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The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

on November 13, 2013, 12:05pm
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Before I ever bought any of Bruce Springsteen’s albums, I pursued one of his compilation discs: The Essential Bruce Springsteen. It felt like a good idea at the time. The collection was three discs long, sequenced in chronological order of his career, and seemed to provide a decent summation of what The Boss was about. I thought it was all the Springsteen I would ever need.

Of course, I was wrong. While The Essential Bruce Springsteen served as a nice gateway drug to his discography, I soon realized there was much more to his music than a three-disc retrospective would allow, and that flawless anthems like “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land” were even more powerful when placed in the proper context of their respective albums. Now that I have The Boss’ entire catalog, I rarely listen to The Essential Bruce Springsteen, save for the odd spin of “American Skin (41 Shots)” or the live version of “Land of Hope and Dreams”.

essentialboss The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

I’d argue that’s the case with most artists we enjoy. If you really love a musician, chances are you’ll eventually seek out all of their work. There are exceptions, however—bands and singers whose greatest hits collections are all you need. This isn’t to say that their albums are bad (although in some cases, they are). It’s just that they pale in comparison to their best-of releases.

So here they are. Ten greatest hits collections that we feel capture the true essence of the artist. Ten greatest hits collections that are enough for us. Ten greatest hits collections that stand on their own as complete albums.

A few rules: First, we didn’t include any anthologies or box-sets. More often than not, these include most of a musician’s work and can often be similar to buying all of their albums. Second, we aren’t saying these are the greatest greatest hits albums of all time. These are just 10 releases that we feel perfectly sum up a performer. Lastly, disagree with us! We’re sure you’ll feel miffed that we’re not delving deeper into some of these musicians’ work. If so, explain why in the comments section.

–Dan Caffrey
Senior Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: This article was edited on 11/14/2013.

Artwork by Cap Blackard and Steven Fiche.

10. Journey – Greatest Hits

journey The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1988

There’s always room for Steve Perry. As one of the greatest vocalists in rock ‘n’ roll — and yes, I say that with a straight face — it’s hard to ignore his melodies in even the cheesiest Journey anthems. Whether it’s the “whoa oh”s of “Faithfully” or his manic urgency behind “Separate Ways”, Perry hits the appropriate notes to win hearts over in the sleaziest or weepiest of times. Here’s the thing, though: There isn’t any essential Journey album to own, not even their 1981 blockbuster, Escape. Everything you could ever want or need from the San Francisco hitmakers is in their 15x Platinum-selling Greatest Hits compilation that’s been keeping Perry’s wallet comfortable since ’88. The collection spans a little over an hour and spaces out the “event listens” with the inclusion of lesser known hits a la “Only the Young”, “Ask the Lonely”, and “Be Good to Yourself”. Car trippin’ royalty forever. –Michael Roffman

09. Frank Sinatra – Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years

franksinatra The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1991

These 20 songs represent Ol’ Blue Eyes at his most commercial and most famous, which is just fine by us. With the possible exception of Songs For Young Lovers and In the Wee Small Hours (and both of these, like everything in those days, had filler), his staggering studio output was never focused on AOR. This, however, feels like it is minus the “rock,” of course. In addition to having a unified aesthetic—big bands, schmaltzy charm, and Sinatra’s unmistakable croon—every song is recognizable, regardless of whether or not you’ve ever thrown on one of the Chairman’s records. Have you ever watched The Sopranos? Or The Simpsons? Or gone grocery shopping? Or ridden in a car? Then you’ve heard Sinatra. And even if by some cruel cosmic joke you haven’t, try not being comforted by “Fly Me to the Moon”, “Summer Wind”, or even “That Lady is a Tramp”. To unprofessionally yet accurately quote an Amazon commenter, “This is the first Sinatra CD I bought, and probably the only one I will ever need to buy.” Well put. –Dan Caffrey

08. The Eagles – The Very Best of

eagles the very best of The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 2003

Like pretty much everyone in the world, we’ve done our fair share of ragging on the Eagles, although that has more to do with their persona and behavior than their music. Cheeky hatred aside, they’ve got hooks out their leather-chapped wazoos. As Lou Barlow pointed out, even if you hate the Eagles, you probably grew up on their songs. For better or for worse, they’re part of the national—no, make that international—cultural lexicon, albeit not the same one that contains the films of John Ford, as the band had probably once hoped.

This ubiquity alone is enough to make Very Best Of indispensable, and it’s hard to argue with the track listing. It thoughtfully cherry picks choice cuts from their first four albums (none of which are worth buying in whole), then almost gets Hotel California right. We’d argue for including Joe Walsh’s “Pretty Maids All In a Row” and Randy Meisner’s “Try and Love Again,” but that’s splitting hairs. Best of all? This sucker came out in 2003, meaning we’re saved from it being obligated to cover “Busy Being Fabulous” or any of the other Adult Contemporary cheese from Long Road Out of Eden.

Bonus: The three worst tunes are saved for last. Press stop after Disc Two’s live version of “Seven Bridges Road” to save yourself from “Get Over It”, “Love Will Keep Us Alive”, and their 9/11 song. –Dan Caffrey

07. Gloria Estefan – Greatest Hits

gloriaestefan The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1992

Confession: Aside from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Live, Gloria Estefan was my first concert. (That is, if you also don’t count me being in my mother’s womb when she caught Michael Jackson’s tour behind Thriller. No? Okay.) Anyone born and raised in Miami during the ’80s, like myself, couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Conga”, “1,2,3”, or “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”. Seaside eateries, indoor malls, toy stores, doctor’s offices, sports games, everywhere you can think of — there was Gloria. Actually, until the Internet debunked the majority of my childhood, I grew up convinced Estefan was as big as The King of Pop. Thanks, 305.

So, yeah, her 1992 Greatest Hits collection resonated quite well with South Floridians. I’d wager to bet at least 60% of the city had the cassette or CD in their car prior to 1995. Maybe even still. Why not? It’s a great summation of not only her career, but a time when Miami was the place where everyone wanted to be. And while her 10 solo studio albums, in addition to her work in the Miami Sound Machine, are quite revered and did well commercially, there are a lot of unnecessary ballads and anthems that just pale in comparison to her major hits.

Greatest Hits trimmed the beats, the jams, and the expansive fiesta into something a little more accommodating to highlight one of the most vibrant female vocalists in pop music history. It’s a round trip ticket to this country’s most eclectic city during its greatest run — and something nostalgia pushes me towards every time I miss my folks. “I don’t want to lose you now,” I’ll whine again and again, much to the chagrin of my neighbors, my fiance, and my soul. –Michael Roffman

Editor’s Note: This entry was edited in on 11/14/2013 after said writer realized how much he failed said hometown. It won’t ever happen again, Gloria.

06. The Cure – Standing On A BeachGalore

thecure The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1986, 1997

The Cure’s 13 studio albums are a smorgasbord of quality, replete with ethereal dreamscapes, genuine emotion, and top notch hits. Few bands can proclaim this sort of lofty catalogue. And while many argue that Disintegration takes the gold as the band’s greatest complete work, fans who wish to revisit the first three quarters of this illustrious career should take a jab at the one-two combo of Standing on a Beach and Galore. Both records come together to form a splendid, makeshift anthology that covers more than 30 highlights plucked from the vine between 1976 and 1997.

Perennial favorites like “The Lovecats”, “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Just Like Heaven”, “Love Song” and “Pictures of You” all make the cut, reminding audiences of The Cure’s successful radio career and penchant for wedding playlist classics, while overlooked gems such as “Lullaby”, “Primary”, “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and the percussive “Hanging Garden”, prompt listeners to admit that the boys from West Sussex pack quite a depth chart.

From the embrace of Robert Smith’s angelic voice, to hypnotic synths and bass lines that have been copied for decades – The Strokes’ guitarist Nick Valensi freely admits “There are some bass lines on [Is This It] that were 100 percent ripped off from the Cure” –  it’s tricky to name artists who covered so much ground and did it so well. And in the interest of absorbing such a vast landscape of music, these two records can help you with that, whether you’re a goth, a new romantic blitz kid, a raver, or a weeper. –Dan Pfleegor

05. Queen – Greatest Hits

queen The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1981

It’s become a dirty little secret that A Night At The Opera—indisputably regarded as Queen’s best album—has filler. And yet several music publications constantly put it on their “Greatest Albums of All Time” list, forgetting that tracks like “39” and “Sweet Lady” are often guilty of the hookless theatrics they’re supposed to be parodying. So yes, Queen is a greatest hits band, and you can get all of their essential material from one disc. We recommend going with 2004’s “We Will Rock You” edition, which is the most complete, despite having a cheesy title that capitalizes on the jukebox musical of the same name. Granted, Greatest Hits II and Classic Queen both have “Radio Ga Ga” and the studio version of “Under Pressure” (although we prefer the first Greatest Hits‘ live performance), but you’re better off buying those two tracks individually on iTunes. –Dan Caffrey

04. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits

ccr chronicle The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1976

If someone held me up at gunpoint and demanded I name one Creedence Clearwater Revival album, well, I’d be on the ground dead within seconds. Truth be told, I’ve visited their catalogue ad-infinitum, but I’ll be damned if I can recall a single album title. It’s probably because if I’m ever jonesing for John Fogerty’s American swamp rock — which, surprisingly, is quite often — I’m more inclined to revisit Chronicle first and foremost. Far superior to 1972’s Creedence Gold or 1973’s More Creedence, this 20-track collection gathers every one of their iconic hits; from their covers (“Susie Q”, “I Put A Spell On You”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”) to their protest anthems (“Fortunate Son”, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”), their highway themes (“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, “Up Around the Bend”) to their river melodies (“Green River”, “Down on the Corner”). Chronicle does just as its name implies, which likely explains why 6,357,000+ Americans have it on their shelf over their self-titled album, Green River, or Cosmo’s Factory. Yeah, I lied, don’t shoot. –Michael Roffman

03. The Temptations – The Ultimate Collection

temptations The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1997

Like many R&B acts of the 1960s, The Temptations were never much of an album-oriented group. Still, their legacy and importance goes beyond “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”. Both of those are included here (along with all of their other early-career hits), but The Ultimate Collection stands apart from many other Tempts’ compilations by thoroughly covering their psychedelic soul era. “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next To You”, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” have all aged just as well as the Motown material thanks to The Funk Brothers’ bottom-heavy instrumentation and experimental jams.

Vocally, few would argue that Dennis Edwards could ever truly replace David Ruffin, yet his more unhinged gruffness seems better suited to the later music, which tended to focus more on urban strife than smitten romance. That’s not to say Norman Whitfield didn’t write The Temptations any love songs in the ’70s. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” is rightfully included on The Ultimate Collection, and like everything else on the disc (with the possible exception of the ’90s Adult R&B Hail Mary, “Error of Our Ways,”), it’s just about perfect. –Dan Caffrey

02. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Greatest Hits

tompetty The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1993

A few years ago, whilst reviewing the reissue of Damn the Torpedoes, I wrote: “Some artists carve out albums, others issue singles. It’s hard to tell where Tom Petty sits. For the most part, he’s a singles man. In the realm of the universe, the majority of people who like or appreciate Petty and his Heartbreakers probably own his 1993 collection, Greatest Hits. After all, it’s the guy’s best-selling album to date, having sold over 10 million copies and been certified Platinum (Diamond). Hell, the album’s single, ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, remains one of Petty’s greatest songs of all time. Why wouldn’t you feel inclined to buy it? It has everything you’d ever want from the Gainesville songwriter.” My opinion hasn’t changed. Yes, Torpedoes reigns strong as his masterpiece (with Full Moon Fever a close second), but Greatest Hits culls all the muscle out anyhow. What’s more, the package offers one of the greatest listens front to back you can get out of a rock ‘n’ roll record, thanks to some genius sequencing. Truth: “American Girl” is an opener, not a closer. –Michael Roffman

01. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend

bobmarley The 10 Essential Greatest Hits Albums

Released: 1984

I’ve long argued that Bob Marley’s Legend compilation should be included in every hotel room — y’know, like that book about god and stuff? Whereas one teaches virtues, morals, and faith, the other is just a plain ol’ book. Jokes aside, Legend continues to influence any soul looking for the sun when the skies fail them. It’s an aural relaxer, like six shots of rum, a mixed cocktail of Busiprone and Xanax, or a warm bath aboard a cold beer. “Shocker”: Since its 1984 release, the album remains one of the longest running successes on the Billboard charts — 992 non-consecutive weeks, to be exact — having only been surpassed by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Of course, the late Jamaican legend’s contributions to this world far outweigh any album, song, book, or film, but Legend still feels like the appropriate go-to artifact anytime someone mutters, “Marley…” Blame it on the iconic album cover, which seemingly captures everything about the man in one snapshot, or the string of must-have hits that comfort the soul over its 51 minutes, but Legend is tangible evidence that spirits do exist in music. And to think, reggae musicians have been trying to catch up and work around it for years. No need to, bro. –Michael Roffman

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