Hits and Grins

The greatest-hits format has fallen out of favor, but sometimes the results are pure gold

McLees cites a personal favorite of his, the band America, as a case study in the art of the greatest hits album. "America's History album was released on LP in the middle of their career," he says. "When it came out on CD, nothing extra was done to it. It sold very well, but it's only got 10 tracks on it, from only part of their career. What we did was put out a 20-track complete greatest hits. We're fans, so we know how to add value. Usually that means remastering the material to the latest standards and adding extra tracks."

This added value probably makes the snobbishness toward the greatest-hits album even sharper in some people: The songs that the obsessives painstakingly hunted down over many years, those evasive non-LP singles and mysterious Japanese B-sides, are suddenly alongside the radio hits on a nice little CD that anybody can buy at any mall in the developed world. It's enough to drive a rock geek insane. Meanwhile, the general public gets a chance to hear some great music without making a full-time career out of digging it up. In a perfect world, ruled by a benevolent government that believed in the power of pop music, every act with more than three or four albums to their credit would release a greatest-hits collection. "Most of these things are intended to turn the music fan on to that artist's catalog," McLees says. "I want to get people excited about that artist. I want to show people, 'Hey, this artist is more than you thought it was.'"

The greatest-hits album, freed from its traditional status as a flimsy rip-off item, can be democracy in plastic form. You may not have much discretionary income, you may not have an opinion on the Motown versus Stax debate, you may have never heard of Robert Christgau, but you, too, can find your way through the treasures and trash of modern pop music, thanks to our sturdy little friend. You can call it a greatest-hits album, a best-of collection or a career anthology, but don't call it useless.

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