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Why you shouldn't ignore "greatest hits" albums

What catalog compilations can tell you about an artist

By

Bruce Springteen and Southside Johnny

(l-r) Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny in 1977

Photo by Michael Putland / Getty Images
They go by many different names: anthology, career retrospective, compilation, collection. Some album-oriented purists turn up their noses at these "greatest hits" releases, blowing them off as nothing more than a way for labels, music publishers and songwriters to get another bite of the royalty apple.

Well, of course there is financial incentive. It's called the music business for a reason. But increasingly there are two other significant motivations for reissuing music two, three, or more times.

One is technology. It is amazing what improvements a competent engineer and producer (sometimes the same person) can make by digitally remastering and/or restoring original analog master tapes. For example, the digitally remastered 40th anniversary editions (mono and stereo, released in 2007) of Pink Floyd's 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn revealed vocal and electronic sounds that were all but lost in the original mixes.

Another motivator for a band or artist is to have the opportunity to curate (select the tracks for) their own collections, picking songs based on their intimate knowledge of the music. In one recent case, both factors came into play.

What makes the best the best?

"On any given day, the choices would probably be different. What we wanted to do was capture the essence of the music during that period [1976-81]," said John "Southside Johnny" Lyon in a recent interview with About.com Classic Rock contributor Jim Smith on the release of Playlist: The Very Best of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. "I've got a great record company that pretty much lets me call the shots. Best of all, they provide a support team so I don’t have to do it all myself. I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years. Over 20 albums. Something I love."

As for the technological aspect, "The record company wanted to re-release this material but it really needed to be cleaned up. The technology has just come so far since those songs were originally recorded so we remastered everything." Lyon also wrote the liner notes for the release, another way that the artist gets to be personally involved with the project, and another way for us to hear the music the way the artist hears it.

While choosing individual tracks to include in the collection may have made for some tough decisions, Lyon didn't hesitate when asked to pick out two or three favorites from among nearly 30 albums. "Hearts of Stone, Pills & Ammo and the recently released live version of Men without Women that just kicks ass."

Ultimately, a compilation/collection/anthology/retrospective in which the artist has direct input not only gives us some great music (usually sounding even better than it did originally) but some interesting insight into how the artist perceives his/her "best" work. So think twice the next time you consider a compilation album. You might learn things about the artist that you never knew.
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