onsidering that they’ve coped rather well with the comparatively difficult task of lasting 20-plus years as one of the most successful and influential British bands ever, New Order seem to have a problem with the relatively easy task of compiling themselves. Their first effort, 1987’s Substance, got things right for the most part, featuring all of the bands A- and B-sides to date across two CDs; but the collection was marred by subpar re-recordings of classic tunes like “Temptation” and “Confusion,” and then there’s the matter of the next 15 years. 1994’s single-disc comp, (The Best Of) New Order, had the audacity to cover seven more years with only one disc, and in the process, added a few album cuts, dropped a lot of key singles, and again needlessly “updated” some classic material. In fact, the first New Order boxed set was supposed to have been released some years ago, but never saw the light of day thanks to the collapse of their original label, Factory, and God knows what else. Given this uncomfortable history, the release of Retro, a deluxe four-CD box set would appear to be the opportunity to finally get it all right in one package to make the others obsolete.
Well, never let it be said that New Order ever opted to do things the easy way. While Retro sports material for both the casual fan and die-hard collector alike (especially if you can find a copy that includes the limited-edition bonus CD of rarities), ultimately it ends up pleasing neither entirely. With such a stellar back catalog to harvest, the formatting inevitably leads to someone’s favorite being left off, while hardly including enough rarities to make the set a must for collectors.
Each disc was compiled by a different “big-name” New Order fan, and each sports a different theme: British journalist Miranda Sawyer covers the singles (well, most of them) on disc one; fellow Brit scribe John McCready features “fan-favorite” album tracks on disc two; DJ Mike Pickering handles the club cuts and remixes on disc three; and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie compiles a live disc for the finale. While the concept is novel enough, it ultimately ends up working against itself. Sure, Sawyer is bright enough to include the original takes of “Temptation” and “Confusion,” but no one thought to include the sublime “Thieves Like Us” or the quickly deleted single “Run 2.” McCready’s selection leaves some favorites untouched, while including tracks many had previously considered nothing more than filler. The remix disc is pretty hit-and-miss for a band with such a healthy pedigree of dancefloor moments. The live disc is certainly the most thrilling for collectors, as it’s all unreleased material, but really, wouldn’t we all rather have had a disc of studio outtakes instead? Hell, I’d gladly trade my live disc for the limited-edition fifth disc, which is chock-full of the sort of rarities one would expect from a box set.
Complaints aside, though, the material is top notch. From the minimal thump of the still-mighty “Blue Monday” to the effortless hooks of “Crystal” and all stops in between, New Order have provided more pop thrills and irresistible beats than any one band should have the right to—and frankly, if you’re reading this looking for a rundown of key musical moments and a description of the band’s sound, then you should get out your $60 right now and go buy the damn box. For all the low-key attitude the band have always exuded, surely in another 20 years time we’ll all come to respect New Order as the most influential British band behind the Beatles—they deserve the prize for all of those utterly brilliant LP and 12” sleeves over the years alone. I mean, is there a cooler looking 12” than the die-cut floppy disc design of “Blue Monday”? And what about the fact that for almost the first decade of their existence, they rarely if ever even put their name on the front cover of anything, yet still managed to shift major units on both sides of the Atlantic?
But more to the point, this is exactly the sort of thing that’s missing from Retro--that sense of historical importance that New Order demands is just not here. Not in the track listing, not in the liner notes, not in the whole damn package. The music is worth the price of admission (provided you don’t own much of it already), but don’t we look to the boxed set to provide just that sort of historical perspective for us?
Sure, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and Retro still deserves respect for sheer musical quality, but this whole excursion feels like a wasted opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, though—there is hardly a bum note here, and if you don’t already own most of this material (or even if you do), then this is as good a place as any to start your collection, I suppose. Just be forewarned that within a few weeks you’ll need to augment this box with copies of several individual CDs (start with Power, Corruption And Lies and work your way forward) and likely the Substance comp as well, to collect the missing B-sides if nothing else. It’s a testament to New Order’s greatness that a four-CD box set leaves you wanting more.