As a kid, I studied Nielsen ratings, Variety box office figures and Billboard charts the way other kids studied box scores. I just love this stuff. So let me point out a lost art: compiling a greatest hits albums. Usually, you can't just throw on every Top 40 hit and even the order (chronological? mixing up fast and slow or big hits and minor ones?) can play a crucial role in its effectiveness. A well-chosen greatest hits package can become a massive seller for an artist and become a defining record for them.
On the other hand, repackaging stuff over and over not only annoys fans and depresses overall sales, it can keep an artist from delivering that iconic album that puts them over the top. A friend of mine was astonished when I told him that The Eagles Greatest Hits album was the best-seller of all time, passing even "Thriller" just a few years ago. Then I mentioned that the Eagles foolishly undercut themselves by churning out some new CD compilations that will make that collection obsolete. (Worldwide sales figures are difficult to get -- don't trust Wikipedia -- but one fact is indisputable: in the US "Thriller" has sold 27 million copies and the Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-1975 has sold 29 million copies, per the RIAA.)
Look at the Beatles: they've been one of the best-selling acts in the world for decades but mostly through sales of their original albums. They initially produced two greatest hits albums : double lp/CDs often referred to as the "red" and "blue" albums. And that was it. No, "The Beatles Love Songs" or "The Beatles Rock" or a million other variations they might have come up with. Either buy their albums or these two greatest hits sets. Period. So when they rethought their catalog because of the CD and it's extra length, the Beatles wisely focused on a one CD set with the very obvious hook of songs that went to #1. The result? They sold an astonishing 10 million copies in the US and a reported 28 million worldwide -- all for music that had been widely available for years.
Wisely, they've avoided rushing out an obvious follow-up like #1 Around The World (which could include songs that hit #1 in other countries but not in the US). That would diminish the impact of this top-seller and make it less valuable as THE place to start for casual fans. Elton John had huge album successes but he built his enduring appeal around two terrific compilations -- "Greatest Hits Vol. I" and "Vol. II" that sold massively more than any of his other albums, and did so well into the CD era when their relatively sparse # of tracks should have made them dated.
Madonna got off to a great start with "The Immaculate Collection," a terrifically well-chosen collection of hits that skipped over hit songs that didn't stand the test of time and did some slight remixing to tweak older tracks. (She left off the #1 hit "Who's That Girl," Top 5 hitsd like "Angel and "Dress You Up" and #2 hit "Causing A Commotion" because she knew the album would be better without them.) It equalled her biggest hit album and sold ten million copies in the US alone. Then, instead of being patient and delivering Vol. II when she had enough world-class hits to do so, Madonna flooded the market with teh ballad-heavy "Something To Remember" and then "Greatest Hits Vol. 2" (which wasn't as well chosen) and then "Remixed and Revisited."
So now we come to U2, who have already released several two-disc compilations (one for each decade of their career -- the Eighties and Nineties) filled with bonus tracks, mini-eps after many of their early albums with live tracks and b-sides, and now finally, a proper one disc Greatest Hits CD. Here is the track listing:
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
"Pride (In the Name of Love)"
"With or Without You"
"New Year's Day"
"Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of"
"Where the Streets Have No Name"
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own"
"The Saints Are Coming" (new track w Green Day)
"Window in the Skies" (new track)
Perhaps the one key track missing is "I Will Follow," though there are other hits not here like "Angel of Harlem," "When Love Comes To Town" (w BB King) and "Even Better Than The Real Thing." Songs they wisely chose NOT to include (this is as important as the songs they do include) were "Discotheque," and the Batman song "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me." Have they found the perfect mix and put them in the right order? I think so. This is the album every casual fan will want to own (previously that title went to "The Joshua Tree") and it should certainly far out-sell their previous compilations (the album covering the Nineties barely went platinum, for heaven's sake.) Maybe Madonna et al will watch the success of this CD and learn again the importance of a well-chosen Greatest Hits album.
NOTE: I've edited this story to correct a lazy misperception on my part: in fact, the Beatles have NOT packaged and repackaged their music, as I originally wrote.