- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2007

NEW YORK

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.

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