RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#364: Greatest Hits
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, greatest hits records have been around for as long as rock and roll has. Elvis’ Golden Records, one of the most famous early greatest hits albums from 1958, has sold over 6 million copies. Some believe it to be the very first greatest hits album, ever. Elvis only had four albums out at that point, one of them a Christmas record. It was a selection of Elvis’ single A’s and B’s, and its success meant that it would be followed by many sequels. (Interestingly, five hits on it were composed by the duo of Lieber and Stoller!)
A couple decades later, the Eagles released their best selling album of all time. Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) has sold over 42 million copies to date, and is the third highest selling album in history. Not long after, Aerosmith released their first Greatest Hits, a collection of single edits and radio versions of their best songs, and one non-album track (“Come Together”, from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack). It has sold over 11 million copies.
These releases, and many more, have made greatest hits discs a lucrative cash cow for record labels. On it on it goes; you’re not a success until you’ve released your first greatest hits disc. Some bands have always resisted releasing collections of pre-existing music, others have not put such value in their integrity. Hits albums are usually looked at with disdain by the die-hards and “purists”, but make an easy gateway purchase for people not (yet) interested in the discography.
Why do die-hard fans look down on hits albums so much?
1. A more recent practice from the 1980’s and 1990’s was to include two or three new songs, forcing fans to buy old songs over again just to get the new ones. It’s such a common practice now that it’s expected, but we still resent it.
2. Live versions. Even if we choose to buy or listen to a greatest hits album, a lot of the time the familiar original versions are replaced with inferior live ones. Casual music listeners don’t usually seek live versions, and die hard fans usually already have the live albums. It just serves to make the listening experience less than it should be.
3. While it is certainly not a rule, for the kind of music we listen to, a studio album is often a self contained work, not just a collection of songs. There is usually a direction and purpose for the songs. Listening to songs out of their intended context doesn’t always work, but nine times out of ten, they are best appreciated on the original album.
4. Who else but a die-hard fan would be a better self-proclaimed expert to criticize the song selections on a “greatest hits”?
5. Artistic non-involvement. Few hits albums have any input from the artists themselves. Without the artist contributing, a greatest hits becomes just another product assembled by record company suits, most of the time.
6. Cash grab. Many greatest hits album stink of the whiff of “record company cash-grab”, usually at opportune times.
7. Snob attitude. “Don’t buy the greatest hits! Just buy all the albums!”
What do you like about greatest hits albums?