David Browne
February 11, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Totally Hits; Now 3

Anyone who skims the pop-album charts may have noticed a few unfamiliar titles elbowing themselves in between all the best-sellers. One is a collection called Totally Hits, which, by compiling 1999 singles by TLC, Cher, and Kid Rock, among others, generally lives up to its title. Now 3 — the third volume in the increasingly popular Now That’s What I Call Music! series — also bows down before the Top 40 god with ubiquitous recent hits by Smash Mouth, Enrique Iglesias, and 98[Degrees].

One can analyze these albums in two different ways, the first being consumer-worthiness. In terms of bang-for-buck, Totally Hits scores handily; listening to it is like discovering a well-rounded Top 40 station but without the ads or loudmouthed jocks. You’ll hear choice cuts like TLC’s ”No Scrubs” and LFO’s ”Summer Girls” as well as perfectly acceptable radio fodder like Faith Hill’s ”This Kiss” and Sugar Ray’s ”Someday.” You’ll also have to tolerate goopy follow-up singles from Brandy and ‘N Sync. Squished amid those tracks, Santana’s ”Smooth” is a reminder that hits were once made by musicians playing instruments rather than producers punching buttons on a console (not necessarily a bad thing, but it can result in stifling homogeneity). Some choices are dubious: Whitney Houston’s forgettable ”Heartbreak Hotel” over ”It’s Not Right but It’s Okay”? But no one said cruising the airwaves was always enjoyable, and at least the compilation ends on the slamming-dunk note of Kid Rock’s ”Bawitdaba.”

With the likes of Garbage’s ”Special,” Limp Bizkit’s ”Nookie,” and Lenny Kravitz’s ”American Woman,” Now 3 rocks harder than the smoother-grooving, BMG-pop-reliant Totally Hits. Now 3 also boasts name value via the likes of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and R. Kelly. The rub is that almost all said big names are represented by inferior singles. Like Totally Hits, Now 3 also unintentionally makes the case for the sonic-cookie-cooker quality of much modern pop: If one more blandly crooned ballad starts with one more softly plucked acoustic guitar, love songs may have to be declared illegal.

The second way to view Now 3 and Totally Hits is as — no joke — a genuinely historic moment. As recently as a few years ago, such hit-loaded anthologies — released by major labels but featuring tracks from competing conglomerates — would have been unimaginable. At the very least, the labels would have been wary of cutting into their acts’ individual album sales. But times have changed, and the record companies know it. The attention span of the pop market is flimsier than one of Mariah’s outfits, MP3s are here to stay, and the concept of a band or performer with a long career and devout, lifelong fans seems as quaint as a laserdisc. Totally Hits and Now 3 are more than hits packages; they’re an acknowledgment by a seemingly defeated music business that the audience wants the hits and nothing more, thank you.

The blame for this chilling scenario must lie at least partly with the industry itself. Overly long CDs continue to be padded with far too much second-rate material, and the jacked-up cost of the discs themselves, which now carry list prices as high as $18.98, has only fueled consumer discontent. If all that isn’t trying enough for the average record buyer, it’s also not uncommon for acts to take up to five years between albums. By then, it’s entirely possible that their fans will have moved on, as Trent Reznor learned last fall.

So will there be a Totally Hits 2 and a Now 4 in the near future? Given their sales, most likely. Will even those albums soon be outmoded as fans compile their own collections via downloaded music? Possibly. Either way, should musicians and label executives be worried about career longevity and the decline of the album format? No question. But let’s be positive. Should we also anticipate the moment when Christina Aguilera fans celebrate a few more birthdays, reject their onetime idols, and delve hardcore into exciting new hybrids of music we can’t even yet imagine? Absolutely. Totally Hits: B+ Now 3: C

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