Joy Division: The Best of Joy Division

[7 May 2008]

By Daniel Rivera

The release of a Best of compilation has many implications. Generally, it’s supposed to indicate that a group or an artist has entered a certain circle of musicians with such an abundance of noteworthy pieces of work that the highlights can be compiled and examined together. Somehow, this will provide an adequate map of the artist’s existence. This idea has been both fine-tuned and diminished over the years. For every intimate BBC rarities compilation and Peel Sessions collection, there is an equally vacuous gathering of singles and radio hits simply repackaged and released for mass consumption.

These types of releases wouldn’t even be a blip on the old radar but for fans like us, chomping at the bit for yet another release by one of our favorite artists or groups. So isn’t it a little disrespectful when they take our loyalty and anticipation and use it to turn an undeserved profit? Forgive me for taking a moralist approach in regards to the music industry (how pointless is that?), but I do believe that there is something to be said for respecting the fans. We are, after all, the ones paying for this music—in most cases anyway.

By and large, Rhino Records have been a cut above the rest in matters such as these. They spend immeasurable time and resources compiling and deciding which bands will get these types of royal treatments. For the most part, the end results are satisfying, if not downright amazing. So imagine my surprise when I saw that Joy Division (unsurprisingly one of my all time favorite bands) was getting the Rhino treatment with a Best of release.

Joy Division has spent the better part of the last decade becoming respected trendsetters all over again. We see this all of the time with bands of this nature. Our all too brief encounters with them in their heyday give way to more intimate encounters years after they’re gone. This was capped, perhaps, by the Killers’ horrible reworking of “Shadow Play” late last year; as well as the recent motion picture Control depicting the life and times of Ian Curtis.
Joy Division is something of a “go-to” group among hipster elitists and music aficionados, and, really, they deserve it. The short-lived band earned their legendary status not simply through the tragic suicide of their front man, but through the way that they genuinely and expertly challenged the conformities of rock music—specifically punk. But you know that already. What may surprise you, however, is the surprisingly superfluous nature of Rhino’s The Best of Joy Division compilation.
Treading the same water as other, more fleshed-out depictions of the group’s work (specifically and obviously the legendary Substance), The Best of Joy Division is a perfectly functional, but mostly innocuous collection of stellar tracks that we’ve really all known and loved for years. Not even as introspective as the expanded version released abroad, this compilation is somehow both adequate and lacking. If anything, it shows that while you’re never really going to be disappointed with the songs of Joy Division, you need a bit more of a reason than that to pay for a collection of tracks that you already own.

What’s more, the disc is really barely a representation of their best work. It neglects much of their earliest pieces in favor of more… obvious choices. It’s an odd strategy, seeing as their earliest ventures are just as well known as their later ones—if not more. This makes the album both simple and short (again, both a strength and a weakness), landing itself somewhere on the side of the “why bother making this?” camp. The biggest problem is not that it doesn’t play well—it’s that it doesn’t play well enough.

All in all, it’s difficult to be too hard on this album. While the fact that it misses many key tracks that help to define Joy Division will cause consternation among diehard fans, for what it is The Best of Joy Division can at the very least work as a fairly good introduction for new fans. Of course it contains their signature track, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, among other notable staples. However, throughout the 14 tracks, there is a mildly healthy sampling of the different directions in which the group went. Sure, it doesn’t all hold together as well as Substance did and still does—but it’s hard to seriously fault any album that has this many good Joy Division cuts contained within its core. 

One would be stretching their credibility to call The Best of Joy Division one of Rhino’s finest hours, but for a company that prides themselves on bringing these types of collections to fans, it certainly doesn’t ruin their reputation. While this US version of the album (without the second disc containing Peel sessions and the like) is a bit unnecessary, its existence isn’t exactly exploitative. Joy Division, after all, is certainly in that circle of musicians deserving to have their work highlighted. It’s just that we could probably have made this mix ourselves.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/joy-division-the-best-of-joy-division/