Graham: Greatest hits sets still hanging on

Compilation albums in the era of Spotify? They've still got a place, just look at the charts

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

There's a scene near the end of "Lady Bird" where a suitor of our fair heroine is flipping through her album collection and deriding her broad collection of greatest hits CDs. 

"But they're the greatest," Lady Bird argues, the way any non-cooler-than-thou music fan would. "What's wrong with that?" 

Reggae musician Bob Marley’s “Legend” has been on the Billboard 200 chart (No. 58) for more than more than 10 years.

Greatest hits collections have never gotten much respect. Detractors say they're soulless cash grabs, a drive-by on an artist's career.

But for decades they have propped up the music industry's bottom line and given fans a one-stop shop for what they really wanted from a musical act: the hits.  

And today, even as the record industry has suffered devastating losses and shifted toward streaming models, greatest hits sets still serve as a destination for consumers. 

On this week's Billboard 200 chart, 32 hits sets make the list, from Michael Jackson's "Essential" collection (No. 33) to Elton John's "Diamond" set (No. 82) to Simon and Garfunkel's best-of (No. 195). 

Eminem's latest album "Revival" isn't anywhere on the chart, but his 2005 singles collection "Curtain Call: The Hits" is, at No. 69. The album has been on the Billboard 200 for an astonishing 402 weeks, or nearly eight years.

Bob Marley's "Legend" (No. 58) has been on the chart even longer, 531 weeks, or more than 10 years. 

The charts are dotted by compilations from legendary rappers (2Pac's greatest is No. 93, Biggie's best is No. 140), classic rockers (Journey at No. 72, Bob Seger at No. 113, the Eagles at Nos. 127 and No. 156), alt-rock acts (Red Hot Chili Peppers at No. 142, Foo Fighters at No. 150) and country acts, both current (Zac Brown at 87, Carrie Underwood at 191) and from yesteryear (Alan Jackson, No. 159).

For consumers, the allure is obvious.

Since they arrived in the 1950s -- Johnny Mathis' "Greatest Hits" is largely recognized as the first greatest hits set -- hits compilations have helped listeners contextualize artists by offering an overview of their careers.

Fans driving home from "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" who have "Dancing Queen" stuck in their heads are more likely to gravitate toward the Swedish hitmakers' "Gold" set (No. 86) than they are the band's studio albums "Waterloo," "Arrival" or "Voulez-Vous." "Gold's" got everything you want, except for Colin Firth singing. 

The Eagles' "Their Greatest Hits 1971 - 1975" was not only a primer on the band, it became the best-selling album in history, moving north of 29 million copies. Sure, you don't get "Chug All Night," but many listeners only wanted "Desperado" and "Hotel California" anyway. And their inclusion on the set made them even bigger hits over time. 

Yet the industry's gravitation toward streaming in recent years has democratized bands' catalogs, and the curious can now dial up "Chug All Night" just as easily as "Hotel California."

In that way, the role of greatest hits albums has shifted, with less need for them to curate a fan's listening experience. Now fans can just go to an artist's Spotify page -- which is essentially organized like a greatest hits collection -- and call up the most listened-to tracks, or dig into the deep cuts if they want. 

With that, fewer young artists are issuing greatest hits sets these days; Drake has charted 186 songs on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart and has yet to put out a hits comp, and Paramore has released five studio albums without an official singles collection.

So labels are no longer focusing their efforts on recycling artists' catalogs, the way they used to every holiday season with endless hits repackagings. (Elton John is great and all, but dude's got more hits compilations than most artists have albums.)  

But as evidenced by their continued chart presence, greatest hits sets still serve a purpose. When Tom Petty died last year, it wasn't "Wildflowers" or "Full Moon Fever" that rocketed up the charts, but Petty's 1993 "Greatest Hits," which flew all the way up to No. 2, a new chart high for the set.

And sets like Madonna's "Celebration" and Prince's "The Hits" serve as perfect entry points to their expansive careers.

After all, by design, they're the greatest. Lady Bird would be proud.

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