Before we dive in, let us briefly examine what makes a Greatest Hits truly worthy of its vaunted moniker. Personally, I own four separate Otis Redding compilations, but he does not make the list. Before you come at me with pitchforks, hear me out. Redding, while both amazing and essential, did not have a career long enough (1963-1967) to best encapsulate his stature as both a singer and songwriter. As a singles artists, his songs are ones to return to again and again. However, their progress and growth are best illustrated in one of the numerous Stax Records collections. Outside of these Greatest Hits, you really should own at least one Atlantic, Stax, and Motown collection to insure you have the most exemplary output from those publishing/production houses.
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS
As one of the best selling artists of all time (75 million records sold,) Bob Marley singlehandedly brought Reggae to the masses. Consider that Jamaican music was revolutionized in the 1960's when a combination of political influence and the far-away radio signals out of New Orleans codified Ska music into a genre that is truly defined by a rhythmic shift (beats on the 3.) Marley's career begins as Ska is peaking in 1963 and catches fire ten years later. "Legend" is a true rulebreaker. It retraces a career that grew in leaps and bounds from album-to-album out of chronological sequence. Its inclusion of a live version of "No Woman No Cry" led to its preference over the studio track. Finally, right beside Marley's biggest singles ("Could You Be Loved" and "I Shot The Sheriff") are his deepest personal songs ("Three Little Birds" and "Redemption Song" - both of which will grow in reverence over years to come.) "Legend" is indispensable.
Unlike the other R&B magnets, Al Green was the dominant force of Soul music for Willie Mitchell's Hi Records and in the Seventies while other artists (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) preferred album-long statements. From 1969-1976, Green continued to breathe life into the notion that Soul music was the axis that Pop radio revolved around. Where Top 40 radio went in all directions (Bubblegum giving way to Soft Rock, Hard Rock becoming more palatable as AOR and Country growing polished enough to top the charts too,) Soul stars were forced to change. Green sang like the voices of old; Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, and James Brown. Unlike Motown's Funk Brothers or even the mighty Wrecking Crew where singers always had to rise to match their professionalism. Mitchell's band percolated behind Green, allowing the two entities to continue to raise the bar (and the heat) on single after single from 1969-1976. Even more significant is the organization of tracks. The ten cuts are aligned as if they are telling a story, we travel from 1971's "Tired of Being Alone" and end with 1974's "Let's Get Married."
The Essential Miles Davis
This was the hardest decision to make. Choosing a single compilation to represent Jazz is impossible. John Coltrane's run of albums was amazing. Duke Ellington's compositions remain incredible. However, a Jazz compilation needs to serve two purposes: encapsulate the growth of Jazz and feature as many necessary performers as possible. Davis begins playing Bebop with Charlie Parker ("Now's The Time"), then brings into focus Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Philly Jo Jones, John McLaughlin, Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams. As much as I could fuss about the exclusions, I will not because every Miles Davis fan takes a different route through his vast catalog. With the exception of "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down" and "My Funny Valentine," the cuts are all a manageable length thus allow you to cleanse your palate with a selection from nearly forty years of classic albums.
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS
Anthology: Through The Years
[IMPORT CD](Warner Bros.)
If you stumble into 2CD import collection, get it. While all Petty hits packages have their draw, none cuts the widest swath and gets it right. The classic 1CD "Greatest Hits" was significant in its time because it included the new single "Mary Jane's Last Dance." However, this races through the catalog just like a fan would. "Anthology" absolutely captures the early years keeping the singles next to deep cuts (the majestic "The Wild One, Forever.") Next, what we will call "The MTV Years" plays like a dream set from a lot of albums that are worth seeking out but far from necessities (the rousing "Rebels" from "Southern Accents" and the underrated beauty of "Two Gunslingers" from "Into The Great Wide Open.") Finally, if that simply was not enough, "Anthology" winds up with "Surrender," one of the most beautiful B-sides you have never heard.
Greatest Hits (UK version)
Even before "Bohemian Rhapsody" brought Queen back to the forefront of Classic Rock adoration, their simple 1981 "Greatest Hits" album was astounding. Stringing their singles and standouts from 1974-1980 together was necessary to catch and maintain that euphoria that possesses each and every Queen fan. Much like "Legend," "Greatest Hits" is far away from any logical organization. First things first, it shatters the rule by opening with a showstopper - "Bohemian Rhapsody" (which closes "A Night at the Opera.") Then it just lets the hits strike like lightning ("Fat Bottomed Girls" stays paired with "Bicycle Race," but the dramatic "Play The Game" and "Flash" give you a continuous rise and fall.) The hardest part is that US version marked the first inclusion of the mercurial and masterful "Under Pressure" with David Bowie. However, to get that you have to lose "Save Me," "Now I'm Here" and their true breakthrough "Seven Seas of Rhye."
Standing on A Beach
Very few of the early Alternative bands have released must-have singles collections. R.E.M's "Eponymous" should be side-by-side with the weirdness they captured on the odds and sods collection "Dead Letter Office." The Replacements stretched the bounds of everything as "All For Nothing/Nothing For All" split their weirdness into two separate discs even though their live set veered from song to cover to song like a drunk took over your CD player at a party (they did correct it later on 2006's "Don't You Know Who You Think I Was" and Westerberg's "Besterberg" whose liner notes are some of the funniest ever written.) The blueprint of all Alternative/Indie greatest hits is 1986's Cure collection. First of all, they had no hits. Every single is beautifully organized to take you through their numerous caterpillar phases (nervy punk "10:15 Saturday Night"; deep Goth "A Forest"; psychedelia ("Charlotte Sometimes.")
The true miracle of "Staring at the Sea" is that organized in chronological order, The Cure gets away with everything. The loud, blistering percussive "The Hanging Garden" fits perfectly with the twee danceable Pop of "Let's Go To Bed." By the time, they nail down the three most essential songs from 1985's essential "The Head on the Door," you never want them to update this compilation to add what you know came next. BONUS: The original cassette release in 1986 titled "Standing on a Beach" gave you every B-side to their singles. Masterful.
CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL
To me, CCR are America's Beatles. Argue as you wish, but please hear me out. Creedence sold 28 million records on the basis of singles. Their albums are fantastic. Classic. Must have. However, during the four years they peaked, they carried ailing Top 40 radio. Just like the Beatles in their early years, Creedence came out with a series of songs that sounded familiar yet foreign. Swamp Rock from California? John Fogerty's pained yowl was descendent of bashing the Blues around. "Suzie Q" and "Green River" will forever be party jams no matter what season. "Fortunate Son" and "Who'll Stop The Rain" are those rare protest songs that sound both of their time and of all time. The downhome grooves of "Down on the Corner" and "Lookin' Out My Back Door" could even qualify as Country. Oh sure, I still want "Effigy," the blistering "Walk On The Water" and question how "Born on the Bayou" could be omitted (it was the B-side to "Proud Mary.") Like a Presidential administration, Creedence's four years were responsible for 13 Gold or Platinum singles. Just like the Fab Four circa 1963 refocused our attention on traditional Rock music after a couple of years of splintering, at a time when conflict threatened to tear the fabric of this nation,
Creedence pounded out single after single without ever abandoning what made their music uniquely American.
1967-1970 (Blue Album)
To isolate the entire necessary set of Beatles music one would truly need to own would honestly take seven albums. Beatles music is so difficult to pre-select and pigeonhole because they wrote music at a time when the boardroom and marketing firms were locked out. So, for that reason, I choose the second Greatest Hits set from the Beatles because it shows John, Paul, George and Ringo with absolute freedom. These singles, anomalies and B-sides are laced together with a sense of time in mind. However, once you begin the whirling beauty of "Strawberry Fields Forever," there is simply no hope of doing anything but surrendering to the Beatles. Seven albums would be too much. But two is just right. "1967-1970" is the Greatest Hits as a journey. The short sequence of four songs from Sgt. Pepper serve as a mini-suite, and then following it will the even more wistful "All You Need Is Love" feels unreal. Next, once you recover from the ornate "Magical Mystery Tour" suite, the Beatles begin to strip their music back down to its elemental core. "Lady Madonna" chugs along, "Hey Jude" feels reverent and sincere and "Revolution" remains their late career clarion call. While "1962-1966" is just as essential, "1967-1970" really feels like you get to relive a time that has passed.
There is a reason every couple of years you hear talk among Neil Young fans about "Decade II." It rests in this mammoth three-LP set from 1977 that believe it or not did not break Billboard's Top 40 Albums. Why "Decade?" Much like "Staring at the Sea," Young did not have a lot of hits to feature, so he stitched everything he had together to give listeners an idea of what it is like to chase that muse. "Decade" beautifully covers his involvement in Buffalo Springfield (plays with the group on the previously unreleased "Down To The Wire" before winding up by himself on the soaring yet sad "Expecting to Fly.)" If you never had the single of "The Loner" (don't worry, it missed the Hot 100 by a mile), you never heard its wistful yet wanting B-side "Sugar Mountain." That is where "Decade" works, these songs are brought together to paint a picture of Neil Young writing from both his yin and his yang (later, he will satisfy this need by making an entire grinding Rock album, then switching gears and go straight Country.) "Decade" brings Young into focus far better than his albums do in reality. "Winterlong" and "Love is A Rose" were somehow left off of albums. "Campaigner" thankfully led Young back into his voluminous archive to find complete recordings he had simply cast aside. "Decade" is most revered because it predated the box sets of the end of the century. So again, why no "Decade II"? Because "Decade" cannot be topped.
Now, a brief sidebar.
Why no Rap/Hip-Hop? I tried to find a Greatest Hits that would work. Honestly, the best Hip-Hop acts, the ones that live on in the annals of history are there for their albums. N.W.A. gets two albums before disintegrating. Notorious B.I.G. has two major albums before he was gunned down. A Tribe Called Quest and Run DMC really get three. Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys probably came the closest. When Jay-Z and Kanye West make Greatest Hits those would likely be spectacular. Only in the last few years have Hip-Hop artists expressed an interest in singles, with the plethora of mixtapes and releases - these artists always seem to want their entire albums to make statements for them.
Why no Country? That was a hard one. So many Country artists have lengthy careers with twists and turns. If permitted, I stand by three honorable mentions.
Johnny Cash whose Legacy collection "The Essential Johnny Cash" comes close but completely (for licensing purposes) omits his American Recordings years. Waylon Jennings has a massive run of hits in the Seventies, but most collection overlook the great singles from the Sixties that showed his foresight.
And Willie Nelson whose singles stretch all the way back to 1962 and very few collections choose to show how he got his start writing for other singers.
The Immaculate Collection
The impact of Madonna continues to be underestimated by most. Believe it or not, this is the best selling "Greatest Hits" album of all. 30 million copies of "Immaculate Collection" have been sold since its release in 1990. However, that is not why it makes the list. It makes the list because it is a remarkable achievement for an artist who dominated all media ("Justify My Love" was banned by MTV and the video shown and then debated on "Nightline," Madonna's book was all the talk of bookstores everywhere at the time,) outlasted all the controversy and made timeless Pop. "Into The Groove" had never been on an album before. And sure "La Isla Bonita" has not aged well and "Rescue Me" feels a little like an also-ran. However, that heroic run of singles remains unstoppable even to this day. "Lucky Star" oozes Modern funk-laced Electronic. "Like a Virgin" set the stage for every teen ingenue who suddenly discovers she is a woman (and will until the end of time.) "Like a Prayer" has outgrown the Pepsi ad and its heavy-handed video to become a deeply spiritual song. "Express Yourself" is forever the anthem of female empowerment. In the end, Madonna always has the last laugh. Everytime you doubt her, or you think she just a cultural flash-in-the-pan, or you heard she has just released another new song, "The Immaculate Collection" is here to confirm that Madonna is a part of each and every one of us.