- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Aside effect of today’s fractured, tumultuous music industry is the fluctuating meaning of the greatest-hits album.

On one hand, it remains a giant moneymaker for labels, which are urging their artists to make best-of compilations increasingly earlier in their careers. On the other, ITunes has made greatest-hits albums redundant. If you want an act’s highlights, you can assemble them yourself.

This dichotomy has, for some bands, made the decision to make a best-of album an increasingly difficult, sometimes contentious one. Some view greatest-hits albums as blatant money grabs that disrespect the integrity of the album. Pressure from labels also can come sooner than expected.

The Sacramento, Calif., band Cake (its hits include “The Distance” and “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”) was requested by its former label, Columbia Records, to make a greatest-hits album. With just a handful of well-known albums to its name, the band judged a best-of disc to be premature. Band members refused, prompting a legal fight between Cake and Columbia.

In the end, Cake left to form its own label, Upbeat Records, and will instead release “B-sides and Rarities” on Oct. 2, with a live disc to follow this fall.

“I have mixed feelings about greatest-hits albums,” says Cake lead singer and guitarist John McCrea. “They’re a force that can be used for good or evil.”

“For us at that point, we felt like it wasn’t the appropriate moment — that we hadn’t existed long enough to warrant some sort of wistful retrospection. It kind of reeked of desperation.”

A number of acts in recent years have released greatest-hits albums early in their careers, including Britney Spears, Hilary Duff and Sugar Ray.

Though the advent of ITunes (not to mention illegal downloading and MySpace) has meant a band’s most popular songs can be sampled instantly or bought, greatest-hits discs remain lucrative to labels. In recent Nielsen SoundScan sales charts, at least half of the 50 top-selling catalog albums typically are compilations.

Labels often add rare unreleased material or unique packaging to these albums to entice die-hard fans. The albums also are viewed as a way to introduce audiences to an act with which they may be unfamiliar.

Still, there are several notable holdouts, including AC/DC, Radiohead, Phish and Metallica. Many artists feel greatest-hits discs corrupt the integrity of their previous albums. For the same reason, Radiohead and AC/DC thus far have resisted putting their music on ITunes, where albums are chopped into single tracks.

It’s a stance Chris Lombardi, founder of the independent label Matador Records, often encounters.

“I’ve been trying to encourage some of our bands to do greatest-hits records, but I think artistically they have a real difficult time taking away the identity of the album as it stands alone,” Mr. Lombardi says.

Many of the artists on Matador’s roster haven’t had hits in the conventional sense but could benefit from having highlights assembled to make it easier for the more passive music fan. In 2003, Matador released “The Best of Guided by Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates” — a sensible collection for Guided by Voices, whose prodigious output included 16 full-length albums.

“I felt the output was so huge for that band that to narrow it down would be helpful,” Mr. Lombardi says. “Somebody might be intimidated by the size of the catalog.”

Whether a label needs the consent of an act to issue a compilation varies from contract to contract. Catalog sales account for approximately 40 percent to 50 percent of a label’s annual gross, so rereleasing and repackaging old material is far more than an afterthought.

“If an artist has a say in these kind of things, you’d think that they’d want a greatest-hits record to be an intro to the band as a way to guide you into buying the rest of the records as opposed to being a substitute,” says Steve Kandell, deputy editor of Spin magazine.

Some greatest-hits records take on a life of their own — such as the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975),” which is the best-selling album ever in the U.S. Similarly, Bob Marley’s “Legend” was (and still is) a sensation. It spent 106 straight weeks atop the Nielsen SoundScan catalog chart.

Other bands, including U2 and Aerosmith, have been criticized for their seemingly unceasing parade of greatest-hits albums. U2 followed 1998’s “The Best of 1980-1990” and 2002’s “The Best of 1990-2000” with 2006’s “U218 Singles.” Last year’s “Devil’s Got a New Disguise: The Very Best of Aerosmith” was the band’s eighth compilation over the course of its 27-year career.

“There’s a reason why it doesn’t seem very artistic: It’s not. It’s a commercial ploy,” Mr. McCrea says. “That said, there are some terrific greatest-hits albums.”

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