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.