Wandering the Aisles, Vol. 1: Hall & Oates for the Obsessed

Written by Music, Wandering the Aisles

It’s quite possible that, at some point in your life, you’ve dreaded going to the supermarket. All those crazy people, long lines and synapse-damaging packages can take a toll on anyone. You usually have two escape routes, if you’re shopping with someone else: look at the magazine racks and try to see how many pages of US Weekly you can get through before shrieking “Celebs are NOT just like us!” in protest, or sift through the discounted, often-dusty bins of overstocked CDs and DVDs.

You’ve probably never bought one, though. After all, what could possibly inspire anyone to make their entertainment purchases at a grocery store instead of Amazon or, if you’re lucky enough, a homegrown record store? However, if you’re open to (or desperate for) a cheap fix of music or film, sometimes a supermarket can be a place to find buried treasure…if you don’t mind the occasional piece of fool’s gold along the way. You never know what you’ll find while Wandering the Aisles.

One of the mainstays of any discount bin of music is cheap compilations. For years, people have been avoiding most cheaply-packaged efforts from small offshoots of major labels like Flashback, Collectables or, often cheapest of all, a label’s “Custom Markets” division. These are the kind of sets that someone buys if they’re desperate beyond measure. “I need ‘Need You Tonight’ tonight!” they shriek into space, “and I guess I can tolerate ‘and other hits’! AAAAAAAAAGH!”

The budget compilation, quaint during the glory days of the CD, now seems tragicomic in an era where an album can top the Billboard charts by selling mere tens of thousands of copies. But that’s where the craziness takes over: labels are now trying to make these kinds of compilations into some sort of impossible success – and somehow it’s working. I’m constantly in awe of Sony’s Playlist series for that reason. Packaged in the thinnest of recycled digipaks, with some of the goofiest cover designs, they should only ever fall into that “quick-fix” territory. Instead, they’ve now become a gateway for the music obsessive.

You wouldn’t expect such a thing, especially if you read the glad-handing copy on the back of each package. Nobody but a record company would make a point about including “life-changing tracks” and “fan favorites” alongside the usual hits fare. I don’t even know that anyone would entirely agree with the worthiness of any given Playlist entry. But these aren’t your average compilations, regardless of how much your life is or isn’t altered by pop music.

The Playlist entry on ironic rock gods Daryl Hall and John Oates looked like a good place to start, thanks to the innate catchiness of their back catalogue and the hilarious cover photo, a late-’80s shot that apparently has the duo doing make-up tests for a New Wave revival of Peter Pan. (Oates would make a rather interesting Captain Hook.) Hall and Oates have had plenty of compilation glory before — 1983’s Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 was a double-platinum effort, and there are plenty of late-’90s/early-’00s Essential/Ultimate/Very Best Of sets. But there’s something different about this disc. Have you ever had a debate over a greatest-hits set and said, “Well, if they put me in charge…”? Playlist: The Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates is arranged as though a G4 summit of H&O devotees got together and made the best set they possibly could for under $10.

Daryl Hall and John Oates – “Out of Touch”

One example of how attentive to detail the H&O set is: a great volume of tracks presented as heard on the original singles. The art of the single edit/remix is largely a lost art; few modern acts see their hits go back into the studio for sweetening and some radio formats don’t even play the single versions anyway. But ultra-familiar songs like “Kiss on My List,” “One on One” and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” are presented in mixes that’ll pleasantly surprise you if you weren’t near a radio in 1982. Even “Out of Touch” gets the remix treatment; the version included on this set was only ever heard in the accompanying music video. Who but a fan would think to include that?

The track selection is something else, too. A few stalwarts (“Maneater,” “You Make My Dreams,” “Method of Modern Love”) are boldly looked over in favor of some second-string singles that sound quite fresh, possibly as a result of being less-played. “Back Together Again” and “Your Imagination” are just two tunes that make for surprising stops along an otherwise-familiar road of rich girls and family men.

Like any good fan-centric set, the track list is still a matter of debate. A real cult favorite or two — say, “Portable Radio” from the X-Static album in 1979 or the original version of “Everytime You Go Away,” a hit for Paul Young five years after Hall and Oates committed it to tape — would have been a kick to have for the hits-and-fan-favorites crowd. And as far as this disc goes, there’s nothing to hear once the ’90s begin. But it’s hard to complain about a set like this: it’s a fine enough overview of a pop act only recently given the credit — and credibility — they deserved so many years ago.

Budget compilations aren’t usually supposed to be this much of a thought piece, but Playlist: The Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates somehow succeeds on a level that goes deeper than just wanting to buy something to listen to while escaping a supermarket.