Monday, October 5, 2009

celebration frustration

At long last, "Celebration", the definitive hits collection from Madonna, has arrived. If you purchase the double CD edition of it, you will get a healthy overview of why Madonna is the ultimate, pop icon. Packed with 36 megahits covering nearly three decades, "Celebration" is not only aptly titled, but it also reflects the mood surrounding nearly everyone of her massive, chart entries whether it's one of the many that make you want to dance around your handbag or one of her tender, wistful ballads.

Being someone who has produced his fair share of career retrospectives, I'm going to dig into the highs and lows of putting together such an endeavor. There is a science to it. Ultimately, it's the special marriage of art and commerce which makes a greatest hits collection either an essential purchase or something worth avoiding at all costs.

The key to the best, career retrospectives is successfully achieving the delicate balance between appealing to the casual music buyer and satisfying the ardent fan. Both Kylie Minogue and Pet Shop Boys have done amazing jobs with "Ultimate Kylie" and "PopArt - The Hits", respectively. Unfortunately, Madonna falls considerably short on "Celebration". Although, I must admit that the artwork and design by Mr. Brainwash are quite spectacular. Very original and suitably iconic given the gallery of photos from which he had to choose.

A lot of column inches and fan forums have been dedicated to this artifact of popular culture. So, I've decided to take this opportunity to add to the heaps of praise and derision by distilling the most important information into one handy reference guide. I know, I'm a giver. The following is a detailed rundown of my observations regarding the song selection, sound quality, sequence and more. Get yourself a drink, buckle up and settle in for a long ride.

Firstly, "Celebration" manages to collect all of Madonna's essential hits and squarely gives the casual music buyer great value for their money. With 34 hits and two new songs, it certainly pushes all the right buttons for anyone wanting more than just a cursory overview of her varied and illustrious career. Not sure why it was decided to release a single disc, 18 track version of it, as well. That's really kind of pointless since it's nearly impossible to encapsulate a 26 year career in such a limited space.

Secondly, in order to satisfy her diehard fans, the producer of this compilation should have paid close attention to the specific versions included on it. Here is where "Celebration" falls considerably short . It's as if someone gave the job of compiling this collection to an intern for their summer credits. As a producer of some note as it pertains to historic sets by artists who built their work on the back of airplay, I would have included all of the single versions of each song on the collection.

With an artist of Madonna's magnitude, it is essential that her work be represented by the versions that appeared on the once might 45 (or the 7" single for the UK contingent). I understand that this is a purist's point of view, but it also allows for many versions to make their first appearance on CD. And that would clearly appeal to the serious fans.

Of all the tracks included, ten were released as singles in versions that differ from their album mixes. I would have much preferred the inclusion of the difficult to obtain single mixes. So, with that said, I would have not included the longer, album versions of "Hung Up", "Holiday", "Frozen" and "Live To Tell" on "Celebration". The more economical single versions would have allowed for at least one or two more songs to be included on the collection.

In the case of "Live To Tell", the single edit, which has a bit more urgency, has never featured on a full length Madonna album, would have been a more welcome inclusion. Thankfully, the original version of "Into The Groove" finally makes an appearance. This essential, pop music landmark has been sorely missing from many Madonna retrospectives. Until this day, only the plinky, housed up remix featured on "The Immaculate Collection".

It's remarkable how "Into The Groove", one of those funky, electro club records from the days of Danceteria and The Funhouse, still sounds fresh today. It has the city of New York spray painted across it in neon graffiti. But it wasn't until recently that I noticed how much it owes to records like "Let The Music Play" by Shannon.

Fortunately, five tracks do appear in their official, single versions. They include "Secret", "Ray Of Light", "Sorry", "4 Minutes" and "Miles Away". However, I think the edit of "4 Minutes" always sounded rushed, awkward and clunky. It would've sat better in the sequence in its album version. Besides, why have a song called "4 Minutes" that's only a hair over three minutes? And why have two songs that begin with a ticking clock separated by three songs. Move them farther apart. Subjective? Yes. But it does sound peculiar with the two in close proximity to each other.

Of songs that didn't make the cut, both "This Used To Be My Playground" and "I'll Remember", singles which peaked at #1 and #2 in the US, respectively, should probably have been included over "Miles Away" and "Hollywood" which garnered more muted responses upon their release.

Then there are the mistakes. And there are many!

There are a few mastering errors on "Music", "Die Another Day" and "Hollywood". As they are all recordings from later in her career, there is no excuse for this as the original, digital masters exist in numerous configurations. For instance, there are multiple digital pops and clicks that are not part of the original recording which can be heard throughout "Music". "Die Another Day" fades up late due to the incorrectly placed track index on the "American Life" album. And "Hollywood" starts abruptly and the tail end of the fade out from the song, "American Life", is audible which makes me think they just lifted it off the CD! Then there's the fucked up intro on "Dress You Up". What the hell happened here? Of the first four beats of the intro, all but the fourth are missing. Fifty lashes!

For some unexplained reason, there are five mixes lifted directly from "The Immaculate Collection", Madonna's first hits collection from 1990. They include "Borderline", "Like A Virgin", "Crazy For You", "Open Your Heart" and "Vogue". I would really like to know why that decision was made. Rather than feature the single versions, the Q Sound mixes are used. Let's face it, why the hell did they create those useless Q Sound mixes in the first place? It really made "The Immaculate Collection" a very disappointing purchase, especially since its corresponding video collection featured all of the single versions anyway.

The remaining tracks are unique to the collection. Two of them, "Celebration" and the Lil Wayne collaboration, "Revolver", are new recordings. Although they are great songs and stand on their own in her towering cannon of work, they are examples of Madonna following more than leading. "Revolver" sounds a bit like "Radar" by Britney Spears and "Celebration" could easily have been recorded by Cascada. Essentially, it's Madonna's strong personality stamped on top which makes them sparkle a little brighter than the aforementioned acts would have. If you purchase the premium version of "Celebration" on iTunes, you get a third, new track, "It's So Cool", which sounds like it was either an outtake from "Music" or "Confessions On A Dancefloor". Not a necessary purchase unless you're a fan.

As for the rest, quality control has really reached an all time low with numerous blunders. "Lucky Star" is virtually identical to the version heard on "The Immaculate Collection", however the music leading into the first verse is different. On "The Immaculate Collection", it was edited to match the original 7" version which is not the case on "Celebration". The most obvious difference is right at the fade. Instead of the chorus, it edits to a set of adlibs heard on longer versions of the song, but not heard on the Q Sound mix featured on "The Immaculate Collection". It just seems an odd variation without any reason for its inclusion.

"Everybody" has been edited differently. I starts like the full length, original 12" version just like the official 7" version did but it's structured differently. While the overall idea for this edit isn't horrendous, whoever was placed in charge of actually executing the edits needs to be smacked and not allowed back into a studio until they've learned to do the job properly.

Many fans were thrilled to hear that the video mix of "Express Yourself", in itself and edit of Shep Pettibone's remix, which has never made an appearance on CD to my knowledge. However, upon closer inspection, it is actually a failed attempt to recreate the video version. The intro comes straight off of Shep's original "Local Mix" including the zipper sound that simulates a bass slide. The actual, official video version starts with percussion and is specially mixed to have echo on the line "Do you believe in love?" which is dry on the "Local Mix" and, therefore, not present here. This new monstrosity then incorrectly cuts to the 7" remix edit version and then has some bad editing right at the bridge. The track jumps from the end of the chorus to the repeat of the bridge which kills the original structure of the track. Again, not sure why this Frankenstein edit makes an appearance on this collection unless some uninformed intern was given the task of locating the sources for this project.

The original album version of "Cherish" has been cut to the length of the super short mix found on "The Immaculate Collection". These edits have been poorly executed and result in creating lyrical non sequiturs like the one found at the end of the bridge section - "Can't get away, I won't let to"! The doo-wop inspired breakdown during the bridge, which elevates the song's joyous message, has been truncated thus rendering the song a little less special. The super quick fade out sucks the rest of the life out of it.

For some strange reason, "Erotica" and "Justify My Love" overlap. The record crackle on the end of "Erotica" bleeds into the beginning of "Justify My Love". Bizarre. Why make the gap between songs different here and nowhere else on the collection?

As a side note, I think sequencing of the entire collection doesn't flow particularly well. The worst example of this are the final three songs on disc two where "Don't Tell Me" leads into the giddy bounce of "Cherish" and is followed by the aggressive intro of "Celebration". And "Crazy For You" followed by the latin tinged "Who's That Girl" and segueing into the haunting strains of "Frozen" seems a bit schizo from the listener's vantage point. However, "Take A Bow", one of Babyface's finest collaborations, into the cinematic "Live To Tell" is a gorgeous couplet. Let's face it, most people will throw all of these songs into their iPods and switch it on shuffle. So, at the end of the day, I guess the sequence doesn't really matter.

The overall mastering of both CDs is uneven but is most noticeable on the first disc. Some of the early songs such as "Like A Virgin" have teeth chattering high end and later material like "Ray Of Light" sounds muddy. In addition, the entire album sounds like an EQ effect was applied to the songs which boosts the bass. The overall effect makes it appear that the entire collection was not truly remastered from the original tapes and sources.

As a singles artist who also sold a considerable amount of each one of her albums, I think more thought should have been put into preserving her recorded legacy. Album versions are able to be purchased when buying their attendant longplayers. Singles are more difficult to acquire and, therefore, a better effort should have been made to feature all of them on "Celebration". Also, it would have made for a better value, especially in these cost conscious days.

As for the DVD, would it have killed anyone to QC this project correctly? The quality of most of the clips are slightly better than what is available on YouTube. There is also plenty of room to have included numerous, omitted videos, from the blend of innocence and gritty, club vibe of "Everybody" through to the powerful trifecta of masterworks "Oh Father", "Bad Girl" and "Nothing Really Matters". Why leave off random videos, especially some of David Fincher's best work? Why deliver a less than complete visual representation of Madonna's entire career?

Typically, Madonna has released deluxe editions of her albums. Unfortunately, she and Warner Bros. did not invest in developing a special release for "Celebration". I would have suggested a lavish 4 CD collection of nearly all of her singles accompanied by two DVDs of her entire video output and peppering it with landmark television performances like her legendary appearance of "American Bandstand", as well as "Like A Virgin and "Vogue" from MTV in 1984 and 1990, respectively. The minimal licensing fees for these would have been well worth the cost.


  1. very well put. its a debacle in every way.

  2. I didn't buy either of the cd releases, but I did pre-order the DVD.

    I'm glad you pointed out there's an issue, because I thought my TV was screwed.

  3. how depressing is that? i'm kind of glad that i waited to buy the cd in lieu of trying to find the dvd here first in LA last week. now, i'm probably not going to buy either.

    you would think that more care would have been put into something like this. is she THAT over with warner brothers to just put out something like this ... mistakes and all?

  4. Incredible, well thought out, thought provoking and genius write up. One of the best overviews both technically and as an obvious fan I've read :)

  5. @Paul - Thanks for the compliment! I've been producing all sorts of music related projects over the last 20 years. I guess I take them a little too seriously sometimes! :) But I'm passionate about properly preserving someone's recorded legacy. One day, it'll all be able to be plucked from the ether, so all the correct info should be made available.

  6. @Mike - It's a shame it had to be written. So many people were looking forward to a proper documentation of Madonna's amazing career. We've cheered her on and been in her corner all this time. We wanted to celebrate with her. Unfortunately, the fans are left feeling disappointed. We'll never know the real reason behind the collection being riddled with mistakes.

  7. of course we know the real reason behind this debacle...Warner's is in shambles and Madonna's camp probably signed off on it without more than a cursory look..

  8. Terrific review. Indeed, quality control has slipped at WMG since the new owners took over. I saw it happening first hand - and was amongst the first to be laid off. Apparently, they don't appreciate compassionate, knowledgeable, market-smart music fans (who take their work home with them) in their ranks any longer. At least, that was the type that was singled out in the first round of cuts. You keep hoping they will come to their senses, but unfortunately, all signs point to a continued downhill slide.

  9. Another Madonna hits compilation without "Causing A Commotion" on it. What gives? "Hollywood" or "Miles Away" could have easily been dropped in favor of "Commotion", which was on every count a bigger hit. Blah.

  10. @deege - You are so right. "Causing A Commotion" should have made an appearance. It was a #2 hit! And it marked the end of an era for Madonna before "Like A Prayer". Agreed. It should have been included.

  11. A spot-on review of a project that should have been world-class thats executed as some "speed-table CD for WalMart" product. I am SO sad this is what passes for a "ultimate career-spanning retrospective" these days.
    A missed chance for a brilliant singles collection that will sadly never happen again.

  12. Vinny, you have an interesting background. Compiler/producer, songwriter. I, too, have compiled/produced compilation CDs (mostly for Rhino, Varese Sarabande, also one in the Universal "20th Century Masters" series) and make my living as a songwriter. What other artist's Best Of CDs have you compiled/produced? And what songs have you written that we might have heard?

  13. @Gordon P. - Thanks for the kind words. I've produced reissues for Rhino, Varese and many of the labels, as well. I ran EMI's catalog and compilation division from 1991 through 1996.

    As a songwriter, I've written for lots of acts including The Veronicas, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rosa, Paula Abdul, Paulini, B3, Tania Moran and so many others. I've had #1 singles and albums in Germany. I have also produced projects for Pet Shop Boys, Tori Amos, Bryan Ferry, Frazier Chorus, Blondie, Ace Of Base, The Manhattan Transfer and so many others.

  14. Vinny, just curious: Do you have any idea if the videos available as part of the deluxe album on iTunes suffer from the same resolution issues as those on the DVD?

  15. @Sean - I believe they are the same sources on iTunes as were used on the DVD. I haven't checked them out myself, but I have heard they are identical. Let me know if you find out first hand.