makes for an illuminating transition between Unwound’s spasmosis and the Lynnfield Pioneers’ basement boogie. The third disc is bait for people who know know know and love love love the catalog already: unreleased tracks, remixes, and new versions of familiar material. (Yo La Tengo’s whispery rethink of “Sugar cube” is particularly, well, nice.)
Another two-guys label, Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell’s U.K. electronic brain trust Warp, is on Matador’s “nice” list too. Lombardi and Cosloy have licensed the not-otherwise-engaged parts of Warp’s output, including three Warp 10 double-CD (or quadruple-LP) sets. Where Matador’s anniversary set is about the label’s identity right now, though, Warp’s is about its ideology and historical grounding. Curiously, the Influences set is stuff that was never on Warp; it’s the late-’80s electro that inspired Beckett and Mitchell to start putting records out. Ten years later, a lot of it sounds like pretty average bleepity-bloopity acid house, A Guy Called Gerald’s deathless “Voodoo Ray” aside. Classics, tracks from the first dozen or so Warp singles (slightly before they hit their stride), covers the same territory: Sweet Exorcist’s sips and clicks anticipate Autechre, LFO (the original LFO) got into supersaturated bass for listening’s sake, and the rest of it is pretty flat. But it’s useful for understanding the third set, on which Warp affiliates and guests remix tracks from the label’s catalog, ransacking their grandparents’ closets for cool outfits. Highlight: Labradford’s frequency inversion of LFO’s “Freeze,” blanketed with an ultrahigh-pitched whistle.
— Now, imagine for a minute that Sony Music’s output, all of it, is also the result of two label guys’ taste—let’s call them “Cole” and “Eric”—and that the 26-CD doorstop Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, subdivided into 11 double-disc sets and a four-disc classical survey, anthologizes the stuff they’ve liked most. (It actually starts in 1890, with the U.S. Marine Band blaring conductor John Phillip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” into a group of cutting machines; since cylinders couldn’t yet be mass-produced, the band had to play it again for each batch.) What can we tell about Cole and Eric? Clearly, they’re crowd-pleasers, much more interested in mastery than innovation. They’re open to happy surprises, though: Jeff Beck’s hectoring guitar line on “Over Under Sideways Down,” the radiant Louis Armstrong solo that opens “West End Blues,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard busting in on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” When they depart from the steak-and-potatoes center of American culture (presciently recording the Broadway flop Anyone Can Whistle, or grooming Charlie Rich for Nashville normalcy), it’s to politely inform the center that that’s where it should be.
“Sony Music,” of course, is a retroactive construct. The company got its musical history by assimilating the CBS Records Group, including Columbia, Epic, and smaller branches like OKeh, back in 1988. A survey of its music division’s greatest corporate successes would have to be measured in financial terms, but a purely sales-based retrospective would be an encyclopedia of kitsch. The liner notes of Soundtrack For a Century all but apologize for “Follow the Bouncing Ball” superstar Mitch Miller, who ran the pop department in the ’50s and was the main reason Columbia shunned rock ‘n’ roll until 1965. Still, he’s top-billed on two tracks, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and the “Colonel Bogey” whistle-march from Bridge on the River Kwai, both iconically campy. (My Fair Lady, in comparison, gets four tracks. Dylan gets five.)
Despite its subtitle, the Sony box can’t really represent recorded music’s aesthetic evolution, either—there are too many embarrassing gaps that seem more like two people’s oversight than a big company neglecting public demand. Bebop is absent: they just spaced. Sixties soul à la Sony is Aretha Franklin squirming in Dinah Washington drag, plus longshots Walter Jackson and Major Lance. The last 22 years’ worth of jazz are reduced to two Marsalises and Unplugged Tony Bennett. If you need proof that it’s still possible for a massive, populist company to Just Not Get It, check this boggler from Jim Miller’s essay for the big box: “Although blessed by one member, Lauryn Hill, who actually had an old-fashioned ability to sing, the Fugees exemplified the popular genre known as ‘rap’—a kind of verbal tap-dancing elaborated in the 1970s, and perfected in the following years by acts like L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Kriss-Kross, to name only three that recorded for Columbia.”
When Cole and Eric get it right, though, they get it very right. They have glorious ears for arena rock, for instance: the “Rock” set has a sequence that goes “Born to Run”—”Carry On Wayward Son”—”More Than a Feeling”—”(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”—”Walk This Way,” which would be the greatest album side of its kind. They’re justly proud of Columbia’s catalog of Broadway productions by Goddard Lieberson; having heard Glynis Johns’s shattered “Send in the Clowns,” I now understand what that song was before it was a joke. The Sony two’s insistence on craft above all else keeps most of the country set pretty tight-assed, but also means it barely falters for a disc and a half. And the first disc of Jazz: The Definitive Performances, covering 1917–1959, is an oh-my-God revelation. I’m not sure how I’d lived this long without hearing Bessie Smith singing “St. Louis Blues.” At least I have the rest of my life to adore it.
100 Years is 33 hours of peaks with their mountains cut off, and sometimes the air around them is pretty thin—it’s hard to get a sense of how they all connect. The Warp and Matador sets contextualize their grand moments with stuff that explains a way to under stand them, and to like them (the Warp set is arguably all context for their “real” releases). Sony’s box, though, doesn’t have that luxury. It can’t imply something other than economics holding it together, for the same reason Cole and Eric can’t exist. It’s impossible to imagine two people who could like all of it.