"Greatest Hits" collections are a tricky bunch. Some people never had a lot of hits and get to write their history as they see fit (Nirvana, Neil Young). Others had so many hits, the collections write themselves (Elvis Presley, The Eagles, Al Green, The Beatles). Besides, there are more than 25 deserving artists. I could've compiled 200 and Y! Music would've found me dying at the bottom of the hamster wheel whispering..."Golden Grass, Grass Roots...Otis Redding...Sam Cooke...Motorhead...Tom Waits...Placebo...Replacements..."
Then there are performers where you're better off just buying their actual studio albums. If you want more Meat Loaf, buy Bat Out Of Hell. If you like Bruce Springsteen, get Born To Run or Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The Sex Pistols only made one album and then a ton of ripoffs.
But you have to draw limits and to some degree attempt a little something called balance. And you have to have a little fun. Will Radiohead's new greatest hits album redefine the genre? Probably not. But it could serve as an introduction for people looking to be casually introduced. Which is what these collections do. For some, it's all you need. Unless you're obsessed or something.
The numbers are sometimes arbitrary. Everyone had to fit somewhere. Whether the greatness of Motown really should fall behind the Smiths and the Cure is probably reason to have my lights punched out, but I considered the number 19 to be luckier than 15 or 16, so there was a certain amount of superstition involved. Which reminds me that Stevie Wonder should've been on this list. But he isn't. But then neither is Hank Williams or Muddy Waters or Sheryl Crow or Randy Newman or The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band or the Jam...you get the idea...
Nirvana--Nirvana: Kurt Cobain had a knack for a catchy tune, but he didn't have the intestinal fortitude to comfortably accept commercial success. He likened writing hits to some sort of existential compromise. Yet, he liked pop music, from the Beatles to Queen. Nirvana didn't make many albums. Three official studio albums, a b-sides collection and a couple of live things was all they made, so a "Greatest Hits" doesn't need to cover much ground. This makes a nice Cliff's Notes version of the band and makes an entire boxed set seem a little silly.
24) Greatest Hits--Eagles: One of the best-selling albums of all-time and probably the one album you break out if an alien lands on our planet and asks you to explain what it was like to listen to the radio in the 1970s. And it doesn't even contain "Hotel California," which made it onto the second volume. This is insidious music, crafted to perfection, devoid of soul but enriched by "hooks." You can't NOT sing along. You also may find yourself nodding off somewhere in the middle. But that was what the '70s were like. Not everyone woke up.
The Best Of Blondie--Blondie: Though Blondie came out of the CBGB's scene that birthed Patti Smith, Television, Ramones, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Talking Heads and the Tuff Darts, they were the only ones destined for the radio. The Ramones wanted the airwaves, but Blondie made the most sense on them. Besides, those other bands made great albums--well, not the Tuff Darts--while Blondie made great singles.
22) Back To Mono--Phil Spector & Various Artists: Long before becoming a Court TV regular, Phil Spector managed to make himself a star in a way that bass players have been envying ever since. Spector wasn't even in the band. He was the guy producing the records. He created the "Wall of Sound," which these days bands create with one guitar and a huge overdriven amplifier. But Spector had to be more inventive, so he pulled a musical variation of how many guys can you cram into a telephone booth in the recording studio and the result was an explosion of '60s girl groups like the Ronettes, who were admittedly much more appealing to look at than Spector--as anyone watching Court TV can attest.
Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy--The Who: The Who were grand conceptualists, owners of the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia, but they were at their best with the junky old three-minute single. This early collection of youthful frustration and sexual tension is more fun than their later songs where Pete Townshend focuses on his alcoholism, his mid-life crisis and concepts no one can explain, especially Townshend himself.
20) The Kinks Kronikles--The Kinks: What makes this 2-LP collection so intriguing is how it avoids the songs you might expect. No "You Really Got Me" or "All Day and All of the Night" and lots of songs that would never make it to radio even if the radio station owner's last name was Davies. But in terms of the road less traveled, an alternate secret history, well, this is one long confusing garden path that leads to patches of poison ivy and long afternoons of tea along the English countryside.
The Motown Box--Various Artists: It's not just any label that can release a boxed set of their best acts and establish both group identity and label identity. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops all carved out their sound within the confines of a Detroit recording studio and the overhearing ears of Berry Gordy Jr. The label was a hit-making machine like Disney is today but loving and benevolent where now there is only the face of evil.
18) Chronicle Vol. 1--Creedence Clearwater Revival: Creedence Clearwater Revival had the distinction of scoring a string of #2 hit singles. Not #1. Someone else always hogged that spot for themselves. But Creedence did manage 19 hit singles that are collected here and make for a quick jolt through a past that was being imagined while it was being created. John Fogerty may be rock music's first genuine nostalgist. And for times he didn't even experience. The band, after all, were from San Francisco and not the Louisiana bayou swamps where mosquitoes would've eaten them alive.
Echoes--Pink Floyd: One doesn't associate Pink Floyd with the recording industry's hit-record making machine. This was a band who took the idea of leisure time to an extreme, to the point where they could be accused of loitering. And the band's sound shifted over the years, embracing the technological innovations that transformed the recording studio. Let's hear it for air conditioning! You don't always know what they're up to, but they sure are taking a long time doing it.
16) Staring At The Sea--The Cure: Another band with a visionary--Robert Smith, in this case--who liked to stretch out over full-length albums, but who was also quite proficient at writing the hit single when it was his need. The fact that this was considered "alternative rock" at the time (the '80s) proves the music industry had gone insane. What's alternative about well-written pop songs? But then this was back when having a Mohawk, a body piercing, a tattoo, or being a guy wearing eye make-up would get you endlessly harassed. There were no shows on TV featuring tattoo parlors back then. If you can believe it.
Louder Than Bombs--The Smiths: Another band that made nice albums but even nicer singles. And much like the Cure didn't always bother to put their singles on their albums. It's a British way of doing business, whereas here in America (where I'm paying taxes) our bands have always used the single as the sucker punch to make us buy the whole album. For a British group, they make you buy the single or wait what seems like a very long time to buy the eventual "Greatest Hits" collection. Then once they break up, it seems as if they never run out of ways to reconfigure the same hits.
14) The Chess Box--Chuck Berry: Years of reissues and deleted collections have made it difficult to figure out which "Greatest Hits" collection is actually available. Chuck Berry's Golden Decade collections were solid and the Great Twenty-Eight made for a swell Xmas gift. But, alas, you may have to spring for this three-CD box in order to capture enough Berry to make sense of it all. Because they have deemed it so.
We Sold Our Souls For Rock N' Roll--Black Sabbath: If any one band could be held responsible for both the greatest and worst sludge ever foistered on the rock music community, it would be Black Sabbath. Sab inspired people who never should've taken up musical instruments to do so anyway, and they also inspired many others who might not have had the guts otherwise. They made a glorious noise that often sounds like a band playing at the wrong speed. It is this "wrongness" that cast a light for millions. And without any intention on their part led to everything from the rise of the moshpit to endless festivals where young people get very dirty and listen to hundreds of bands pay tribute in their own very loud way.
12) The Very Best Of--Prince: Before he changed his name, before he confused his adoring public with too few and then too many albums, Prince was a "go to" guy if you wanted a solid hit single. He managed to write cute and clever while never losing his experimental drive. He knew how to get weird without losing the commercial thread. He knew how to walk the line. And he never lost his inner weirdness. But he did lose a good chunk of his audience.
The Very Best Of The Doors (2CD)--The Doors: The Doors with Jim Morrison (the version of the band that everyone cares about) recorded six studio albums. Over the years this has translated into about 35 greatest hits collections, all featuring some variation of the same songs. This 2 CD best of released in 2007, not to be confused with other albums bearing the same name or something close to it, is just as good as the other albums bearing the same name or something close to it. I'm sure at this point no one needs to hear "Light My Fire" again, but other songs appear quite often as well and therefore must also be important.
10) The Top Ten Hits--Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions remain his most stunning achievement. But his longevity and the scope of his career deserve as much attention as his initial impact. This dude is majorly famous. And these 38 top ten hits span decades and give you a broad overview despite the fact that nothing from Sun Records, no gospel or blues, little country and many hits are missing. (They didn't go Top Ten!) Even without all that there's still what marketing departments call "an embarrassment of riches."
Mania--Ramones: Any of the Ramones first four albums would probably serve as a "Greatest Hits" of sorts, but while the Ramones consistency dropped a bit in their later years, they still managed to slip some fine songs into their catalog while the rest of the world seemingly ignored them. This one-disc collection is truer to their spirit than the 2-CD anthology. The Ramones were about speed and getting it over with, not dragging it out. Odd then that there isn't a 20-minute, 12-track "Best of" out there.
8) Smash Hits--Jimi Hendrix: Hardcore Jimi Hendrix fans need to listen to something else. They need to hear Jimi play long, extended solos in jam sessions and live concerts and they can rightfully marvel at the man's ability to twist six strings into so many directions. But there are those who are just curious, who want maximum impact and don't have hours to spend with a wah-wah pedal jammed between their ears. For those people, there is this album, where you get the poetry, the hits, the hard rock, the blues and the psychedelia in quick, crushed up doses without the long, extended guitar lessons.
Greatest Hits, Volume 2--Bob Dylan: Maybe it's because I don't ever want to hear "Everybody Must Get Stoned," (titled "Rainy Day Women, your SS# here") that I've chosen this collection instead of something more obvious. Or maybe it's because as much as I enjoy "Isis" or anything from Knocked Out Loaded, I don't want it showing up on a Greatest Hits collection. Hardcore devotees enjoy his every burp, but the average person can barely stand his voice. So let's not overextend ourselves and force too much of the man's catalog onto people all at once This double album will do.
6) Greatest Hits--Al Green: Call Me and The Belle Album come recommended but here's another gentleman who belongs to the radio. Who doesn't get chills hearing that voice slink up the pole for "Let's Stay Together"? Usually when you reduce a man's career down to a handful of essential tracks, you're, well, reducing him. Yet, here the effect is the opposite. By reducing Green's multi-decade career into a Reader's Digest Condensed Edition, it actually makes each punch a knockout blow.
Decade--Neil Young: Some people said he couldn't sing. Some people said he was too moody, too erratic. Some people think we're going to see the release of his voluminous archives in our lifetime. Some people think they "understand" the method to the man's madness. Some people think "Heart of Gold" is a nice song and don't know what the fuss is. Well, this once 3-LP, now 2-CD collection from the mid-70s doesn't assemble every key moment by any stretch, but it gives you a good idea of the man's range. And, no, he can't sing, by any "formal" definition, but remember those who can't sing, sing rock n' roll!
4) Greatest Hits--Sly And The Family Stone: Yes, Stand and There's A Riot Goin' On are great albums, but Sly was a master of the single. His songs belonged on the radio and to the radio. His ability to distill his ambitions into three and four minute explosions of joy without getting corny or preachy came from his ability to kick his band's butt into overdrive. He went crazy as a result. Or was it the craziness that gave him the results? I think we've got a chicken or the egg theory here.
Star Time--James Brown: I don't like to include boxed sets because "Greatest Hits" serve as an introduction to an artist's work and a four-disc box is more than just a big hello, it's an overbearing, sweaty hug from someone you're meeting for the first time. But Star Time serves as a great overview of a long, deserving career that I'm willing to overlook just how far Brown's tongue gets jammed down my throat. Hey, it's great to see you too! Godfather of Soul! The R&B years, the invention of funk, the angeldust, its mastery, and eventually the slowdown, it's all here.
2) Hot Rocks--The Rolling Stones: The world's oldest rock n' roll band were once the among the greatest and this collection spanning up to 1971 captures enough of the highlights to qualify as a decent, if not definitive, collection. They simply recorded too many top notch tunes and until they get a real boxed set collection together--The Singles Collection is ok, but is paced with A-side then b-side and not as an album--this will have to stand. You can always add More Hot Rocks for the extra-tasty "fazed cookies."
1--The Beatles: Assembling their #1 hits in one spot is a great move for beginners. Too obvious for most and the group's genius was partly how they turned the album into an artform of its own. They even managed to do this with albums they didn't program, as the US versions didn't start matching their British counterparts until Sgt. Pepper's and yet the American release of Rubber Soul plays just fine. Chances are you can sing the songs on this collection in your sleep. If not, you haven't mastered the art of singing in your sleep. Or you've never owned a radio.
- Elvis Presley