As a young music fan, I was heavily reliant on Greatest Hits for my collection. I earned $3 for mowing the lawn and new albums cost $20, so compilations were a sure-fire way of getting bang for my buck.
Compilations often include of new tracks alongside time-tested classics. This practice dates right back to Johnny Mathis in the 1950s – Johnny’s Greatest Hits included a new song ‘I Look at You’. The practice became more common in the 1970s and it makes commercial sense – a new track can induce completists to buy a compilation even though they already own most of the songs, while a great new song getting airplay can boost hype and sales.
It’s a risk including new material, however, as sometimes it just doesn’t match the quality of previous hits. Crowded House’s Recurring Dream was weighed down by three new songs recorded while the band were in their death throes. Four songs on Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 Greatest Hits felt unbalanced, especially when it only featured six songs from his first six albums. Here are fifteen songs that actually earned their keep and became among the act’s best-loved work.
15 Best Songs Recorded Specifically For a Compilation
#15 – Tonight She Comes by The Cars
The Cars’ 1985 Greatest Hits is a terrific compilation, packed with great songs like ‘Just What I Needed’, ‘Let’s Go’, and ‘Drive’. ‘Tonight She Comes’ holds its own in illustrious company, becoming a top ten hit in its own right. It features one of my favourite solos by underrated lead guitarist Elliot Easton too.
#14 – Do I Do by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I features a new song at end of each of its four LP sides. The new songs capture Stevie Wonder right before he slid into irrelevance with ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’, and they’re all worthwhile. The highlight is the unadulterated joy of ‘Do I Do’, a ten minute epic featuring jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and built around a mind-blowing Nate Watts bassline.
#13 – Here Comes the Flood by Peter Gabriel
‘Here Comes the Flood’ wasn’t a new song, dating back to Peter Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977. But Gabriel reworked it for his 1990 compilation Shaking The Tree, turning in a gorgeous solo piano and vocal performance, similar to his take on Robert Fripp’s 1978 album Exposure.
#12 – All That Money Wants by the Psychedelic Furs
I enjoy the Psychedelic Furs’ 1988 compilation All of This and Nothing so much that I’ve never bothered checking out their studio records. After flirtations with a poppier sound on mid-1980s songs like ‘The Ghost In You’ and ‘Heaven’, ‘All That Money Wants’ restores a tougher alt-rock sound, the perfect backdrop for Richard Butler’s gravelly voice.
#11 – Slip Slidin’ Away by Paul Simon
Paul Simon produced little music in the second half of the 1970s as he dabbled in other interests. He acted in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and created his own movie, 1980’s One -Trick Pony. Greatest Hits, Etc. seemed premature, only covering Simon’s first three studio albums for Columbia, but it was contractually necessary. It did feature new song ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, a top-ten hit, which successfully married the jazzy sound of Still Crazy After All These Years with some of Simon’s most mournfully incisive words; “believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”.
#10 – Bring On the Dancing Horses by Echo & the Bunnymen
‘Bring On the Dancing Horses’ was recorded for the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty in Pink, but it first appeared as the single for the 1985 Echo & the Bunnymen compilation Songs to Learn & Sing. It’s typical for the band, the neo-psychedelic sound and Ian McCulloch’s sonorous voice making them an equivalent to The Doors for the 1980s. “First I’m gonna make it/Then I’m gonna break it/Till it falls apart.”
#9 – The Sound of Crying by Prefab Sprout
Paddy McAloon originally wrote ‘The Sound of Crying’ in 1990, for a planned Michael Jackson biographical album. The lyrics were adapted into a philosophical treatise about God’s role in suffering; “Sometimes I think that God is working to a plan/then other times I swear that he is improvising – discordant and remote”. Impressively for a song with such heavy subject matter, ‘The Sound of Crying’ was a top thirty single in the UK.
#8 – Runaway by Janet Jackson
Jackson’s Design of a Decade is a strange compilation – for contractual reasons 1993’s janet. is only represented by one track. Fortunately the other two albums it draws from – 1986’s Control and 1989’s Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – are so packed with hits that it holds together. Abetted by regular collaborators Jam & Lewis, ‘Runaway’ is a breezy piece of pop, employing some world music textures.
#7 – Experiment IV by Kate Bush
Kate Bush’s compilation The Whole Story has a misleading title – twelve tracks wasn’t enough to capture the breadth of her work. New track ‘Experiment IV’, however, is excellent – like ‘Cloudbusting’ from Hounds of Love it’s sci-fi themed, about a sonic weapon. Befitting the subject matter, it’s classy art-rock, maintaining the standard of 1985’s classic Hounds of Love.
#6 – Changes by Tupac Shakur
‘Changes’ is the only posthumous song on this list, released two years after Tupac’s death. Tupac’s two-disc Greatest Hits featured four new songs; ‘Changes’ was recorded back in 1992, but was remixed before its 1998 release. The socially conscious ‘Changes’ is built around Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s ‘The Way It Is’, and Talent guests to sing the chorus.
#5 – Mary Jane’s Last Dance by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a 1993 Greatest Hits captured him still in his prime. ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ is a simple four-chord riff rocker, but it’s elevated by some great Mike Campbell guitar work. It’s the last Petty song to feature the crisp drumming of Stan Lynch. Petty’s laconic storytelling is also enjoyable, with the chorus serving as a double-entendre for giving up weed.
#4 – On The Radio by Donna Summer
Disco queen Donna Summer released two versions of ‘On The Radio’ on her 1979 double-record On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. The set opened with a stately piano version and closed with a disco version. In either form it’s terrific, Summer collaborating with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder.
#3 – Fernando by ABBA
ABBA’s 1975 Greatest Hits is a terrible representation of a talented band, with only a handful of songs (‘S.O.S’, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Waterloo’) anywhere near their best. The Swedish quartet became more sophisticated and accomplished as their career progressed, and early songs like ‘People Need Love’ are merely formative. The 1976 edition of Greatest Hits was bolstered by the inclusion of ‘Fernando’, a song previously recorded by Anna-Frid for her 1975 solo album. Interestingly, the lyrics in Swedish and English are completely different – in Swedish it’s a song of consolation for a heartbroken bartender.
#2 – True Faith by New Order
New Order’s Substance is terrific, lining up all the 12-inch mixes of the band’s singles and highlighting their strengths as a dance act. ‘True Faith’ is a sunny slice of upbeat pop that shows how far the band had come since their Joy Division days. New Order recorded two new songs for Substance – the also excellent ‘1963’ was relegated to b-side. According to Wikipedia, Bernard Sumner liked to include inappropriate lyrics about Michael Jackson when the band performed ‘True Faith’ live.
#1 – September by Earth, Wind & Fire
When choosing the best song to originate on a compilation it’s difficult to go past this musical explosion of joy. Co-writer Allee Willis was initially nonplussed by the inclusion of gibberish lyrics, but learned “never to let the lyric get in the way of the groove”. Apparently, the 21st of September was the due date of Maurice White’s son Kahbran.
Did I miss your favourite new compilation song? Apologies to U2’s ‘Electrical Storm’, Sting’s ‘When We Dance’, Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’, R.E.M.’s ‘Bad Day’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘That Girl’, and Hall and Oates’ ‘Say It Isn’t So’.