Paul Oakenfold receives a lot of flack simply because he’s a popular DJ. The truth of the matter, however, is that he’s not as much a popular DJ as he is a populist one.
After all, Oakenfold certainly deserves credit for bringing trance to the masses, starting off as a smalltime producer (along with friend and collaborator Steve Osborne) who hit big by producing the Happy Mondays’ 1990 masterpiece Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. It was the success of that dance pastiche that ultimately led to his formation of Perfecto Records and, eventually, a never-ending list of high-profile remixes. He never received critical atta-boys because of his lack of innovation. He never received respect in the hardcore dance scene because of his continuous flirtation with the mainstream. Yet this never stopped Oakenfold, who tried to put out a mix CD a year, and it wasn’t even until 2002 when he attempted his first stab at being a solo artist with the semi-popular Bunkka. It was at that time that some of his loyalists jumped ship (and insisted that most of his success in the past was due to Steve Osborne), but once the platinum certificate got shipped to his home office, it was obvious that there was no going back.
So Greatest Hits & Remixes — using up the entire time allotted to a CD release — attempts to cover about 15 years of dance-floor history in 79 minutes. It covers everything from his chart-busters to his early beginnings, all presented as one continuous non-stop mix. Though this may all sound thrilling, the tracks are divided up in erratic fashion, and any purist who thinks that remixing Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” or Radiohead’s “Everything In It’s Right Place” amounts to nothing but blasphemy should best stay away. Ultimately, Oakenfold makes music for the people: big, dumb, to-the-point club tracks that hit your pleasure-center and nothing else. At times, he succeeds wonderfully. At others, the phrase “pleasantly innocuous” comes off as press-release lingo for “flat-out irritating.”
Good news first: the original songs. The disc opens with “Starry-Eyed Surprise”, his surprising pop-rap hit with former Crazy Town frontman Shifty Shellshock (probably best known for its use in a series of early-2006 Pepsi commercials). It’s utterly disposable, but it’s that very feature that makes it so wonderful to begin with: it’s watered-down Ibiza for the bubblegum crowd, and it’s somehow refreshing (partially because Oakenfold is working with the simplest of drum beats, not his usual reverbed-to-infinity fare). The more rock-oriented “Faster Kill Pussycat”, from his disastrous Bunkka follow-up A Lively Mind, features a surprisingly fetching vocal turn from actress Brittany Murphy, and his own “Dread Rock” works just fine as music to be played during some fight scene in a cookie-cutter action movie.
Which leads to the first of many gripes with the actual disc itself. “Ready Steady Go”, a fight song that was used to excellent effect in The Bourne Identity, doesn’t have its signature three-note guitar squall at the opening of the track. Nay, that distinctive track-defining opener actually consumes the last 20-seconds of his remarkably uninteresting take on Dirty Vegas’ “Days Go By”. With these songs released as a continuous mix, the tracks aren’t divided up so you can simply plunk “Faster Kill Pussycat” down on your next mix CD. Instead, there’s extra drum hits hanging on to track starts and track ends, making these tracks nothing like the original versions that appeared on Oakenfold’s CDs. The worst example of this is his remix of U2’s “Beautiful Day”, in which we don’t even hear the Edge’s distinctive guitar line until two whole minutes into the track. Greatest Hits & Remixes is rife with these inaccuracies, making the disc’s “continuous mix” system work only if you’re playing it straight through. To put it simply: it’s a needlessly frustrating experience for track-hunters (or anyone who likes their music on “Shuffle”, for that matter).
More bad news: the only thing more single-track than this disc is Oakenfold’s hit-or-miss remixing abilities. “Days Go By”, for example, feels as if nothing more than a simple drum beat was plastered over the original song before being sent to the label. Same goes for Mark Ronson’s “Stop Me” (featuring Daniel Merriweather). Other Oakenfold mishaps include trying to make one song sound like another (Madonna’s “Sorry” suddenly transforms into Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” for some reason) and touching Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” in the first place (which was part of his score for the John Travolta/Halle Berry bomb Swordfish). He succeeds, however, when he genuinely brings something new to the mix. His remix of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”, for example, throws in a whole new keyboard line, making the song sound looser and flat-out funkier. His revision of “Jack’s Theme Suite” from Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score succeeds because he retains all of the bombast of the original In order to make a solid club track, and — for all of the flak he will receive for tinkering with something that was never to be tinkered with in the first place — his remix of Radiohead’s “Everything In It’s Right Place” succeeds because it doesn’t go the half-hearted route: it sends the song into full-on club territory. If Oakenfold can get raver kids dancing to cryptic, distorted lines like “I woke up sucking on a lemon”, then all the more power to him.
Yet the highlight of this album (and, let’s face it, Oakenfold’s entire career) is with the Happy Mondays. “Step On” remains a bright & poppy burst of danceable guitar-rock, oozing with feel-good vibes and Shaun Ryder’s perpetually-strange lyrical stance. Ironically, Oakenfold’s Greatest Hits is a hit-or miss affair, swerving violently from big-beat pleasure spots to bloated paycheck-padding remixes (and Richard Norris’ ego-pumping liner note essay certainly doesn’t make matters any better). Oakenfold’s massive popularity has been both his greatest gift as well as his greatest curse. At the end of the day, the only person that Oakenfold is trying to impress is the one shaking everything they got on the dancefloor. If that person is you, then pick up Greatest Hits & Remixes and call it a day.