The Very Best of the Greatest Hits

In 1973, the United States supplied weaponry to the Israeli military in the Arab-Israeli war (a gesture that I’m not going to comment on). In retaliation, many Arab countries placed an oil embargo on the US, thus beginning the famed 70’s oil crisis, and it wasn’t just the automobile industry that was affected. These days, we’re used to sound being pumped out from thin air, but when the creation of music lived and died on access to cheap plastic, this threw the record industry into disarray. However, they found a great way to recoup lost funds: Greatest Hits albums. You didn’t have to pay for new recording sessions, songwriters or engineers to release an album guaranteed to sell. Just slap a load of old ones together! Of course, compilations weren’t new in the slightest, but the record-buying public were never exposed to such a glut of Best Ofs, Golden Greats and Ultimate Collections than in the mid-70s. It may have saved the entire industry, as well as providing new listeners with a great entry point into bands that had fallen into decline or inactivity.

Putting it lightly, these compilations have always had an unfashionable reputation. One need only look as far as the walking emblem of boring incurious baby-boomers Alan Partridge as an example.

Ben: I love The Beatles.
Alan: Yeah so do I.
Ben: What’s your favourite Beatles album then?
Alan: Tough one… I think I would have to say ‘The Best of The Beatles’.

I’m Alan Partridge

Breaking away from those Greatest Hits feels like a sign of growing up, graduating from ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ to ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’; from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Scary Monsters’; from ‘Surfin’ USA’ to ‘Surf’s Up’. They could be seen as a crib sheet – a Cliff Notes for something that you should have read cover to cover by now. And what is a Greatest Hits in 2019 when anyone can make a playlist?

Well, if the existence of the album is persisting (and it is) maybe there’s no reason for the compilation to die either. Hell, some artists are made for singles collections – how else are you supposed to listen to Donna Summer or Roy Orbison? Whether listened to on CD, vinyl or Spotify, there is an art to making a good Best Of – an album that stands alone as a rich listening experience and as a brief summary or introduction to a larger body of work. Something that welcomes new fans and rewards old ones. Maybe using the words “Greatest” and “Best” needs to change in favour of something like “Primer” or… “Overview”? Who knows. Either way, would I be as huge a fan of The Cure, The Beatles, REM, Guided By Voices or Prince without the aid of such beginner’s guides? Nope, and there are some that really should exist by now. Where’s the certified primer for the likes of Beck, Kraftwerk, Damien Jurado, Ariel Pink and Deerhunter?! Nowhere, that’s where, but I’m hoping to add some here in some form or other. Watch this space.

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