For some bands, it’s all about the albums. For others, though, it’s all about the songs — and you’ll need a handful of best-of sets, too, for your fateful trip to this isolated desert isle.
Our well-listened passengers, in the latest edition of Desert Island Discs, say that Bob Marley and the Beach Boys (with three separate mentions) have issued must-have greatest-hits compilations. Elsewhere, the Rolling Stones, Steve Wonder, Chuck Berry and the Kinks were mentioned twice, as well.
Dig deeper, and there are hits packages from the Beatles, Steve Miller, the Temptations, James Taylor, Jim Croce and Al Green, among others …
1. AL GREEN – AL GREEN’S GREATEST HITS (1975): A mere five years after he burst onto the scene with “Tired of Being Alone,” Green had ten charters that made producer Willie Mitchell’s Memphis soul sound the stuff of legend. This is all the backup needed to make the claim that Green is the last in the line of the classic, all-time great soul singers.
2. ROLLING STONES – FORTY LICKS (2002): The ultimate singles band in rock got a long overdue career- and label-spanning collection of most of their hits and other essential cuts.
3. STEVIE WONDER – ORIGINAL MUSICQUARIUM, VOLS. I-II (1982): This collection not only neatly spans Wonder’s chart-busting singles during his most creative part of his reign (1972-1982), but even the four new tracks tacked on are all good, too.
4. THE ISLEY BROTHERS – THE ISLEY’S GREATEST HITS, VOL. 1 (1984): Like the Wonder compilation, this one is a favorite of mine because it scans their best period: the era of the expanded, “3 + 3″ band, plus the earlier “It’s Your Thing” tossed in for good measure.
5. PAUL CARRACK – TWENTY-ONE GOOD REASONS: THE PAUL CARRACK COLLECTION (1994): If anyone needed a compilation record to pull together his best moments, that would be the guy whose sung lead on hits by at least three diffrent bands (Ace, Squeeze, Mike and the Mechanics), as well as a few under his own name. Carrack’s blue-eyed soulful pipes bring all these disparate pieces together, like the UK’s answer to Hall and Oates. It’s a voice that well outpaces his name recognition.
1. BEACH BOYS – ENDLESS SUMMER (1974): This collection not only breathed new life into irresistible old favorites, but captured many new fans, which I saw first-hand during my first record store job when playing the just-released double album for in-store play among a wide-ranging demographic elicited good vibrations and many impulse sales.
2. CHUCK BERRY – THE GREAT TWENTY-EIGHT (1982): The importance, influence, and craftsmanship of Chuck Berry’s music cannot be overstated, as is attested to with this collection. Culling the cuts from Berry’s first nine years in music, Twenty-Eight also necessitates the benefit of disallowing a not-so-nice 29th, “My Ding-A-Ling.”
3. THE KINKS – THE KINK KRONIKLES (1972): Whether considered commercially or critically, this is another “great twenty-eight” as such hits as “Sunny Afternoon,” “Lola,” and the affecting “Waterloo Sunset” find comparable company among other well-chosen tracks from the group’s 1966-’70 prime. Thank you for the “Days,” indeed.
4. THE RASPBERRIES – GREATEST (2005): With their matching suits, perfect hair, and Beatlesque brand of harmony-teemed melodies, the Raspberries of the early ’70s were never quite in season. Nevertheless, the pure pop-rock of such tracks as the sublime “Go All the Way,” the exultant “Ecstasy,” or the angst-in-my-pants “I Don’t Know What I Want” mark the timelessness of Eric Carmen’s striving to be an overnight sensation.
5. HARRY NILSSON – PERSONAL BEST: THE HARRY NILSSON ANTHOLOGY (1995): More than a Lennon-befriended lost-weekender, Nilsson had a varied career as wide-ranging as his vocal scale, with songs marked by the tunefulness and witty craftsmanship this comprehensive 49-track retrospective amply allows.
1. THE BEATLES – 20 GREATEST HITS (1982): While the 1 collection may have since supplanted this one, this early-80s album will always remain close to my heart. It remains the first Beatles disc I ever owned, and my introduction to the major hits from “Love Me Do” to “The Long and Winding Road.”
2. JAMES TAYLOR – GREATEST HITS (1976): Today this compilation still stands as his best-selling album. Looking at the stellar track list, it’s not hard to imagine why. It contains classics like “Fire and Rain,” but also includes a delightfully gritty and profane “Steamroller.”
3. FRANK SINATRA – THE VERY BEST OF FRANK SINATRA (1997): To me, Sinatra’s peak came during his tenure with Reprise. This incredible collection spotlights a master at the height of his artistry. Exhibit A: Sinatra’s version of the beautiful Brazilian jazz standard “Wave.”
4. STEVIE WONDER – AT THE CLOSE OF A CENTURY (1999): While the four-CD set may be a bit pricey, its sublime contents make it well worth the money. Unlike previous collections like Original Musiquarium I, this set provides a thorough overview of his long career.
5. BOB MARLEY: LEGEND: THE BEST OF BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS (1984): I had heard little reggae until this album was released; Legend exposed me to a new world of music. It took me a while, but the sheer poetry of tracks like “Redemption Song” finally converted me into a Marley — and reggae — fan.
1. STAN GETZ – THE VERY BEST OF STAN GETZ (2002): This album features “Night Rider” from Getz’s collaboration with Eddie Sauter, which is in my opinion is one of, if not the greatest saxophone-with-strings recordings of all time.
2. STING – THE VERY BEST OF STING AND THE POLICE (1998): This album has EVERYTHING you’d need from Sting — from “Message in a Bottle” and “If You Love Somebody…” to “Fields of Gold” and “If I’d Ever Lose My Faith in You.”
3. CHARLIE PARKER – YARDBIRD SUITE: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (1997): It’s got Bird with Dizzy, Miles, and even with strings. It also features several tracks from a live radio broadcast of “Charlie Parker’s All-Stars” where they are absolutely burnin’ — especially on “A Night in Tunisia,” where Bird is soaring!
4. THE O’JAYS – THE VERY BEST OF THE O’JAYS (1998): Of course, “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” are great, but what really makes this album among my favorites are songs like “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby” and “Livin’ for the Weekend.”
5. BILLIE HOLIDAY – LADY DAY: THE BEST OF BILLIE HOLIDAY (2001): Notably, this album features Billie and Prez (Lester Young) before their falling out. They didn’t reunite until years later, right before Prez’s death during a live performance of “Fine and Mellow” on a CBS television program.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We revisit timeless favorites from the Who, with all of their shuddering energy (equal parts speed, raw fury and rangy emotion) and, yeah, a little nudge-nudge humor here and there.]
1. THE DOORS – THE BEST OF THE DOORS (1985): This two-disc compilation was the record that led me to discover The Doors, and it pretty much still satisfies most of my Doors needs.
2. THE RAMONES – RAMONES MANIA (1988): The Ramones, to me, are a band tailor-made for the compilation treatment. You can fit 30 songs on one disc, and, if I’m being honest, I think there’s a good bit of filler in the Ramones’ catalog. This one doesn’t have everything I’d like, but it’s pretty close.
3. THE WHO – THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (2002): I looked for a long time for a Who collection that brought together most of the songs that I wanted from the band, and this one is about as good as it gets. Who fans may throw things at me for not digging into the full-album experience, but it is what it is.
4. JIMI HENDRIX – THE ULTIMATE EXPERIENCE (1992): My guitar card might get pulled over this, but this 20-song collection has become my go-to Hendrix listening experience. I can’t remember the last time I pulled out one of the actual albums.
5. STEPPENWOLF – 16 GREATEST HITS (1973): As far as I’m concerned, this could be the only Steppenwolf album ever released. I was introduced to the band via an 8-track copy of this collection, and it’s followed me ever since. I may be missing some great songs in their catalog, but this one’s got all the Steppenwolf I need.
1. CHUCK BERRY – THE GREAT TWENTY-EIGHT (1982): John Lennon once famously said, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Well, before Chuck Berry there really was nothing. Out of print but nonetheless essential for those in need of a crash course in rock and roll, this one-disc anthology culls the cream of the crop.
2. THE KINKS – THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (2002): This import double-disc set makes a mighty strong case for why this most British of the British Invasion bands should be held in as high regard as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Masterful track follows masterful track here, highlighting how Ray Davies wrote songs like Charles Dickens wrote stories.
3. THE TEMPTATIONS – ANTHOLOGY SERIES: THE BEST OF THE TEMPTATIONS (1995): The albums that came out of Motown didn’t really become essential until Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder broke the label mold to ultimately shape their own careers. The singles were the shit, though, and no vocal group save for the Supremes rivaled the ones released by the Temptations.
4. TOM JONES – RELOADED: THE GREATEST HITS (2003): The Welsh legend’s career spans a lot of songs, and the best of them — from chart toppers (“It’s Not Unusual,” “Green, Green Grass of Home”) to showstoppers (“She’s A Lady,” “Delilah”) to panty droppers (“Kiss,” “Help Yourself”) — are on this set. Heck, where else are you gonna find “What’s New Pussycat?” and “Sexbomb” on the same album?
5. JAMES INGRAM – THE POWER OF GREAT MUSIC (1991): The voice is instantly familiar though the name, unfortunately, is not. Ingram was introduced to the masses by Quincy Jones, whose 1981 LP The Dude included “One Hundred Ways” and “Just Once,” both instant Ingram classics. However, the songs were credited to the legendary producer rather than to the emerging artist, which unintentionally though inarguably hindered Ingram’s progress as a recording artist for years thereafter. The collection sets the record straight.
1. THE BEACH BOYS – ENDLESS SUMMER (1974): Part “greatest hits” and part “best of” there isn’t a weak cut on this double LP set. Issued in semi-chronological order, it was the first time many people ever heard tracks such as the beautiful symphonic jazz song “Let Him Run Wild.” This compilation revitalized the boys career and made them stars again.
2. SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE – GREATEST HITS (1970): Sly’s regular LPs are great too but if you want to have a beach party on your island, this album has all his best stuff that you can dance to all night long. It’s the hits and only the hits.
3. DAVE BRUBECK – DAVE BRUBECK’S GREATEST HITS (1997): You need to try and make room for Brubeck’s classic Time Out album, but if you can’t this one will do. A short but outstanding introduction to Brubeck’s most productive years. He even makes “The Trolley Song” sound cool and, of course, it includes “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Take Five.”
4. DAVE CLARK FIVE – DAVE CLARK’S GREATEST HITS (1965): A quintessential singles band, these loud power-poppers even challenged the Beatles throne for a short spell in 1964. This record has everything you’ll ever need.
5. NAT ‘KING’ COLE – GREATEST HITS (1994): Perhaps the smoothest jazz/lounge singer ever. The man could sing anything and he proves it here. From “Route 66” and “Mona Lisa,” to “Ramblin’ Rose” and beyond. All the big hits over 22 tracks.
1. JIM CROCE – PHOTOGRAPHS AND MEMORIES: HIS GREATEST HITS (1974): Like many profound artists, Croce passed away with what seemed to be a lifetime of greatness ahead of him, unrealized by his tragic early death. But as this collection proves, the amazing music Croce made in a two-year span is almost more than any band or songwriter could ever hope to accomplish.
2. PHIL SPECTOR – BACK TO MONO (1991): Before Phil Spector was that alien looking fellow you’ve seen in recent court footage, he produced amazing music. This collection highlights Spector’s famous “wall of sound” over a ten year span (1959-69) through artists like Ike and Tina Turner, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and Ben E. King.
3. BOB MARLEY – SONGS OF FREEDOM (1992): Unlike Legend, this Bob Marley collection isn’t geared toward the everyday listener. This box set has what seems like an endless supply of amazing Marley recordings, but you’re not going to find anything you’ll hear on Radio Margaritaville. Instead you get a raw, unique take of the artist’s short life, and in chronological order.
4. BOB DYLAN – THE ORIGINAL MONO RECORDINGS (2010): This is the easiest call out of the bunch. Listening to Dylan’s first eight albums in mono format is like watching sports for the first time in HD. There’s no going back. The mono format of Freewheelin’ alone is worth the coin on this collection.
5. JOURNEY – GREATEST HITS (1988): I don’t recall Journey ever having any albums, just this greatest hits collection that is still selling as many copies a year as the King James Bible.
1. BOB MARLEY – LEGEND (1984): Marley’s catalog in its entirety is pretty amazing, but this if you’re lookin’ for some great summertime skankin’, this is the place.
2. BLACK SABBATH – GREATEST HITS (1986): Sure, I already owned We Sold Our Soul For Rock ‘n’ Roll, but there was something so comical about Sabbath having “greatest hits” that I just had to buy this.
3. MADONNA – THE IMMACULATE COLLECTION (1990): Purchased for the sultry “Justify My Love.” The rest is pretty good too.
4. SQUEEZE – SINGLES 45′S AND UNDER (1982): One of the greatly underappreciated power pop bands of all time.
5. JETHRO TULL – M.U.: THE BEST OF JETHRO TULL (1976): My introduction to Tull. It seemed every rock fan in the ’70s owned this one.
1. CHICAGO – ONLY THE BEGINNING: THE VERY BEST OF CHICAGO (2002): I actually don’t have this collection, as I already own all of their individual albums and a few of their other greatest hits compilations. But given the tracklist on this set, none of their other compilations is near as complete/all encompassing as this one. And if I’m stuck on a desert island I’d want at least some music from my favorite band.
2. BILLY JOEL – GREATEST HITS VOLS. I-II (1985): Honestly, I really only need Volume I and maybe the first 2 or 3 songs off of Volume II. I much prefer Joel’s earlier material over his later material; his music jumped the shark after he married Christie Brinkley. And most of the second disc is from the Brinkley period in his life and is rather forgettable — some may argue, regrettable.
3. QUEEN – CLASSIC QUEEN (1992): When “Wayne’s World” dusted off the classic rock gem, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and introduced it to a new generation, I sat up and took notice. While I did go through a Queen phase, these days Classic Queen sates my jones for their music more often than not.
4. DEF LEPPARD – VAULT (1995): I still thoroughly enjoy Def Leppard and still listen to most of their earlier albums in their entirety. But sometimes, I’m in a mood to “taste” rather than “gorge myself” on them — not to mention this collection includes the bonus track, “When Love & Hate Collide” which I thoroughly enjoy.
5. STYX – GREATEST HITS (1995): I went through a phase where I was deep into Styx’s music. But my tastes changed/outgrew them. When I get a hankering for Styx these days, this album hits the spot.
1. STEVE MILLER – GREATEST HITS: 1974-78 (1978): The record that launched a thousand — maybe, more — Saturday nights in college. If you weren’t ready to go by the time the first four songs (“Swingtown,” “Jungle Love,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Rock ‘n Me”) were done, your ass got left.
2. BEACH BOYS – ENDLESS SUMMER (1974): Combining the Four Freshmen’s vocal interplay, Chuck Berry’s erudite rock sensibilities and finally Phil Spector’s wondrous pop bombast, the Beach Boys crafted a hall of fame legacy out of summer’s most recognizable attributes: glistening optimism, dreamy romanticism, and unabashed nostalgia. It’s all here.
3. ELTON JOHN – GREATEST HITS: 1970-2002 (2002): The albums are fine, but the singles were always better. Not until 2002, however, could you get both his classic-period 1970s tracks and the later stuff in one spot. I’m not a huge fan of Elton, post-1976, but I have to have “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.”
4. ROLLING STONES – FORTY LICKS (2002): This is a band that used to be an album-rock artist for me, and is now a hits artist. Too many potholes in the studio efforts. With this, I get my “She’s a Rainbow” and “Get Off of My Cloud” but also my “Start Me Up” and “Love is Strong.”
5. HALL AND OATES – THE ESSENTIAL HALL AND OATES (2005): Hall and Oates are, of course, the poster boys for what happens when hair gel meets R&B. Funny thing is, they were originally anything but polished. You get the best of both eras on this one, including tasty deep cuts from “Back Together Again” to “Your Imagination.”