published: 22 /
In the latest instalment in his monthly 'Condemned by Rock 'Roll' column, Benjamin Howarth looks at Christmas and 'Greatest Hits albums
We have reached the time where we are occasionally reminded of the number of shopping days left until Christmas, even though as of yet we are not ourselves thinking about Christmas. (For the record, the Christmas lights are visible in Maidstone town centre, but they have yet to be turned on). The only time I am given any reason at all to consider the season of festivity is when I see a ‘Greatest Hits’ album on the shelves. The record companies - after another year when the best new albums they have to offer haven’t quite cheered up the shareholders enough - are preparing themselves for their favourite sport, snaring casual purchasers. They can almost smell the once-a-year megastore customer, cradling their credit cards as fondly as a hoodie grasps a flick knife.
Greatest Hits albums are their chosen bait. And these essentially fall into two categories. Firstly, we have the genuinely enjoyable collection summing up a fondly remembered and successful career. We also have, however, the desperate last throw of the dice for a band whose moment has evidently passed, and if we are being honest, this is far more common. Some may be inclined to add a third category, that of the good old fashioned record company rip off.
There are some Greatest Hits I firmly recommend. Massive Attack have never quite made a truly satisfactory album, but have recorded some impressive individual tracks, all now helpfully compiled onto a single disc. The Divine Comedy’s independent label albums are frustratingly hard to find, but their 'A Secret History' collection contains the best of these years, and is a treasure trove of artfully constructed pop music. Madonna cleverly timed the release of her 'Immaculate Collection' precisely at the point where she careered wildly off the rails. This means sane folk can enjoy the disco-pop and avoid any of the bilge she produced with William Orbit . Abba’s 'Gold' is worthy of its title, and the reason why only a select minority can name even a single one of their studio albums. Perhaps more in the traditional terrain of this website, Yo La Tengo’s two disc set, 'Prisoners of Love' is uniformly brilliant while The Fall’s '50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong' is ideal, and as much Mark E. Smith as any normal being could possibly want.
But - and this is a big but - falling firmly into the second category are a range of bands whose last studio albums sold dismally few copies or, perhaps, none at all. Mansun are one example. They have had a few hits, and some of these are not half bad. But pity anyone fooled into buying their final bow, 'Legacy'. The problem is simple and obvious. Like most bands in the grand history of popular music, they have not recorded enough decent music to fill a 76 minute CD. I know because, after borrowing the record, I even found time to listen to it. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover. Another annoying trend is for mediocre bands to slap out a 'Peel Sessions' (a Greatest Hits substitute for any band who’ve already burnt that particular golden ticket) in a desperate attempt to remind people they were once credible. 'The Complete Peel Sessions of the House of Love' anybody? Anybody at all?
Some will be aiming for a slightly larger profit margin. Several albums into their careers, and it is Girls Aloud and the Sugababes’ paydays, as the Greatest Hits signals the imminent end of their popularity - whichever member is the "best" singer is surely about to go solo. The question on everybody’s minds - well, actually just on the minds of people who post on internet message boards (none of whom leave their houses all that often, which is probably better for all of us) - is whether a claim not to like the music of Girls Aloud makes you a rockist or is just welcome honesty. But if you do happen to think that they’ve made some catchy pop singles, this is the release for you. Just as is the case with all other boy/girl bands, their other albums will soon stop being stocked. Buyers can now ignore all the filler that clogs up the albums of even the most successful pop bands. (All of Take That’s albums went to number one, but I honestly can’t remember a single one of their names. Can you?)
Needing something to sell in the wake of their ‘Outstanding Contribution’ award at next year’s Brits, it is time for Oasis to give us a Greatest Hits, but they have taken a peculiar route. Three UK number one singles and five songs which made the top 5 fail to make the cut ('Songbird', which is included, charted lower (no.3) than all but two of their post 1994 singles). But four songs already compiled on their B-Sides album (the highpoint of their career, actually) are included. This compilation is neither a collection of the band’s best songs ( the horrible 'Go Let It Out' is on it, after all), nor a fair reflection of its career. But sales are sure to be as high as Sony’s marketing man predicted.
Their great rivals Blur had bitten the bullet years ago, so we can hardly begrudge Oasis. Are there any bands who will turn down a large royalties cheque in a year when they haven’t actually done any work at all? And, indeed, it could be far, far worse. “Want to buy Gene’s Greatest Hits disc, ‘The Collection’?”, Amazon’s weekly promotional e-mail politely asks me. No, I really don’t think I do…