Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Greatest Hits Albums: Are they Only for Housewives and Little Girls

by Scott

Of course there are many aspects of music geekery/elitism that can be found in this sketch but I am going to focus on my favorite line: "Greatest Hits Albums are for Housewives and Little Girls!" To many a music geek, if you a true fan of the music of an artist, then you would buy the albums and listen to them as ‘originally intended.’ In theory this kind of makes sense and I, of course, own all the albums of my most favorite artists but a good greatest hits package can serve as an economic and convenient way to ‘test the waters’ so to speak. In fact, in the pre-iPod age, I would often purchase greatest hits packages from my favorite artist, even though I already owned all the albums, because it was a convenient way to have all the best songs on a single disc (and, fortunately, most of my favorite bands were also nice enough to release special editions that would usually include an entire disc of unreleased material so that I would get a little something new along with the old).

Despite the greatest hits package being seen as a sort of cheat, a musical cliff notes if you will, a well made collection is often just as good as any album. Rolling Stone even included a handful of these in its 500 greatest albums of all time.

And, when you think about it, Changesbowie does kind of work as an album in its own right. They can also be invaluable tools for collecting the music of an artist whose best tunes were made before the dominance of the album; Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight and Elvis’s Sun Sessions are prime examples of this.

Here are few of my favorite examples of superior greatest hits albums:

The Clash- The Story Of The Clash

This serves as proof that not all greatest hits albums by the same artist are created equal. I have since upgraded to The Essential Clash (I generally find the Essential collections put out by Sony/Columbia to be pretty good career overviews) and, while Essential does have more songs, it is assembled (as most of these collections are) in chronological order. Story didn’t list the songs chronologically, I can’t recollect if there was any real rhyme or reason to the track listing but, what I do remember, is that it gave you a much greater variety in your listening experience when listening to the album straight through (As I’m typing this I’m realizing that I can assemble the very album that I am speaking of from The Essential collection and listen to it in that order if I so desire… digital music rocks!)

The Ramones- Hey Ho! Let’s Go! The Anthology

The Ramones are a band that are tailor made for the Greatest Hits package: they write short songs and, as a result, you can fit a LOT of their songs onto a couple of discs. This set, totaling nearly 60 songs in all, spans the bands entire career and, the first disc, contains at least 7 or 8 songs from the band’s all-important first three albums while the rest of the collection manages to do a pretty darned good job of hitting the highlights from the rest of their catalogue.

REM …And I Feel Fine: The Best of the IRS Years

This was the last hits package that I purchased from a favorite artist (a few months before I got my first iPod). First of all, I found this to be invaluable since REM’s back catalogue is in desperate need of re-mastering (or is it? Look for an upcoming post I’m working on about sound quality). Like Story of the Clash this album doesn’t place the tracks in chronological order but in a more fitting order that maximizes the variety and flow of the overall experience. Still, they chose to open the set with “Begin the Begin”; “Radio Free Europe”, while adhering to a chronological format, is a much better opening track (the deluxe version offers some even ‘deeper cuts’ of the band’s favorite songs as well as some great rarities and live tracks and the far superior ‘Hib-Tone Single Version’ of “Radio Free Europe”)

The Police- The Police

I consider the police to be pretty high up on my list of favorite artist yet this ‘best of’ collection is all I really need. Since the Police released only five albums, most of which are represented by several songs here (all but two tracks from Synchronicity are included), it manages to give pretty comprehensive overview of the band’s career. Also, the songs flow together and work quite well as a unified whole. This may have been released mainly to coincide with the band’s reunion tour, but it still works! (also, the sound quality is awesome and far superior to their previous hits package Every Breath You Take: The Classics, a classic ‘hits’ package in its own right.)

The Beatles- 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 (aka The Red and Blue Albums)

These collections were my introduction to the Beatles; the former was owned on CD, the latter on cassette. Sure, a complete Beatles collection kind of renders them obsolete and songs like “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “A Day In The Life” are probably best heard as part of the original album but the combination of their biggest hits with the best album tracks makes for an invaluable introduction to the ‘Fab Four.’

It is pretty doubtful if collections like these will survive the digital music age but in their day they provided an invaluable service to the frugal music consumer.


Christian said...

Worst thing about some Greatest Hits collections is that they don't actually tell the customer that they're Greatest Hits collections.

I don't intentionally buy Greatest Hits albums, but it happens. Plus they're cheaper.

Ergh. I'm okay with hypocracy on a small scale.

jennifer said...

"the r.em. hits from the irs years."
as a fan who followed r.em. in real time during the i.r.s. years.
i think begin the begin as an overview of those years is a more powerful beginning track for this compilation than radio free europe.
(if i had answered your blog about best first song on an album. begin the begin off of lifes rich pageant would have been on it.)
that song was the signal that r.e.m. was ascendant. their first song(radio free europe) was not their peak. they entered a new era of confidence with the first powerful notes of that song. they started that tour with that song. they embraced their identity with that song (after the not well received, although still one of my favorites, fables of the reconstruction or reconstruction of the fables if you want to get really geeky - on the album it was written to be read either way.)
they also have a b-sides compilation album called dead letter office which has some gems on it too. velvet underground and roger miller covers.

Jake said...

I really feel superior for not buying Greatest Hits CDs, haha. 'Cept for The Beatles 1, 'cause a lot of those were singles not collected on CD. Plus, remastered, if I'm not mistaken.

The fact is, I usually don't agree with which songs are the greatest. They're all singles collections. A lot of times I get sick of the singles from sheer, inescapable overplay. Sometimes it's just because the non-singles are clearly BETTER. I mean, the Eminem Curtain Call disc is pretty anemic. If it didn't have a couple then-new tracks, it would've been pretty worthless--no "Kill You," "Superman," "White America," and so on.

jennifer said...

more r.e.m. geekery.
the video for fall on me has a typo in it. have you ever noticed it?

i love & have many compilation albums. although i agree who is to say what an artist's best works are, they can be a good tool.
i can buy a best of for an artist with a large discography, leonard cohen, for example, and then follow the songs i like the best to the album.
and i like a lot of wings' hits, but i don't want to buy their albums!

but along with geoff, i would question are they necessary in the age of digital music?

jennifer said...

ok, this may be my last r.e.m. related comment.

In Time the "best of" released in...2003/4 was excellent. good song selection & an entire disk of outtakes, live etc.

that may be how the best of survives.
i have every r.e.m. disk, but the extras made it worth getting In Time.

Chad Nevett said...

"Best of" collections is how I've gotten into so many great bands, especially stuff from the '60s and '70s. They've also helped me avoid buying albums by bands that it turns out just aren't my taste.

ba said...

Best of Neil Diamond. Bitches.

jennifer said...

neil diamond was my first concert.
i think i was eleven.
i went with my mom.

ba said...

saw neil diamond when i was 9. rawk.

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