best greatest hits albums

In Defense of the Hits: 15 Best Greatest Hits Records From the Album Era

At some point early in your journey as a record collector, you’ll be faced with a decision: You’ll be holding in your hand a record by an artist you like and it’s filled with great songs, and yet you are not sure if you should buy it. It’s not that it’s too expensive or in poor condition. The problem is the record in question is a best-of or a greatest hits that may become redundant. If it’s an artist you love, after all, you may over time want to collect all their records, in which case you will have wasted your money on this compilation. Not to mention that feeling you get when scanning the tracklist: These are all great songs, but do I want to hear them in this order on a record? Would I be happy just pulling up the song on YouTube once in a while?

These are the practical considerations when contemplating a greatest hits purchase, but the roots of the dilemma actually go deeper. Greatest hits compilations have a longstanding reputation as an item for the newbie. Sometimes, it won’t even have the approval of the artist, or it might comprise re-recordings or inferior versions of familiar songs. If an artist is around long enough, they may eventually have several or even dozens of best-ofs.

Having collected records for 30 years plus, I’ve developed a nearly foolproof system for best-ofs. I have many of them in my collection, but few that I regret buying and I’ve kept redundancy to the minimum. When I contemplate buying a greatest hits set, I ask myself the following questions:

1) Sequencing: Do I want to listen to these songs in this order?

It’s tempting to buy a best-of compilation merely because it has a bunch of great songs on it. But physical media is more than just a storage solution. For me to spend the money and make space for an LP, I need to be reasonably confident that I’ll play the album in sequence — not necessarily the entire record, but at least a sizable chunk of it — and enjoy it because of that sequence. It has to be a coherent listening experience rather than just a collection of songs. Digital media is brilliant for collecting songs; physical media is brilliant at preserving sequences of songs that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

2) Summation: Might this be the only album I need from this period?

The finest greatest hits compilations don’t just hit the highlights from a particular artist and era — they conceivably give you all you will ever need. They give you a potent dose of music from an artist who matters but asks you to dig no deeper. Sometimes this works for an entire career, and sometimes for just a phase of it. But to avoid redundancy, the best-of should obviate the need for additional purchases that render the compilation obsolete.

3) Singular: Does it have anything exclusive worth owning?

Artists often put extra non-hit songs on greatest hits sets to entice the hardcore fans that already own the collected songs. Once in a while, these songs are great — see Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” from 1993’s Greatest Hits — but often they seem weak compared to the surrounding music. Exclusive songs aren’t the only potential enticement. There might be new mixes, remixes, or B-sides that became canon despite never appearing on an album. Such offerings can sweeten the appeal of the greatest hits set.

4) Status: Does it stand out as an album in its own right?

Best-of collections come and go, and often later editions are said to supersede what came before. But the greatest hits sets worth owning almost always have a strong identity as an album — maybe the cover is memorable. One way or another, it became part of people’s lives.

Best Greatest Hits Collections

The following list contains 15 of the best greatest hits albums ever released. You can buy any of these secure knowing that you have a collection worth owning. I’ve evaluated each selection according to the above criteria. I’ve avoided singles collections that mostly comprise material unavailable elsewhere, so no Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, no the Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs, no The Cure’s Standing on the Beach, and no New Order’s Substance. While some of these sets are marketed with the word “singles,” even in those cases they are songs that were available on LP, which makes buying a compilation trickier if you are trying to avoid redundancy. I’ve also avoided collections from artists who had much of their career before the album era, so no Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, or Patsy Cline. Buying a best-of from an artist who made their name from singles is a story for another piece.

Best-of compilations by the Doors are legion. They started with 13 in 1970 — issued just before L.A. Woman, while Jim Morrison was still alive — and 1980’s Greatest Hits became the standard until supplanted by 1985’s 2xCD The Best of the Doors. The 1972 double LP Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine isn’t one of the group’s more popular comps but it works oddly well as a set. Many of the hits are here, but there are also odd and unexpected choices that showcase the dark and strange side of the band.

The sequencing is brilliant. After opening with two iconic singles — “Break on Through (To the Other Side” and “Strange Days” — Weird Scenes downshifts to “Shaman’s Blues” from The Soft Parade, signaling that we’re in for a bizarre ride. That idiosyncratic pacing — expected songs alternating with deep cuts — is sustained for the entire record. Yes, there are lots of people who will claim you need every Doors LP. The 1967 self-titled debut is one of the defining records of the decade, and the group’s last album with Jim Morrison alive, 1971’s L.A. Woman, is stacked. But for me, the Doors conjure a mood I only return to occasionally, and Weird Scenes captures it perfectly. Two B-sides here, 1969’s “Who Scared You” and the 1971 blues cover “(You Need Meat) Don’t Go No Further,” were hard to find for years. And the trippy album art on this gatefold sleeve is a classic visual accompaniment to the Doors’ music.

Karen and Richard Carpenter made music that sounds very different depending on your perspective. During the duo’s early prime, which is captured on this set, committed rock fans saw them as easy listening schlock, the kind of music your parents liked. But there’s a rare level of craft in their music easily appreciated by, say, anyone who was a fan of the early 1970s Beach Boys. In later years, Richard Carpenter’s arrangements and Karen’s crystalline voice and virtuosic drumming were more widely celebrated among the cognoscenti. Their first compilation, which gathers their hits during their productive first phase, is a sound argument for their greatness.

Compilation sequencing doesn’t get any better than this. The Singles 1969-1973 is arranged as a suite, with an opening overture and careful edits between tracks. It starts bright (“We’ve Only Just Begun” through “Superstar”), takes a turn to melancholy in the middle (“Rainy Days and Mondays”), and finishes on a high note (“They Long To Be) Close To You”). And this is all most will ever need of the Carpenters, save a Christmas record, maybe. They released a dozen studio albums and had enough hits following this compilation to fill The Singles: 1974–1978 but nothing comes close to this set, which went multi-platinum and a top-selling LP of the 1970s.

The first half-decade of Carlos Santana’s band had a dual identity. They had singles that were played heavily on rock radio, and they also had intense extended jams that combined Latin rhythms, rock, and jazz. Santana’s Greatest Hits is a tidy encapsulation of their best song-oriented material from their first three LPs and it functions well as unified listen. This is seriously vibey music, powered by the leader’s heavenly guitar tone.

The beauty of Santana’s Greatest Hits is that it leaves off at the exact moment when you’ll want to collect the LPs. After III in 1971, the last album included here, Santana took flight as creators of epic jams, and records like 1972’s Caravanserai and the triple-live 1974 set Lotus were light on hits and heavy on instrumentals. Once you tune into the early Santana frequency, you’re going to want those, but they don’t render Greatest Hits obsolete.

Few groups have been repackaged as many times as the Beach Boys but none of their compilations is as iconic as this 2xLP set. It came out when nostalgia for the late 1950s and early ’60s was kicking into high gear (American Graffiti, whose soundtrack featured “Surfin’ Safari” and “All Summer Long,” became a hit in late 1972, and Happy Days debuted on television in January ’74, five months before Endless Summer hit shops) and it focused only on the band’s earliest years, when their hits were most plentiful. It has almost all the smashes from the pre-Pet Sounds era and also a few songs that weren’t as well know at the time but became canon because of their inclusion here (“Catch a Wave,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me”).

Hardcore Beach Boys fans sing the praises albums like their two 1965 LPs Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights) but for anyone not fitting this classification, Endless Summer is the ideal survey of their hit-filled years. From here, you can pick up the story with Pet Sounds (a record everyone should own) and 1967’s underrated Smiley Smile. Endless Summer topped the Billboard chart and wound up selling millions of copies, years after the Beach Boys had last been commercially relevant.

The first half of the ’70s was a high watermark of the rock album era and Elton John was perhaps that time’s greatest singles artist. The first of many Greatest Hits sets gathers the best of his charting songs from the period, but it took on a life of its own, eventually selling enough copies to earn an RIAA Diamond Certification. It gathers songs from his 1970 self-titled album through 1974’s Caribou and covers a huge range of stylistic ground, ranging from tender ballads (“Daniel”) to rockers (“Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting”) to atmospheric glam-pop (“Rocket Man”). The version released in the United States has “Bennie and the Jets” instead of “Candle in the Wind” and is superior.

Greatest Hits is the best-selling album of John’s career and defined him as an artist when he was operating at the peak of his powers. There are plenty of solid non-single cuts on his early LPs, but to my ears, none are essential aside from, arguably, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And if Greatest Hits doesn’t seem like quite enough 1970s Elton, there’ always the excellent 1976 set Greatest Hits Volume II.

Few artists can touch the creative run Al Green was on during the 1970s. In 1972 and 1973 alone, Green and his producer, Willie Mitchell, produced four classic albums. The combination of Green’s astonishing voice and Mitchell’s warm and earthy arrangements led to a classic soul sound with a distinct identity — it fit with what else was happening with R&B while sounding unique. Green’s 1975 Greatest Hits distills the highlights from that period into a miracle of a 10-song set.

To be real, if you collect records long enough, you’ll probably eventually want to get all of Green’s records to this point. But Greatest Hits should hold you for a while. The quality of the songs is so high it’s barely worth mentioning, but the sequencing of the set is especially notable. Every song is about love, loss, and loneliness, but the way the record is structured seems like a kind of concept album, as if we are following a single character. And while Green’s studio records often feature a handful of covers, he and his collaborators wrote every song here except the Bee Gees Song “How to Mend a Broken Heart” (Green’s version is definitive).

Creedence Clearwater Revival were one of the great singles groups in history — just look the songs, A and B-sides both, they were putting on 7-inches between 1968 and 1970. The 1976 compilation Chronicle gathers 20 of them in a tight, focused 2xLP set that has not one skippable track. It’s sequenced chronologically, which in this case works perfectly. Creedence’s no-frills production remained consistent during their run, so it feels like a single body of work, as if these songs belong together in a single set. Chronicle is the definitive statement from CCR and it spent 500 weeks on the Billboard 200.

Neil Young introduced a new kind of best-of collection with Decade, a set that gathers not only his best-known solo tunes to that point but also selections from his time in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and it includes some terrific unreleased material and revelatory notes from Young. Even if you are a Neil Young completist — guilty as charged, as of this writing I own about 40 of his LPs on vinyl — Decade is worth owning because it presents a fascinating portrait of his busy life as a recording artist. And if you’re curious about Neil but not sure where to dive in, there’s no better place to start than this 3xLP set.

During their fruitful early run, the English band Squeeze existed in spaces between scenes and sounds. They were new wave, but their songwriting owed a great deal to ’60s groups, and while they made good use of synths and drum machines, their sound was never associated with technology. They were on MTV and received some radio play in the U.S. but they never broke through into the pop mainstream the way they did in the U.K. But even if they never quite hit the big-time stateside, they had one release, the 1982 best-of Singles 45 and Under, that eventually sold a million copies.

Singles 45 and Under is a deft and charming portrait of Squeeze as a young band. It features songs from their first five albums and one, “Annie Get Your Gun,” released only as a standalone. In the 1980s, it was hard to find a college dorm room that didn’t have a copy and it remains the group’s defining statement.

Cat Stevens had retired from music by the time he released this set in 1982, and he already had one Greatest Hits set to his name, which came out in 1975. That first collection from the singer-songwriter features his biggest hits, but it’s not as essential as Footsteps. Why? The inclusion of two songs — “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” — that were composed for the soundtrack to Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold and Maude. Add to those songs used in the film including “Where Do the Children Play?”, “On the Road to Find Out,” and “Trouble” and you have a de facto soundtrack to the movie alongside a solid set of essential Cat Stevens.

For some, Kate Bush’s style of sophisticated art-rock is an acquired taste, while others turn into her frequency immediately. For those who enjoy her music but aren’t sure which release to get there’s a simple solution: The Whole Story, her first compilation, neatly encapsulates what made her special across her first five studio albums. The range of sounds on offer is stunning, from stirring new wave (“Running Up That Hill”) to string-heavy chamber pop (“Army Dreamers”) to skyscraping dramatic ballads (“Wuthering Heights”). Bush re-recorded her voice on the latter song for this set—  it was her first single, from 1978’s The Kick Inside — and the added richness of her vocals make this the stronger version. If you really fall in love with The Whole Story, you’ll want to pick up Hounds of Love, but even with that, you’ll only have a two-song overlap. And despite the range of production styles on display, this comp flows like an album.

There’s not much left to be said about Legend, which is not only Bob Marley’s best-selling release by a huge margin, but also one of the best-selling albums of all time. It is so popular, in fact, that it long ago developed a backlash as the set to get for newbies or those with no interest in the political ramifications of his music or the culture it emerged from. All fair points. But the reason Legend became so huge isn’t just because every song is killer — though it is. It’s that it was assembled with purpose and care, specifically designed to showcase Marley’s most accessible side. This means it’s heavy on songs about love and it also shows the singer-songwriter at his most melodic. Several tracks were remixed for the record to make them brighter, and the record has a way of cutting through the noise of the surrounding environment and bringing listeners closer. It doesn’t fit with our criteria of being the only Marley you need (virtually all of his albums are worth owning) but Legend has a special mood all its own.

From its title on down, this is easily one of the finest best-of collections in pop history. Madonna was on a massive roll in the 1980s but she was also artistically adventurous so her albums were rarely great front-to-back. But the highs on The Immaculate Collection are towering, and they’re arranged in such a way that once it starts, you never want to turn it off. Producer Shep Pettibone remixed all songs for the set to make them sound fuller and deeper and also to make the chronological track-listing sound unified — in virtually every case, the version of the single found here is definitive. Even the two new songs (“Rescue Me” and “Justify My Love”) are wonderful. The Immaculate Collection is the last word on the pop icon’s imperial decade.

The Swedish supergroup’s shimmering, ecstatic dance-pop found its ultimate form with the release of 1992’s Gold. It may not be the best to hear in a single sitting — for many, 72 minutes of ABBA is excessive — but it’s hard to think of a greatest hits set that is this brilliant front-to-back while also giving you everything from the artist you’ll ever need.

Design of a Decade essentially distills Janet Jackson’s 1986 Control and 1989 Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 to their diamond-hard essence. The hits from those towering achievements are accounted for and Design adds two new songs and the gorgeous “That’s the Way Love Goes” from 1993’s Janet.

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Mark Richardson
Mark Richardson is an editor, writer, manager, and cultural critic with a particular interest in the intersection of music and technology. He is currently the rock and pop music critic for the Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of Pitchfork.

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