Beastie Boys

Solid Gold Hits

(Capitol; 2005)

By Clayton Purdom | 2 February 2006

Eventually the concern takes the form of a question, jutting itself out from an insecurity in the back of my mind: Are the Beastie Boys getting a raw deal?

I’ve thought about this question for awhile, and I still don’t have an answer; there’s no conclusion waiting to be drawn in the last paragraph, so if you’re expecting one—don’t. I’ve got nothing. The Beastie Boys remain balanced so precariously upon the spike that one whisper could send them plummeting into irrelevance. A career deeply entrenched in the realm of classics has come under question—certainly a familiar situation to today’s informed music listener. First Weezer squanders its legacy, then Rage Against the Machine cashes in for Clear Channel mod-rock tepidity, then Nirvana—the holiest of them all, one would hope—excretes a half-assed box set, all while Courtney Love continues her slow devolution into a gooey pile of slut. Have our generational vanguards of culture gone collectively haywire, or am I just playing into a ‘90s backlash?

And as one rhetorical question ends another paragraph, I’ll again assure you that I don’t have an answer to these questions. Still, they need asked, if only to address the fact that they exist, before I can do what I’ve come here to do. Reviewing the Beastie Boys’ greatest hits, after all, is not an easy task. I say this because To The 5 Boroughs was bad—indescribably so, considering how closely it aped the Boys’ previous successes. As many times as I’ve listened to the album, I still can’t pinpoint precisely what makes it so ferociously awful, but it nevertheless remains an unlistenable dungheap of wack beats, misguided rhymes and shameless posturing. Initially it seemed a modest success, but, I mean, come on: when was the last time you put it on?

So after this abysmal failure comes Solid Gold Hits, a much-needed reminder of what it was about the Beastie Boys that solicited our interest in the first place. The largely unimpeachable tracklist pays homage to the Beasties’ capacity as singles artists, an unwavering aptitude that kept them relevant over the course of twenty years. It was their ability to rock a catchphrase, to deliver a danceable beat, to satisfy a macho thirst for rawk that kept them afloat, even when their albums (namely, Ill Communication and 5 Boroughs) failed to continue their artistic development.

The densely musical Check Your Head singles get early play—perhaps marketers were hoping that “So What’cha Want” could resuscitate their career today in the way it did after Paul’s Boutique’s fiscal debacle. Unheralded though it was at the time, that album’s wildly eclectic party jams sound as vibrant as ever, partially thanks to the fact that, after fifteen years of influence, they remain the standard bearers for the kaleidoscopic sampledelica that the Go! Team and the Avalanches recycle today. Still, the fact that these two albums are incontestably the finest that the Beastie Boys ever released doesn’t necessarily mean that their tracks play best in this recontextualized setting.

In fact, the exact opposite is true. Stripped of their lackluster surroundings, the singles from Ill Communication and 5 Boroughs sound fresh, funny and focused. “Ch-Check It Out” benefits from its manically over-produced drums, in that here those toms and cowbells and c-c-c-cymbals are contrasted by the thudding thrash of Licensed to Ill tracks. “An Open Letter to NYC” seemed stirringly profound on 5 Boroughs, but here the inept lyrics (“Two towers down, but you’re still in the game,” yeesh) take a backseat to the profundity of the music: punk-rock sample flipped to pulse melancholically, whirs oscillating like the echoes of a siren, Dungeon Family hi-hat emphases. The wholly unremarkable “Triple Trouble” serves as contrast to “Sabotage,” easily the Beasties’ most overplayed track. But thanks to the sequencing, we haven’t heard thrash like this since track four, and the giddy bubble-bobble stoopidity of “Triple Trouble” makes “Sabotage's” opening slams doubly cataclysmic. In other words, “Sabotage” sounds good again.

And hallelujah for that, because it’s precisely this side of the Beasties’ repertoire over which we (me, you, the Beastie Boys, Touré) ought to be most conflicted. The fact remains that the cultural heritage of Licensed to Ill is unclear at best, damning at worst. At least this collection, unlike previous career retrospective Sounds of Science, has the courage to include License To Ill’s relatively unenlightened tracks, and, shockingly, they sound pretty good here. This collection’s strength is its sequencing, the way it brings a new context to these tired tracks; thus, “Fight For Your Right,” placed with quiet importance at the end, resounds with finality, speaking a brave declaration: “This is our classic.” Undeservingly so, perhaps, but at least they admit it now.

All of which makes Solid Gold Hits an interesting addition to their canon, if an irrelevant one to “us.” Anyone reading this site that doesn’t already own Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head should probably not admit that fact to anyone and immediately rectify the situation; SGH is an album for a demographic entirely separate from ours. Still, it sheds new light on the discography and provides the Boys a tidy closing statement, were they to decide to close the studio and devote themselves more fully to the task of being old. It provides a compelling argument against my original question: neither that they suck nor that they’re classics, just that, perhaps, the question is moot.