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What's so great about greatest hits?

Country Standard Time Editorial, July 1996

Back in the good old days, a greatest hits disc from a musician meant that you really got the performer's hits released.

Not anymore. In today's marketplace, "greatest hits" is a misnomer.

For starters, not everything on a disc may be the greatest for two reasons.

First, a recent phenomena involved in record companies putting out greatest hits packages was that the disc would include one new previously unreleased track as a potential hit. But in recent years, the number of new songs placed on albums has increased.

Hal Ketchum's recent disc, "The Hits," includes three new songs. Confederate Railroad's album includes a few new songs. Clint Black will release a greatest hits package this fall with several new songs as well.

Second, using the words "greatest hits" is open to question. Confederate Railroad released its package as its third disc. Not everything on the album was much of a hit either. Yes, they may have been singles, but nothing every song rolled over the tongues of listeners.

So, what's the problem? For consumers, the answer is a great deal. Greatest hits albums really were a chance for the record buyer to purchase a compilation album when not so enamored of an artist that every release is a must purchase.

That type of buyer is still doing okay with the trend towards including new tracks. Maybe even better since the hits are included as well as a few potential new hits.

Who is hurt? Devoted fans. They are, in effect, forced to purchase a bunch of songs they already have on previously released discs for the sake of buying a few new songs.

Is the increasing number of new cuts on greatest hits albums an attempt to persuade the consumer to reach into the pocket even more?

Of course, no one is forcing record buyers to dole out their hard-earned bucks, but the devoted music fan faces little choice if wanting a complete collection.

Despite concern about this practice, hats off must go to Shenandoah. The band recently released "Now and Then," but with a very different twist. Several new songs were included, but the hits were re-recorded, although not every hit was on the disc. New versions generally were more spare sounding, giving the songs a very different sound.

In this case, consumers were buying a new album of familiar songs.

Unfortunately, few bands or musicians can be accused of trying to re-invent their hits. You don't hear live albums much these days, another way for songs to be reinterpreted.

For the most part, there just isn't anything great about greatest hits.