Like many vinyl collectors, I tend to view greatest hits albums on vinyl with skepticism. Since listening to a record involves a special participation on the part of the listener, placing the record on the turntable, cueing and dropping the needle, it’s an activity made for digesting original albums as a whole rather than selected hits compiled to fill a record label’s coffers or fulfill an artist’s contractual obligation. But there are some special exceptions.
There exist greatest hits compilations that become as important to a career as the best studio album. They can be the beginner’s gateway to an intimidating discography, the end game for a minor fan who prefers nothing more than a concise overview of the artist, or they can act like the perfect mixtape for a super fan. Below are 10 greatest of the greatest, the cream of the crop. The essence of an artist or a glimpse of greatness, your collection will benefit from any one of these albums.
Patsy Cline was one of the greats. A country music star, Cline could do honky tonk and pop standards. Greatest Hits was released in 1967, four years after her death, and it focuses more on her country-pop crooners but it’s a solid album. Beginning with her first big hit “Walkin’ After Midnight,” these are timeless classics, most of which charted on both country and pop charts, and are still heard today in films and radio. On songs like “Crazy,” and “I Fall to Pieces,” Cline’s smooth, emotion-filled vocal delivery imbued every song with such feeling they’re identifiable to anyone who’s ever lost in love. When I bought a cassette version of this album as a kid, I had no idea it held the record for weeks spent on the country charts, the longest for any female country artist, or that it would eventually achieve Diamond status in 2005. All I knew is that it had two of my favorite songs, “Crazy” and “She’s Got You,” the latter being such a gut-punch with Cline’s delivery, the lyrics still get me. “I’ve got the records that we used to share/and they still sound the same as when you were there/the only thing different, the only thing new/I’ve got the records, she’s got you.” Perfect for a lazy morning or a night drowning your sorrows.
The Beatles may have broken up but Beatlemania was alive and kicking in 1973 thanks to successful solo albums from each of the former Beatles. There was also a 4xLP bootleg compilation being sold on TV in 1972 (some lax copyright laws back then) so Apple put together their own official compilations for release in 1973 which became known as The Red Album and The Blue Album. Condensing such a rich career into two 2xLP albums was not easy but sticking to Beatles-only compositions and making sure all UK A-sides were included as well as some important non-singles, these compilations give us 54 of the best Beatles songs. For years these albums were the only place to hear non-album singles like “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper” as well as single versions of other tracks like “Revolution” and “Let It Be.” Later they became the first introduction to the band by generations who didn’t experience the ‘60s but by that time the merits of the music were no longer in doubt. The themes of love, life, and hope were universal. These albums are a great overview of one of the greatest bands ever.
Forged in the fires of the New York punk scene in the mid-late 1970s, Blondie proved adept at incorporating multiple music genres like pop, reggae, rap, and disco, establishing themselves as one of the premiere new wave acts of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The Best of Blondie was released in 1981 and includes singles from their first five albums some of which are remixed especially for this compilation. Lead singer Debbie Harry combined punk’s “fuck you” attitude with an icy seductiveness, luring listeners with bubblegum pop crooning (“Sunday Girl”, “In The Flesh”, and “Presence Dear”) and biting rockers (“Hanging on the Telephone,” “One Way or Another,” “Call Me,” and “Rip Her to Shreds”). Refusing to sit on their punk rock laurels, Blondie flipped off the haters with their disco-infused “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture,” the latter being the first song with rapping to top the charts, and breaking them into the mainstream. This collection is an essential peek at a Blondie in their genre-bending prime and will certainly make you want to dive into the rest of their early discography.
There is no one better at begging for love than R&B/soul singer Al Green. He pleads and he bleeds and when he’s beaten on the floor, down and out, he gets back up and pleads some more. It’s no wonder that his biggest hits all seem to be about this very subject which is the beauty of his Greatest Hits album, released in 1975. Ditching chronology, the sequencing of the songs is absolutely perfect; if you didn’t know this was a compilation you’d think it was an intentional concept album about the turmoil of love and relationships. He’s “Tired of Being Alone” and wants his love back in “I’m Still In Love With You,” testifies to the power of “Love and Happiness” (this song was substituted for “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” in a 1977 reissue), then proclaims his commitment in “Let’s Stay Together.” But the road to happy-ever-after is bumpy as described in “I Can’t Get Next To You” and “You Ought To Be With Me.” The album closes with “Let’s Get Married” which has Green saying he’s tired of playing around and wants to settle down.
Swedish group, ABBA, burst onto the scene in the early 1970s. With their lush harmonies and glam rock charm, their songs inspired listeners everywhere to channel their inner dancing queen. Some people may be afraid to admit liking ABBA but they truly were superstars in the pop world with songs so big that when you think of listening to ABBA your first thought isn’t on any of their studio albums but on those hits like “Take A Chance On Me,” “Voulez Vous,” “Mamma Mia,” and “S.O.S.” And there’s no better way to scratch that itch than with ABBA Gold. Released in 1992, it came at a time of renewed interest in the group and previous compilations were out of print. At 19 tracks on 2 LPs, Gold features all nine of their number one singles and is ABBA’s bestselling album at 30 million copies. Ignore the sneers, ABBA deserves every accolade. From ballads to disco numbers their songs are pop perfection, a melding of beautiful singing with dazzling arrangements made with a pageantry and style that’s unmatched today.
The Cars were a new wave rock band active mainly in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their biting lyrics, muscular guitars, and full-throttle embrace of the synthesizer meant they could easily handle hard-edged rock and power ballads with a modern pop sensibility that was still tough. It’s one of those compilations that gives you a taste of their radio-friendly style with familiar hits like “Just What I Needed” and “Let’s Go” but also more interesting tracks like “Touch and Go” and “I’m Not The One” that will definitely have you deep-diving into the rest of their catalog. Released in 1985 during an extended break between albums, Greatest Hits also included a new single (“Tonight She Comes”) which gave them another top 10 hit. A fan would say start with their debut but even the most devoted fan can enjoy Greatest Hits for that quick Cars fix, knowing that anyone who listens will be left wanting more.
Creedence Clearwater Revival are known for many reasons: a San Francisco Bay Area band that sounded like they were from the Louisiana bayou, several commercially successful albums, more than a dozen hit songs, and a band break-up so full of hard feelings that brothers John and Tom Fogerty never reconciled and surviving members still refuse a reunion. What can get lost in stats and gossip is that Creedence have amazing songs about politics, class, war, and just dealing with life’s curveballs but for the average fan it can be hard to know what essential Creedence album to get. The answer is Chronicle, a greatest hits album released in 1976 that also happens to be their best-selling. Beginning with their early singles (covers of “Susie Q” and “I Put A Spell On You”), rolling down the river on “Proud Mary” and later expressing a haunting disappointment in politics and life with “Who’ll Stop The Rain” and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” not to mention the anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son,” these are songs that speak of good times and bad. Tight rhythms, smart lyrics, memorable tunes, you want examples of damn good songwriting? Right here, people.
Buzzcocks are a legendary British punk band formed in the late 1970s, known for pioneering pop punk (and for bringing the Sex Pistols to play in Manchester – we know what happened after that). You’ll sometimes hear them compared to the Beatles but that only works if the Beatles sang about beating off to dirty magazines (“Orgasm Addict”). It’s a lazy description for what the band accomplished on their own: turning punk on its ear with pop and glam rock influences and churning out a quick succession of singles about love (“Love You More”), relationships (“Ever Fallen In Love?” and “Promises”), and other social frustrations (“I Don’t Mind” and “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”). Rather than rely on 3-chord shoot-em-ups their songs dazzle with melodic guitar riffs and singer Pete Shelley’s romantic wails. Singles Going Steady (1979) collects eight of their United Artists singles released between 1977-79, with A-sides on side one and B-sides on side two or the record. Given that the majority of the singles didn’t appear on albums (and the accompanying B-sides are actually pretty good), Singles Going Steady is an essential for any punk collection.
The first thing to note about Hot Rocks is that it isn’t the first Rolling Stones compilation album ever released (or last) but it is the one that people remember the most. It was released after the Stones left their label and ex-manager Allen Klein, who had gained control over the material from their Decca years, took advantage and quickly put together this double album which was released on his ABKCO Records label in late 1971. Despite its rancorous beginning, Hot Rocks has become the Stones’ bestselling album. It covers those early years all the way up to Sticky Fingers (1971) and includes many of their most well-known songs from that period. “Time Is On My Side,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off Of My Cloud,” the single version of “Honky Tonk Women,” “Wild Horses,” there are no throwaways here. Hot Rocks is no longer a career-wide retrospective, it doesn’t even include their early blues rock material, but it is the best entry-point for Rolling Stones novices. If you can’t find anything you like on Hot Rocks, I don’t want to know you.
Originally released on CD in 1991, James Brown’s 20 All-Time Greatest Hits! recently got a vinyl release in 2014. There are plenty of anthologies and box sets to choose from for the Godfather of Soul but what we have here is a lean, mean (like a sex machine) 2xLP greatest hits compilation to sink your teeth into. If you don’t know James Brown then this is your entry-point and if you do know James Brown then this is your comfort food. It covers three decades of R&B awesomeness, from his doo-wop numbers like “Try Me” to his ‘60s classics like “Cold Sweat” to the absolutely funky “Get Up Offa That Thing” and “The Payback.” The tone for Brown’s varied styles over the years is set by kicking off side one with “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Pt. 1.” Horns, doo-wop, soul, jazz, funk, a tight rhythm section, call-and-response, grooves and beats, Brown did it all and with a voice that was equally plaintive and gritty. Best of all it closes with doo-wop classic and very first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” which reminds the listener where it all began.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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