In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the singles market and the albums market were two separate entities and rarely did they meet. Logically, singles (or 45s) were cheap, and directed at teenagers, because teenagers don’t have much money. Albums cost more, and directed at adults. That’s why Elvis Presley had #1 hit after #1 hit, while Harry Belafonte and Broadway cast albums dominated the album chart.
Today, singles essentially serve as a taste of an album – they’re promotional tools. Like the single you heard on the radio, or YouTube, or Spotify? Then you’ll love the rest of the album, which will have that leadoff single on it. That wasn’t a universal in the middle of the 20th century. An artist released singles, and then they released albums of completely different material.
In 1958, some evil genius at Columbia Records had a brilliant game-changer of an idea: Johnny Mathis’s croony albums sold well, and his swoony singles sold well. So, why not take all of those singles, that had only been available individually, and put them on a single LP? In 1958, the label released Johnny’s Greatest Hits, which included Mathis’s first eight top 30 singles (such as “Chances Are,” “The Twelfth of Never,” and “It’s Not For Me to Say”). But why would Mathis’s fans, who presumably already owned those eight 45s, buy the same songs again in LP format? Because Columbia slapped four brand new Mathis songs on the record. It was an irresistible proposition. Johnny’s Greatest Hits stayed on the album chart for nine-and-a-half years and sold five million copies. It also unleashed the “Greatest Hits” disc as a way to easily cross an album off of a multi-album contract with just a new song or two and sell the same familiar songs to the same people millions of times over.
But the concept isn’t pure cynicism. Greatest Hits albums are more than a commodity; they’re a gateway to discovery. When you discover a band you like, a greatest hits album is a pretty good way to sample their career, or an era of their career, for not a lot of money. From there, you can find out which album each song was on, and go about consuming the rest of the canon. They are a compact, if incomplete, document of an artist. Elton John’s first hits album came out in 1974—just four years after he broke big—and it’s incredible. It’s not a singular artistic statement like Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, but it is the soundtrack of an era, and every song on it is wonderful. I got that album as a gift when I was very young. Greatest hits albums are great gifts for young or otherwise naïve or budding music fans.
A quarter of the RIAA’s 200 bestselling albums of all time are greatest hits albums. That includes Elton John’s, as well as MOR acts like Journey, Steve Miller Band, Kenny Rogers, and James Taylor. These acts with huge-selling greatest hits albums are, by and large, bands more renowned for their individual songs than any particular album. Which is to say, if you like the Steve Miller Band, you like “The Joker” and “Take the Money and Run.” You’re not buying a whole album for the artistry, or because it is a piece unto itself the way one does with, say, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, who have some of the biggest selling original material albums of all time. Their hits albums have had middling sales; bands with hugely selling hits albums tend to have that hits album be their all-time bestseller.
Still, though, greatest hits album are the red-headed stepchild of the music industry. Historically they brought in a lot of money, but they aren’t much to talk about. Entire books have been written about the recording of classic albums like Sgt. Pepper or Rumours. There is no story, no drama, no artistic epiphanies required or possible for sequencing a greatest hits album. Perhaps the best part about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 was that sales of Thriller shot up, retaking the Bestselling Album of All Time spot back from that Eagles greatest hits album. This restored order in the universe – love or hate that band (I, for one, hate them, because they are a dated, irrelevant relic, a stopping off point between the worst self-important hippie-bullshit of the ‘60s and self-important coke-fueled yuppie-bullshit of the ‘80s), none of us want the bestselling album of all time to be a greatest hits album. We want it to be a “real” album, especially one that reminds of the last time we were all on board – young, old, all races, all musical preferences – with the exactly the same thing.
These older greatest hits albums by the major acts of the ‘70s and ‘80s continue to sell, moving a few hundred copies a week and leading to the creation of the Catalog Albums chart. But never again will be a 16-million-seller like Elton John’s hits album, or a 29-million-seller like the Eagles one. Greatest hits albums are not the perennial cash-cows they once were. That’s because there are fewer middle of the road blockbuster acts period. Who’s the biggest rock band of the past decade? Off the top of my head, Nickelback. They have a huge following – but never was there ever a more love-or-hate band. If you love them, you have all their albums; if you hate them, you’re never going to buy their eventual greatest hits album.
Kelly Clarkson is one of this era’s true pop stars, with name recognition across many demographics due to American Idol and lots and lots of #1 hits. Did you know she came out with a greatest hits album last year? She did. And it is stacked – wall to wall hits. But who cares? In the next three years or so when the Rihanna and Katy Perry hits albums will come out, the Mathis-esque new tracks will be huge, but the albums won’t sell.
But the main reason for the death of the big hits album is not a lack of stars, or a lack of good music. No, it’s an indirect result of the way we consume music has changed. With digital distribution, we can easily buy whatever songs we want now. We don’t have to buy a whole album for a few songs, or wait for a greatest hits album to get exactly the songs we want for a good price. With iTunes, we can cherry-pick. We can make our own greatest hits albums now.
Or, since album sales are way, way, way, way down in general, we don’t even have to buy our own hits albums anymore. We can make the perfect playlist of one artist’s favorite songs on Spotify. In the order we want! And without those new bonus tracks that we all know are just foreign market B-sides and studio leftovers.