Published on September 8th, 2020 | by Dave Scaddan2
The Shame of Greatest Hits Albums — And Five Exceptions
Dave looks at not only the idea of the oft-maligned greatest hits album, but also at five greatest hits compilations that may actually worth it.
When I think of greatest hits albums, there’s a Kids In The Hall sketch that often comes to mind. A shopper who’s interested in discovering The Doors goes into a record store and says, “I guess I should start with their greatest hits?” Only to be told by the store owner, “Greatest hits records are for housewives and little girls!” (His misogyny, not mine).
Though I might phrase the insult differently, I have to admit that the musical snobbery expressed in that statement hits a chord with me. When a band records an album, they present us with a selection of songs that are prepared and sequenced to be heard as a unit. When a record label releases a greatest hits record, they’re usually just taking all the songs that were selected to be released as singles over the years and presenting them in chronological order – the focus is more on mass appeal than on giving the listener some kind of artistic experience.
But even with my reservations about these repackaged attempts at mass sales and meeting contractual obligations, there are certain artists I’ve come to love through their greatest hits compilations, only to be disappointed by digging deeper into the discography. These artists, for me, were really best at writing great singles, so the greatest hits compilation you can stream on your phone really is the perfect way to get to their best work. They’re also the groups who didn’t reward my digging for deeper non-single album tracks and led me back to their singles compilations as the truly “greatest.”
Donovan’s Greatest Hits
This was a record I bought because I thought that ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ was really cool and strange and there were a few other tracks (‘Sunshine Superman’, ‘Mellow Yellow’) that I knew I liked. I didn’t know anything else about Donovan, not even that he was a Scottish folk musician. These songs made me think that he was a British songwriter who was contemporary with The Beatles, which was enough to grab my interest. Only later would I come to learn that Donovan was one of the artists whose folk-music trappings would be parodied in films like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. He played acoustic guitar in paisley shirts, presented himself as some kind of delicate, fey creature and often wrote songs that were stylistically similar to children’s music. I think the 1970s kids’ groups like Raffi and Sharon, Lois and Bram were really into Donovan. Listening to Donovan’s studio albums now is a lesson in gentle mysticism not aging well. Just listen to the first few lines of ‘The Sun is a Very Magic Fellow’ and you’ll see what I mean. His voice may be soothing, but the song seems more like a 21st century comedian with a guitar, making fun of the idealism of the 1960s.
Thing is though, as goofy as the catalogue of Donovan may seem today, the man could consistently pour that same childish folksiness into some really great singles. Apart from the songs mentioned above, Donovan’s Greatest Hits also offers us ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘Jennifer Juniper’ and my favourite, ‘Season of the Witch’, where Donovan channels his mystical whimsy into something darker and more foreboding – a cool trick. He also puts that “this song is so simple it writes itself after the first line” folk trope to great use in ‘There is a Mountain’, which inspired The Allman Brothers Band to turn it into one of their finest extended jam pieces on ‘Eat a Peach’.
I was mocked for liking Donovan before I understood why, and now that I understand perfectly, I still love this record as an example of commercial appeal working better than devotion to campy clichés. The only other album of his that didn’t make me weary with “very magic fellow”-type musings was the live album called ‘Donovan In Concert’. If you want a great live record where a bunch of hippies sit in awe of a mystic with an acoustic guitar, you could do a lot worse.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits
I have no desire to rag on the deep cuts of the dearly departed, but Tom Petty was another one of those guys who hit way harder with his singles. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a few good albums, but they didn’t really ever have a great one unless you count Full Moon Fever, which is more of a Wilbury’s record than it is a Heartbreakers record. 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes is probably the closest Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ever came to a great album, and it’s the one that contributes the most songs (‘Refugee’, ‘Here Comes My Girl’, ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, and ‘Even the Losers’) to the greatest hits record that came out in 1993.
Listening to the 18 tracks on this excellent compilation reveals it to be the richest possible slice that can be culled from Petty’s catalogue. ‘American Girl’ and its opening jangle set the table for an 18-course repast that ages wonderfully. Greatest hits records are made great by what they leave out as much as by what they put in, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find many Petty fans who wouldn’t include these 18 songs in a list of their personal top 20 Petties. That’s just the way Tom did things; he kept it simple to catch our ears, and once he had them he got more complex and introspective with his non-single cuts. That complexity and experimentation wasn’t ever disastrous, but it rarely led to his best songs. Put these greatest hits on sometime if you’re a fan who’s never heard these tracks this way, and I’m certain it will take something really important to compel you to stop before it’s over.
Squeeze – Singles 45s and Under
This is the most pure example of the conceit of this article I can think of. Grade seven was the first time I started paying attention to music that wasn’t being played on mainstream radio, and it was when I heard a friend’s older brother’s cassette of this compilation. I instantly loved Squeeze for their sweet-and-sassy vocals, their hooks, their thick accents and their cockney phrasing. But as soon as I started checking out the rest of the catalogue, all I heard on the studio albums were the songs I already loved squashed between sappy ballads and some of the worst New Wave-influenced pop I’d ever heard. I arrived back at Singles 45s and Under with extreme confidence that I wasn’t missing out on anything. When their 1985 album Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (8th Grade for me) was released, a new record by a band I was already excited about, I thought it sucked. It was like Squeeze were a totally different band when they weren’t making a single.
Along with classic tracks like ‘Tempted’ and ‘Pulling Mussels (From a Shell)’, this collection of Squeeze singles also offers a selection of diverse, energetic songs that show the band’s great range and the diversity that comes from having several strong songwriters in the same group. ‘Take Me I’m Yours’ starts the album with an icy cool post-disco beat and the flourish of Jools Holland’s synth skills. Next, ‘Goodbye Girl’ features the soppy side of Squeeze (the side that would mar much of the filler on their albums) but pairs it with a jumpy rhythm and an irresistible bass line. Next is the even-better bass line of ‘Cool For Cats’, a song that actually sounds like disco becoming new wave. The “do the bump” bass is there, but so is a cooing chorus that would do Debbie Harry proud, and a keyboard solo that rounds out the tune before it has a chance to get stale.
By this point in the album, I’m always all-in, and next comes my favourite moment: the little false start of an intro that leads into the “takka-tak boom, takka-tak boom” drum hitch that kicks ‘Up the Junction’ into gear. The song doesn’t even bother with a chorus, just layers verse after verse of love-gone-wrong storytelling taking us from hook-up to break-up in three minutes. The slightly whiny pitch that would sink many a Squeeze song throughout the years is countered with great lyrics that make them seem more tough, like when Glenn Tillbrook sings, “Alone here in the kitchen / I feel there’s something missin’ / I’d beg for some forgiveness / but beggin’s not my business.” The greatness of these first four tracks make Singles 45s and Under a little top-heavy, but the rest of the tracks hold up. It’s not as impossible to turn off as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits perhaps, but it’s also much shorter.
The Very Best Of Elvis Costello and the Attractions
There will certainly be those deeply devoted Elvis Costello fans who will cringe at the suggestion that all you really need to hear are his hits, and the rest can be missed without missing much. This collection (one of several “best ofs” released on CD, all with similar names) is almost all I need though. In fact, I wore out my first copy of this disc from leaving it out of the case in the car, so it started skipping after the first 17 songs, and it arguably made it better.
My favourite Elvis is the young Elvis, the punky, new wave Elvis with biting guitar parts and sharp angles to every beat and hook. His first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model are solid, and I respect his need to change out of the persona that got him his start, but he’s always been an artist whose catalogue was more wide than deep in my view, and The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions is, for me, exactly what it claims to be.
Talk about strong starters – this disc gets it bumping from the jump, with ‘Alison’, ‘Watching the Detectives’, ‘(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea’, and ‘Pump it Up’ leading off. That’s a hard starting four to live up to, but I like the way the sequencing gradually mellows on this collection, letting us hear Elvis’ slow transition from his quirky, Buddy Holly-for-the-seventies frontman style to his maturing as a more muted singer/songwriter. The album stops in 1986 even though it came out in 1994, and there’s no nice way to say this, but that timing is just about right.
Al Green’s Greatest Hits
This one is not so much a condemnation of any of Al Green’s studio albums as it is a statement of praise and admiration. And I’m talking about the ten-track version that came out in 1975, not the “volume two” release that came later or the 1995 CD version that tried to combine them both. The ten-track original is arguably one of the finest soul/R’n’B records ever made – a sexy, heartfelt dredging of tunes that all sound deeply personal and hit just as hard as they ever did all these years later. Long before RZA and Quentin Tarantino were mining this record for clips to enrich and class-up their various works, Al Green was the king, and in my opinion, he still is now. He’s like Barry White without the cheese or Marvin Gaye without the troubled side, and I mean, just look at those pants.