In defense of the lowly "Greatest Hits" album: They're not just "for housewives and little girls"

Embarrassed to admit you discovered a band through their best-of instead of an original LP? Shame no more!

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published May 16, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

Conventional wisdom says that greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls — okay, this "Kids in the Hall" sketch says that (and thanks for the gendered insult, fictional clerk/Doors super-fan!), but the sentiment behind it is made clear by music fans all the time. Greatest hits albums are for dilettantes, casual listeners, unserious people. If challenged to a "favorite album"-off, it is profoundly uncool to admit you love any band's "Greatest Hits" more than the individual albums. But every now and then a brave music writer or fan will 'fess up to having come to a band through that ignoble doorway. After all, back in the day before free downloads/streaming/the sad gasping death of the album, a greatest hits album was a cost-effective and time-efficient way to fall in love with a band, especially if you were trying to wring maximum bang for your buck out of your introductory membership to the Columbia House Music Club.

But you're never supposed to admit it — at least not in polite company.

So many of us do have a greatest hits lurking in the shadows, though — a collection of essential listening by a band or artist we then later pretended to have discovered through one of their actual original releases, not some cheesy compilation we bought at the mall. No? Just us? Liar. 

Here's the crazy thing about a greatest hits album, though. It can actually make you fall in love with a band faster than listening to regular albums can. Listening to peak after peak is like binging on only the best chocolates — no weird cream-filled mysteries allowed — and the sugar shot is bound to go to your head. It's a bit like going on 15 amazing dates in a row — how do you not fall in love, at least a little bit?

The greatest hits album that changed my life is definitely "The Story of the Clash, Vol. 1," which I bought in college from the dearly departed record shop ear X-tacy in Louisville, Kentucky. I wasn't born under a rock; I knew who The Clash were — sort of. "Rock the Casbah" and "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," I had heard. And I knew that they influenced pretty much every band I loved. I'd like to say that the first Clash album I ever owned was "London Calling," and I could say that — who would know the difference? But in the spirit of honesty, I'll admit that when I decided to really listen to The Clash, I bought the two-disc compilation (the follow-up Volume 2, alas, never came) instead of picking through each album first. The compilation gave me an amazing 28 songs spanning their entire discography, minus the unfortunate "Cut the Crap," and convinced me to dive in head-first. Did I feel slightly ashamed of myself marching a best-of up to the excruciatingly cool guy behind the counter instead of "1977?" Yes. Should this compilation have included The Clash's cover of "Brand New Cadillac?" Yes. But aren't we all flawed creatures?

It's time we reclaimed our favorite greatest hits albums and praised them for what they are: not the last word on a band, for sure, but an essential highlights reel that delivers pleasure after pleasure, with the least percentage of nonessential fat attached.

Scared to admit it? We'll go first. Here are 13 more Salon writers and editors on the greatest hits that changed their lives.

"Quarantine the Past," Pavement. It sounds like the summer before my senior year of college, when my sister moved in with a girl who played the album all the time in her blue Prius. (The car had cloth seats that smelled so strongly of cigarettes, it was actually as if someone had put a little stale-tobacco air freshener inside the foam under the fabric.) We would drive around with the windows down and the AC on, because it's always too hot in Austin not to have the AC on -- even if the windows are open, letting the cool air out and more heat in. I think the first time I heard "Quarantine the Past," it was the night I tripped in a ditch on a farm in Round Top, Texas, where UT students put on Shakespeare plays in a barn. Someone had to carry me back to the blue Prius and put me in the back seat, and my sister's roommate turned up "Shady Lane" really loud so she wouldn't fall asleep driving in the dark, on mostly dirt roads. The whole album sounds to me like that time in your life when you know it's going to be okay for you to be sort of a fuck-up for just a little bit longer, so long as you're not too much of a fuck-up and don't make bad decisions forever. Y'know, bad decisions like drinking too many beers during a performance of "Winter's Tale" and then falling into a ditch, permanently screwing up your left ankle. — Jenny Kutner, assistant editor

"The Beatles 1." I grew up in a family that was very passionate about music, so I definitely knew about the Beatles. But I did get to know and love them thanks to my "The Beatles 1" CD: all 27 of the Fab Four's number-one singles on one convenient disc. I didn't end up hearing many of the B-sides and non-chart-topping songs until much later. But that's what college is for, right? — Lindsay Abrams, staff writer

"Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2." It was very, very hard to be a middle-schooler in the late ’80s and not own "Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2." This was our life: You had a Swatch, you wore acid-wash shorts, and you knew every line to "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." That album is just wall-to-wall pop mastery: songs about love and drugs and rock and roll. A ballad about the Vietnam War. The theme song to "Bosom Buddies." Did it change my life? It did not. But when I grew up and became an arts writer, I learned that Billy Joel was one of the most embarrassing musicians to love. Music critics just love to piss all over him. For a while, I felt ashamed: Why had I been so obsessed with his music? Then, one night, I heard "Piano Man" and I was like: This song is amazing. It brought me back to Billy Joel and honestly, I don't know why I ever left. — Sarah Hepola, life essays editor

"Legend," Bob Marley and the Wailers. As a kid, there were some greatest hits albums that, whatever their flaws, got me deeper into a band. One of them was Dylan’s second greatest hits album, with that mix of obvious numbers and all those unreleased songs, and then there was the slightly odd covers-heavy Beatles collection called “Rock N Roll Music,” with artwork that Lennon hated. Another was Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Legend,” which came out in 1984, after Marley’s death. It was the introduction for many suburban white kids to Jamaican music, and while I now have St. Bob’s very earliest ska songs, the original Lee “Scratch” Perry versions of Marley’s early-'70s recordings, solo LPs by fellow Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, tons of dub and rocksteady, and so on, this one stands up awfully well. I’m not sure this is really the very best batch of Marley songs – there’s no “Concrete Jungle” or “Rebel Music” or “Soul Rebel.” And some of the songs are better in the earlier Perry-produced versions. But I was not the only teenager to be invited into the world of reggae by this comp, and it’s still a great listen decades later, with the one-two punch of its openers, “Is This Love” and “No Woman, No Cry.” A good greatest hits collection is the beginning, not the end, of a journey. The worst ones are those that make you think you know everything worth knowing; the best ones makes you think you’ve got everything worth knowing. “Legend” gets you started on a trip that can be long and deep indeed. — Scott Timberg, staff writer

"The Best of Leonard Cohen." Pretty sure my love for Leonard Cohen started with his greatest hits album: "Suzanne," "Chelsea Hotel," "Famous Blue Raincoat" ... Yes, I'm aware of how old this makes me. — Ruth Henrich, managing editor

"Times Square" movie soundtrack. (While not technically a greatest hits album, a movie soundtrack compilation doesn't rank much higher on the cool chain, does it? — Ed.) It was 1983. My twin brother and I grew up in South Georgia, which, in the early '80s, was about as culturally rich as the canals of Mars. A mysterious box of marked-down records appeared outside the drugstore a few blocks from our house and they were all punk and New Wave acts that we had never heard of, so we just bought the ones that looked cool. The "Times Square" soundtrack, while not technically a greatest hits album, was a two-record set that gave us our first listens to Patti Smith, the Cure, Joe Jackson, Roxy Music, the Pretenders, XTC and others. I understand the movie was terrible; I've never seen it, but the soundtrack was the New Wave primer that changed our little 13-year-old lives forever. — David Ferguson, news editor

"Anthology," Sly and the Family Stone. This was in the first batch of CDs I ever bought, back in college. I knew I needed some Sly, but buying their four or five best albums just wasn't an option. I felt no shame at the time, but I do now, for never doing a deep dive into the full catalog. But this is the upside to the maligned greatest hits album -- the ability to go back years later and discover amazing songs that didn't crack the anthology. — Benjamin Wheelock, art director

"Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy,” The Who. I was previously aware of the Who, of course, but it wasn’t until I spent some time with the subtly titled "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy” that I came to be a real fan. I actually still think it’s their best individual album — but it’s technically an early singles/greatest hits compilation. Similarly, while I was of course familiar with the Beatles, I didn’t really become a fan of theirs myself until I got into "Past Masters” (especially Volume II).  Whenever I listen to “Rain,” I still expect to hear the beginning of “Lady Madonna” immediately kick in after the song’s end.  Another obvious one: “Legend” by Bob Marley. It was my gateway into his work, and although I now prefer "Natty Dread,” you still can’t really beat “Legend" as a starting place. — Elias Isquith, staff writer

"Songs to Learn and Sing," Echo and the Bunnymen. NO SHAME. I think we (I) take for granted now that you can just cherry-pick the songs you like from an artist without wading through several albums worth of quite likely erratic material. We all create our own greatest hits now all the time. And I love not having to skip the needle (needle!) over the "Oh God What Is This Self Indulgent Twaddle?" track. Anyone who looks down on that emancipating mode of listening is a snob. I may also have a song or two on my iPhone from the uproariously named "Essential Eddie Money." — Mary Elizabeth Williams, staff writer

"The Best of Roy Ayers." I actually discovered Roy Ayers through a greatest hits album, which makes little sense as he has few, if any, bona fide "hits." I grew up on a steady diet of mid-'90s hip hop and spent most of my college years rifling through its source material. I'm not a Roy Ayers obsessive now, but I've discovered more artists than I can fit in this piece through his music. — Jacob Sugarman, cover editor

"Eponymous," R.E.M. Once I started getting into music in the '90s, I did what any budget-conscious (and allowance-dependent) kid did: join Columbia House, the mail-order CD and tape club. The allure of 10+ CDs for a penny mitigated any concerns about paying for overpriced music down the line, and so I stocked up on staples (Nirvana's "Nevermind," Pearl Jam's "Ten," an Andrew Lloyd Webber collection, etc.) and delved into the catalog of my then-favorite band, R.E.M. Before committing to their early records, however, I decided to pick up 1988's "Eponymous," a quasi-greatest hits album that was also their last release on I.R.S. Records. At the time, I didn't realize that the record featured alternate versions of songs (the Hib-Tone version of "Radio Free Europe," the "Mutual Drum Horn" mix of "Finest Worksong") or a true rarity ("Romance," from the forgotten movie "Made In Heaven"). All I know is this record was enough of an enticement that my later Columbia House orders included 1983's "Murmur" and 1984's "Reckoning" -- and my fandom was cemented once and for all. — Annie Zaleski, contributor

"Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II." Released in November '71, I bought it in the spring of '72. I was 13. Somehow I only knew him for his protest songs, and that turned me on to his love songs. "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" and "I Shall Be Released" hadn't been on earlier albums; they amazed me. I ran out and bought "Nashville Skyline" and I think everything except "Blonde on Blonde" immediately. The greatest hits album scrimped on "Blonde on Blonde," which was a huge omission, and I discovered that later -- and it became probably my favorite Dylan album. But looking at the four sides of "Greatest Hits Vol. II" now, I'm blown away by what a good album it was, and almost tempted to buy it again. "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" remains one of my favorite songs ever. — Joan Walsh, editor at large

"Ramones Mania." I still like listening to New Order and Depeche Mode's greatest hits/singles collection albums. They're both great bands, but all of their albums have several songs I don't like, so listening to the greatest hits saves me the time of skipping tracks I'm not into. As far as childhood influences go, "Ramones Mania" changed my life. Listened to that tape until it wouldn't play anymore. — Liam O'Donoghue, social media editor

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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