So let's get this out of the way right now: The Alarm sound like U2. They write big, anthemic rock songs of social importance. They came from the '80s.
Now that's enough of that. I've grown up in the U2 generation, amongst peers who think U2 can do no wrong. I'm not one of them. While I've definitely found U2 to be occasionally brilliant, I'm sick of them. Give me "Discotheque" or "Lemon" over "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" any day.
So enter The Alarm. Despite being dogged by appropriate U2 comparisons, they really always did have their own sound. They take cues from The Clash and Bruce Springsteen in equal quantities. They employ sweaty bar band rock 'n' roll in ways that U2 wouldn't ever consider, save a few moments on Rattle and Hum. And they don't have that whole Bono-as-Christ-figure thing going on. Maybe it's just a matter of personal tastes, but The Alarm always kind of got a raw deal. They were a much better band than they were given credit for.
But at the same time it's easy to see why they weren't as big as U2: they wrote nothing but big, anthemic rock songs. Song after song after song they pumped out barn burners and barrelhouse rockers and very rarely slowed down along the way. The end result was a catalog that rocked so hard and so relentlessly that it sounded samey. When they started, they had passion. By the end, it was more: Oh, another Alarm anthem? Yawn.
So now, after a ten year hiatus, half of the Alarm have reunited as "Alarm 2000" and gone off on a tour. As part of this, some of the shows were recorded for a Greatest Hits Live CD. And while this new lineup is somewhat inferior to the original Alarm, what you get is pretty much what you'd expect: hard-rocking live versions of most of the Alarm's hits and best-known songs.
There are many ways to view this disc. The first (and most unkind) is as an '80s nostalgia package, where the aging band tears through all their classics with memories of the good old days. That may be the case, but the band's performances catch fire in quite a few places, so it's hard to write this off as a poor imitation of the Alarm's glory days. The next way to view the package is as a tour souvenir intended primarily for fans, and that would be more accurate. Because the Alarm were often plagued by overproduction, the live format suits them well by forcing them to stretch out on songs that were basically studio creations. "Rain in the Summertime", for example, was overproduced and synth-heavy in its album version, so here it is completely reworked with the synths removed. But Mike Peters' vocals also sound much more haggard than on the originals, particularly on some of the later songs ("Rescue Me" is just kind of yelped and shouted through with almost no sense of melody). So this set is still primarily for fans because these rough-and-tumble live versions of their classics are not as immediate as the more masterful studio versions.
So, then, even though Greatest Hits Live is a fairly good portrait of The Alarm's live show, it doesn't function as well as a best-of as either of their earlier hits packages, both because it omits "Presence of Love", one of their two US hits, and because for a casual fan, the original studio versions are going to suffice. And while the Alarm's type of songs-all raging rockers-generally work well in a live context, the fact that every Alarm song has the same tempo means that the pacing is horrible for a concert. Of the album's 18 tracks, there are probably about 15 tracks that would be the peak of the set for most acts. By extension, everything starts to blur by the middle of the album.
But Greatest Hits Live can do one thing, and that is bring The Alarm back into the public's consciousness, after having almost completely disappeared for 10 years. While they're even less likely to be the next U2 now than they were 15 years ago, their style of arena rock has aged fairly well even considering their tendency to lean on heavier production. So if Greatest Hits Live is the introduction to this band for a younger fan, then great. But most will be suited better by Standards or The Best of the Alarm and Mike Peters.