FEATURE: The Long Fade: How the ‘Greatest Hits’ Album Has Become Near-Obsolete



The Long Fade


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

How the ‘Greatest Hits’ Album Has Become Near-Obsolete


THIS notion has been prompted by a feature I saw…



in The Guardian over the weekend. It explored the idea that, in the modern time, the concept of the artist/band ‘Greatest Hits’ album has all but died. It is interesting looking into it as, with streaming and the way music is marketed, people are listening to songs over and over for free. If you consider the last greatest hits collection you bought: I am guessing it might be a few years old by now. I think the last time I raced to get one was when Radiohead released theirs back in 2008. The eighteen-track L.P. featured music from their finest albums and, as a single source of Radiohead music; it was pretty authoritative and pleasurable! I did, of course, have a few of their albums up until that point – The Bends and OK Computer; Kid A and Amnesiac; Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows – but it was good to have all the best hits on a single disc. Some had the temerity to claim the so-called ‘best of’ was not quite up to the mark – there were notable omissions from the pack. I wonder whether that is a problem when launching your greatest hits collection: fans will be divided and there is never a consensus of what constitutes the ‘very best’. Given the fact that, in 2008, Radiohead were being talked about as near-finished and past their best days – was it a move to rekindle interest in their work? 2007’s In Rainbows was a triumph, mind: a tight and lean album of beautiful love songs that showed the band were in a league of their own.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Those who harked back to their classic albums – The Bends and OK Computer – considered In Rainbows another twist away from their best days – although In Rainbows was to be their last album that contained guitars (in a major role). The material on Radiohead’s greatest hits collection satisfied many but there are always niggles when it comes to rejecting certain songs. You cannot please anyone so I wonder, because of that, there can ever be a true ‘greatest hits’ collection? It is an interesting debate and one that divides fans. The labels and compilers are pretty savvy when it comes to collating the material – they are not going to deliberately exclude great songs and annoy the fans. I wonder whether, given the fact we can get any song at our fingertips; it is impossible pleasing those who want, in this situation, the cream of the crop?! A couple of other considerations – when looking at the greatest hits album – is what they represent. There are a few issues: the oxymoronic qualities; whether a band/artist, when releasing this album, is ending their career; a transfer to another record label – a lot of the releases are seasonal and designed to get a bit of quick revenue. You can argue whether some artists (who release greatest hits) have actually done enough to warrant that acclaim. I think Snow Patrol released their version of greatest hits – one would struggle to name a few songs of theirs that really remain in the mind!



There was a time when the biggest artists released greatest hits collections; some, if their catalogue was wide enough, produced a few volumes. It seems, at a time when there are fewer long-lasting acts; the idea of that definitive album is a thing of the past. You can talk about quality and whether a certain artist has enough decent material to warrant a greatest hits album. A lot of artists, when they put these albums out, are switching record labels and, in an attempt to get their money’s worth; the label will throw together a handful of the best songs for the fans. That sounds cynical but, in a way, it is a way of celebrating the end of one phase of their career – before embarking on the next part. Others see these albums as a way of signalling the end of a career. In Radiohead’s case; there were genuine fears they were bowing out of music. That is not the case as, in the decade since their greatest hits record; they have released two further albums – 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool is considered one of their best. In a lot of cases, it can be the impetus to reignite the spark and try something new – almost like shedding the skin or seeing how far they have come. In a lot of incidents; artists are nearing the end of the road so, in one final fling, they release their ‘best of’ to their fans.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

One of the funniest things about the greatest hits record is why artists feeling the need to put a new song into the pack. Technically, if you are giving fans your best songs; how can a brand-new song constitute as ‘greatest’ – as it is foreign and, in most cases, weak! Blur did this in 2000 when they added Music Is My Radar to the package – a song that, whilst not weak, was not exactly as statuesque as some of their classic material. Given the fact a band like Blur has more than enough genius material in their locker; it makes me wonder why they needed to toss in a new song?! Maybe a standalone single would be better; putting it on their next album? To me, that kind of inclusion signals a downturn in fortunes – they want to show they still have new material coming out but not confident it will resonate. Again, like Radiohead, Blur have put out two albums since their greatest hits – The Magic Whip was released back in 2015.  I am not sure what the fate of Blur is but, in 2000, there was an inkling things were a bit strained and not as they were. It is okay putting out these collections but is the one-shop approach to your best material an opportunity to get more money from your fans?! A lot of these albums, usually, are released near Christmas – where people are spending more – and there is that seasonable aspect. The past few years have seen fewer greatest hits collections come out, mind.



That makes me wonder whether people are favouring studio records – or if streaming has made the notion (of greatest hits) no longer financially viable. It can be quite hard asking people to shell out more money for an album that is, in essence, available on other albums. The reason I snapped up Blur and Radiohead’s greatest hits is the fact I wanted that definitive, classic collection – even if, like many, I felt there were some obvious exclusions. It is good having all the best songs together without the need to skip tracks. I feel, however, a band/artist’s best work is valid only when released in the context of a studio album. I like hearing the big hits – but only when they are surrounded by those lesser songs. It is goof building up to that epic song: the emotional hit you get cannot be described. It can be quite odd hearing all those songs from different time periods and forming a single experience. The scattershot, fragmented nature of the greatest hits album means a lot of people are sticking with studio albums. In some cases, in the past, there was that aim to get people interested in an artist – the greatest hits album was a good way of getting new fans involved and building up a new base. I feel, however, there are some artists that warrant that ‘best of’ album.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

I wonder whether, given the changing nature of consumption, people will demand single-disc collection. I feel services like Spotify are more popular because, essentially, anyone can collate their own ‘greatest hits’ – any artist from across time. There is something pleasing having a C.D./vinyl where you have the best hits of your favourite act. I remember the pleasure of owning The Beatles’ 1 – where all their number-one songs were put together. They have their ‘red’ and ‘blue’ albums – the former had all their earliest hits; the latter took it from 1965-ish to the end of their career. Maybe the nostalgia I feel is best left in the past: modern music is much more pick-and-choose. People do buy albums, of course, but we live in a time when playlists are everywhere. One can easily assemble their own assortment of songs so there is less demand for the traditional greatest hits packages. I can think of a few modern artists who, in time, should put out a greatest hits C.D./vinyl – I would like to see one from Queens of the Stone Age and Arcade Fire – but, apart from that; I am not sure whether any spring to mind. It is those legendary artists whose work needs to get to the next generation – they are primed for a single/double-disc honour. Perhaps it is a sign of a past time but I, for one, think there is something sad regarding the decline of those best of/greatest hits albums. Maybe we will see them come back in but, as digital demands dictate direction; perhaps there is no way back. Thinking about it has, at least, compelled me to spin me the greatest hits albums from Blur, The Beatles and Kate Bush…



I might dig out Radiohead’s whilst I am at it!