The “Greatest Hits” Dilemma

Alan Dowling

Artists and record companies release music in a variety of formats: singles, albums, EPs, etc. They also, however, release compilation albums. Someone, ideally the artist but sometimes a worker affiliated with the record label, will select 10 or 15 “best songs” from an artist’s career and throw them together in what tends to be a fairly random order on a new record or set of CDs. Generally speaking, these compilations get a pretty bad rap from musicians, critics and more devoted fans for a few reasons. For one, artists don’t always have a hand in arranging their own compilations, and it can be hard to tell exactly whether the person choosing an artist’s “best songs” has any relationship with the artist at all beyond common affiliation with the record label.

The major criticism, however, is the matter of context. Let us consider the example of a theoretical compilation album. We’ll take a band which started playing in the early ’60s, played through the ’70s and started winding down in the mid-’80s. As such, they or their label decide to release a “hits” record in the late ’80s to cover their musical career as it has progressed so far. Someone – a record company worker, a band member or a few members – select 10 tracks, or perhaps each band member picks a couple of their favorites or perhaps they ask their fans to pick their favorites. My point is that a casual fan, unless they dig through all this, wouldn’t know or even think about the fact that there may not be any unifying rationale behind which tracks are chosen and which aren’t. Finally, the tracks are arranged in some order, probably an order that sounds pleasant when the album is played through. Finally, a person decides they want to listen to “’60s Band” and figures that buying the compilation will provide an all-encompassing sense of what the band has done.

Here are the problems: first of all, there just isn’t a good way to represent a 20- or 30-year career into a few tracks. Either albums or singles are inevitably neglected. Second, the tracks usually are not arranged chronologically. If songs from the ’80s are placed side by side with songs from the ’60s, the sort of casual fan who would buy such an album will not necessarily be able to distinguish between time periods and will thus have no sense of how the artist grew or changed over the course of their career. Third, because they have listened to “the best songs” by a band, such a listener will think that they have a good sense of the band despite little understanding of the context of the songs they enjoy. Most good artists arrange album play orders in such a way that songs will comment on or speak to each other and provide added meaning or value, and removing a track from that context could severely change its meaning.

There is, however, a time and a place for compilation albums. If you want to get into a new band or artist, I will admit that a “greatest hits” CD is a pretty good way to do it. They tend to provide a fairly equal distribution of songs from different eras in a band or artist’s growth and usually include those hit radio-darling singles that may well have drawn you towards the band in the first place. The trick is not to stop there. Find out when each song was recorded, listen to more of each individual album and let your understanding of the band and the context behind that artist’s songs grow. Compilation albums can serve as the first step, but if you want to understand an artist, taking the next step is on you.