This week a trio of greatest hits albums from different genres and generations ride high on the international charts.
K-pop behemoths BTS rule the US and South Korean standings with BTS, the Best, a collection of Japanese singles. In the UK, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds are perched on top with the retrospective Back The Way We Came. ABBA’s Gold, which released in 1992, the year BTS member Jin was born and before Gallagher found success with Oasis, also racked up a record-breaking 1,000 weeks on the UK charts.
While the style and languages vary, all three titles point to an industry truth: the “greatest hits” or “best of” compilation is still as relevant today as it ever was.
The resilient format rolls on despite premature announcements of its demise in the face of declining CD sales and the rise of streaming services.
On the surface, it may seem like the form is “dying in the light”, as Gallagher sings on Back The Way We Came, but the artist compilation has actually embraced streaming.
While some albums become blockbusters, they function as more than simply cash cows for the artist and record label. Dig a little further into the song selection and you will find these carefully crafted playlists resonate on a deeper level.
“People love music that is familiar and that makes them feel comforted,” Mike Fairburn, general manager of Sony Music Entertainment Middle East, tells The National.
“An interesting insight is that catalogue music [compilations and classic albums] are often streamed at the start of the week on a Monday and Tuesday. So that’s for people coming on the back of a tough weekend, back at work or feeling a bit sorry for themselves and they want that emotional boost.”
Back to the classics
Compilations have been around as far back as 1950, the year Nat King Cole released Harvest of Hits as a package of one LP and three seven-inch discs.
It is 1958’s Johnny’s Greatest Hits by Johnny Mathis that’s regarded as the first one-disc compilation of its kind. By that stage, the pop-star-of-the-moment, known for Chances Are and When Sunny Gets Blue, had released four hit albums in as many years. Not wanting to lose momentum, and giving the crooner a breather, Colombia Records packaged all but one of his six singles and additional pre-released tracks into a single release.
The commercial success of the collection saw record labels dig into the catalogues of key artists and release a seemingly endless supply of compilations by stars including Elvis Presley (1958’s Elvis’ Golden Records) and great hits titled by Marvin Gaye (1964), The Kinks (1966) and The Byrds (1967).
The format reached its peak during the mid-1970s with The Rolling Stones’s Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (1971), Elton John’s Greatest Hits (1974) and The Eagles’s Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 (1976) reportedly selling a combined 43 million copies.
Despite the transparent commercial intentions, these hit compilations retain creative value in that they represent clear snapshots of artists at their peak, with the time frame often limited to five and 10 years.
Collections by The Eagles and John continue to outsell more than their expansive successors because of their sheer focus. Simply put: the material was all killer and no filler.
These kinds of compilations also went on to serve as bookends for some careers.
The Eagles followed up their compilation with their 1976 masterpiece Hotel California, featuring a bolder new sound moulded by the addition of new guitarist Joe Walsh.
John came back with 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, his most personal and ambitious project to date.
After 1990’s The Immaculate Collection, featuring hits from her 1980s period, Madonna permanently jettisoned that bubblegum radio style of Holiday and Cherish for a future sound that was darker and more esoteric.
Gallagher’s High Flying Birds continues that tradition. In interviews promoting Back The Way We Came, he hinted the release was the ending of an artistic phase and the next album will be more experimental.
The thematic compilation
These artistic developments have also been documented in collections, as compilations can be flexible in curation.
BTS, the Best explores various ways the supergroup incorporated the Japanese language into their brand of high-powered K-Pop over the past decade.
That thematic approach dates back more than 60 years. Crooner Frank Sinatra was one of the first to pioneer the style by releasing the 1962 romance collection Sinatra Sings of Love and Things, featuring hits and deep album cuts.
Pop stars Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston also went on to release similar ballad compilations to success.
Madonna took the format further with Something to Remember, a daring 1995 release packaging minor hits and underappreciated ballads spanning a 12-year period. More than simply putting out another hits collection, she used the compilation to showcase a vulnerability rarely seen in her career and, in turn, inspired a reappraisal of her catalogue.
A great introduction
Hit movies, a Broadway musical and a museum can also spur newfound appreciation of an artist’s work. This is partly why Abba’s Gold sold more than 30 million, through copies and streams, in 20 years. Supported by the two Mamma Mia! films and the musical, the compilation managed to not only become a treasured fan favourite but also an introductory guide to new generations.
And sometimes you don’t need to be global superstars to release a compilation. For example, after garnering a cult following within the region in the 1990s, Lebanese electro duo Soap Kills released Best of Soap Kills in 2016 to attract new listeners interested in the burgeoning Arab indie music scene.
“You don’t need to be an Abba to be able to release a compilation. Sometimes it can be useful to collect the songs together and present them to people in a new way to remind them or to introduce what we do,” Soap Kills band member and producer Zeid Hamdan tells The National.
“But they need to be done properly in that they are curated with the right intentions by the artist and the labels.
“Because you are really trying to tell a story of an artist and how they have grown.”
In that sense, Hamdan feels “the greatest hits” or “the best of” tags are misnomers.
“Who can really judge that anyway?” he says.
“I don’t even know if our compilation is ‘the best’ as it suggests. I think a more accurate title would be ‘essential’ with a question mark.”
Updated: July 11th 2021, 3:22 AM
Comfort tunes: why the greatest hits compilation is not dead