Greatest hits collections: Making the best of it

The greatest hits collections are coming thick and fast again. Nick Hasted reports on the annual music business bonanza
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The Independent Culture

This week's Oasis best-of album Stop the Clocks, their first ever, successfully confronts all the temptations and pitfalls the Christmas period presents to pop bands. It's the time of the greatest hits album, the safety-first gift from parents and grandparents taking their annual step into a record store, and an almost guaranteed windfall for major labels and bands.

Rather than cash in on 12 years' success, though, Noel Gallagher offers a lesson in what such a compilation can be. Fourteen of its 18, Noel-selected songs are singles, B-sides and album tracks from their first two, definitive years. With a stylish sleeve by Sgt Pepper's Peter Blake, it is a concentrated memento of Oasis at their explosive peak. Ever the canny pop student, Gallagher knew what was needed. "We said we wouldn't do it until we called it a day," he told NME. "But we got told [Sony were doing] a greatest hits. The way it's panned out, there are eight No 1 singles that aren't on it, because our singles are not our best work. This is the manifesto for future generations. It's for 15 years from now."

Stop the Clocks will jostle in the Christmas racks with The Beatles' Love (a covert greatest hits collection), George Michael's Twenty-five, U2's 18 Singles, The Sound of Girls Aloud, Paul Weller's Hit Parade and The Charlatans' Forever, among many others. Few have Gallagher's canny creative focus. But new music can be all but kissed goodbye to until the New Year, as acts either end their career with one last payday, trade on fading glories, experience unexpected revival or, just occasionally, set down a Gallagher-style generational marker; and all to fill a Christmas stocking. "They're traditionally released in the two-to- three months running up to Christmas, because that period represents 40 per cent of retail sales," explains HMV's Genarro Castaldo.

Timing your tilt at this jackpot is, though, crucial. "The tendency is to wait for two, ideally three albums," says Castaldo. "After that, the feeling is there should be enough material and credibility for an artist to bring out a best of. Really iconic bands like Oasis can wait longer. But increasingly, the fleeting nature of reality-TV fame means you can leave it too late. The classic example is the Spice Girls. Their greatest hits never came out in the end. Somehow it was left until no one cared." The Darkness, much-loved Christmas single contenders in 2004, but now seen as an embarrassing fad whose best of would seem a contradiction in terms, must know how they feel.

There is always hope, though, according to SonyBMG's catalogue boss Phil Saville. "You often need to wait till there's a feeling of nostalgia towards a band. Last year [following an ITV documentary] we put out the Take That collection Never Forget, which sold nearly a million, and was the catalyst for the [reformed and Robbie-less] tour and their new album Beautiful World out next week. People who are perceived as naff eventually become fashionable again. An ELO best-of has just gone platinum."

The Beatles, for years, embodied a steadier world. Twin 1973 double-LPs 1963-1966 and 1967-1970, the so-called "Red" and "Blue" albums, accurately selected their best work, serving as standard introductions to their back-catalogue for a decade. 1982's Greatest Hits was the next, dignified landmark. But the Nineties saw the multi-media archive-scraping of the three Anthology albums, the signal for 2000's redundant, tackily designed, financially phenomenal singles round up, 1. Similarly titled efforts from Elvis, the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson soon followed. But with 1's perceived definitiveness precluding an immediate return to The Beatles' hit gold mine, EMI have had to dig still deeper to raid their prized asset this Christmas. Love is the strangest best of yet, with George Martin and son Giles exhuming, cutting and pasting the original master-tapes of the best-loved recordings in history into fresh configurations. Tomb raid or labour of love, it is an attempt at a "new" greatest hits from a band 36 years dead. As 1 continues to sell mightily, and stimulate sales for all Beatles records, further mutant indignities will surely follow.

U2, after also biding their time during their quarter-century career, releasing an Eighties best of in 1998 and Nineties sequel in 2002, are back already with the not obviously necessary 18 Singles (a rumoured desire to leave a label they owed one more release too may be the common best-of cause). Newer, less "credible" acts see no need to be so coy. "Sugababes or Girls Aloud are a more straightforward part of the Christmas market," says Castaldo, "where you quickly run up a string of Top 10 hits, then make them available in digestible form, for younger fans. With three-to-five singles an album, it's amazing how soon they rack up, and a greatest hits becomes valid."

The Clash's The Singles box set, meanwhile recalls a time when singles had far more meaning, and the whole issue of their collection could seem morally fraught. ."The Clash's catalogue is a delicate thing," admits Saville, "which we can't over-exploit. We have to retain their credibility. [Surviving members] Mick Jones and Paul Simonon have veto, they're involved in the product from start to finish. People remember buying 'White Riot' and 'Complete Control'. The replicas were a chance to recreate that moment when you saw those sleeves for the first time in the record shop, and lovingly took them home. Which with a modern-day greatest hits album you just don't get. With digital downloads you don't even get artwork these days. The Clash were in the heyday of the seven inch, where you touched it, smelled it, then got blown away."

Then there are the real repeat offenders (see box), the likes of David Bowie and The Rolling Stones, whose careers have theoretically kept going, but depend on regular collections of old hits to sustain them. "When you move from one label to another," explains Castaldo, "inevitably you're not going to get just one compilation. It's always understood when, say, the Stones sign to a new label, that they're making all their music available, and there will be a hits package."

The best-of can also be educational, a revelatory introduction to previously dismissed acts. The classic recent example is The Beautiful South's Carry On Up the Charts (1994), which saw a band apparently on their last legs become multi-million-selling figureheads for suburban Britain on the back on an unheralded Christmas compilation. Nick Drake, utterly forgotten on his death in 1974, saw his stock gradually rise with the collections Heaven in a Wild Flower (1985) and Way to Blue (1994), till he is now a television soundtrack staple. This Christmas's REM compilation And I Feel Fine: 1982-1987, which charts their independent record label years before they signed to Warner Brothers, has also caused a reassessment of a band increasingly seen as stadium-rock bores, sending fans back to the wonders of early work such as Fables of the Reconstruction (1985).

Domino Records has been at the forefront of this educational drive. This Monday saw the release of Entomology by Josef K, a best-of by an obscure but influential post-punk Glasgow band who had no hits. It follows last year's early Orange Juice best-of, The Glasgow School. "It's that thing where bands are getting name-checked by other bands, but it's been difficult to get hold of their music," explains the label's Paul Sandell. "If you weren't in Glasgow at that time, Josef K may have passed you by. But that doesn't mean their best wasn't great." The band's one-time co-leader, Malcolm Ross, is bemused at the renewed attention. "You feel you were doing something right at least," he says. "When we were going 25 years ago, we were aware that we weren't making music just for the present. We hoped for longevity. I don't think there's much connection between us and Oasis, though," he shudders.

Now that Domino's Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys have had real Top 10 hits, of course, the label could soon be offering more traditional Christmas gifts. Sandell views the prospect of Franz's golden greats with alarm. "I don't think it would ever be a straightforward compilation of the hits. I think Alex Kapranos would insist on something more interesting."

Franz Ferdinand aren't the only musicians who might not benefit from a Christmas best of. Neil Young's 2004 Greatest Hits was roundly ignored by hardcore fans still awaiting his long-promised Archives set (rumoured to span 20 CDs), while casual consumers just didn't care. Other musicians simply view such collections as selling out, and have the clout to get their way. "There's not a greatest hits for Radiohead, is there?" Castaldo notes. "And you wonder if that would ever happen, because you can't imagine Thom Yorke would sanction it. And because the record company is mindful of that relationship, they would respect his views."

Digital downloading, meanwhile, means best ofs as we know them today may soon be extinct. "I got into The Doors, The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who by buying best ofs," Noel Gallagher told NME. "But I'm not sure what they mean in our age of playlists and iPods. I'm sure somebody somewhere has got the exact tracklisting of Stop the Clocks on their playlist already. I'm not sure they're a big deal any more." SonyBMG's Saville disagrees. "For a certain, older generation, people will still want to buy a greatest hits CD. There's also a new generation coming along who want to pick their own greatest hits, which they can do with iTunes."

Whether you pick out a pleasingly tattyGolden Hour of The Kinks LP from the back of a charity shop, buy Stop the Clocks at a megastore, or stumble across a fan's playlist in cyberspace, the appeal of finding a band's best in one place is unlikely ever to diminish.

HAVEN'T WE BEEN HERE BEFORE?

THE ROLLING STONES: 13 compilations

The Stones were exploiting their early singles as far back as Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) (1966). Sucking in the Seventies (1981) tipped the wink to subsequent decline, Forty Licks (2002) put their career in one place.

DAVID BOWIE: 11

Bowie has offered up 11 best-ofs. ChangesOneBowie (1976) and, yes, ChangesTwoBowie (1981), snapshots of a career still in motion, were superseded by the definitive The Singles Collection (1993).

BOB DYLAN: 7

Bob's vast catalogue is best served by the box-set Biograph (1985).

THE BEATLES: 4

A few budget compilations and 1982's 20 Greatest Hits aside, fans of the Fab Four (and Paul McCartney, right) happily made do with the "Red" and "Blue" albums, till Live at the BBC (1994) hit No 1, making 1 (2000) inevitable. Now, of course, the floodgates are wide open.

THE BEACH BOYS: 18

Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds-based claim on God-like genius has been kept at bay by 18 surfing hit collections.

PINK FLOYD: 2

1971's Syd Barrett-era Relics aside, the Floyd didn't go much for singles. Making Echoes: The Best of... Christmas 2001's main event.

U2: 3

Restrained till The Best of 1980-1990 (1998). Now 18 Singles is their third in eight years.

JAMES BROWN: 36

Approximately, and inevitably for the Godfather of Soul, a pure singles artist. The box-set Star Time (1991) is the best bet.

PAUL WELLER: 6

The Jam, Style Council and solo years offered multiple best-of opportunities. Hit Parade represents all Weller's guises.

THE STONE ROSES: 3

One classic album, one dud. Three best-ofs.

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