Various Artists
India: The Greatest Songs Ever
(Petrol/Time-Life Music)

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Rebétika
(World Music Network)

The fine folks who have been putting out Rough Guide releases for the past few years have recently seen their dominance of "world music" compilations challenged by several other labels, mostly England-based concerns with the ability to license a broad array of tracks than their American counterparts. (The Rough Guides are, despite their low US prices, actually British imports.) On the one hand, this has been a boon for consumers, allowing global music fans the opportunity to sample different varieties of music. However, it's also contributed to a substantial muddying of the waters.

The Rough Guides have always been impeccably researched and compiled by true fans of the music; in the case of some of the upstart labels, it's clear that the work has not been as detailed. Further, by having provided genre-defining compilations of such broad categories as African and Indian music, the Rough Guides have been able to dig deeper into more specific areas like Bollywood, highlife and Okinawan music, while the other labels are still trying to establish their bona fides with clumsily compiled discs.

Two recent releases spell out the contrast quite well. India: The Greatest Songs Ever is a brief, far-reaching and slightly innacurate collection produced by a Australian label that's just gotten underway in the compilation market. Petrol has produced 13 Greatest Songs Ever country compilations (two of which were for Cuba) and nine The Sex, The City, The Music collections (focusing on the nighttime sounds of various urban metropoles). Given the cheesy nature of the "city" discs' theme, you might not be surprised to find that when Petrol takes on a whole country, they're a little out of their element.

With none of the knowledge and love that's apparent in Rough Guide collections, the Greatest Songs Ever sets come off more like The Least Challenging Music Ever designed to accompany "ethnic food" night at your house. In fact, there are even recipes included in the booklet! Putting Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan -- a cornerstone of Pakistani music -- on an Indian compilation may be something one can overlook, but generally bland and unexciting tunes by Makyo (club-lite with tablas), Trilok Gurtu (jazz-lite with tablas) take the wind out of a clutch of generally excellent tracks. However, by smashing together classic Bollywood tracks, newer Bollywood tracks, NRI-crafted tablatronics, and various New Agey permutations of "Indian music" and you're left with music that's neither representative nor cohesive. Liner notes are nonexistent (beyond a cliche-drenched essay by the author of a history of Muzak) and the overall presentation is subpar.

Compare that to the stunning and impressive Rough Guide to Rebétika and the difference between the two series' goals becomes crystal clear. Don't know what "rebétika" is? I didn't either, which is precisely why I favor the Rough Guide mentality that cobbles together tracks passionately and smartly. In fact, when Rough Guide discs get "obscure" like this one, they're much more unimpeachable. It's easy to discount a Rough Guide to Manu Dibango when it doesn't have his biggest hit, "Soul Makossa," but when you're talking about rebétika (a Greek style of music simultaneously seen as the music of the people and as the music of social outasts), the inclusion or exclusion of a particular artist or song is much more difficult to notice. In other words, it's hard to pick nits when you're being blown away by an emotional singing style and instrumentation that you've never heard before. However, thick liner notes and a copious and diverse track selection (at 22 songs, Rebétika has twice as many cuts as The Greatest Songs Ever) make it difficult to think that you're not getting a legitimate look at a previously unknown form of music, rather than a piece of product designed with the marketplace (rather than quality) in mind.

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