How do you keep the music playing when you’re between new releases? What to do to fulfill that pesky final commitment of a multi-album recording contract with a label you’re no longer thrilled to call home? Traditionally, a greatest-hits compilation — in stores preferably around the end of the year — has been the best bet. Not only do they make great stocking stuffers, but they are an excellent way for artists to stay in retail circulation while they’re working on new material, or shopping for a new deal.
Past holiday seasons have seen the Billboard 200 album chart crowded with new best-ofs, but this year, the pickings are slim indeed.
Only Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits and Pink’s Greatest Hits… So Far were in the Top 50 for the week ending December 4, with the latter missing the Top 10 entirely, a fate likely to befall Jay-Z: The Hits Collection, Volume One (out November 22). Why has the gift that used to keep giving — around Christmas and beyond — suddenly stopped? Here are a few possible reasons.
The rise and continued rise of iTunes. Back in the days when people bought music exclusively in record stores, superstar acts like Madonna and the Eagles were scoring the biggest albums of their careers with hits compilations. Now, for up to $1.29 a pop, fans can pick and choose which of their favorite artists’ hits they want without ever buying a complete album. So when the hits compilation is released, why not just download the one or two new tracks and call it a day? That might explain why Pink’s Greatest Hits has had such a lackluster chart showing — so far — while its single, “Raise Your Glass,” is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and already one of the singer’s, well, greatest hits.
Repackaging of hit albums. More artists are keeping themselves in heavy rotation by putting out special-edition versions of their hit albums featuring multiple new tracks. It’s a holiday-season gambit that recently has paid handsome financial and chart dividends for Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Rihanna, among others. On November 26th, Justin Bieber released My Worlds Acoustic, featuring reworked, stripped-down versions of songs from his My World EP and My World 2.0, his full-length debut, while Adam Lambert is dropping the five-song Acoustic Live on December 6th. These are like greatest-hits albums featuring only the hits from one album. By time the actual best-ofs come around, do fans really need a third version of the same old songs (fourth, if you count the in-decline-but-still-ticking Now That’s What I Call Music! series, currently on Volume 36).
The new definition of “single.” It’s harder to keep track of actual hit “singles,” with the term being used so loosely these days. Take Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, for example. All fourteen tracks on the original release have charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, and three already have entered the Top 10, but many might be hard pressed to name the “official” single. “Mine” has logged the most time on the chart, but due to the Hot 100 onslaught of other Speak Now tracks leading up to the album’s release, “Mine” hasn’t had the impact of past Swift hits like “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me.”
Rappers like Drake, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj as well as Usher have followed a similar staggered singles release scheme, diluting the impact of each one, while making each album a sort of self-contained greatest-hits collection. Usher, for example, landed seven chart hits in the last year, five from Raymond v. Raymond, and two from the recently released Versus EP, but only one song from each set went Top 10 on the Hot 100, compared to the five-for-five Top 10 tally of the singles from his Confessions album in 2004.
Another album, another half dozen cameos. With everyone popping up on everyone else’s album, many of music’s big stars, it seems, are never MIA for long, making greatest hits albums less necessary as space holders between studio releases. Pitbull was just in the Top 10 on simultaneous hits by Enrique Iglesias and Usher. In 2010, newcomer Bruno Mars has mined platinum singles on his own and with B.o.B and Travie McCoy. Rihanna is on Eminem’s Recovery and Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday, and they are both on Rihanna’s Loud. Eminem is on Pink Friday, too, as is Kanye West, for whom Minaj returns the favor on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Meanwhile, Drake is on pretty much every other R&B release these days, including Loud, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Pink Friday, which, incidentally, also features Natasha Bedingfield, whose Strip Me (out December 7th), amazingly, features none of the above. How’s that for a Christmas miracle?
By Jeremy Helligar
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.