There are two ways to measure a good Best Of. The first is how many tracks into it you get before you come across one you don’t remember and the second is how long it takes you to dig out all the albums they’re taken from, load them and all their friends onto your iPod and wonder how you ever forgot how good those albums were in the first place.
Saint Etienne‘s London Conversations passes muster on both counts. No need here to pad out disc two with obscurities and radio sessions: they’ve got far too much to squeeze in for that. They’ve also got the confidence to include new single Burnt Out Car, knowing it’s every bit as good as any of the old favourites (and yes, yes Saint Etienne nerds – we know it originally enjoyed a limited release in 1996, but let’s pretend we’re not completely obsessed. It’s new to most people).
Actually from (the London Borough of) Croydon rather than the cooler London (proper) of the album’s title, of course, the band have managed seven studio albums since debuting with Foxbase Alpha in 1991. It enjoyed such impressive early success that their first singles collection – called, somewhat prophetically, Too Young To Die – was put out just four years later.
There has been plenty of life in them since then. They’ve managed more than 30 singles since the one they choose to open this compilation: 1990’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Somewhat annoyingly, the handful that are missing – 7 Ways to Love and He Is Cola (released as Cola Boy), the Right Said Fred cover I’m Too Sexy, Angel, 52 Pilot and Saturday are the most obscure, the ones you’d hope would be here because they’re not easy to get anywhere else.
The tracks they make way for – Spring from Foxbase Alpha, Mario’s Cafe from So Tough, Goodnight Jack from Good Humour, Finisterre from the album of the same name and Teenage Winter, from Tales From Turnpike House, are undoubtedly live favourites, but if you don’t have them already they’re an easy download click away.
But that’s Saint Etienne for you. Fiercely loyal to their fans, and fully deserving of the fierce loyalty they engender in return, perhaps it’s nice to keep something for the true obsessives who did the hard work of ferreting them out from obscure limited editions and overseas-only releases the first time round, back in the days before MP3s when you had to work hard for such things.
There’s more than enough to enjoy here. Thirty five tracks over two CDs, Sarah Cracknell’s breathy vocals, post-acid electronica that dances across your neural synapses like a warm breeze, house beats that remind you where they came from and the atmospheric vocal samples that define their sound. This is a welcome reminder of the band at their best and a wonderfully compact contraction of their career. It’ll make you fall in love with them all over again.