The Case for (and Against) the "Greatest Hits" Record
It's pretty easy to understand why some of the hardest of hard-core vinyl collectors consider a "greatest hits" album to be a reductive representation of one band's legacy. It's often curated by someone (or, gasp, even something) who is more concerned with chart-life and sales of singles. Not much attention is probably going to be placed on the very critical prog-forward track that cohesively fits into the space-opera narrative of the album on which it appears. Even though that track absolutely cannot stand alone—because it's part of a greater concept!
But ultimately pooh-poohing a greatest hits record is the equivalent to screaming at a bottomless bowl of candy. It's forever full of goodies you appreciate—some no doubt more than others—and you're able to enjoy it for exactly what it is and nothing more. In the end, though, the greatest hits record just isn't all that substantive, and if you consume too much of it too often you're doing little more than packing on empty calories (as delightful as that all might sound).
So arguing the merits of a greatest hits record boils down to splitting hairs—which can be as fun an exercise as the next in this wonderful universe of vinyl hierarchies. Keeping that in mind we asked a label head, a founder of a music publicity company, a musician, and a record store owner to dissect what he or she believes to be the best and worst aspects of the greatest hits album—while acknowledging how the format has mutated as streamable, curated playlists of singles continue to supplant old-fashioned greatest hits LPs. Except of course for ELO's Greatest Hits from '79. That record is hallowed and untouchable.
"Greatest hits records oftentimes provide an accessible intro to an artist, because they're aimed at listeners who appreciate accessibility. One service is they can connect listeners to groups with more disparate catalogs. Especially acts that existed before the LP era and mostly released singles—maybe across different labels and distributors, when it might be hard to track down a copy of everything. These wouldn't really fall into a greatest 'hits' category but more of a representative compilation of the artist's significant work. Going forward, acts that release singles but came after the LP/album era might be helped out by having a greatest hits playlist created for them on Spotify or YouTube."
"I wouldn't say something as strong as a greatest hits record bastardizes a catalog, but it might be a disservice to the band to boil down decades of classic material to a single CD's worth of tracks. What's the goal? If a band is trying to connect to as many people as possible, sell as many units as possible, revitalize a career… it can be a good thing. But if an artist's vision is for an album to be experienced as a whole complete work—and not as individual songs—then the negatives become more crucial."
"I don't have many greatest hits records in my collection, but I think it's more because my collection is singles-focused: seven-inches and 12-inches from bands that only released one or just a handful of tracks. I had a James Brown greatest-hits CD when I was young that was pretty influential. I don't know how I would have connected with that much material otherwise. I recently bought a Barbara Mason greatest hits LP and was a bit disappointed. Some of her singles are all-time faves. There was a bunch of songs on the album I had never heard—or didn't have the single for—and after one listen, I understood why."
"I feel like maybe the greatest hits format itself is antiquated—what with the prevalence of digital streaming and curated playlists—but a roundup of singles or hits can still be an easy entry point that might lead a listener down a worthwhile rabbit hole for an artist."
"For the uninitiated, a greatest hits can be an easy introduction—especially in regards to a band with a massive back catalog. If a band has gone through several incarnations, a collection can help introduce a listener to its various stages."
"My initial entry point to Joy Division was their Substance comp. Maybe not necessarily a 'greatest hits,' but it's an easily digestible collection that had me seeking out and consuming all things Joy Division-related throughout my teens—and really to the present day."
"I feel like if a listener is interested in an artist, but doesn't necessarily want to start combing through a giant catalog, pop in a collection of singles or greatest hits and see where it takes you. I wore out Queen's Greatest Hits after I heard 'Bohemian Rhapsody' for the first time (thank you, Wayne's World). That record is chock full of bangers from start to finish, and it led me to obsess over all things Queen in junior high (and beyond). I ended up doing a real deep dive into their catalog and history, even though I was too young to have experienced it in real time."
"Broadly speaking, I have nothing against greatest hits records. I imagine the people who care the most are artists themselves. Some might be offended at the chopping up of their albums—others probably don't care. For listeners sometimes you're just in the mood for the radio hits. Like most things, it depends on the circumstances—some albums were definitely crafted as whole albums, while some just serve as padding for a few strong singles. As a musician I try to dig deeper because I can relate to making an album and am generally curious about what that artist has done otherwise. But sometimes artists only have a few good songs and the rest just isn't worth coming back to."
"I do think greatest hits albums can potentially be a good gateway to a band's greater discography. It can make you curious to dig deeper, or maybe your friends will relentlessly shame you into listening to more of a band's catalog once they learn you only know one or two songs. I personally love The Best of Bread, and I often go to Diana Ross & The Supremes' greatest hits albums on Spotify—same with Supertramp. I'd totally support a "Best of Stone Temple Pilots" album. What has always irked me is when someone puts out a greatest hits album, but they don't have the rights to some of the songs, which means it's not even a proper compilation."
"Bands like The Beatles or Ramones—their records are a bunch of singles anyway. But a greatest hits record might dilute a band's catalog if the band approaches every album like it's an entire composition. Something more progressive like Rush, I don't think one works."
"They're a good way to get a taste of a band, especially one that's long-established. When I was a kid I'd spin a Tom Petty greatest hits record over and over. I didn't have the money or energy to buy a bunch of CDs. Now you can just stream everything and to some extent a 'greatest hits' record has become a playlist created by someone else. And maybe it's not all the greatest hits."
"I'd spin The Best of Blondie more than any of their records. ELO—all I need are the hits. We saw them live last year and I got to a point in the concert where you don't want any deep cuts. The greatest hits record that immediately comes to mind as one that doesn't work is Guns N' Roses'. From a pragmatic standpoint it makes sense, but from a fan standpoint—and I really love that band—it's too heavy on cover songs. It's like 40 percent covers and not representative of their catalog."
"The Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks is a great collection of their early material but ignores something like Their Satanic Majesties Request, which is an out-of-left-field, psychedelic-rock experimental album. So if someone were to go from the hits and then buy that, their view of the band wouldn't match up. If you bought ChangesOneBowie and then went and bought Low and put on side two, you'd wonder, 'Why did I waste my money on this?!'"
"A band should have like eight records under its belt. In the '70s there was rapid turnover when bands were putting out a new record every year—a cycle where four or five studio albums were followed by a live album. The live album served as a sort of stopgap, just so something fresh was on the market. Live albums are simultaneously a greatest hits package, but they're different recordings, sometimes different songs. A four-minute single can turn into a 12-minute jam."
"With metal there aren't a ton of bands that do greatest hits albums. The one that comes to mind is Black Sabbath's We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll. Metal fans tend to vote with their dollars. They're like, 'I'm gonna buy everything.' Greatest hits albums are largely unnecessary in metal. I don't think Metallica has a greatest hits album. Megadeth doesn't."
"To some extent if you're throwing around the term 'greatest hits,' metal's not the most mainstream music. I like Judas Priest a lot and if someone asked, 'Oh, I don't really listen to heavy metal, what's a good place to start with Judas Priest?' Even if Priest had a greatest hits record, I'd hand them Screaming for Vengeance and say, 'Start here. This is representative of the band.'"