THEY CAN'T exactly be called "greatest hits" albums, but joining the Madonna and Led Zep compilations this gift-giving season are retrospectives of several '80s post-punk acts. Some aim to be definitive, while others take a much more narrowly conceptualized path. With the CD "revolution" reducing the availability of many back catalogues, though, late-comers may have to settle for these releases -- or hit the used-record stores.
The Fall "458489 A Sides" (Beggar's Banquet/RCA). Though hardly a singles band in the conventional sense, this Manchester art-punk-groove outfit has made plenty of great 45s. The A-sides of the ones released between 1984-1989 -- some included on albums, others previously available only on import singles -- are compiled here, and they include such mighty dirge-rants as "Cruiser's Creek" and "Hit the North." The band released a lot of covers as singles in the period, and those turned off by its version of the Kinks' "Victoria" -- the blandest entry in this 17-track line-up -- will still want to hear the band's crackling versions of such lesser-known songs as "Rollin' Dany," "Mr. Pharmacist" and "There's a Ghost in My House."
Gang of Four "A Brief History of the Twentieth Century" (Warner Bros.). At least two of this highly influential Marxist/Situationist art-funk band's four albums -- "Entertainment" and "Songs of the Free" -- are essential, so there's no way this 20-song compilation can do justice to the group's output. And since Warner Bros. did a good job of making the Gang's British singles available on EPs, there aren't many obscurities that can be enlisted to pique the interest of those who own all the albums. ("Producer," a B-side that's the sprightliest thing the band recorded in its later days, would have been a nice addition.) Still, this is generally well-chosen, with smart liner notes from one of the Gang's most articulate fans, Greil Marcus. And songs like "Damaged Goods" and "To Hell With Poverty!" still sound as rousing, funny and sharp -- meaning both smart and jagged -- as they ever did.
Morrissey "Bona Drag" (Sire/Reprise). That this collection even exists is a reflection of the ex-Smiths singer's continuing uneasiness about working without his old songwriting partner, guitarist Johnny Marr. Morrissey has repeatedly delayed the follow-up to his solo debut, "Viva Hate," filling the gap with the singles now assembled on this 14-song disc. Yet the stopgap turns out to be something quite a bit more. If a few of the A-sides -- notably "Ouija Board, Ouija Board" and "November Spawned a Monster" -- sound weak, a lot of the B-sides sound surprisingly strong. Indeed, the worst thing about this collection is that it doesn't include enough B-sides. Instead of "Suedehead," "Everyday is Like Sunday" and "Hairdresser on Fire" -- all fine, but all available on "Hate" (the latter only on the CD and cassette editions) -- the album could have offered "Sister, I'm a Poet," "East West," "Get Off the Stage," "At Amber" or "I Know Very Well Where I Got My Name," all worthy of the inclusion.
Shriekback "The Dancing Years" (Island). After bassist Dave Allen quit Gang of Four, he joined with ex-XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews and guitarist Carl Marsh to form Shriekback. The result was the sort of arch, brittle art-funk heard altogether too much in the mid-'80s, but this band was better at it than most, as the opening "My Spine (Is the Bass Line)" definitively proves. Despite the obligatory neo-disco thump and the band's penchant for dance remixes, Andrews reveals a kinship with his old XTC rival Andy Partridge: There's a campy, almost music-hall quality dueling with the big beat on tracks like "Nemesis." This assemblage includes live versions and never-released remixes, which is not always for the best: Casual fans looking for an anthology that includes both "Spine" and "Lined Up" will probably be disappointed by "Deeply Lined Up," this package's radical reworking of the latter.
Tones on Tail "Tones on Tail" (Beggar's Banquet/RCA). Before enlisting former Bauhaus mate David J to become Love and Rockets, one of the late '80s unexpected hitmakers, Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins were Tones on Tail, which produced the fashionable robot-disco and ambient doodles collected here. Such underground dance-club hits as "Go!" and "Twist" have some spunk -- at least by comparison to the rest of the band's work -- but this retrospective (similar to 1987's "Night Music") doesn't argue that Ash and Haskins were wrong to cash all this in for the more mainstream L&R. The best band won.