I have a confession. I love greatest hits CDs, which I think in some ways is considered uncool for a somewhat musically hip person like myself who buys 30-40 new CDs a year, writes the occasional CD review for print, interned at a major music magazine once, and so forth. But an impromptu survey of my music collection shows more than 100 of my 600 or so CDs are "Greatest Hits" collections of some kind, box sets, et cetera. From Al Green to Mudhoney to No Doubt to Johnny Cash to The Chills to Squeeze to -- you get the picture.
Far more professional music critics and fans than myself preach the gospel of the album, but it's a medium which is slowly losing traction in the days of mp3s and "Now!" singles collections. I do love great albums, from "Sgt.'s Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to Peter Gabriel's "So" to Iggy and the Stooges' "Raw Power" (but enough of the "from x to y" comparisions already). A great album has a flow and organic quality a hits collection admittedly can't touch.
Yet there's a lot of musicians out there whose work comes across better in quick single hits for me. I've been re-reading Nick Hornby's excellent essay collection "Songbook", which spurred me on to think about great songs as something separate from their albums. A perfect single is a gem. For instance, a recent CD purchase was (to completely abandon my attempts at being cool) Duran Duran's "Greatest." I used to own some Duran Duran albums on cassette back in the day, but you know, a lot of the non-hit singles stuff was crap. But on "Greatest," I have 19 songs of more or less gold to sift through (including the best James Bond theme of the last 20 years, "A View To A Kill," no matter what anyone says). Or take Eminem -- an artist who's created some utterly great singles like "Lose Yourself" and "Without Me," but his CDs - well, I like a lot of "The Eminem Show," but you know, the stupid comedy skits and half-baked trash talk songs are disposable on a first listen, and downright annoying on a second and third go-round. Which is why I'll probably pick up the inevitable Eminem "Greatest Hits" CD somewhere down the line. Fewer and fewer artists create music with an eye for the entire album these days, which is why so many albums are half gold, half lead at least. Green Day's awesome "American Idiot" is the rare example of a modern concept album that works, an album whose parts are less than the whole.
Snootier music critics look down at Greatest Hits CDs, and I'll admit a lot of artists whom I'd much rather listen to the entire albums of -- Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Wilco, The White Stripes. But as someone who likes to keep his horizons as broad as possible, and is pretty at home listening to Willie Nelson or Tool or The Ramones, greatest hits collections are like a fine steak -- all meat, not an ounce of fat, and filling as hell.