The primary problem with hits compilations - and there are many - is that a listener can wander for years under the impression that they possesses a well-rounded understanding of a band's catalog because they've heard the hits. That's not rockist snobbery, that's just the truth. I was at least 20 years old before I started exploring the Rolling Stones' non-hits catalog. Heck, the band's got so many hits, you feel like you've heard it all after you've downed "Brown Sugar," "Start Me Up," and "Satisfaction" for the bajillionth time. Only after I really absorbed the between-hit tracks on Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet that I truly felt I'd begun to get what was great about the band.
Not a greatest hits album. Just a great album.
That said, hits records are essential. They've been starting point for discovery for many of us who weren't there when the original records were released. And serve as a re-introduction for everyone else. They've also been responsible for reducing the public perception of bands to the sum of their most saccharine and radio-friendly. But, hey, that's for another time.
Here's a look at rock history's most essential hits compilations:
10. The Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits: 1974 - 78: Don't get me wrong, I'd rather put something sharper than my elbow down my hearing canal than listen to "Swingtown." But this album is an essential part of discovering rock and roll for millions (both the picking up and putting down). Side note: I distinctly remember reading a list in The Rocket about the top albums owned by people who don't like music. This album was on it. I was incensed!
9. James Taylor, Greatest Hits: Like a good mix tape, sequencing is crucial on hits albums, and this guy knocks it out of the park. I haven't listened to this front to back in over a decade, and I still can't hear "Fire and Rain" without insisting that "Sweet Baby James" is on deck.
8. The Rolling Stones, 40 Licks: A fantastic overview of the arch of the band's career, from the '60s pop of "Satisfaction" to the debaucherous genius of "Tumbling Dice" and the disco-fabulous groove of "Beast of Burden," this album is a treat even for hardcore fans jonesing for a trip to the Chelsea drugstore.
7. Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night: OK, technically this is a live album, but, obviously, a hits record, too. With guests ranging from T-Bone Burnett and Bruce Springsteen to Tom Waits and k.d. lang, it's no wonder PBS viewers open their wallets every time it comes on.
6. The Eagles, Greatest Hits Volume 2: I know, I know. Hold your fire. Let me just say that I once sat next to a guy who was listening to this record and hearing "Hotel California" for the first time. These are great hits that have been overplayed at levels that have given us nothing left to do but create punch lines. OK, in that case, this should be the worst greatest hits album of all time, right?
5. The Grateful Dead, Skeletons From the Closet: For good reason, the Dead are know as a long-form band with wandering -- though often positive -- tendencies. But what's not mentioned enough in primary conversations about this band is what amazing melody makers they were. This collection -- starting at the top, with "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)" straight on through "Uncle John's Band" and "Friend of the Devil" -- is proud testament to their songwritingg and studio proficiency.
4. Elvis Presley, Elv1s 30 #1 Hits: The King's catalog is so convoluted and expansive that a little guidance (when was the last time you had a musical conversation about Presley?) is key. Get your tutorial here.
3. KMCQ 104.5: While not technically an "album," this revolving compilation (better known as a terrestrial radio station) is the best mix of '60s and '70s hits Seattle (or its antenna's home, Covington) has seen since Pat O'Day was twisting the knobs. They mash up KISS, Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys. And unlike just about every other classic rock station, you can't set your watch by the playlist. I challenge you to hear the same song twice in a weekend.
2. Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits: Everybody has (or had) this record, but few people stopped at this record, for obvious reasons. It rests at the opposite end of the "gateway" stack as Steve Miller. Oh, and this guy gets bonus points for the sequencing typo on the cover, which shows the track listing to be "It Ain't Me Babe," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and then "Like a Rolling Stone." In fact, "Like A Rolling Stone" comes in after "It Ain't Me Babe," followed by "Mr. Tambourine Man," and Subterranean Homesick Blues." It was released in 1967, and the typo's never been fixed!
1. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Greatest Hits: Some artists release Greatest Hits records when they've got nothing left. But very few artists introduce the world to their greatest hit with such a complication. But that's pretty much what Petty did on this 1993 release, which introduced the world to "Mary Jane's Last Dance," arguably his best barroom anthem of all time. Which, when you're Tom Effing Petty, is really saying something.