When Alan Partridge gave a knowing smile and declared his favourite Beatles album to be “The Best Of The Beatles”, the joke was on you. It was instantly obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Fabs compilation discography that there was no Greatest Hits album by that name. Amongst real Beatles fans, Alan favouring “The Best Of The Beatles” was actually an obscure sign of the cult connoisseur.
According to Discogs, he was referring either to an unofficial four-track 7-inch called ‘The Best Of The Beatles’ released only in Thailand in 1966, featuring the most experimental tracks from ‘Revolver’; a rare and valuable 1969 Taiwanese pressing of the Red album; or, most likely, the 1971 solo album ‘Best Of The Beatles’ by the band’s original drummer Pete Best. Alan was revealing himself not a fly-by-night Beatles part-timer at all, but an avid collector, an appreciator of the depths, roots and dark corners of the global Beatles diaspora. This isn’t someone who realised how meta ‘Glass Onion’ was and stopped there, this guy’s listened to the whole of John & Yoko’s fucking ‘Wedding Album’, on import, and thought to himself ‘now this is the band The Beatles could have been.’
Perhaps, in laughing at Alan rather than bell boy Ben, you fell foul of the “snobbery about Greatest Hits” that Alex Kapranos identified this week, announcing Franz Ferdinand’s forthcoming best of ‘Hits To The Head’. For decades, they’ve been associated with ubiquitous mainstream dullards cashing in at Christmas, but not for Alex. “I love Greatest Hits records!” he told NME. “I grew up with Greatest Hits records. My folks didn’t have a 4,000 LP record collection. They had best-ofs, they had Greatest Hits, they had ‘Changes’ by Bowie. They didn’t have ‘Low’, they didn’t have ‘Lodger’ – and that was enough for them.”
“They just wanted to hear the best bits,” he continued, “they just wanted to hear the hits. That’s great. If that’s all they wanted to hear, if that’s all these needed to hear from those artists then fuck it – you enjoy that! But also, those records were something else. That’s what it was for them, but for me it was an introduction: it was that doorway that I could step through into the world of those artists.”
I’m with Kapranos Jr. While I’ve dabbled occasionally in singles compilations by the likes of East 17, 10cc or Leo Sayer (I was seven, m’lud) purely to get all the big nostalgic hitters in one place, for me Greatest Hits records have always been akin to a taster menu for an act, a chance to sample the signature dishes before deciding to order everything on the menu coated in gold and spend the rest of my life metaphorically posting the receipt on Insta. T Rex, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Kate Bush and, yes, The Beatles – all acts I fell in lifelong love with on these aural speed-dates.
- Read more – The greatest Best Of albums… ever!
Greatest Hits comps are not just gold disc laden entrance lobbies to sprawling palaces of delight either. They’re also a chance to check the décor for signs of damp. If a band’s singles collection can barely manage a dozen solid crackers and starts peeling at the edges by track eight, then their album filler is going to rival the depths of ‘DONDA’ for throwawayability. And even that’s a big tick for the ‘best of’ – you get all the tracks you’re going to like, safe in the knowledge that you’ve saved time and (ten years ago) money not bothering with Marillion’s ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’.
In fact, if the comp is even roughly chronological – which all respectable hits albums should be – they act as a crash course in the history and development of an act allowing you to pinpoint the eras you most want to explore further. Here’s where you find out if you’re more Syd Barrett tottering around on a psychedelic jelly bike or Roger Waters scratching the eyes out of his old school photos. Or if you’d rather listen to modern day Radiohead or the band in their young and carefree ‘sod it lads, let’s have a chorus on this one’ days. There’s an ancient rhyme that rarely steers listeners wrong: Albini’s at the desk, check out the rest; Mel C’s guesting here, steer well clear.
I’ve even come around to the idea of bands chucking a couple of new songs on, a cynical marketing ploy to get diehard fans to shell out again for music they’ve already got back in the CD age, but a forgivable way of stirring up interest in their lap of honour now that we can stream the new ones anyway. And with the algorithm effectively feeding us a constant stream of the most popular songs by any artist we show a modicum of interest in, we live in a Greatest Hits world now – why fight it?
Many of the best-selling albums of all time are best ofs: The Eagles, ABBA, Bob Marley, Queen, Madonna, The Beatles. So let’s celebrate them as the mark of achievement and longevity they are; not stocking filling consumerist tat from career-fading sell-outs but something for bands to aspire to. Even Wolf Alice, on one of 2021’s best albums, scream “play the greatest hits!” After all, we can’t all be as clued up as Partridge…