Play The Greatest Hits

We all have one. An album that formed such a big part of our lives, but just so happened to be a hits compilation. Maybe it was ABBA Gold? Maybe it was Best of Bowie? Perhaps it was Their Greatest Hits by Eagles? Or The Immaculate Collection by Madonna?

Mine was Greatest Hits by Take That. A band who announced their split during my years of playing it over and over, six-year-old Sam completely oblivious that a band could ‘break up’ as ‘the CD was still in the house’. I would skip from song to song, and back again hearing the likes of ‘Everything Changes’, ‘Relight My Fire’, ‘It Only Takes A Minute’ and ‘Never Forget’ over and over again. Luckily it was mainly an excuse for my parents to listen to, that compilation of some of the 90s biggest pop hits a staple in the Atkins household for years to come.

It’s not quite an ‘album’ though and while we’d probably never dare to review a Greatest Hits album on a seriousmusicwebsite like Picky Bs, I bet every writer and reader has those moments where only the biggest hit songs from an artist will do. There’s something familiar, welcoming and instantly accessible about an album where even ‘non fans’ will know just about every song, often the perfect entry point into classic legacy acts such as Elton John, Bob Marley or even The Beatles.

Why am I talking about this in 2021 though? Greatest Hits albums are surely long gone, forgotten to an era where playlists curated by Spotify and Apple bring together the big hits in their own ways? For years every single major act, from Blur to Robbie Williams to Blondie to Dolly Parton had compilations and then they just stopped, didn’t they?

You’d be half right, but what’s mad is that 12 of the top 40 biggest ‘selling’ albums of the year in the UK are Greatest Hits collections? I could get into the nitty gritty of streaming ‘sales’ vs physical sales and end up with a 5000-word piece, but either way the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Eminem and Oasis are appearing in the chart week after week.

What’s even stranger is that brand new compilations are arriving from much more recent acts, Noel Gallagher and The Script both scored #1 albums with a hits collections in recent weeks, while there’s albums coming from Little Mix and James Blunt before Christmas. Most notably is The Weeknd whose The Highlights was timed for his SuperBowl performance and is one of the top 10 biggest records of the year so far. It even follows the format of the automated Spotify playlists, placing the ‘current hit’ at the very top before settling into the other well-known songs from previous albums but as a ‘Hits album’ it works tremendously well.

For me there’s definitely an art to constructing a Greatest Hits album and my number one absolute no-no will go against plenty of my other Picky Bastards; chronological order is boring. If I wanted to hear the five singles from the debut album in a row I’d go and listen to that album, what I want is to jump from song to song like a carefully constructed live set. The Beatles’ Red and Blue compilations are the best example of this problem, featuring countless tracks from albums that only had one or two ‘singles’ in the first place. (watch Beatles fans start filling my mentions with complaints about how terrible a music fan I am).

The next thing is that less is definitely more. I don’t need a five-disc multi set collection that contains every song of an artist’s 50-year career. If I can barely listen to your hits collection in a single working day something is up. Especially in an era where I can make a playlist as long as I damn please. A tighter, well sequenced collection of 20 songs is preferable to the Fleetwood Mac 50 Years – Don’t Stop collection I mentioned earlier, 3 hours long it’s definitely comprehensive but it’s barely listenable.

And lastly, I enjoy seeing the artist has some genuine input into the collection. I know the whole idea of ‘Hits’ seems a bit counter intuitive to creativity, but I loved the way Björk constructed her hits collection, making a version voted by fans and one of her own personal favourites. ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ being intentionally left off at her own request even though it had done well in the poll showing that it still feels like her own creation, not just a marketing tool.

I’m intrigued to see if we get some physical releases of hits collections from other massive current stars. If Taylor Swift wasn’t literally re-recording her albums as we speak, I’d imagine a compilation would be way overdue, while Ariana Grande, Drake and Justin Bieber must have seen The Weeknd and wondered whether to do the same thing. Coldplay having never released a compilation album in their 20-year career is utterly baffling, while I’m excited for Beyoncé when she finally puts one together and excludes hits like ‘Single Ladies’ and ‘If I Were A Boy’ so she can make sure there’s space for the full seven-minute version of album track ‘Get Me Bodied’.

I’m not at the point of messaging the other Picky Bastards and saying that The Best Of is the best Radiohead album (though I’d probably have fun doing that) but there’s definitely way more to enjoy about these albums than I think they get credit for. Albums like Britney Spears Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, ABBA: Gold or Take That’s Greatest Hits are as essential to me as any of their studio releases.

Words by Sam Atkins

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