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Review: The best of the best-ofs

A subjective ranking of 50 favorite rock hits collections

By Mark Carroll and Jeff Green

Liverpool's Echo & the Bunnymen top our rankings.
Which of our top five best-of picks doesn't belong in such rarified company?
Echo & the Bunnymen
David Bowie
Rolling Stones
Beach Boys
Arts, Culture and Entertainment

(CNN) -- What are the greatest hits' greatest hits?

Most greatest-hits collections aren't really great at all, and some that are great don't have any true "hits."

You've seen lists of the top rock 'n' roll albums of all time, broken down by committee to the least common denominator. But who trusts a committee? And who has the time or money to wade through long track lists on "albums"? Albums are so 20th century -- no matter what the record store clerks say.

And then there's the stigma of the best-of disc. As "The Kids in the Hall's" Bruce McCullouch -- playing a record store clerk -- once said, "Greatest hits are for housewives and little girls!"

They're the best that rock has to offer in the art form -- yes, art form -- of the stand-alone greatest-hits collection, based solely on the personal opinions of two American rock fans born in the early 1970s. The list covers popular music of any era or genre that crossed over into their CD collections.

A few guidelines:

  • Any collection prominently featuring multiple artists or with multiple discs was eliminated, partly for the purity (and affordability) of the single-disc format and partly to establish a level playing field.
  • All of the selections are available for purchase in U.S. stores or on the Internet. If you're going to buy only one disc from an artist, these are for you.
  • And concert albums belong on a different list altogether.
  • This also is not a list of the best performers or the best albums ever. Some greats have no suitable single-disc compilation (sorry, AC/DC). Others have only poor choices (Bruce Springsteen). Some from other genres failed to beat out a rock selection (Run-DMC, Johnny Cash). Ditto for earlier eras (Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis).

    Of course, these are just opinions, and even the two authors don't agree on all of them. But you've gotta start somewhere.

    1. "Songs to Learn & Sing," Echo & the Bunnymen (1985) -- It starts strong and never stops. The quintessential best-of collection plays like a cohesive album, covering the new wave Liverpool band's 1980-85 heyday; it doesn't suffer for the lack of the band's biggest commercial success, "Lips Like Sugar," and its one extra track turned out to be a classic.

    2. "Changesbowie," David Bowie (1990) -- England's weird rock rebel reworked the earlier "Changeonebowie," adding his later hits to create an incomparable single-disc retrospective -- and stopping where he perhaps should have.

    3. "The Best of Blondie," Blondie (1981) -- Debbie Harry's New York City group brought punk to American pop, with commercial success that helped create new wave -- incorporating disco, reggae and even white-chick rap to produce a rapturous 12-song collection that beats out 2002's "Greatest Hits."

    4. "Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)," the Rolling Stones (1966) -- These satisfying 12 songs by one of the top two bands ever helped teach rock how to assemble a best-of; in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous," the protagonist's older sister chose well in leaving him "Big Hits."

    David Bowie's "Changesbowie" combined an LP collection and some late '70s and early '80s hits.

    5. "Endless Summer," the Beach Boys (1974) -- It starts with the California band's sunny promise and ends when Brian Wilson descends into mental illness. "Sounds of Summer" from 2003 is a more complete collection, which is what makes "Endless Summer" preferable: no "Kokomo."

    6. "458489 A-Sides," the Fall (1990) -- This post-punk compilation from still prolific and acerbic Mark E. Smith's ever-changing, Manchester-based lineup is the Fall collection for people who don't know -- or don't like -- the Fall; if you can't find it (and don't pick up the "B-Sides" by mistake), check out the later years on "A Past Gone Mad: Best of 1990-2000."

    7. "Chronicle, Vol. 1," Creedence Clearwater Revival (1976) -- John Fogerty's group -- which lasted from 1967-72 -- shows its strength as a singles band and its awareness of social issues on this 20-song collection of rocking Americana.

    8. "Ramones Mania," the Ramones (1988) -- This 30-song collection by New York City's stripped-down punk pioneers proves they should've owned the airwaves in the late 1970s instead of remaining commercial outsiders.

    9. "Smash Hits," Jimi Hendrix (1969) -- An R&B bit player turned psychedelic guitar god before his death in 1970 at age 27, the Seattle native is on fire with this 1969 collection -- reissued in 2002 and still a familiar experience thanks to classic rock radio.

    10. "Greatest Hits," The Byrds (1967) -- Roger McGuinn's chiming folk-rockers from California influenced bands such as R.E.M. and turned into a commercial success with this collection of singles -- which was actually improved with tracks added in a 1999 reissue.

    Click here to continue with Nos. 11-30 | Nos. 31-50

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