The 25 Greatest Greatest Hits Albums from the Golden Age of Greatest Hits Albums
There was a time when the Greatest Hits (GH) album meant something more than just the yearly repackaging and re-marketing of an artist’s most bankable material. Today, if you look at any reasonably well-known artist's discography you'll find more career compilations than you will original albums. But it wasn’t always this way. You may be too young to remember, but the GH used to be a crucial part of an artist’s catalog. A well-assembled, thoughtfully-curated compilation often became as iconic as some of the artist’s original records. They were what people grew up with and were schooled on. As rock and roll got older and older, they became even more important. They were a part of the musical maturation process. The reasons for this are relatively obvious:
Most people couldn’t make their own compilation back then. To make your own, you’d have to have all the albums or know someone who did. You'd need a working tape deck. And, most crucially, the judgment to pick the artist's best songs.
Let's face it, most artists didn't have enough good songs to pack a record with end-to-end quality, hence, we got lots of filler, too little killer.
Hits collections were treated as a part of the artist's canon. Why would the Beatles need a compilation, you say? Because it would act as an entry point for new fans and as a side-benefit, helps fans with all the albums to boil the down the best songs into one convenient location (and better yet, to buy the same music more than once!).
Indeed, they still make Greatest Hits albums these days, but they are of far less use these days. Many of them are well put together, too. Often, though, it's just a blatant money grab in lieu of new product availability. It was back then, of course, but now it reeks of desperation and greed more outwardly. Proof? The time between the first GH and the new, improved, reprocessed, remastered version (with one unreleased bonus track) is shrinking—sometimes even created simultaneously! There are now so many versions of a band's GH available that it is impossible to navigate amongst them. Indulge me in a short case study using the band Foreigner, a pretty reliable hit-making band back in the day, but in no way on the A-list from a historical perspective. (As you read, keep this fact in mind: Foreigner has released only nine studio albums to date.)
Foreigner Compilation Discography (Abridged, sadly)
1992 The Very Best of Foreigner
1992 The Very Best…And Beyond
1993 Classic Hits Live
1998 Best of Ballads
2000 Jukebox Heroes: The Foreigner Anthology
2001 The Platinum Collection
2002 Complete Greatest Hits (Rhino)
2004 Hot Blooded and Other Hits
2005 The Essentials
2006 The Definitive Collection (2CD)
2008 No End in Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner
2009 Can't Slow Down (new record w/ remixes of their GH: Walmart exclusive)
2010 The Very Best of Chicago & Foreigner
2011 Extended Versions
2011 Jukebox Heroes: The Very Best of Foreigner (2CD)
2014 I Want to Know What Love Is: The Ballads
2014 The Hits Unplugged
2016 Playlist: The Very Best of Foreigner
Holy christ on a stick. Here’s a quick rundown of the atrocities perpetrated against the American people to date by Foreigner’s record labels. The first collection, Records, was in its day a hugely popular recap of the band’s hits to date and it remains the iconic compilation in the band’s discography. The one everybody (and I mean everybody) had. It was perfectly timed with no filler or excess (although it mystifyingly omitted "Blue Morning, Blue Day"). It even had a pretty cool cover concept, too, which is also a dying art. Another benefit was the fact Records was compiled pre-" I Want to Know What Love Is," inarguably the song playing when the band officially jumped the shark in 1984. The Very Best from 92 corrects the "Blue Morning" error and, for you hopeless saps out there, adds the infamous “IWTKWLI" for good measure. I’ll begrudgingly allow it, and that should've been the end of the story right there—all the essentials and their biggest shmatlzy hit in one convenient package. Everybody’s happy. But no, this is where it goes off the rails. The longer version from 92 is an undeserved and bloated double-disc smorgasbord—you do not need to sample every dish at this buffet. Perhaps the most painful item here is the ballads-only disc from 98, which should be considered a felony—all involved should be stabbed in the heart. The 2000 Anthology is an egg-sucking 38 songs (at least 21 too many). The Platinum disc is an atrocity of duplicity (a great heavy metal album title free of charge). The 2002 collection is truly complete and definitive because Rhino was setting the standard for artist compilations at the time and it shows considerable thought, adds historical perspective, and sounds better, too. We’ll call this "The Rhino Exception." (That said, Rhino is not infallible. Their 2 disc 40-song Cars anthology omitted "Bye Bye Love" of all things, arguably their best song.) Everything post-Rhino is musical rape and pillage of innocent commoners. 2008's No End in Sight says it all in its title. But things got much worse from there with the advent of the store-specific compilation—in this case a Walmart-only deal that included a new record that nobody wanted or needed plus inexplicable remixes of all their hits to form a, gulp, three-disc package of vomit. Extended Versions were longer versions of hit songs sung by a new lead singer—this is the 8th level of hell Dante couldn’t bear to tell you about. The tour souvenir GH is next, with two artists sharing the same record (are we this really this lazy?) Yet another two-disc money grab was released in 2011. The “absolutely nobody was asking for this” Unplugged set was likely created just to bottom-fill that chicken-wire-enclosed pile of CDs at your local Dollar Store. And, it all “ends” (that’s a laugh) with the current cash grab of all cash grabs—the anniversary collection! If you’re still celebrating Foreigner anniversaries at this point, I don’t know what to tell you—other than I’m sorry your life didn’t turn out as you hoped.
The point of this exercise isn't to indict the money-grubbing scumbags at record labels. That’s been done. What I want to say is that the Greatest Hits album was once a loyal friend that could be counted on for a quick fix of an artist’s best material. It stayed the same, delivering time after reliable time whenever needed. There was no need to change them or put them in a new suit or remix tracks to give off the illusion of added value. So without further ado, here are…
Top 25 Greatest Hits Albums
from the Golden Era of the Greatest Hits Album
25 Ohio Players / Gold (1976)
Released on 180g honey-infused vinyl back in 1976, here’s the perfect example of a much-needed distillation of spirits from a band with somewhat spotty records, but no lack of sexual chocolate to drip into listener's mouths (and ears). Unless you get your rocks off masturbating to mildly erotic album covers (then controversial, now laughably tame) then Gold is all you need to fill your Ohio-based slinky funk quota. Note: Also infamous as one of the first compilations to include new tracks recorded exclusively for a GH record. A rarely successful, shamelessly transparent ploy to separate fans from cash under the guise of "added value." Plus, if it ain’t “gold” yet it shouldn’t be on a disc with that title. Just sayin’.
24 Olivia Newton-John / Greatest Hits (1977)
The only album cover on this list that I've actually kissed, this GH contains the earlier, more country-pop period of lovely Olivia's career. And it's really catchy, mainstream fluffernutter, too. Volume 2, with Olivia spread out on a groin-tingling gatefold sleeve (let's put it this way, Olivia and I didn't stop at first base this time), contains the giant hits from her Grease / Xanadu / Physical era. But for me, nothing beat the girl-next-door-as-long-as-you-live-in-Australia era of her career well before she seemed all self-aware and shit. Plus, that knee-melting accent whispering "I Honestly Love You" in my headphones. Welcome to paradise.
23 War / Greatest Hits (1976)
What is too much War good for? Absolutely nothin'! Say it again! This is a perfect example of a mission with an exit strategy: Get in, get the job done, get out. This is a compilation with which we can all be at peace.
22 Eagles / Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 (1976)
Touted as one of the most boring and overrated bands in history, no group benefited more from the GH treatment than the Eagles. With 42,000,000 copies sold worldwide to date (have we all gone mad?), it ensured Glenn Frey and Don Henley first ballot induction into the Douchebag Hall of Fame. It did, however, contain “Witchy Woman,” a sentimental favorite of mine and one of the first 45s I ever bought with my own money. In prescribed doses like this, surprisingly tolerable, almost soothing light rock.
21 Steve Miller Band / Greatest Hits 1974-78 (1978)
Does anyone know how or why this record sold 13 million copies? Miller had hit it big with his three previous records and their hits were still fresh in everyone’s minds when this came out. Six of the tracks came from the prior year’s Book of Dreams and another six from the smash hit Fly Like an Eagle a couple years prior to that. Only one track, “The Joker,” was over four years old. That’s it! They skimmed the hits and the cream of the album tracks and made one absolutely superior and remarkably consistent monster hybrid. Wait, I guess that answers my question.
20 Elton John / Greatest Hits (1974)
Elton John / Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1986)
Elton dominated the early 70s while on one of the greatest creative rolls in pop music history. Everything dated 1970 to 1975 must be acquired with no excuses accepted. He was that rare combination—a great album artist and a great singles artist. The first volume is simply a non-stop embarrassment of riches. Vol. 2 drops in quality a touch, but does contain some of his more flamboyant sides, which is sayin' somethin'.
19 Bob Dylan / Bob Dylan's GreatestHits (1967)
Bob Dylan / Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II (1971)
Everyone remembers their first exposure to Dylan. Some scabs were there from day one and will not hesitate to rub it in your face. Most, like me, knew of the legend at an early age, but didn't have the means or the knowledge or the maturity to delve competently into his back catalog. I would argue that a multi-disc approach to Dylan is the wrong way for beginners to start on their journey. That's why the first 10-song GH was perfect for me. I spent hours digesting the lyrics, the music, and the meaning. It acted as a highly accessible starter kit. Even the next step, Vol. II, makes sense. At this point, you think you're ready for a second, slightly larger, dose now. The second installment, therefore, became the quintessential Columbia House enrollment selection. Lots of bang for no bucks (plus shipping). It was the perfect fix until you had the lettuce to become a full-blown addict (which did happen, of course).
18 The Doobie Brothers / Best of the Doobies (1976)
Few groups needed a greatest hits record more than the Doobies when this first came out and the public immediately confirmed that fact, buying this comp en masse. Every record collection, by the order of the white funk prince Michael McDonald, was mandated to contain this eventually ubiquitous, bellbottomed assembly of tracks (over 15 million served!) There’s no shame here. If you haven’t bopped along with “Black Water” blaring out of your speakers then you haven’t been fair to your car—it will resent you if it ever finds out.
17 Three Dog Night / Their Greatest Hits (1975)
Although not perfect, Three Dog's GH was another record collection mainstay during the glory days of AM radio. They were arguably the greatest band that never wrote a song. I admit, the "As Seen On TV" collection from 2004, The Complete Hit Singles, is now the ultimate single-disc collection of their work, but if you value sentiment and original genuine artifacts from the prehistoric (aka pre-iTunes) era, please get this. Your parents (possibly grandparents) will love you if they come home and find you fondling a copy of this version. It’s the circle of life.
16 The Carpenters / The Singles 1969-1973 (1973)
Great compilations don't always have to tell the whole story, they just have to tell a part of the story very well. This record looks like a photo album for a reason. Like a high school or college yearbook, this collection covers an important four-year span in the life of a brother and sister. A combo that captivated millions with seemingly simple melodies under one of the most purely perfect pop singers ever recorded. This short collection will charm your socks off. No socks for you.
15 Chicago / IX (1975)
Chicago was a very windy band, appropriately enough. Their catalogue is littered with double-LPs, triple-LPs, multi-part suites, 4-LP live sets, and countless long tracks featuring the band “stretching out.” I’m a Chicagoan and I’ve never quite come to terms with this being our namesake band. It could’ve been a lot worse, I guess. Oh well, thankfully tucked underneath all the hot air (some of it fantastic, of course) were some bona-fide singles and thankfully somebody made the wise decision to carve those out and put them all in one convenient location. Hence, the ubiquitous record collection staple we have here, complete with now iconic cover art. Every human over 50 still has a copy somewhere in their home.
14 Aerosmith / Greatest Hits (1980)
The common theme of this list is ubiquity. Certain records just had to be present in any self-respecting record collection. There are certain things you have to have to live, thrive, and survive in this world: flour, sugar, Aerosmith, and salt. Aerosmith, like Foreigner, has been repackaged so many times it’s bordering on criminal. Although only ten songs deep, clocking in at an economical 40 minutes, this 1980 release will always have sentimental favorite status for fans. Fuck, it sold ten million copies in its day—no wonder it just got remastered despite more complete collections on the market. People still want the original. Don’t expect that same level of allegiance again, especially when a new collection gets trotted out annually. The key to this version was its nasty consistency. It also marks the cutoff between legendary Aerosmith and whatever band they became from Rock in a Hard Place onward (marionettes? caricatures? talent show judges?) This is the record you play when you want to prove the ‘Smith were once a vital rock band.
13 Abba / Gold (1992)
It technically dates out of the golden age by a decade, but the band is so synonymous with the early 70s an exception had to be made. ABBA were so desperately in need of a definitive GH that when Gold came out 28 million people snapped it up—a shocking accomplishment considering the band officially broke up ten years earlier! A peerless, seamless confection that went #1 in Australia, Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden (duh), Switzerland, the UK, the USA, and, of course, among those Swedish-pop-loving fanaticos down in Mexico. Only Zimbabwe held out on us limiting it to #3. Understandable, I guess. Their local production of Mamma Mia sucked ass, too.
12 The Rolling Stones / Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (1972)
Hot Rocks is to the Stones as 1962-70 is to the Beatles. It’s the Stones primer from the Stones prime. Where their creative force shot into the stratosphere. If someone still wants you to prove the Stones were the most dangerous rock band of their time, this will be Exhibit A. The jury will not require an Exhibit B.
11 Squeeze / Singles 45's and Under (1982)
The great pop singles band of the late 70s and early 80s? Here’s your answer. Twelve perfect pop songs. Only adding East Side Story’s “In Quintessence” could’ve made it better, but why quibble? It’s nearly perfect.
10 The Guess Who / The Best of the Guess Who
Guess who made me think of this project in the first place? You are correct. The eleven songs here sum up the short prime of a great and underappreciated rock band (with a great name, as well). The perfect length, impeccable song choices, and stylistically diverse to boot. Other compilations have come out, but none are better than this one and none will ever be. The cover evokes nods of content familiarity. “Share the Land” makes hands join in unity. The 1:15 acoustic intro of “American Woman” that is usually edited for radio play? One of the great transitions of all-time in a classic rock and roll song. Worth the price of admission all by itself.
9 The Who / Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (1971)
If you had to choose between the early singles of the Beatles, the Stones, or the Who, which would you pick? Me? Although a tough decision, I would go for the Who. And this record proves why. It proves that no band of its time knew how to kick off a lightning strike single like the Who. None had such a thunderous bass rumble, such a maniacal drum fury, such an whip-armed guitarist. Oh, and Roger Daltrey, too, who could punch you in the face with his vocal chords. The first few seconds of every song, especially the record-opening “I Can’t Explain,” are the rock and roll equivalent of sticking a fork into a live electrical outlet while standing in a bucket of water.
8 Bob Marley / Legend (1984)
OK, here it is. You knew it was coming. You have it. The person to your left has it. So does the person to your right. If you’re in a chicken fight, the person below you has it. So does that girl over there. It’s playing on that boat, in that country (spin the globe and put a finger down), at that party, everywhere, all the time. Endlessly. Like it should.
7 Cat Stevens / Greatest Hits (1975)
I’ve always had a dream of stumbling into a beachfront café, there’s Cat Stevens in the corner, these twelve songs tumbling out of his guitar. And that special voice, almost a part of the earth and the sky at the same time. Rich in timbre, channeling the divine, commanding attention with its softest tones (“Moonshadow”) or its most impassioned pleas (“Peace Train”). Oh, and if you inexplicably choose to leave mid-set, take good care, hope you make a lot of nice friends out there. But if you need to find me, I’ll be right here.
6 The Beach Boys / Endless Summer (1974)
The Priest confesses: I’ve never loved The Beach Boys the way some do. I have an appreciation, but for me they don’t rank with the elite bands of all time. For that statement I expect to be banned from traveling to the UK where they love them more than those in their home country. That said, Endless Summer is the definitive case for their acclaimed status. I love that it isn’t explicitly titled Greatest Hits or Best Of or anything like that. Just Endless Summer—four sides of vinyl sand between your toes. The sequencing comes close to God-granted perfection; something He himself might’ve recorded to complement his ultimate masterpiece—the perfect summer day. The Boys were a band particularly hard to collect, especially for beginners, so in addition to being a great compilation, it also does a great service for the people, which is why it ranks so high.
5 James Taylor / Greatest Hits (1976)
Have you ever met someone who has badmouthed James Taylor? I didn’t think so. Even the hardest rocking, the most jaded, the hardcorest punk, the funkiest soul can agree on one thing—James Taylor knew how to sing simple songs perfectly with not an ounce of emotion too much or too little. Combining intricate finger-picked guitar with a voice honey-coated for a nap under a whirring ceiling fan or a deep, soul-cleansing sigh, he was the musical equivalent of linens drying on the line in a summer breeze. “Steamroller Blues,” with the infamous “freeze dried, fat fried, chicken chokin’, motherfucking pain” ending, proved he could not only rock, but he had a great sense of humor about his place in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t a perfect fit on this record, but it did provide a counterpoint to the usual perception of the man.
4 Simon & Garfunkel / Greatest Hits (1972)
No, that’s not legendary prop comedian Gallagher and his off-duty circus clown sidekick on the cover of this indispensible greatest hits collection. Just one of the most enduring and culturally significant duos the 60s produced. Fourteen perfect songs from a team still at their peak, but unfortunately soon to break up. If you searched houses in the early 70s you wouldn’t go more than a couple record collections without finding a worn copy somewhere. Maybe wedged in a bookcase next to a lava lamp, in a shag-walled den, next to a 300lb Montgomery Ward Hi-Fi, or in a paneled basement wedged under a bean bag chair. But it’s there somewhere. I guarantee it.
3 The Beatles / 1962-1966 (1973)
The Beatles / 1967-1970 (1973)
If I told you how much time I spent with these two collections when I was in my early teens. If I told you how I originally gravitated to the innocent early-era singles in the “red” set. If I told you how I eventually came to understand and appreciate the more complex and adventurous later period songs in the “blue” set. If I told you any of these things, you’d completely understand. There’s a good chance, if you’re still under 60, that you too schooled yourself on these collections as I did. If you have children, you know these two collections are masterpieces in the compilation arts and sequencing sciences and will want to prevent any kind of random iTunes approach to their own discovery of your beloved Beatles. Knowledge this great should be closely administered and transferred carefully. These two collections are so perfectly assembled, it’s as if they intentionally divided their career into two distinct halves for our benefit. Red cover: full mop top, fresh-faced, snappy answers to stupid questions youth gazing down on us with genuine amusement. Blue cover—long, flowing, “hippie” locks, possibly tripping on LSD, jaded and dissolving, looking down on us with bored, somewhat forced smiles. Both essential to the story, both equally fascinating, both tell a story worth telling over and over and over and over again.
2 The Kinks / The Kink Kronikles (1972)
By now, you’ve realized that this list isn’t for “Greatest Hits” collections exclusively. Don’t be so literal. When you think about it, the word “greatest” implies the artist has so many hits that only the cream of those hits will be represented. Few artists really have such a luxury. In fact, most GH collections contain many songs that weren’t hits at all—often it’s someone’s opinion of what should’ve been a hit. At some point, record labels started working in “The Best of,” “Anthology,” “Collection,” “The Complete,” or some other title to be more accurate. In effect, we’re really discussing great collections of songs here most of the time. Anything that sets a new context for an artists work qualifies. One word that hasn’t surfaced yet, however, is the word “chronicle.” (In this case, with a bastardized spelling for obvious reasons.) You may wonder how the Kinks rank ahead of such a life-changing, sentimental favorite like the Beatles collections at number four. Kronikles is full of the Kinks greatest songs, most of them not hits in their day. In fact, their early hits (i.e. “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”) aren’t even represented here. Just like The Beatles, The Kinks early period was packed with short radio-ready singles, usually well under three-minutes in length. Later, they became more complex in every way. They were the Pulp of their era. Chronicling (kronikling) British life and times within the context of a crisp pop song. Kronikles is the Kinks version of the Beatles 1967-1970 record, and the Stones’ Hot Rocks. Where they hit their stride artistically. It’s deep with some of the best-written rock songs of the era, a treasure trove of eccentric little treats from the pen of Ray Davies (with a rare Dave side here and there). And that’s what makes it a great collection. When I first got the record, many of the songs were unfamiliar to me—The Kinks were never revered by the masses in the States like they were in the UK. As I listened I felt as if I had struck an unknown gold mine. One song after another, all classics. In between “Waterloo Sunset” and “Lola,” timeless in any country, were at least 15 more shoulda-beens. “Autumn Almanac,” “Days,” “She’s Got Everything,” “Shangri-La,” “Holiday in Waikiki,” “The Village Green Preservation Society,” and numerous others. That’s why this is such a masterful collection. It highlights songs that deserve highlighting. And if a collection is good for anything, it’s good for that.
1 Creedence Clearwater Revival / Chronicle (1976)
Chronicle (there’s that word again) is the king of all greatest hits collections and CCR were arguably America’s greatest rock and roll band (please see to it that such arguments happen on your own time). Twenty perfectly compiled songs, as Southern as a bayou swamp despite being home grown next to the Pacific Ocean in California. Their chart success is undeniable. Simple math tells us their four hits per year average is better than most any other band in history and there’s no telling how many more they could’ve had if the Fogerty brothers had gotten along better and John allowed full control as he rightfully deserved. Almost every key track in the band’s way too short five-year history is here. It’s an extremely rich and varied collection that hangs together as a package better than any on this list. It’s a snapshot of America from a band that effortlessly combined almost every form of popular music our culture has produced: folk, blues, R&B, rockabilly, country, and of course, swamp & roll. Chronicle features a couple of the greatest songs about rock and roll (“Travelin’ Band” & “Lodi”), the most convincing protest songs of the era (“Fortunate Son” & “Who’ll Stop the Rain”), their classic reworking of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and a string of other instantly recognizable songs so engrained in the fabric of our country it’s too easy to take them for granted: “Bad Moon Rising,” “Down on the Corner,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Green River,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “Long As I Can See the Light,” “Up Around the Bend,” “Run Through the Jungle.” Ridiculously, the list goes on. Chronicle is a snapshot of a band in full command of their powers. Chronicle is a portrait of John Fogerty emerging as one of the greatest triple-threat frontmen in rock history (Rolling Stone ranked him as the #72 singer of all time and the #40 guitarist; Paste Magazine the #34 songwriter). Chronicle is the soundtrack to a tumultuous era in American history. Chronicle is as essential and unforgettable a collection as has ever been made.