originally published October 23, 2012
As a young aspiring music snob, I was taught to shun the Greatest Hits album. I was told to aspire to find the brilliant album tracks, to let the unwashed masses scramble over each other to merely settle for hearing the radio hits. I might have dismissed such blatant snootery, but the Beatles ruined it for me. Once I learned that they had album tracks like “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that put hits like “Yellow Submarine” and “Eight Days A Week” to shame, I tossed my Red & Blue compilation double-records into the fire and went hunting for the proper albums.
So when Ms. Wiki dropped the idea of Compilation Albums by Artist onto today’s playlist, I was skeptical. I’d spent so many years wanting nothing to do with compilation albums. There were some I needed to buy of course – when jerk-ass Tom Petty released his Greatest Hits album in 1994, it was the only way to own the song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, and I’d developed an unhealthy addiction to that tune through its radio airplay and cleverly necrophilic video. So that meant I owned two copies of “Free Fallin’”, “Refugee” and all those other songs. Thanks a lot, Petty.
(I could never stay mad at you)
There are 398 artists listed as having compilation albums. Seems like a great way to do some quick investigating into the phenomenon.
The beautiful thing about Greatest Hits albums is that you can release entirely new ones every few years, and no one will notice. Some will become monster hits – the Eagles’ Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is certified at 29x multi-platinum, and was the greatest selling album of all time for a while. But most of the time people will fail to notice if the collections get replaced by new ones. Some 70s artist released an album of new material in 1996? Okay, let’s put out a new greatest hits album with the one single (that no one liked) from the new album. People will still buy it, even if they just want the old hits that were actually good.
Rick Astley, who had two hits that I can think of, has ten compilation albums listed on Wikipedia. Every one of them features “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever.” So does the true Astley completionist seek to own each one? The answer is no, because there is no Rick Astley completionist.
Ben E. King has five compilations: Anthology, Greatest Hits, Eleven Best, The Ultimate Collection and The Very Best. I don’t have to look at any of them to know that “Stand By Me” will be on every one of them.
Barry Manilow has twelve compilation albums. Putting aside Greatest Hits Volume III, which features nothing I recognize, every one of them features both “Mandy” and “Copacabana.” Okay, the two songs get separated for Greatest Hits Volume One and Two, and there’s one – The Very Best Of Barry Manilow – that inexplicably omits “Copacabana”, but the repetition is still quite cringe-worthy.
Of the nine Elvis Costello compilations, a couple contain some rarities and B-sides, and one features hits from the later part of his career, when his music continued to evolve in awesomeness, but failed to materialize as chart-gouging hits. The other six are frighteningly similar. Of the 22 compilation albums by The Who, only five of them (rarities collections) do not feature “I Can See For Miles” and “My Generation.”
So what makes a really great compilation album? Assuming you haven’t been beaten numb by top-40 radio and soured on a band’s charting hits, which ones are worth actually spending money on?
I guess that depends on your tastes. I looked a bunch of lists of people’s favorites, and there were some fairly consistent names that popped up. At the top of a lot of those lists was this one:
First of all, don’t buy this. I mean, you can buy it if you want – the songs are all wonderful. But this is the Beatles. In their seven-year run, they didn’t make enough shitty songs to fill a compilation album. Just pick a random album from their catalog and start from there (maybe leave the Yellow Submarine album until the end; half of it is just orchestra crap from the movie). Still, 1 sold a gazillion units, and eclipsed anything Eminem or Brittney Spears or anybody else released in the last decade.
Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, which my wife describes as “the best house-cleaning CD ever,” also makes a lot of Best-of-Best-ofs lists. I’ve never been a devoted Madonna aficionado (do they call them Madge-heads?), so maybe her album tracks aren’t that great and this is the way to go. When the album was released in 1990, it was the only way to snag the supremely mediocre hit “Justify My Love”, which puts Madonna four years ahead of Tom Petty in the being-a-dick department.
If you’re new to the Grateful Dead, you may want to dip your ears tentatively into the water with Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of The Grateful Dead. Note that it’s a ‘best of’, not a ‘greatest hits’. The Dead only had one single break the top-ten, 1987’s “Touch Of Grey,” which isn’t on this collection. But this Best-Of is a good way to introduce someone to the fact that the Dead had a lot of brilliant songs, and that the charts are not always the best way to calculate what’s worth a listen.
The big argument in favor of these collections is that people just want the songs they know they like; they don’t want to spend time and money sifting through an artist’s entire catalog for material they might find appealing. This irks me a bit as a music geek, but as a humanist and all-around empathetic dude, I get it. I suppose there’s a part of me that just wants “Rosanna” and “Africa” on my iPod, without delving into the deep grooves of Toto’s 1995 Tambu album to see if it contains anything I’d want to hear repeatedly.
But we live in an era of sample-online-before-you-buy, or even download-illegally-before-you-buy, so the only resource you have to invest in hunting for gems is your time. And isn’t it worth your time to find music that might move you? Maybe it’s time the music industry stops repackaging the same material by giving us eight different Hall & Oates collections with “She’s Gone” on them.
I’m not even going to touch the fact that there are 34 Boney M. compilations listed, five of them featuring the same horrific Christmas songs. Facts like that make me doubt our society’s level of cultural appreciation can ever be saved.