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The art of the 'greatest hits'

By Douglas Wolk

JUNE 1, 1999:  Greatest-hits albums are the poor cousin of "real" records: contract fillers or Christmas-product supplements, they're usually regarded as the province of dilettantes. The best ones, though, can help define an artist's career, or keep it alive. Imagine Bob Marley's posthumous career without the flawlessly selected and sequenced Legend (Island, 1982), or Squeeze without Singles 45's and Under (A&M, 1982). The Cure didn't really take off in the U.S. until Standing on a Beach (Elektra, 1986) compiled their first 13 singles into their best album by far; New Order hit their commercial stride with Substance (Qwest, 1987). Currently, 2Pac, Selena, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all have retrospectives in the Billboard Top 100, and so does Cher, who's not even dead.

A bad greatest-hits album, however, does an artist no favors. Eurythmics would likely have a better posthumous rep if not for their aimless, slack Greatest Hits (Arista, 1991), which seems to have been sequenced by drawing song titles out of Annie Lennox's wig box. Lou Reed, War, the Ohio Players, and Pink Floyd all suffer from multiple half-assed compilations. And with Sand in the Vaseline (Sire/Warner Bros., 1992), Talking Heads pulled off the neat trick of a greatest-hits disc that's worse than any of their studio albums.

One common problem with CD-era retrospectives is bonus tracks. Take the Byrds' 1967 Greatest Hits, which has been newly reissued on Legacy/Columbia. The new version sounds great, but there's something off about it. The original LP's sequencing was done with two vinyl sides in mind: one of the earlier folk-rock material, the other of the band's psychedelic color shift. The disc ends with a cover of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages," a perfect retrospective closer: "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now." The reissue ruins the effect by taking on three bonus tracks -- all solid songs, but an anticlimax.

So what makes a great greatest-hits? Sequencing is key. Chronological order is optional -- it doesn't work if a band's career is subject to diminishing returns. Cher gets around this cleverly: the reverse-chronological If I Could Turn Back Time (Geffen, 1998) gets better as it goes along. And it's always a good idea to open with a song that doesn't begin any other album, as a statement of intent and a proof of difference. The Rolling Stones have had plenty of retrospectives, but Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (ABKCO, 1972) is the one that endures, not least thanks to the genius move of starting with "Time Is On My Side." Also, re-recordings and remixes of old songs are a terrible idea. Does the phrase "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86" still set your guts twisting?

Some of the most effective greatest-hits albums are the ones that make a specific argument about an artist, even at the expense of well-known songs. Alison Krauss's Now That I've Found You (Rounder, 1995) casts the great bluegrass/gospel fiddler as a bluegrass-influenced soft-pop balladeer, focusing on her guest appearances on other people's recordings. But it's her most listenable and best-selling release. Dylan's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1967) violated the folk/rock dialectic by starting with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and leaping at will between tracks from his acoustic and electric periods. Barry White's relatively recent All-Time Greatest Hits (PolyGram, 1994) . . . , well, it makes exactly the same argument as every other Barry White album; but bookending it with a couple of Love Unlimited instrumentals is a logical idea for the King of the Boudoir. And Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake (Hannibal, 1994), an artful, delicate approach to Nick Drake's hitless catalogue, makes such a strong case for Drake as a songwriter that Island UK is now releasing similar "introductions" to other artists.

Finally, a note to retrospective compilers: when you've got it right, stop. The Who's best best-of is Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy (MCA, 1971). But that has been followed by The Kids Are Alright (MCA, 1979), Hooligans (MCA, 1982), Greatest Hits (MCA, 1983), Who's Better Who's Best (MCA, 1988), My Generation: The Very Best of the Who (MCA, 1996), and the wretchedly skimpy new 20th Century Masters: The Best of the Who (Millennium Collection) (MCA, 1999), not one of which is as entertaining. And poor David Bowie! Changesonebowie (RCA, 1976) and Changestwobowie (RCA, 1981) were his finest LPs, boiling down the theatrical intricacies and arty indulgences of his concept albums into nonstop four-minute blasts. When his catalogue changed labels, this pair disappeared in favor of a not-quite-right single disc, Changesbowie (Rykodisc, 1994), which committed the remixed-hit sin: "Fame '90." Now there are The Best of David Bowie 1969-1974 and 1974-1979 Bowie best-ofs on Virgin, which pad the original Changes track listings, more or less, to CD length. This sort of thing is what multidisc changers and programming functions are for. But isn't the whole point of a greatest-hits album that you don't have to use them?

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