From the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s to Radiohead’s Kid A, the history of rock music is fixated with the long-play record. Superseding 78s at the end of the 1950s, the album era of the ’60s saw artists conceptualise their work within the expanded parameters of the new medium. Typically, twenty minutes per side, broken down into four to six tracks, LPs were a hit with music producers and consumers alike. The Beatles’ Revolver and Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds are both definitive of the genre and period, elevating pop to a level previously occupied by art and other classical forms. As rock moved into the 1970s, the double LP gained popularity, particularly for live recordings, as concept albums like Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink Floyd’s The Wall began to proliferate.
While punk reminded audiences of the excitement of the 7-inch single and 12-inch mixes were central to disco, the vinyl LP continued to be the key format on which new music was consumed by audiences well into the 1980s. The launch of the CD did little to change this. Beginning with ABBA’s The Visitors in 1982, the next few years saw a slow trickle of releases that included Billy Joel’s 52nd Street and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Aside from the limitations of the catalogue, the cost was also a prohibitive factor in attracting consumers to the new medium. In its early years, the CD was far more successful at gaining a foothold in the audiophile community of classical music fans, where its superior sound fidelity was a unique selling point.
All this changed in the second half of the ’80s, as the cost of the new technology settled down, and the original Baby Boomer teenagers of the ’60s found themselves in a position of middle-aged affluence. Much is made of the release of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms as the album that kickstarted the CD revolution. Concurrent to Live Aid, it was a fully digital recording and the first release to sell more than a million copies on the new format. However, it was the re-release of the Beatles’ back catalogue in 1987 that made the CD the first choice for hi-fi aficionados. When Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band peaked at number three in the summer of ’87, the concept of the ‘classic album’ was born.
In the aftermath came a deluge of CD releases by contemporaries to The Beatles, including The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, The Kinks, and Jimmy Hendrix. Look at the ’80s cover stars of the newly launched Q magazine, and it is clear that the legacy of artists from the ’60s and ’70s was being repositioned as a heritage product. The CD had become a consumer event around which the history of rock was being constructed, a history that was, coincidentally, very white, male, and guitar-orientated. While the Beatles’ cache was sufficient to justify the extra investment in an individual album, Sgt. Pepper’s was the only ‘classic album’ to actually make the Top ten. Far more popular was the compilation album re-release, or ‘greatest hits’ as they were often stylized.
Between 1986 and 1996, the greatest hits was a tour de force, peaking in 1992 with twenty-nine compilations making the top ten, and 47 per cent of the end of year Top 30 comprised of re-releases and anthologies. Big selling greatest hits of that era included Eurythmics, Queen, Tina Turner, Madonna, Paul Young, Cher, and Simple Minds. In part, this was because the greatest hits album represented excellent value for money. At a time when CDs were approximately a third more expensive than vinyl and cassette editions, the greatest hits offered a sure return on relatively high investment. The success of the greatest hits album was also about the generational shift. The nostalgia of middle-aged Baby Boomers had outmanoeuvred the diminished cultural prerogative of Generation X. It is here. We also encounter the first generation Y teenagers, who would become the Millennial consumers of pop history in the 21st Century.
The success of the greatest hits also represented a very liminal time in British pop, coinciding with both the end of the ’80s and an anticipation of the 21st Century. It was a moment of cultural retrospection, apprehensive about the future and sentimental about the past. The CD encapsulated this. Fixing the legacy of popular music stars for future generations. The format also marked a full-stop for several key artists including Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Spandau Ballet, etc. For some, like Sting, Paul Weller, and Annie Lennox, they were the springboard to solo superstardom. While for others, they were a curse, reframing a contemporary brand as a heritage product, and curating back catalogues as artefacts in an imaginary museum.
Like snakes and ladders, a blockbuster greatest hits had the potential to derail solo careers, induce writer’s block, or conclude an imperial phase. Here we take a look at ten killer best-ofs that changed the way audiences thought about rock history, pigeon-holing individuals as “album artists”, placing some on a pedestal while serving to fix others in a particular time window or identity.
The curse of the Greatest Hits
Kate Bush – The Whole Story (1986)
Like many CD greatest hits, Kate Bush’s The Whole Story was somewhat premature, appearing little more than twelve months after the care:er-defining The Hounds of Love. Cultivated from the five albums released between 1978 and 1985, it topped the UK charts and became the best-selling LP of her career, eventually being certified as quadruple platinum, with sales of over a million.
The week of its release, Bush had two singles in the Top 30, ‘Don’t Give Up’ with Peter Gabriel and ‘Experiment IV’ from the anthology. The follow-up, 1989’s The Sensual World, sold far less, peaking at two in the UK, shifting only 300,000 units, and yielding one Top 20 single with the title track. The ensuing years would see Bush become ever more reclusive, with a twelve-year gap between 1993’s The Red Shoes and her 21st Century ‘comeback’ album Aerial.
It is not that The Whole Story killed Bush’s career, far from it. But it placed her music on a pedestal, which she found increasingly difficult to live up to. And, in terms of the singles chart, it would not be until 2005 that she would return to the top ten with ‘King of the Mountain’.
Paul McCartney – All The Best (1987)
Released at the end of 1987, the same year that The Beatles arrived on CD, All The Best collected McCartney solo tracks with selected highlights from his career with Wings. The album peaked at number two in the UK, eventually going double platinum, it also included the top ten single ‘Once Upon Long Ago’. While his next release, Flowers in the Dirt, topped the UK album chart, in the future McCartney would be a stranger to the singles chart, having clocked up six top five placings in the first half of the decade. These included ‘Coming Up’, ‘Ebony and Ivory’, ‘Say Say Say’, ‘No More Lonely Nights’, ‘Pipes of Peace’, and ‘We All Stand Together’. His final Top 20 hits of the 1980s, ‘My Brave Face’ and ‘This One’, both stalled at number 18, an achievement he pulled off just once more in 1992 with ‘Hope of Deliverance’.
McCartney has been a mainstay of the album chart, with his most recent offering, McCartney III, reaching number one in 2020. However, he operates in a different league, in which the fickleness of the singles chart is not relevant. His legacy as a Beatle has fixed his place in rock history, celebrated on numerous charity singles and collaborations, like 2015’s team-up with Rihanna and Kanye West on ‘FourFiveSeconds’, which went top five in the US and UK.
Dire Straits – Money For Nothing (1988)
Dire Straits’ fifth LP, 1985’s Brothers In Arms, was the first album to sell over a million copies on CD. With ‘Money For Nothing’ and ‘Walk of Life’ both making the UK Singles top five, and a further three tracks making the Top 30, it helped embed the blockbuster album format pioneered by Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982. When they tried to repeat the same trick six years later, with On Every Street, the album made it to number one, but only one of the six singles released made the charts.
The intervening years had, of course, seen the release of ‘Money For Nothing’, a chart-topping round-up of tracks culled from the band’s first five albums. A worthy quadruple platinum follow-up to Brothers In Arms, it fixed the bands’ legacy but also framed Dire Straits as a heritage act. The band called it quits in October 1992, never releasing another original album and citing a change in the zeitgeist as the reason. Thirty years on and it is both their contribution to the success of the compact disc, as well as the ground-breaking video for the MTV-satirising single ‘Money for Nothing’ that is central to the legacy of Dire Straits.
Fleetwood Mac – Greatest Hits (1988)
Like Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac enjoyed an Indian summer in the late ’80s courtesy of the new CD format. After a five-year hiatus, 1987’s Tango In The Night sold over two and half million copies to the Baby Boomers who had bought Rumours a decade previously. The album contained six singles, three of which made the top ten in the UK. ‘Big Love’, ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Little Lies’ fitted with the polished sound of post-Live Aid FM Rock, defined by the likes of Eurythmics, Tina Turner, and Bryan Adams.
Their follow-up, 1990’s Behind The Mask, recorded without Lindsey Buckingham duly topped the album chart but sold only 300,000 copies. As with Dire Strait’s, the audience had been love-bombed by a triple-platinum Greatest Hits in 1988, which compiled everything from the Buckingham Nicks’ era on one 66-minute compact disc.
The classic line-up would reunite in 1997 for the live album The Dance but never recorded new music in the formation after Tango In The Night. While the band continues to pack arenas in the 21st Century, playing to generations of fans born long after their imperial phase, the 1988 greatest hits package marks the line in the sand between the cutting-edge production of Tango in the Night and nostalgia of subsequent releases.
Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music – The Ultimate Collection (1988)
As with Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, Bryan Ferry’s triple-platinum Ultimate Collection was revisionist, rejecting the avant-garde Eno years in favour of the more polished sound of Roxy Music’s second act and his solo recordings.
Following hot on the heels of Ferry’s Boys and Girls and Bête Noire, the tracklisting had considerable overlap with the chart-topping Roxy Music best of Street Life from 1986. As with Kate Bush, the anthology marked the beginning of a period of creative inertia for Ferry, as he procrastinated over a project with the working title Horoscope for the next six years.
In the end, he would return with Taxi in 1993, an album of cover versions recorded to satisfy a record company impatient for a new product. Ironically, Taxi went gold, peaking at number two in the UK, outselling the much-anticipated album of original Ferry-compositions, Mamouna, which eventually limped to number eleven the following year. To add insult to injury, the title track stalled at 57 on the singles chart, concluding Ferry’s twenty-two-year run of hits. The 21st Century saw Ferry revisit his Roxy Music past with a series of live reunions and a brace of solo albums oscillating between covers and original material. Collaborations with dance producers Todd Terje, DJ Hell, and Fred Falke have also refreshed his cool for a new generation of club kids.
The Rolling Stones – Hot Rocks (1990)
Originally released in the US in 1971, Hot Rocks concluded the first imperial phase of the Rolling Stones, bringing together singles and album tracks in a double-album anthology.
Finally given a UK release in 1990, the collection went double-platinum, eclipsing the success of 1989’s comeback album Steel Wheels, which only sold 100,000 copies in the UK. Such was the impact of the compilation that The Stones rebranded their Steel Wheels live show for Europe in support of the release. Capturing the retrospective sensibility of the era, the next album from The Stones’ was another compilation Jump Back, in 1993, which collected their post ’71 output for the first time on CD. Initially stalling at number 16, the compilation eventually went double-platinum, paving the way for a new relationship with Virgin and the 1994 album Voodoo Lounge. However, by this point, The Stones were considered a heritage act.
Having clocked up a brace of UK/US top ten hits throughout the 1980s, including ‘Emotional Rescue’, ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Undercover of the Night’, ‘Harlem Shuffle’ and ‘ Mixed Emotions’, subsequent years would see their sporadic success confined mainly to the album market, with Bridges to Babylon, A Bigger Bang, and Blue and Lonesome.
Deborah Harry and Blondie – The Complete Picture (1991)
Having taken a break after Blondie, by the late 1980s Debbie Harry’s solo career was beginning to gain some momentum. ‘French Kissing in the USA’ and ‘I Want That Man’ were both hits, and her 1989 album Def, Dumb & Blonde was seen as the comeback proper, peaking at number 12 in the UK.
Harry toured extensively to promote the release and found a niche for herself amongst CBGB’s contemporaries like The Ramones in the US alternative rock scene. Though Harry and partner Stein had begun recording the follow-up, these plans were upstaged by the release of The Complete Picture.
With little promotion the album peaked at number three in the UK, such was the pulling power of Blondie’s back catalogue and the allure of the new CD format. The success prompted a European tour, but it would also delay Harry’s next album by two years. Unhappy with the raw sound, the record company insisted Harry rework the album with more commercial tracks and mixes that would appeal to the AOR/CD-buying public. The ploy failed, 1993’s Debravation stalled at number 24, and Harry parted company with Chrysalis after fifteen years.
Thankfully Blondie’s enduring comeback was just a few years away, however, it fixed Harry as the character she’d been playing since the 70s. Blondie have since released five albums of new material, including Pollinator, which peaked at number four in the UK in 2017. However, Harry’s one further solo outing, 2007’s Necessary Evil, slipped under the radar with the public seemingly still confused that she was not ‘Blondie’.
Belinda Carlisle – The Best of Belinda Volume 1 (1992)
If ever there was a marketing strategy destined to jinx the career of an artist, appending the greatest hits compilation with the suffix ‘volume 1’ is on par with pronouncing a ship ‘unsinkable’.
Topping the UK charts and eventually going double platinum, the success of Belinda Carlisle’s greatest hits should have been a portent of great things to come. However, her subsequent release Real, less than a year later, spent only five weeks in the UK Top 75, peaking at number nine in September 1993. Never a consistent performer on the singles chart, even in her halcyon days, Carlisle was to enjoy a brief reprieve with her 1996 album A Man And a Woman, which gave her two further top ten placing with ‘In Too Deep’ and ‘Always Breaking My Heart’. However, her US hits were now behind her, and the monster success of the albums Runaway Horses and Heaven on Earth, a thing of the past. Since then, her only two outings outside of The Go-Gos have been a French-language album Voila in 2007 and Wilder Shores, a collection of yoga-inspired Sikh chants ten years later.
Tears For Fears – Tears Rolled Down (Greatest Hits 1982 to 1992)
The period 1991 to 1993 saw the dust settle on the legacy of several key ’80s acts, with best-selling greatest hits from Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, and Simple Minds. So, the arrival of Tears Roll Down hardly came as a surprise. With only a modest back catalogue, it collated material from Tears for Fears’ three-album ’80s discography, The Hurting, Songs From The Big Chair, and Seeds of Love. Augmented with some new cuts, including the top 20 single ‘Tears Rolled Down’, the future for Tears For Fears looked brighter than the solstice-themed album cover.
Peaking at number two in the UK, and eventually going double platinum, the album lived up to the promise of its title. However, the follow-up Elemental saw a change in personnel, and also a change in fortune. Without Kurt Smith the album limped to number five, delivering one final top 20 single ‘Break It Down Again’. A further 1995 release Raoul and the Kings of Spain stalled at number 41, and it would be a decade before Tears For Fears would reunite (as a duo) for the album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.
Erasure – Pop! The First 20 Hits (1992)
Much like Belinda Carlisle’s Greatest Hits Vol 1, it was perhaps the title that cursed Erasure’s greatest hits compilation from 1992. The first 20 hits inevitably anticipate the second. While the duo continued to record well into the 21st Century, producing a body of work worthy of a second compilation, there would only be two further top ten placings before the end of the ’90s.
Erasure’s imperial phase on the UK charts was unusual, however, spanning an eight-year period that crossed the decade from 1986’s breakthrough hit ‘Sometimes’ to ‘Run to the Sun’ in 1994. Along the way, there were four number one studio albums that wrap-around this chronologically ordered compilation. However, their legacy is perhaps defined by the EP of ABBA covers, Abbaesque, which topped the UK chart for five weeks in 1992. Its monster success was no doubt responsible for the hasty release of Pop!, which was rushed out in time for Christmas.
Moreover, after a decade in the wilderness, the rehabilitation of ABBA’s legacy instigated the release of ABBA Gold, with which Pop! battled for chart supremacy. Ultimately the Swedes won, with Gold going on to become the best-selling greatest hits album of all time. The revival also gave rise to the Mama Mia franchise, and a whole new way of thinking about pop music history in the 21st Century cohered around cinema and the success of the juke-box musical.