The 7 Rules Of Greatest Hits Packages

Last week, U2 issued its third greatest hits package, U218.  I was very annoyed.  (Check out “U2 Are Ripping Off Their Fans” to find out why.)  While thinking about that today I was reminded of something I’ve been wanting to talk about on here for quite some time:  Greatest hits packages.

To me, they’re the Reader’s Digest of music careers.  Each one tells the condensed version of an artist’s career through their hit songs.  And every story is different and unique.

But far too often, artists screw up their hits packages.  They tinker with a basic, successful formula time and time again which turns off music lovers and I’m sure inspires a number of them to either create their own greatest hits CD by picking the tracks they really want and then burning them on a blank disc or simply downloading them for their iPod.

What is this “basic, successful formula” I speak of?  Well, it’s a series of timeless rules that under no circumstances should ever be broken.  When an artist follows these rules to the T, music fans are happy.  (Ok, I’m happy.)  Here now, revealed for the first time, is how you make the perfect greatest hits package.

Rule #1:  No New Songs

How many times have you looked at the track listing for a greatest hits album only to discover something utterly disturbing?  Chances are it’s because of one reason:  a brand new song.  There’s nothing more obnoxious than an artist offering you all their hits on one CD, plus one new song.  Why, oh, why do they do this?  To convince you to pay 20 bucks or more for all the songs you already own, just so you can get that extra track.  The list of offenders is long and egregious:  The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Lenny Kravitz, Def Leppard, Placebo, The Police, Alanis Morissette, Weird Al Yankovic, Depeche Mode and many, many others.

Then, there are the artists who put 2 or more new songs on their hits packages.  (That’s what U2 did for U218.)  Van Halen, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones put 4 new songs on their retrospectives.  Why didn’t they just save those songs for a new album?

Not everybody does this.  Iggy Pop’s first compilation, Nude & Rude, doesn’t offer anything new.  Neither does Echo & The Bunnymen on their terrific release, Ballyhoo, nor Guns N’ Roses on their 2004 Greatest Hits album.  Every Rush hits package that I know of offers no new recordings, either.  The first Red Hot Chili Peppers compilation, 1992’s What Hits!?!, wisely didn’t throw in any unreleased material.  Even Garth Brooks respected his fans enough to put out a hits set with no exclusive songs.  That would be 1994’s The Hits.

Leave it to The Beatles to set the standard with their hits albums.  In 1973, their record company issued 2 double albums which are better known as The Red Album and The Blue Album.  Every single hit they ever had in their entire career is documented in those two terrific releases.  And guess what?  There were no new songs, either.  They weren’t necessary.  (Come to think of it, they were all too pissed off at each other at the time to even think of doing such a thing.)

I hate to say it but the only other band that has gotten it absolutely right is Creed.  Yes, Creed.  Not too long after they broke up, we got their Greatest Hits package in 2004.  No new songs, just the hits, which leads me to the next rule…

Rule #2:  Include ALL The Hits

How many times have you picked up a greatest hits CD only to discover your favourite hit isn’t on the disc?  This happens all the time.  U2 are notorious for this.  For their first hits package, The Best Of 1980-1990, for some odd reason, they left off Two Hearts Beat As One, one of the big singles from War.  Bullet The Blue Sky, a radio hit from The Joshua Tree, and A Sort Of Homecoming from The Unforgettable Fire, were excluded as well.  Gloria from October failed to make the cut, also.  And while it would’ve been nice to have some of their early non-album singles like A Celebration and 11 O’Clock Tick Tock included in the release, as well, I can understand them not including them because they weren’t hits.  I still would’ve liked having them on that CD, though.

When it came time to follow up that release with The Best Of 1990-2000, there were so many hits to choose from they probably should’ve put together a double hits package.  They didn’t and as a result, a lot of worthy singles were excluded from the release.

Remember, hits aren’t always found on studio albums.  Remember Cheap Trick’s Live Version of I Want You (To Want Me)?  That was on Live At Budokon, recorded during a famous concert in Japan.  Remember Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me by U2?  That was on the Batman Forever Soundtrack.  And what about Pearl Jam’s cover of Last Kiss, which was a surprise Top 10 hit in 1999?  That was from a benefit album called No Boundaries.

And then, there are the songs that were only available as singles.  The Jean Genie by David Bowie comes to mind.  (March 27, 2012 CORRECTION:  Actually, it appeared on the Aladdin Sane album in a slightly remixed form.  My bad.)  Any song of yours that was a hit, whether it was on one of your albums or not, must go on your hits package.  No exceptions.

I mentioned Creed a minute ago.  If you look at the track listing for their Greatest Hits album, you’ll notice they included everything, all the big songs from their three studio albums.  (I don’t believe they had any non-album hits.)  And not only that, they even added a DVD to the package which includes videos and live performances.  Like The Beatles, they got it right, too.

Rule #3:  Never Include An Edited Version Or Remix Unless It Was A Hit In Its Own Right And/Or It Is The Superior Version Of The Song

Again, U2 has some explaining to do.  How many people were happy to hear cut-off versions of Miss Sarajevo, Where The Streets Have No Name and New Year’s Day on Best Of 1990-2000 and Best Of 1980-1990, respectively, instead of the full length versions that were played on the radio?  Didn’t think so.  Speaking of Best Of 1990-2000, why were a number of hits on that record given new mixes for the release?  The originals weren’t good enough or something?

David Bowie’s single disc version of Best Of Bowie is loaded with radio edits.  A number of songs off The Stones’ Forty Licks are shorter than they should be.  In those cases, for the most part, that was done because of time limitations on their respective CDs.  (One CD can only hold 80 minutes of music.)  I can live with that.  But what’s U2’s excuse?

There’s only one time I want to hear an alternate version of a hit single on a hits package:  when it’s the more popular and/or superior version of the song.  Examples:  The Jimmy The Saint Remix of Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know, Trent Reznor’s remix of David Bowie’s I’m Afraid Of Americans, the radio edit of Seal’s Prayer For The Dying.

Rule #4:  If You Must Add New Songs And Rarities, Have So Many Of Them They Have To Be Put On A Second Disc

Prince seemed to have started this 13 years ago.  In 1993, his then-record company, Warner Bros., issued The Hits/The B-Sides which featured 2 discs worth of his big singles plus a terrific third disc of non-album cuts, many of which had never appeared on CD before.  (They also offered the 2 hits discs as separate releases – The Hits 1, The Hits 2 – but the triple disc set is far superior.)  Also, if you check out Ultimate Prince, another singles compilation, this one from 2006, you’ll notice that the second disc features non-album remixes.  He was on to something.  (Or, maybe it was Warner Bros who deserve the credit.)

Remember HIStory by Michael Jackson?  Disc one featured nothing but hits.  Disc two was a brand new studio record.  In retrospect, there should’ve been an option to buy them separately.  (Indeed, there are now numerous Jackson hits packages available for those who still don’t want to hear his 1995 material.)

U2 did something cool for their two previous greatest hits albums.  They put out special limited edition versions that came with a second disc of B-sides, and in the case of The Best Of 1990-2000, remixes, as well.  It was a nice gesture for those who wanted to hear the non-album side of U2.  The Smashing Pumpkins did the same thing in 2001.

Other artists like throwing in a bonus DVD instead of B-sides and that’s fine, too.  The Very Best Of Sheryl Crow is a good example.  On her DVD, you get a ton of her videos and while watching them you can drool all over her as often as you’d like.  (I could do that all day long.)  I mentioned earlier that Creed did something similiar.

But the best examples of this idea come courtesy of Stone Temple Pilots and Sloan.  Both STP’s Thank You compilation and Sloan’s A-Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 have special editions that include bonus DVDs packed with about 3 or 4 hours of material each.  If you can’t follow Rules 1-3, which nonetheless should never be broken, honour Rule #4 instead.  A worthy bonus disc of music or DVD Video is a tantalizing offer few can refuse.  Including me.

Rule #5:  Never Put Out A Greatest Hits Package Unless You Have Enough Hits To Fill At Least One Disc

I’m looking at you, Better Than Ezra, King’s X, Nick Cave, and all you other performers who don’t understand that you have to earn the right to release a greatest hits record.  If you don’t have enough songs that people remember from Television and/or the radio, get back to work cranking out more hits.  If you must put out a compilation of previously released songs, even though you don’t have many hits, please call it something other than Greatest Hits.  The Best Of… is a good substitute.

Rule #6:  Never Add “Volume One” Or “Part One” To The Title Of Your Hits Package Unless You Know For A Fact You’re Going To Have More Hits In The Future

It’s always a bad idea to assume you’ll still be successful after you release a CD of your hits.  It’s even worse to express this feeling in the title of your hits package.  Any time you see the words “Vol. 1” or “Part 1” after “Greatest Hits” or “The Best Of…”, it’s an outright guarantee that these performers will never have enough new hits to justify releasing a follow-up.  It’s like their ego gets the best of them and they can’t keep their hot streak going.  R.E.M., Madonna, The Rolling Stones, U2, Depeche Mode and The Red Hot Chili Peppers could’ve done this themselves but refused.  Is it any wonder then that they all have had enough hits to persuasively put out more than one hits package?

I’m wagging my finger at the following guilty parties for breaking Rule #6:  Van Halen, Korn, Hall & Oates, which leads me to the next rule…

Rule #7:  Never Put The Same Hits On Any Two Greatest Hits Packages

U2 broke this rule with U218.  12 of the hits on that record were already on either of the two previous Best Of.. releases.  Other repeat offenders include Bryan Adams, The Police, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Iggy Pop, Hall & Oates, Van Halen, Prince and countless others who have recycled their best known repertoire over and over again because none of them had enough new hits to warrant putting together another hits package.  I can understand Iggy Pop, Bryan Adams and Van Halen releasing expanded versions of their earlier compendiums (2 discs instead of the original 1) but wouldn’t it have been best to have gotten it right the first time?  The greed of bands and their record companies know no bounds.

Musicians and record companies, memorize these rules.  Deviate from them at your own peril.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, November 26, 2006
6:46 p.m.

Published in: on November 26, 2006 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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