There's No Shame in Loving a Greatest Hits Album

Playlists on Spotify and Apple Music have rendered best-of compilations obsolete—but that isn't stopping Spoon from releasing one.
July 24, 2019, 11:00am
Spoon
Photo by Oliver Haflin, courtesy of Matador

To anyone who has a Spotify account, what Spoon is about to do probably doesn’t make sense. On Friday, the band is putting out a greatest hits record, compiling 12 of their most quintessential songs from the past two decades—along with one brand-new cut—for an album they're calling Everything Hits at Once. They've certainly earned the right to: After making eight consistent, staggeringly good albums since 2001, they've cemented their status as scions of indie rock (and darlings of at least two presidential hopefuls), worthy of a retrospective that shows just how strong their catalog is. Then again, it's 2019: The greatest hits record is dead, and streaming services killed it.

Open Spotify, search for your favorite artist, and you'll find the platform already made them a de facto "best of" compilation—an auto-generated playlist called "This Is: [X]." Apple Music does the same thing with its "Essentials" mixes, though those are human-curated. Together, they've effectively replaced greatest hits albums as go-to guides to virtually every major artist's oeuvre, collecting their biggest and best songs in one easily accessible place. They're part of the reason you almost never see a greatest hits record come out nowadays, and the reason news of Everything Hits at Once left people scratching their heads—essentially, the compilation already exists. Spotify's "This Is: Spoon" includes 12 of the 13 songs on the album; Apple's "Spoon: Essentials" includes all of them.

So why do artists and labels keep on making these things? Green Day, Kylie Minogue, Train, Daughtry, and My Chemical Romance have all released greatest hits collections in the past five years—but all of them already have best-of playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

"The greatest hits album itself is an obsolete idea," Paul Resnikoff, an industry expert who runs the trade publication Digital Music News, told VICE. "It doesn’t make any sense for the modern music fan at all, and the modern music industry whatsoever."

Spoon and its label, Matador Records, aren't ignorant of that fact—they just had other motivations. Frontman Britt Daniel said he's wanted to make a greatest hits album for years. Compilations like The Cure's Standing on a Beach and New Order's Substance introduced him to those bands, and he's hoping Everything Hits at Once does the same thing for people who are discovering Spoon for the first time. A good number of folks might be about to: The band just kicked off a nationwide tour with Beck and Cage the Elephant, and they’re selling Everything Hits at Once at the merch table.

"I love a greatest hits LP when it’s done well," Daniel said in a statement. "It can be a thing unto itself.”

Chris Lombardi, the founder and co-president of Matador, admitted that he and his colleagues had "mixed feelings" about making Everything Hits at Once. "Financially, these days," he said, "it was probably a questionable choice." But to him, that's not what matters.

"It starts a dialogue again about how great the band is," he told VICE. "They’ve been doing this for so long, and they’ve just been honing and honing their skills. I mean, Britt Daniel is one of the great American songwriters. That he’s been at it for so long, and making these killer fuckin’ records year-in year-out, I think it’s appropriate that there’s this acknowledgement of that body of work."

For Lombardi, there's a unique value to an official, artist-approved greatest hits compilation. As opposed to a Spotify playlist auto-generated by an algorithm, albums like Everything Hits at Once come from the bands: Spoon hand-picked the track list, and sequenced the record themselves. "It’s their greatest hits," Lombardi said—not some giant corporation's data-driven, machine-assisted determination of what matters most in an artist's catalog.

The question is whether or not listeners actually care about the difference. "This Is" playlists are immensely popular: Spoon's has more than 19,000 followers on Spotify, whereas "The Official Night Running Tour Playlist," which the band made ahead of its upcoming tour, has just 212. It's hard to imagine Everything Hits at Once supplanting "This Is: Spoon" as a definitive collection of the band's music when fans already have one.

Faced with that reality, greatest hits records are becoming a thing of the past; Resnikoff said he's "98 percent" confident they're going to die out completely. Some folks—like the minds behind Pitchfork's 3,000-word "Why the Death of Greatest Hits Albums and Reissues Is Worth Mourning," or Salon's "In Defense of the Lowly Greatest Hits Album"—see that inevitability as a major cultural loss. But maybe the death of the greatest hits record isn't such a bad thing.

"I don't know if I want to hoist up the greatest hits album as this great form of artistic expression that got lost," Resnikoff said. "It just seems like it’s getting replaced by different experiences."

Even if the greatest hits record ultimately disappears, there's a case to be made that we're not actually losing anything. The value of these compilations is their ability to distill an artist's career into something accessible and arresting, a series of choice cuts that hits hard, front-to-back, every time you listen. Something that reminds you how much you love a band—or, if you're just discovering them, something that shows them at their best, and encourages you to dig deeper.

The format isn't important—playlist, CD, LP—it's the process of discovery and rediscovery that matters, the feeling you get when you hear "I Turn My Camera On" fade into "Do You," immediately followed by "Don't You Evah," and you get goosebumps. You remember just how much Spoon means to you; you remember what it was like to hear them for the first time.

No matter how much the music industry might change—no matter how it comes to you—that feeling isn't going anywhere.

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