With a new Massive Attack album on the horizon and their compilation Collected celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, now seems an ideal time to look back at the first phase in the career of Bristol’s most legendary group.
Now with a history of nearly thirty years behind them, they had already been releasing albums for fifteen years by the time this compilation appeared, making it a solid and comprehensive collection of their singles from 1991 to 2006. It’s also very difficult to fault.
It opens with the exceptional Safe from Harm, their third or fourth single back in 1991, featuring a magnificent vocal from Shara Nelson. Although less successful in most markets than Unfinished Sympathy, it provided the group with their only US Dance hit, and is an entirely appropriate way to open this compilation.
The baton is passed smoothly to the brilliantly dark Karmacoma, this time with Tricky on vocals, the third single from the Protection album in 1995. There are those who would fault a non-linear compilation album, but if it’s compiled well, a clear narrative and listening experience can flow, and that’s definitely true here, as we move on to 1998’s deeply moving Angel, from their most successful album Mezzanine, with long-time collaborator Horace Andy.
Although it’s from the same album, this is a perfect counterpart to Teardrop, with Elizabeth Fraser‘s moving vocal. Always an exceptional vocalist, she is in her element here, delivering a curious but tactile lyric against the trippy electronic backing. Then comes Inertia Creeps, the final single from the same album, before Tracey Thorn turns up for one of her finest hours, the title track from 1994’s Protection, in its full seven minute glory.
This mixes across to our first taste of 2003’s 100th Window, the non-chart release Butterfly Caught. This was Massive Attack‘s darkest album to date, and this single is hardly joyful, but it has a grimy beauty which definitely allows it to earn its place here.
Definitely overdue by this stage is the iconic Unfinished Sympathy, and the only slight disappointment here is that they elected to include the album version – exceptional, but it’s already been on an album, whereas Nellee Hooper‘s single version is every bit as good, if not better, and has not. But it’s difficult to complain when the music is this good – their breakthrough hit from 1991, it definitely deserved considerably more attention than it ever got.
All that remains now is to pick up the leftovers – some of them substantial hits when they originally appeared, but mostly now better remembered as album tracks. Risingson is another gloriously dark piece, and then What Your Soul Sings with Sinéad O’Connor as the guest vocalist, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t actually a single, but fits rather nicely here nonetheless, followed by Future Proof and Five Man Army, which definitely weren’t singles.
Compilations rarely include particularly memorable packaging, and so this one is unusual – the double disc package is presented in a nice softback book, and the second disc, a collection of b-sides and rarities including the brilliant single False Flags, also turns out to be a DualDisc – flip it over, and you also get a DVD of all the videos.
There may be some surprising inclusions towards the end, and one particularly notable choice of version which you can question, but there’s nothing particular missing from here. Sinéad O’Connor‘s other guest vocal on Special Cases, which was also actually the only hit single from 100th Window is the only notable omission. Perhaps early singles Any Love or Daydreaming should have been on here, and personally I’d have loved to hear early EP track Home of the Whale again, but these are really very minor quibbles.
The last two tracks are Sly, which you had probably never noticed was in fact the first single from 1994’s Protection album, and then the exceptional Live with Me, with Terry Callier giving the group the best vocal performance of their entire career. If you’re ever unsure of how to close your compilation album, you should start taking notes from Massive Attack.
A triple disc version of Collected, with all the same material described above, is still available here.