It shouldn’t be so hard to assemble a good retrospective compilation. And yet, given just how many such collections flop onto shelves every year, it is striking how inessential most of them actually are. Hits comps have a dodgy reputation to begin with, so its worth pointing out the ones that get it right, hitting the near-impossible balance between an entry-level introduction to an artist or group’s oeuvre while also touching on the depth of their catalog in a manner sufficient enough to give the disc(s) personality beyond merely just another faceless Essential set. Then there’s the matter of the inevitable fanbait — you know, the (usually) inessential stuff they tack on to entice the fans who already own, say, “Block Rockin’ Beats” on at least five different discs into believing that they need to own the song on a sixth. Getting all of these factors just right is an unenviable task for any compiler, so it’s no surprise that so many of them appear to have been constructed with all the skill of a drunken game of darts.
Thankfully, after listening to Orbital 20, I am happy to report that Orbital has a compilation worthy of their pedigree — it’s called Work, and it was released in 2002. Orbital 20, on the other hand, is sloppy and superfluous — an especially damning condemnation given just how intricate and essential the band were and are. The former collection managed the neat trick of anthologizing an infamously long-winded group on a single CD through the inclusion of 7″ edits and other crafty cuts — a necessary evil, but one that worked remarkably well given the limitations. The shorter edits actually worked to the band’s advantage in some instances, showing off their underrated skills as pop songwriters by giving some degree of focus and concision to a few tracks which could be, in the context of their original albums, forbiddingly magisterial in length and scope. Orbital 20 has two whole discs and somehow manages to be less thorough than the previous single disc.
Orbital are important — it’s a point I keep reiterating because it’s true — but the unwary listener who might find his or her first exposure to the band on these discs might be sorely vexed by the contents thereof. Don’t mistake me: the music is still fantastic. Orbital made history because they appeared in the midst of a scene that prided itself on being loud, fast, and gaudy — late ’80s acid house — championing the values of intricacy, intellect, and subtlety. They were true heirs to Kraftwerk, but somehow managed to weld that group’s august remove to a more immediate dance context. They were also one of the very first electronic music acts of the modern era to record satisfying LPs which were more than just a compilation of satisfying singles, and sure enough, their first five albums are all certified classics (six is dodgy, but seven picks it up again). So, it’s not that the music on these discs is bad: quite the contrary. The music is much better than this piss-poor cash-in context.
At the risk of picking nits, did they really need to include two versions of “Impact (The Earth Is Burning)”, totaling 24 minutes? Yeah, it’s a great song, but far and away their biggest hit, “Halcyon+On+On”, isn’t even present — only represented by a Tom Middleton remix. It’s a good remix, to be sure, but this was a huge song, and probably the one song people unfamiliar with the group will have heard. Couldn’t they have found room for, say, the epochal live version — you know, the one that breaks into Belinda Carlisle? Or how about the superior, never reprinted original version, just “Halcyon”? They managed to dredge up “The Naked and the Dead” from the original Halcyon EP — a good lost cut, to be sure, but about the last one I expected to find on a collection such as this.
Their later albums get short shrift. Sure, any collection like this will almost always favor a group’s earlier material — especially in the case of a group like Orbital, when their earliest material is so iconic. But honestly, I could have done without one or two tracks off their self-titled debut, maybe cut the live version of “Remind”, in favor of a couple more choice cuts off The Altogether and their final self-titled album (commonly referred to as “The Blue Album”). It might have been nice to have the uncharacteristically rowdy, punk-sampling “Tension”, or late highlight “You Lot”. And how they managed to program two discs without some version of their fan-favorite cover of the Doctor Who theme is beyond me.
This second-guessing is beginning to get ridiculous, but hopefully you get my point. It’s not merely that this is an imperfect compilation, but that it’s seriously flawed to the point that the only real appeal for aficionados is in dissecting the poor sequencing — assuming, that is, you’ve already stripped the handful of fanbait remixes for iTunes. For anyone new to Orbital, it’s probably best just to start with their second self-titled album (commonly referred to as “II” or, “The Brown Album”): that’s the one with “Halcyon+On+On”, and a whole bunch of other good stuff as well. Work should serve well for anyone wanting a more concise introduction. But otherwise, steer clear of this train wreck.