Video killed the radio star, that’s true, but it took streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify to lay waste to the greatest hits album.
For years, greatest hits, or best of, albums were money in the bank for any recording act worth its weight in gold records.
After crooner Johnny Mathis’s 1958 release Johnny’s Greatest Hits made history by staying on the Billboard album charts for 490 consecutive weeks — a mark that stood for 15 years until Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon logged its 491st week on the charts in October 1983 — industry bigwigs began churning out greatest hits packages one after another, whether the subject was worthy of a retrospective of their work or not. (The Best of Vanilla Ice? Really?)
Take 1990, for example, which saw the release of close to 150 greatest hits or best of albums in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (That year, this writer was thrilled to find copies of Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, Peter Gabriel’s Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats and Devo’s Greatest Misses waiting for him, under the tree.)
Now compare that with 2020. Since Oct. 1, a grand total of two compilation albums, 40 Years: The Greatest Hits by Spandau Ballet and the White Stripes’ Greatest Hits, the latter of which was released on Dec. 4, have seen the light of day, according to the website albumoftheyear.org. (Wait, what? Spandau Ballet has more hits than True??)
The reason for the dearth is simple: ever since audiophiles have been able to curate their own treasure troves with the click of a mouse, they no longer need a record exec to tell them whether a Hall and Oates collection should include Private Eyes or Out of Touch (just kidding, both are essential listening), or whether a McCartney anthology is complete without Let 'Em In (it is).
The editors of Pitchfork, an online publication branded as "the most trusted voice in music," spelled that out a couple of years ago, writing, "In the digital era, once a catalogue enters a streaming service… there’s no need for a reissue and therefore, there’s no reason for a label to mine the vaults, searching for old music to make new again."
(At this point, we should pause to mention the Rolling Stones, perhaps the kings of the greatest hits album, have had more than 30 hits packages released through the years, among them 1966’s Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), 1981’s Sucking in the Seventies and 2002’s Forty Licks.
The article went on to say, "Users can assemble their own personalized greatest hits playlists or just scan through an act’s most accessed songs, which has led to greatest hits collections becoming redundant." (Plug your ears, Their Greatest Hits (1971 — 1975), the Eagles’ set that was the best-selling album of the 20th century in North America.)
We’re not here to eulogize the greatest hits album because, really, who knows? Perhaps by this time next year Metallica and AC/DC, a pair of legendary bands that to date have steadfastly refused to release a best of package, will have changed their minds. That said, we recently reached out to music-types in the city, asking if there are one or two compilations they continue to hold dear. Here’s what everybody had to say.
Chris Burke-Gaffney, The Pumps, Orphan
I never received a greatest hits record for Christmas. I gotta confess, I was an annoying music snob back when music was giftable. I thought hits on the radio were often the artist’s most shallow songs. So people close to me wouldn’t bother to ever get me one, in fear of being on the receiving end of some self-righteous lecture.
Of course, I was dead wrong. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Smash Hits (1968) inspired me to want to be a a rock star. And in case any loved ones are reading this, I’d love a copy of Beatles 1.
George Belanger, Harlequin
I had the same type of experience and felt the same way as Chris does, until one day Harlequin’s Greatest Hits (1989) came out.
It was only then that I realized it’s really not an everyday accomplishment, and I should maybe take my head out of my ass.
Never got one for Christmas but I wouldn’t have minded finding any of these under the tree: Motown’s greatest hits, the Beatles’ greatest hits, best of the Rascals, the Animals’ greatest hits….
Beau Fritzsche, 99.9 BOB-FM
In 1968 I was a huge Grass Roots fan, so I asked for their greatest hits album, Golden Grass, for Christmas, which had just come out. Come Christmas morning I found The Beat of The Brass by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, instead. Mum didn’t get it quite right, LOL. I kept it, it was pretty good, and bought Golden Grass later.
In 1971, just in time for the holidays, the Rolling Stones released Hot Rocks 1964-1971, a double album greatest hits package. Still love it! It was also memorable because I got my first radio job a few weeks later and I think that’s the last album I actually had to buy for decades, thanks to radio freebies.
Rob Pachol, Wind-ups
Greatest Hits packages? Bah, who needs 'em! However, what if those hits can somehow "scale up" to reflect a grand concept? Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy (1971) by the Who is more than a bunch of singles, it's a musical ride through the teenage mind. Adolescent concerns, indulgences, and absurdities play themselves out through 14 tracks that bash, crash and pop.
Whenever I feel like bouncing back in time to 14 years old, these Who hits work magic.
Jennifer Hanson, jazz singer, lead vocalist for Jenerator
I think I’m of the age when most of us made greatest hit compilation tapes of our own. Flin Flon, where I grew up, had one record store and was expensive, so most of the music I got was from friends and compilation tapes.
I really love Steely Dan and have A Decade of Steely Dan (1985) album but you’re right, most of us have our own ideas of what are the greatest hits.
I have excellent memories of K-Tel records because it was the only way to get newish songs all together.
Kevin Mears, Monuments Galore
It was the winter of 1974, and my cool older sister bought Sladest, Slade’s top hits, from a local record store. Within minutes of her bringing it home, my friend Colin and I set up the record on my dad’s stereo console, which was a big-ass piece of furniture with the volume to match its size.
We dropped the needle and out blasts Cum On Feel the Noize. After that ripping tune, there was no turning back: out came the 27-string badminton racket (as guitar) and we sure did "get down and get with it."
Dan Donahue, Juno Award-winning producer
I honestly never cared much for the greatest hits concept as I always preferred albums in their entirety, because often the best tunes were frequently never radio fodder to begin with.
If I had to choose one, however, it would be Beatles 1 (2000) hands down.
Each and every time I listen to it, I’m reminded of their greatness and how even the early material not only stands the test of time, but still sets the bar for so many of us.
Cavin Borody, owner, Winnipeg Record and Tape Company
I do remember the greatest hits collections. They sold like hotcakes, as I recall. It seemed to always be a safe bet to buy a hits collection as a gift if you didn’t know which was the person’s favourite album.
I agree that the advent of (streaming) caused a lot less greatest hits records to be released. You could make your own and get rid of the few duds you didn’t want to listen to.
Most of the time I preferred album cuts over the radio singles so my mixes were more "The Best Of According To Me And That’s All That Matters" as opposed to a legitimate greatest hits.
From my perspective, the only greatest hits LPs that sell well now are ones that include songs that are available on vinyl for the first time as part of a hits collection. Stuff like Red Hot Chili Peppers, '90’s The Cure, etc. that were mostly on CD; unless you want to buy their entire catalogue on expensive reissued vinyl, a hits collection is a good addition to a vinyl start-up plan.
Dez Daniels, 94.3 The Drive
Greatest hits CDs were never my go-to, but ZZ Top's Greatest Hits (1992) is one that stands out. It came out around the same time I made the first significant purchase of my adult life, which was a thoroughly decent Technics home stereo system. Sleeping Bag sounded so amazing coming out of those tower speakers.
The last greatest hits album I bought was when I was pregnant with my son, who will graduate high school this year. That was Elton John’s Greatest Hits 1970-2002 (2002).
I was totally obsessed with the thing, imagining my unborn child as some kind of musical prodigy. He's not a pianist but he is a halfway decent French horn player, which I still consider a win.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.