An ambitious release from the Shout Factory label, 100 Greatest is a collection of, um, 500 audio clips of some of the most memorable and culturally-impacting speeches, events, pop culture figures, sports moments, and sleazy scandals of the last 100-plus years. With a primary focus on Western (i.e., American) history, and featuring an impressive amount of primary source material, it’s an outstanding and nearly exhaustive overview of the highs, lows, and in-betweens of the last century.
Organized thematically across five discs (with each disc also available individually), this set is certainly a true niche market item; it’s highly doubtful those crazy kids who are busy listening to Jonas Brothers bootlegs or watching reruns of The Hills for the show’s subtle plot nuances will have much interest in this release. Of course, their teachers will, as will history dweebs (er, fans), pop culture buffs, and those hapless guys everywhere trying to convince their skeptical dates that they are true intellectuals.
Disc 1 focuses on speeches and is perhaps the most engaging piece of this box set. The oratorical masterpieces or otherwise noteworthy speeches one would expect to find are included here – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, FDR’s “Day of Infamy” address after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1968 eulogy for Robert Kennedy, and Bill Clinton’s 1992 speech at the Democratic National Convention – and are still both emotionally moving and good primers of what it takes to be a persuasive public speaker. Taken as a whole, this disc offers insights into both the art of public speaking and the impact these speeches had on a specific era.
News stories that gripped the world (many before the days of 24-hour news channels) make up disc 2; equal parts uplifting and sobering, this disc alternates between euphoric moments of human achievement and triumph over scumbags and examples of abject horror and tragedy that suggest Darwin might have been wrong. In most cases, the selections chosen paint a vivid picture of how the event was viewed in its immediate aftermath. A palpable sense of joy runs through the entries that recount the fall of the Berlin Wall and VE Day in World War II. Shock and sorrow are apparent when the various broadcasts and reports address tragedies like the 1999 Columbine shootings, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the many assassinations that are recounted here. As an audio record of such events this disc is indispensable, though it frequently makes for unsettling, and emotional, listening.
Disc 3 is a bit dodgier. Billed as the 100 greatest personalities, the disc includes many of the usual suspects – Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill, and, er, Wernher von Braun, among others – but still excludes many historical figures. Perhaps this is inevitable; nevertheless, some the inclusions are fairly questionable – for example, cycling superman Lance Armstrong seems a much better fit on the disc 5. The exclusions could spark some serious debate; pick your favorite historical, musical, or cultural period and you will be able to name several people that “should” have been included.
Disc 4 tackles the 100 greatest scandals, itself a tough task given the seemingly endless nefarious plots, dirty deals, and shady shysters that have dotted the political and cultural landscape of the last 100 years. Undoubtedly there are enough scandals here to make a shady hedge fund manager or crooked politician proud, including the Clarence Thomas affair, the fall of Enron, and perhaps the gold standard of political scandals, the Watergate affair. Yet some of the inclusions are marginal at best, and the focus of the disc is weighted a bit too heavily on recent history; I suppose Alec Baldwin’s now infamous rant to his daughter is included for comedic relief. Other entries aren’t true scandals in the narrowest sense of the word and seem out of place here, such as Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Still, the disc is an enlightening, and in some ways perversely entertaining, look back at the parade of cons, crooks, and cheats that has marched through history.
Disc 5 includes audio clips from that most holy of sacred institutions: sports. Much of the attention is on baseball, including its dramatic highs (Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch in 1954 and gimpy Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run), lows (strikes in both 1981 and 1994), and several events that for some steroidal reason have clearly lost the luster they once had (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s historic 1998 seasons). Taken as a whole, this disc shows that some sports events have had a lasting cultural impact, outside of just being fodder for fantasy geeks. One doesn’t need to be a sports fanatic to enjoy this disc.
100 Greatest is a fascinating audio chronicle and is well worth the time it takes to listen to it. Although there are some shortcomings in this release – some of the inclusions and exclusions are debatable, the booklet is somewhat lacking in details, and the clips on each disc aren’t in any sort of chronological order – it is nevertheless a great snapshot of the key events and figures that have shaped modern history.