David Browne
January 23, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ultimate Dance Party 1998;Ultimate Hip Hop Party 1998;Jock Jams Vol. 3; MTV Party to Go 1998;Club Mix ’98

Beginning with the first K-tel LPs, the various-artists hits package has been an inescapable, even vital, bit of pop culture. Its steady string of three-minute highs can soothe the soul better than any self-help book. Rarely, though, has the compilation been as omnipresent as it is now. The charts and bins are strewn with anthologies of last month’s big dance and pop hits; everywhere you look, there’s an album title prefaced by a Mega, Ultimate, or Pure with an often-overlapping roster, an alternate universe in which La Bouche and Funky Green Dogs, and not Beck or the Lilith crowd, rule.

Like the K-tel collections of yore, some of these sets are both space efficient and budget conscious. The turbo-charged lineup on Arista’s superior Ultimate Dance Party 1997 — Quad City DJs’ ”C’mon and Ride It (the Train),” Everything But the Girl’s ”Missing,” Ace of Base’s ”Beautiful Life” — made the point that a new era of boogie nights had begun. Its successor, Ultimate Dance Party 1998, starts strong, with Crush’s early Madonna homage ”Jellyhead” and La Bouche’s ”Sweet Dreams,” but then can’t decide whether it wants to be up-to-the-minute raw (the Notorious B.I.G.’s ”Mo Money Mo Problems”) or yesterday’s-news blah (Lisa Stansfield, Whitney). Ultimate Hip Hop Party 1998 compiles rap and R&B singles, many from the Puffy/Biggie axis. But they span the last five years, making ”1998” false advertising.

The success of Tommy Boy’s anthologies of sports-geared rock, marketed under titles like Jock Jams and Slam Jams, is baffling: Why would anyone want collections of arena shakers (like Gary Glitter’s ”Rock and Roll Part 2”) interspersed with sports-crowd roars? Plenty of people, apparently, resulting in the latest edition, Jock Jams Vol. 3. Its emphasis on rap makes sense — hip-hop often rocks the house at basketball games — but this set of oft-recycled R&B hits and oldies, and bits like ”The Jock Jams Cheerleaders,” feels like an athletic supporter that’s been stretched too thin.

For a dose of urban pop, you’re better off with MTV Party to Go 1998, volume 11 in the network’s generally worthy franchise. It’s also a good indication of how each set has a different mood and vibe. Both Ultimate Dance Party 1998 and the MTV set include Mark Morrison’s ”Return of the Mack” and the Chemical Brothers’ ”Block Rockin’ Beats.” But whereas Ultimate veers toward bouncy club pop, Party to Go veers into slow-grind hip-hop like Eryka Badu’s ”On and On” — as well as deserved recent flops by Coolio and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Even the founding compilation fathers at K-tel are boarding this gravy train; Club Mix ’97 (on its Cold Cut subsidiary) went gold, so now comes Club Mix ’98, a mixed-bag double disc or tape that, at its best (the second half of the first disc or tape), has a cheesy-fun, bustling-dance-floor ambiance bubblier than any of its competitors’. Then again, you’ll have to endure a remix of Wang Chung’s ”Dance Hall Days.”

The good news for record labels is that these collections are selling, but their popularity also signifies a broader, deeper dissatisfaction on the part of record buyers. A recent article quoted a market-research consultant saying consumers want ”creative compilations and fewer tedious, 18-song CDs by a single artist.” While this development is disturbing — to musicians and to anyone who enjoys the increasingly antiquated art of sitting down and partaking of a whole album — it’s thoroughly understandable. CDs continue to be too expensive and too padded: Does anyone need 15 or 18 tracks by Gina G. or Sugar Ray? How many times can the average record buyer plop down money for a disc, based on one song, and feel burned afterward? There’s a new riot going on, and the rest of the record business may soon have to respond to an audience that doesn’t have the time, patience, or extra cash for a single-act al-bum (which, in turn, affects artist longevity, back-catalog potential, and other financial incentives).

Until then, here’s an idea, offered free of charge to any label: a one-hit-wonders rock-dance album, Ultimate Mosh Mega Mix to Go, including ”Fly,” ”Bitch,” ”Popular,” and ”Semi-Charmed Life.” The way things are shaping up, it’ll be platinum in no time. Ultimate Dance Party 1998: B Ultimate Hip Hop Party 1998: B- Jock Jams Vol. 3: C MTV Party to Go ’98: B+ Club Mix ’98: B-

[BOX]

Ultimate Dance Party 1998 VARIOUS ARTISTS ARISTA

Ultimate Hip Hop Party 1998 VARIOUS ARTISTS ARISTA

Jock Jams Vol. 3 VARIOUS ARTISTS TOMMY BOY

MTV Party to Go 1998 VARIOUS ARTISTS TOMMY BOY

Club Mix ’98 VARIOUS ARTISTS COLD CUT

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