Earlier this year, greatest hits albums flooded the UK Album Chart and their sales steadily continue over time. But have you ever wondered why bands make a greatest hits album? Is it cash grabbing by the label execs or a genuine tribute to fans? Let’s find out.
The purpose of a greatest hits album is to introduce a veteran act to new listeners. As a compilation of the band’s commercially successful songs, they can be created by record labels with or without input from the artist as a method to generate more sales, enter new markets and create a legacy for the artist.
Since the first greatest hits album was released in 1958, we have had generations go by, so let’s evaluate if they fulfil their purpose and if they are still relevant.
Do Greatest Hits Albums Create A Legacy?
Given that the aim of the greatest hits album is to introduce younger listeners to veteran artists, we can look back to establish if they actually achieved this.
Using data from The Official Charts, the top 12 as of 2016 are displayed in the table below.
|TITLE||ARTIST||YEAR||SALES (MILLION)||AS OF DATE|
|GOLD – GREATEST HITS||ABBA||1992||5.3||2016|
|GREATEST HITS II||QUEEN||1991||3.99||2016|
|THE IMMACULATE COLLECTION||MADONNA||1990||3.7||2016|
|LEGEND||BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS||1984||3.38||2016|
|LADIES & GENTLEMEN – THE BEST OF||GEORGE MICHAEL||1998||2.48||2016|
|NEVER FORGET – THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION||TAKE THAT||2005||2.36||2016|
|NUMBER ONES||MICHAEL JACKSON||2003||2.35||2016|
|GREATEST HITS||ROBBIE WILLIAMS||2004||2.31||2016|
|SIMPLY THE BEST||TINA TURNER||1992||2.17||2016|
While this information is interesting, I wanted to to dig deeper to understand why these had been released. For this, looked at Queen: Greatest Hits, ABBA: Gold, Queen: Greatest Hits II, Madonna: The Immaculate Collection, and ABBA: Greatest Hits.
Queen: Greatest Hits
Queen: Greatest Hits was released in 1981 after the release of their 9th studio album Flash. 1981 would have been the first year that the band hadn’t released a new studio album.
However, its released was planned alongside Greatest Flix, a 60-minute compilation of all the videos Queen had made, and Greatest Pix, a 96-page paperback book that featured photos of the band. Additionally, its release has different track listings in each country. So its release had definitely been planned by the record label ahead of time and wasn’t just cobbled together.
Queen Greatest Hits has sold 6.12 million copies in the UK as is their best selling album. Additionally, it has been in the album chart for 354 weeks at time of writing.
If the release of this compilation was a money grabbing scheme by the record label, it was extremely well executed one, at a time to help Queen solidify a following in new markets
An undoubted success.
ABBA: GOLD – Greatest Hits
Unlike Queen’s Greatest Hits, ABBA Gold was released almost 10 years after the groups previous and final studio album. The band had broken up by this point, and this was definitely an attempt to generate additional sales and create a legacy for the popular Swedish group.
However, it is no coincidence that the album was released in 1992, just after Polygram acquired Polar Music (thus the rights to the ABBA back catalogue). This one goes in the cynical pile for me: a record label trying the grab some extra money.
However, it has gone on to be the go-to ABBA album for anyone born after its release, creating future generations of ABBA fans. Interestingly, the release of Mamma Mia has done wonders for the album’s sales, so maybe movies are the new Greatest Hits’?
Queen: Greatest Hits II
Queen: Greatest Hits II sits alongside their first greatest hits record. Released in 1991, it includes the most popular songs released since the release of the band’s Greatest Hits album. The record has had commercial success, but less so than the primary record.
Its release came just before Freddie Mercury’s death and not long after their 14th Studio Album Innuendo. Given Freddie’s decline in health, all parties were probably aware there wouldn’t be any more albums for Queen and used this album to complete the collection.
The band did release Miracle in 1995, but it used previous recordings of Freddie Mercury combined with additional instrument tracks by the band.
Overall, this album makes sense as a final collection for Queen. And commercially, they could sell it alongside their first greatest hits as a box set.
ABBA Greatest Hits
Another ABBA Greatest Hits made it into the top 10 collection. Similarly to Queen’s first greatest hits record, this album was released during their productive years in 1976. 2 year after their famous Eurovision win in 1974.
The reason I included both is that the use of these 2 albums compared to Queen’s two albums are very different.
The group’s Eurovision win launched their international career, and by early 1976 they were a household name. Interestingly, American music publication Creem, noted the awkwardness of ABBA’s marketing strategy. And on the face of it, I would have to agree. The ideal time to release a Greatest Hits record would have been very soon after the Eurovision win as a platform for new listeners to discover the band.
Instead, they waited a couple of years and released it alongside Fernando. Both this album and that song went straight to number one. But 6 months later, they released their 4th studio album, Arrival.
The strategy obviously worked, and its sales in the UK speaks for itself, but the timing of releases is very odd. Especially when you consider that Fernando was on that Greatest Hits and Arrival. Impressively, it managed to generate good sales, despite it not including Money, Money, Money, or Dancing Queen, and also because sales should have been cannibalised by ABBA Gold.
Madonna: The Immaculate Collection
The Immaculate Collection is Madonna’s first Greatest Hits Album. It was released after her first 4 albums, 7 years after her first album. After its release in 1990, Maddona went on to release another 10 studio albums and 3 more greatest hits albums.
Madonna’s early years included some of her best work, including Holiday, Material Girl, Like A Virgin, Papa Don’t Preach and Vogue to name a few. By 1990, she was starring in movies, on her Blond Ambition tour, and about to win a Grammy.
The release of the Immaculate Collection was cashing in at the height of her success when everything she touched turned to gold. The Immaculate Collection includes pretty much every Madonna song I think I could name, though I’m sure her more recent songs are also great.
It makes me wonder if the Immaculate Collection solidified those early greats as immortal classics, and future releases couldn’t meet their standard which the world was consistently reminded of due to the enduring success of a greatest hits.
We will unfortunately never know because even sales data will be impacted by the greatest hits release – people will pick this up and buy the back catalogue if they like it… starting with the ones on the greatest hits album.
Why Do Bands Release Greatest Hits?
By analysing these album releases, we have identified a few common reasons why artists release a greatest hits album.
Capitalise on the band’s success
No band would release a greatest hits if they weren’t already popular, and these 5 examples are no different. The 3 examples that were released during the bands productive years aim to capture the ‘golden period’ of the band. For those of us that weren’t alive during the prime of these artists, the Greatest Hits album gives us a glimpse into what it was like at the time.
Create a legacy for future generations
Additionally, the Greatest Hits albums released at the end of their careers aimed to create a legacy for future generations. When new music enthusiasts first discover these artists and find 15-20 albums, they undoubtedly will have no idea where to start.
However, with a greatest hits album, new listeners have a jumping off point to figure out if they like the band, before exploring more of the back catalogue.
Speaking from my personal experience, growing up in a time before streaming, greatest hits were incredibly valuable. My first introduction to Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth, and Queen as a 10-14 year old were all via their greatest hits albums.
Launch established bands in new markets
Finally, the first greatest hits release for both Queen and ABBA aimed to help the artist break into and cement themselves in new markets. For groups with albums in their back catalogue, entering a new market surely feels the same to listeners as a teenager that unsure where to start.
In this situation as well, it provides a starting point. Both Madonna and ABBA (and numerous other examples) included a new release on their greatest hit so they could launch a brand new single to help the album’s promotion too.
With Digital and streaming, why do bands still release greatest hits?
While greatest hits albums clearly have had their place in history, streaming has surely made greatest hits albums obsolete. Users can simply find the artist on Spotify, and you’re presented with their most popular songs. Why do you need a nicely packaged compilation of their best songs?
Bands no longer need to release a greatest hits album. Due to the popularity of streaming services, new fans can access the artists entire back-catalogue without needing a specific compilation album. However, some bands still choose to release a greatest hits album as a marketing tactic or a nostalgia love of compilations from their childhood.
The Modern Greatest Hits Album
Despite the undeniable logic, bands are releasing greatest hits album every month. You can find the latest ones being launched here: https://www.newreleasesnow.com/new-greatest-hits-songs. As of July 2022, 8 greatest hits albums have been released.
The Beach Boys’ re-release of their 2003 album, Sounds Of The Summer The Very Best Of The Beach Boys (Expanded Edition), is one of those albums. The release coincides with the 60th anniversary of their first album Surfin’ Safari and their tour of North America (which, by the way, WOW. I hope I’m touring when I’m 80!). So again, they are probably hoping that new generations will go to concerts and look to their greatest hits album to get started. However, I would be interested to see the sales performance vs stream performance.
Additionally, some artists release greatest hits albums due to the joy that similar compilations brought them growing up. Spoon lead singer Britt Daniel fondly remembers the impact Standing on a Beach by The Cure and Substance 1987 by New Order had on him growing. He wanted to provide an official introduction to Spoon’s catalog that could have a similar impact for new listeners. Alex Kapranos echoed those sentiments when discussing the decision to release the Franz Ferndinand’s 2022 Hits to the Head compilation.
However, some bands refuse to release a greatest hits album. Rock groups AC/DC, Tool, and Metallica all decided against it. AC/DC have always favoured releasing new albums. Meanwhile, Metallica’s marketing machine has churned out remasters, documentaries, and collectors editions to promote the band in lieu of new music.
Summary and Conclusions
Greatest Hits albums have been around since 1958 and while the golden age of The Greatest Hits album may be over, they still have their place. Releases from Queen, ABBA, and Bob Marley have been in the top UK album chart for over 6 years, while The Beatles, Guns N’ Roses and Elton John have been in over 2 years. Meanwhile new greatest hits albums are still being released despite the popularity of streaming.
Are they a money grabbing scheme from record labels? Yes, sort of. It’s a marketing tactic. The Greatest Hits album is a marketing tactic in the arsenal of the record label to promote legacy artists to new listeners; be it in new markets or new generations.
However, every music fan fondly remembers the greatest hits album their parents used to play. Personally, I couldn’t afford to Guns N’ Roses’ back catalogue as a 12 year-old, but I could afford to buy their greatest hits. I went on to buy their entire back catalogue and see them live 4 times. When I learnt about how that album was released and how none of the band recorded their parts to Sympathy for the Devil together, it’s disappointing. But at the same time, if not for the record label pushing them to make it, maybe GNR wouldn’t have such a special place in my musical history. And maybe I wouldn’t now be writing album reviews or promoting unsigned bands.
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