Why do "best of" compilations exist? There are several reasons, all of which can be sorted into two categories. Category number one involves benefits for the artist and the record company. Historically, artists released singles that weren't on albums, and thus they had to be collected. Now, it's more cynical, with a best of being a chance for the record company to cheaply cash in and/or for the artist to easily fulfill a part of their contract.
The second category concerns benefits for the consumer. There are many:
1) For new fans, they're a good way to get to know an artist who may have a catalog too big to just blindly dive into (the problem is, if you get obsessed, you'll probably end up buying all of the songs twice when you get the actual albums);
2) Some artists have songs you like, but albums you just don't want to buy. For example, I'm still waiting out those TLC and Matchbox Twenty best ofs;
3) Even an artist you really like can release a stinker now and then. This way, those couple of good songs can be rescued off of a bad album;
4) For established fans who buy every album by an artist, there are two possible lures. One is re-mastering. Especially for older artists, this can be a big draw. The other is the inclusion of new songs. I firmly believe that new songs should only be included on a best of if they're up to par. I think this actually happens only about half of the time. Tom Petty did it best with Mary Jane's Last Dance, on the 1994 Greatest Hits album.
I've been on a search for the perfect compilation for awhile. I've even developed some preferences: 1) put the songs in chronological order, or at least put good thought into the sequencing; and 2) per above, only include new songs if they're knockouts, and 3) avoid remixes and live versions wherever possible. I think my search has kept me so interested because the formula for success is so simple: Take an artist's best songs, put them on one record, and let the quality shine. And yet, so often this doesn't happen, even with artists who have lots of great songs.
For example, Whitney Houston and Neil Diamond have yet to release definitive best ofs. How is that possible?! Other artists who should have hit grand slams just end up with base hits. U2 comes to mind here…so many classic songs, and yet I never listen to either of their best ofs.
So who has done it right? Here's my top ten (not including Madonna or Ronnie Milsap, as discussed in the 10 Favorite Albums section). Not all of them follow the rules, but all are solid from beginning to end
1) James Taylor - Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, Vol.2
2) Crowded House - Recurring Dream
3) Def Leppard - Vault
4) Marshall Crenshaw - This Is Easy
5) The Smiths - Singles
6) Elton John - Greatest Hits
7) Hall & Oates - The Very Best Of...
8) Backstreet Boys - Chapter One
9) Journey - Greatest Hits
10) Outkast - Big Boy & Dre Present...
Honorable Mentions: John Lennon - The John Lennon Collection; Blur - The Best Of; Talking Heads - Popular Favorites; and The Ultimate Collections released by Motown (The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes)
I know I'm not the only one on a search for the perfect compilation. Witness how often record companies and artists try to repackage their material. I don't have official statistics, but The Beach Boys have probably released more compliations than actual albums. How is that possible?! Even sadder, there has never been one that is completely definitive. Actually, I have a vinyl album from Ronco entitled Beach Boys Super Hits that is as close as they've ever come.
Maybe I'm just being too picky...as long as there are obsessed fans, there will always be quibbles with best ofs. Just take a short tour around the Amazon.com reviews of any compilation and you'll see what I mean. How on earth could they leave this or that song off? Why did they put the album version on instead of the single version?! I'll admit, often the beefs are legit. For example I love Rhino's recent The Cars Complete Greatest Hits, but where are Panorama and Heartbeat City? How could you call it "complete" without these two songs?!
The search continues...