The Art of Fiction was a famous essay by Henry James, from 1885. This blog is written by Adrian Slatcher, who is a writer amongst other things, based in Manchester. His poetry collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" was published by Salt in 2010. I write about literature, music, politics and other stuff. You can find more about me and my writing at www.adrianslatcher.com
Thursday, March 26, 2015
The Lost Art of the Greatest Hits Album
Once upon a time, in the sixties, artists tended to not put their singles on albums, yet those compilations, "A Collection of Beatles Oldies," "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" and "High Tide and Greeen Grass" were not big sellers at the time - coming so soon after the records themselves had come out. The baroque names probably didn't help either. I suspect they were probably priced more expensively as well - and also had to compete with the new album by the Beatles, the Who or the Stones as these bands developed so quickly.
So it was really the seventies where the Greatest Hits came into its own. Artists might be recording an album a year and a Greatest could give them a bit of a breather, and pull together the songs that had been played on the radio. Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and others were album bands who also had hit singles, but a Greatest Hits drew in the casual fans, the ones who'd heard that early song on the radio or perhaps bought the really big breakthrough album. There's sometimes some odd choices on these mega-selling records. "Border Song" on Elton's for instance. They are of their time as well - all three of those artists would have second volumes of greatest hits which would include some of their biggest later hits. Frequently a Greatest would be a way of getting mileage out of the back catalogue of an artist who'd just had a massive hit single. ABBA's Greatest Hits for instance was a bestseller, but made up for the fact that few people bought their first three albums despite some hit singles. As they became massive stars, it ended up being the first album that people bought by them.
As a regular trawler of second hand record sellers I've been picking up Greatest Hits. You might not think you need Cat Stevens in your life, but a collection without "Wild World" or "Father or Son" is slightly bereft - a Greatest Hits solves the problem. By the late seventies TV advertised Greatest Hits crammed more than the regular 10 or 12 sides - so the fidelity sometimes suffered. But New Wave and New Romantic bands are surely as well served by their greatest hits as individual albums. Want "Call Me" by Blondie? Then you need the exemplary "Best of Blondie" - only a shame that this iconic collection wasn'tm reissued on vinyl recently when their other early records were. (It had the advantage of being released before their less than stellar "The Hunter" album.) Madness, Human League, OMD - all bands that are probably best served on a decent best of.
The CD kind of ruined things of course. The 70 plus minute length meant that a greatest was no longer a sharp forty or fifty minute party record, but something crammed with every single, with the boring slow tracks as well as the pop songs. For Greatest Hits sensibly tended to be aimed at the seventies house party. Who needs that half paced love song that was the third single off the album? Of course, there are exceptions. ABBA Gold probably couldn't be beaten, whilst Madonna's "Immaculate collection" is amazing for the tracks it misses off (including a couple of UK number ones).
Nowadays of course there is every kind of compilation - even bands like the Smiths have spawned half a dozen. If in doubt, stay with the singles, as these were the tracks that meant the most at the time. I was as surprised as anyone how fantastic the Beatles' "1" album was - by concentrating on just their biggest hits it turned them from rock legends back into that brilliant pop band that they started out as. Latterday bands such as James are best showcased on their best of - whilst some bands who had just one great album and a smattering of singles - like the Stone Roses - seem odd in a Greatest Hits context. That Greatest Hits by Guns n' Roses and Red Hot Chilli Peppers have been so successful indicates the patchy nature of so many of their albums and must be a good way for a young rock fan to pick up a single disc best of - yet they hardly seem classic collections.
The days of bands releasing two or three singles a year off each album, moving on, maybe having a non album hit or two, seem long gone. Often there's one massive album and a longer career that's underwhelming. I'm sure boy bands like One Direction will have massive selling best ofs, but there's a cynicism to modern musical careers that means we've only had one song from Adele for instance since her mega-selling "21".
Growing up, I experienced the sixties mainly through compilations - the Beatles Red and Blue albums; Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks; Bob Dylan Greatest Hits; best ofs by the Small Faces and Jefferson Airplane; soul compilations of the Temptations or Isley Brothers or Booker T and the MGs.
Now, I quite like putting on a crackly old record, like Roxy Music's Greatest Hits (see above), a slightly odd choice of tracks, that nonetheless works as a great party record. Even hated bands like the Eagles can be made palatable by the filleting of a Greatest Hits.
1. Best of Blondie
Good as their albums are, this brings all their best tracks together. Non album song "Call Me" gets a run out, as do early non-hits "X Offender" and "Rip Her to Shreds." If you only listen to "Parallel Lines" (virtually a greatest hits in itself) you miss such gems as "Presence Dear" from the album before.
2. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits
This was my first Dylan album and perhaps it should still be my favourite. Its a great track selection. Whether they were all hits or not, I'm not sure - but like alot of "best ofs" it serves as a track listing for the songs of his that lasted. Further volumes are weird and career spanning collections just to diverse - this is the one to go for.
3. Roxy Music Greatest Hits
"Virginia Plain" and "Pyjamarama" can't be found on their other albums - it tends to the rockier side of their back catalogue - and it finishes before they resumed with "Manifesto" - but its such a listenable record even if it feels like Eno has been asked to stand outside.
4. The Temptations Greatest Hits
Mine's a TV compilation with a terrible cover - but it brings together their late sixties psychedelia like "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with their earlier classic Motown. Cheap Motown compilations have been a joy throughout my life.
5. Celluloid Heroes - the Kinks
Seventies Kinks are a mixed bunch - weird double albums, concept albums, and no hits - yet "Celluloid Heroes" is a brilliant distillation of this period. Like the Stones "Rewind" it takes an unfashionable period and compiles it well.
6. Uncut Funk: the bomb - Parliament
In the late eighties it was hard to find Parliament records so when this brilliant compilation came out I bought it and played it to death. It has a picture of George Clinton surfing two dolphins on the cover, a brilliantly funny funk dictionary on the back. What's not to like?
7. Once Upon a Time - Siouxsie and the Banshees
Despite being dark and gothic on their albums the Banshees were also a brilliant pop band and this timely compilation of their imperial period is stunning, not a bad track on it. Twice Upon a Time - double the length - and from their later career does a good job as well, but this is the one you need.
8. Snap! - the Jam
I wasn't a great Jam fan but this compilation convinced me. Originally a double album I've the slightly reduced track listing of the CD - a collection that crams as much of the band on as it can and yet never goes slack, surely the sign of a good band? The underrated Style Council are equally well served by the "Singular Adventures of..." compilation, which fillets even lacklustre albums for gems.
9. The Whole Story - Kate Bush
A classic compilation that still sells well today. Kate's early success tended to overshadow the songs that came after (at least until "Hounds of Love") but this brilliant selection gives equal billing to "Army Dreamers", "Babooshka" and "Sat in Your Lap." It means that a song as weird as "The Dreaming" is in pretty much every household in the country.
10. The Collection - Jefferson Airplane
I hardly knew the Airplane until Castle Communications started issuing cheap double albums/single CDs in the late eighties and early nineties. Cheap to look at, they were nonetheless intelligently compiled. For a while I thought this was the only Airplane I needed, but of course, they were a quality band and I've since investigated much further - but this was where I came in. I've also got great Castle albums by Melanie, Small Faces, Motorhead, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Worth picking up if you see them.
Posted by Adrian Slatcher at 3:32 AM
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Your blog is so nice.
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