A compilation album is a general term used to refer to a music release made of up of songs that not intended to be viewed as a single work. Compilation albums are frequently referred to as "comps" and are often comprised of tracks by various artists. However, they can sometimes feature a single artist, but this is not the norm. A single artist release includes soundtracks, label samples, and theme albums.
Music critics cite Jay-Z's soundtrack compilation album, for director Baz Luhrmann's film version of "The Great Gatsby," as a prime example of a well-thought-out soundtrack that presented a broad range of music. The album features Jay-Z's and Beyonce's contributions, "100$ Bill" and "Back to Black," as well as Jack Black's "Love Is Blindness." These songs appealed to a broad range of filmgoers and music lovers while still nailing the emotional undertones of the movie in an imaginative and surprising way. Not surprisingly, others, who perhaps expected a primarily orchestral soundtrack, really hated it.
Many of the other soundtrack compilations rated "best" have been for youth-pop culture films like the "Hunger Games." That's because young filmgoers are often the most passionate consumers of contemporary music.
Best Examples of Label Compilations
Again, not surprisingly, some of the more interesting label compilations come from labels with strong, sometimes idiosyncratic, identities. One example is Nonesuch Records, which during its period of greatest influence ably represented musician/producer/music lover Bob Hurwitz who had a talent for identifying, supporting, and releasing compilation albums by great artists at the beginning of their careers. These musicians include John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, which represent the pantheon of American Minimalism. Hurwitz also fostered the career of the groundbreaking Kronos Quartet.
The range of Nonesuch's compilations is both wide and deep. It includes two- and four-CD compilations of 20 years of Wilco, as well as the early Kronos compilation "Winter Was Hard." That album introduced John Zorn, John Lurie, Terry Riley, Astor Piazzolla, Aulis Sallinen, turntablist Terry Riley, Alfred Schnittke, and Samuel Barber. It can't get much more eclectic than that.
Other successful label compilations have come from labels with similarly strong identities, including Rhino Records, Stax/Volt, and Atlantic Records (especially in their early Ahmet Ertegun-led years). Not to be missed in that category is the related Warner label, Elektra.
A Look at Theme Albums
A theme album is a completely different animal than a compilation album. A theme album can be almost anything. This kind of album ranges from the retrospective collection of a prominent artist's hits (and, misses) to a "let's cash in on it" collection of a musical genre making a comeback to collections of previously unreleased material from well-known artists. Or, it can be an album of unreleased work (for no apparent reason) or, it can be a combination of all of the above.
One Last Word
Compilation albums can be difficult to put together because the label releasing the album must secure permission from all of the parties involved. This can mean juggling demands of a long list of publishers, labels, and musicians, who sometimes have conflicting interests. This fact is true even of a single-artist compilation album if the artist has worked with more than one label over the course of his or her career.