Hits and Miss

The problem with greatest hits

August 1-7, 2007

Every Tuesday marks not only the arrival of new releases in record stores, but the arrival of the weekly All Music new releases e-newsletter. As a music critic, I enjoy looking over this list of new albums because it reminds me of how many current bands I’ve never heard of, as well as how many long-established artists I know nothing about.

But the list is inevitably frustrating, because half of the new releases are, upon closer examination, actually reissues of old albums or repackaged anthologies of once-obscure recordings or anticlimactic greatest hits collections. Dabblers, rejoice: this summer, your wait for Lil’ O’s Greatest Hits, the Monster Magnet 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection and yet another The Best of Air Supply is over.

Knowing that Monster Magnet have been around long enough to earn a greatest hits package by default makes me feel old, which generates the majority of my greatest hits resentment. Otherwise, I like greatest hits collections; they are the single-serving cereal box variety packs of the music world—colorful samplers for day-trippers, toe-dippers and the generally clueless, and they make life easier, though not necessarily more rewarding.

Sooner or later, musicians ranging from massively influential to marginally successful come out with greatest hits discs. These releases create not only another way for record companies to make money from music that’s just sitting around fully formed; it’s also a handy way for unsure would-be fans to get a feel for a band without getting overwhelmed, plunking down $100 to acquire a box set or risking the crapshoot of blindly selecting a dud of an album (imagine exploring a curiosity about Neil Young by purchasing, say, Trans).

What is a hit, anyway? The most severe definition is a song whose massive popularity was such that it scored a spot on the Billboard chart. Thus, Foghat’s Greatest Hits could conceivably be a single with “Slow Ride” on one side and “Slow Ride” on the other.

Just for fun, I counted the number of greatest hits packages in my collection of CDs; their percentage was far from small. I currently own two greatest hits each by Loretta Lynn and the Monkees, and three by Gordon Lightfoot. The majority, though, are long gone, cassette tapes that are either mildewing in Mom and Dad’s basement or just plain evaporated into the ether of youth. Ownership of such collections are (or, by now, were) nearly rites of passage; how else do you account for The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) being the third bestselling album of all time?

(Ramones Mania is likewise indispensable. I own all of the albums the Ramones ever recorded, but I still enjoy listening to Ramones Mania, which, in 30 songs arranged in seemingly random order, tidily outperforms other, more inclusive Ramones collections.)

The weakness of greatest hits is that they inevitably wind up under-representing at least one aspect of a musician’s career. The trusty All Music e-newsletter announced Social Distortion’s Greatest Hits several weeks ago, an event that made me simultaneously nostalgic and miffed. Social Distortion have been around for nearly 30 years, and the band’s Greatest Hits collection offers 10 songs. That’s a paltry 3.33 songs per decade! And there’s only one selection from their career opus, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, one of the best rock albums of the 1990s. This is not a matter of opinion. By law, a greatest hits collection by any nonsucky band should have at least 20 songs on it.

Greatest hits do well for artists whose careers were built on the strength of singles rather than albums, which was rather typical of pop music before the late 1960s. Despite my own great fondness for Herman’s Hermits, I must admit that owning their greatest hits and nothing else will get you by in life just fine—unless there’s a life-altering forgotten fluke of a song buried far too deep in the Herman’s Hermits canon for a casual, barely committed half-fan to discover.

And that’s the rub of greatest hits—you never know what you are missing. An obsessive collector might see greatest hits as a populist waste of time, but if you think about it, it’s the greatest hits that are elitist—they only include the hits! And how can you have a greatest hits of Elvis? The Beatles? Billie Holiday? Johnny Cash? And, by now, Mariah Carey? These people are just too damn popular, with too much longevity, to whittle down to 10 or 12 or even 20 songs. Monster Magnet, maybe not so, but they are all now neighbors in the land of greatest hits—and as long as people still buy recorded music and a Billboard chart still exists, they will have plenty of company.

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