What makes a good greatest hits album? Is it good when each song is a known, quantifiable, hit? Is it good when it gives you a fresh perspective on a band or group? Is it good because it sparks nostalgia? Maybe it’s all of the above. Conversely, can a greatest hits compilation ever be good? Or is it too devoid of artistic composition, or simply too obviously a milking ploy for continued profits? Each of these questions is like a zen koan – all good questions worth pondering, but perhaps with no ultimate answer.
At least can we come up with a list of the best of the best? Yes. That we can do.
The greatest of the greatest hits
There are examples of very good greatest hits compilations. The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975. Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection. Elton John’s Greatest Hits (1974). ABBA’s Gold. All packed with hits, all listenable years after their release, and all selling at least 15 million or more copies worldwide (Their Greatest Hits is, by most counts, one of the top five globally best-selling records of all time).
Sales are a handy yardstick by which to measure a decent greatest hits album, but it should be noted that three of the four compilations listed above were released when the artists were at the height of their fame, likely helping sales a lot. Their Greatest Hits was released 10 months before Hotel California. Elton John’s first greatest hits record mostly comprised of songs from his first four albums (with the exception of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, from Caribou) – ditto for Madonna. Equally, Madonna released new songs on her first greatest hits albums – “Justify My Love” and “Rescue Me”.** As for ABBA, Gold has been re-released five times since it first hit shelves in 1992, including once to coincide with the film Mamma Mia!
So, sales alone can't tell us the whole story. Luckily, there's another way to judge how good a greatest hits album is: count how many hits are on it.
Weirdly, one of the things people hate most about greatest hits compilations is a useful way to retrospectively judge the quality of the band itself. Of course, this is a largely unfair judgment. Some will argue that, since greatest hits albums usually only account for successful radio songs, the true essence of a band can’t really be captured. Ask anyone: their favourite band is always better than the greatest hits might give them.
There is some truth to the fact that some bands, like those that produce concept albums, are inherently ill suited for a greatest hits. Pink Floyd, for instance, has a greatest hits album (2001’s Echoes), but it’s not very good – how could it be? One would argue that Arcade Fire might be another band whose (probably) eventual greatest hits would also be a strange experience. These are not groups that set out to make singles – hits – necessarily.
The new hit-makers
Everyone, from country stars through rap artists through rock bands attempt to achieve a break-out hit, or several, but the real hit machines of the last twenty years have been the boy- and girl-bands that achieved fame in the 1990s, particularly near the end of the decade.
Their ubiquity has certainly waned, but the formula still works. Each of One Direction’s first three albums sold around four million copies – no mean feat these days. Still, that’s nothing compared to *Nsync’s No Strings Attached, 2.4 million copies of which sold in its first week in 2000. That same year, the Backstreet Boys’ fourth album, Black & Blue, sold 1.5 million in its first week – about 400,000 more than their Millennium record did in 1999. A year later, Nsync’s Celebrity sold 1.8 million in a week. The only other artist in the early 2000s that could compete was Eminem.
And all of those numbers are just from the United States. In the UK and Canada, it was much the same, though the names were sometimes different, and the figures are much lower. Millennium is the second-fastest selling album in Canadian music history (behind Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love), having sold over 190,000 copies here in its first week. Black & Blue was almost as popular, moving over 155,000 in the first seven days. (Taylor Swift’s 1989, for comparison, is ninth overall in Canada, with 107,000 sold in the first week.) While in the UK, Take That managed to cash in on the nostalgia of their late-1990s success with two post-reunion records – 2008’s The Circus and 2010’s Progress – that each sold near the half-million mark in their respective first release weeks.
Other boy- and girl-groups might not have had quite the dominance those boy-bands did, but they were nevertheless hugely popular. Half a decade earlier, Boyz II Men’s II generated at least two number-one hits (“I’ll Make Love to You” and “On Bended Knee”), following 1992’s mega huge “End of the Road”. A year later, in 1995, “One Sweet Day”, their collaboration with Mariah Carey, was a monster smash, selling approximately 2.3 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Those are just the guys. The women were just as successful, though they were fewer in number (or, at least, fewer of them achieved the same level of fame). Chief among them were the Spice Girls, whose first album, Spice, which spawned five singles, sold 1.8 million copies in its first seven weeks – just in the UK, where they became the fastest selling artists since the Beatles. In the U.S., Spice has sold somewhere north of 7.4 million copies since its 1996 release. Four more singles followed from Spice World, their 1997 follow-up. Also that movie.
The Spice Girls weren’t alone – before them, TLC and En Vogue had already achieved huge success earlier in the decade. En Vogue has sold roughly 20 million albums worldwide. For their part, TLC’s CrazySexyCool has sold 23 million copies worldwide, and is the album that gave us “Waterfalls” (Billboard #1), “Diggin’ On You” (Billboard #5), and “Creep” (Billboard #1). By the turn of the millennium, TLC was winning Grammys (and chart position) with “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty”.
So, these are hit makers – their careers knew little else. But are their greatest hits... great?
How we decide
Judged by a number of semi-objective and subjective factors, the posts below offer a quasi-definitive ranking of the best greatest hits compilations from the most successful girl- and boy-bands of the 1990s*, including a quick analysis of both the standout track, and the most confusing one.
The two main factors here are what I’ll call the Hit rate and the Chune rate, both of which are relatively arbitrary – although no more so than this entire exercise. The ‘hit rate’ will be the percentage of bona-fide hits on each greatest hits compilation. A hit is defined, roughly, by major cultural impact and/or massive sales. The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” is a hit. It also happens to be a “chune” which urban dictionary defines as “a subset within the population [of songs] containing only the good music”. The ‘chune rate’ will therefore be the percentage of very good hits among those songs designated as hits – the cream of the crop, in other words. Those two scores will then be averaged for an Overall score.
*Note: This means that a lot of the smaller one-hit-wonders like LFO, O-Town, or even K-Ci and JoJo, aren’t on this list. It also means that New Kids on the Block, who achieved the bulk of their fame – not to mention their sales – in the late 1980s, also aren’t included. Additionally, while this list includes a couple of UK artists, it skews North American. Sorry.
**Edit July 10, 16:15 to correct an earlier version stating the Eagles' "Desperado" first appeared on Their Greatest Hits. It originally appeared on 1973's Desperado.
12. Color Me Badd
10. S Club 7
9. Take That
8. En Vogue
7. Boyz II Men
5. Ace of Base
3. Spice Girls
12. Color Me Badd
Hit rate: 50%
Chune rate: 33%
Overall score: 41%
Since Color Me Badd only really had one serious hit record, it stands to reason that their greatest hits compilation, The Best of Color Me Badd, released in 2000, is relatively short. Of the 12 songs in the collection, five are singles off their first, multi-million selling 1991 release, C.M.B. – which alone spawned seven singles. Only one of the 12 – “Choose” – is from their follow-up album, Time and Chance, which was a relative disaster compared to its predecessor. Time and Chance, a sprawling effort that opens with a 20-second reading from Ecclesiastes 9:11 – always a good start to a pop album – and runs almost an hour long, barely registered on the charts at all, reaching only as high as number 56 on the Billboard 200. “Choose” was one of four singles released from Time and Chance, but really the only one to have any discernable impact.
Most of the remaining songs are from Color Me Badd’s third album, released in 1996, Now and Forever – another total flop. Finally, we have “Got 2 Have U”, their contribution to Beverly Hills 90210: The Soundtrack, released in March 1992, and where they shared space with Paula Abdul, Shanice, Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight, and of course, John Davis, the man behind the unforgettable 90210 theme tune.
Color Me Badd has all but disappeared entirely now from the cultural consciousness, though at least one of them (Bryan Abrams) still pops up from time to time – and not for good reasons. Their most recent foray back into the public eye was in 2014, when three of the four members – Mark Calderon, Sam Watters, and Kevin Thornton – appeared at the BET Awards to perform “I Wanna Sex You Up”. Abrams grumbled from the sidelines.
Standout track: “I Wanna Sex You Up”
Not only did this song propel Color Me Badd to the top of the charts in the U.S. and the UK, it helped make the New Jack City soundtrack do the same thing. It was also the song that prompted Beavis and Butthead to declare Color Me Badd a “super suck group”, consisting of “George Michael and Kenny G and Snow”. That’s good enough for me.
How was this a hit?: “All 4 Love”
At least the video eventually inspired "Dick in a Box".
Hit rate: 53%
Chune rate: 57%
Overall score: 55%
While 98º tends to get lumped in with the Backstreet Boys and *Nsync, they probably share more stylistically with Boyz II Men – less dance, more crooning. Consider, for instance, their first few hits. “Invisible Man”, “Because of You”, “I Do (Cherish You)”, and “The Hardest Thing” are all mid-tempo ballads. Those are all included on 2002’s 98º: The Collection, along with their only real dance number, “Give Me Just One Night (Una Nocha)”, which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. As it happens, 98º never achieved a number one hit with a song they performed alone. “Thank God I Found You”, a collaboration with Mariah Carey and Joe, however, did hit number one on the Hot 100 after its release in early 2000 as a single from Carey’s Rainbow LP. That, too, is on The Collection.
Of course, we might have forgotten about 98º entirely as the millennium ticked over, had it not been for frontman Nick Lachey’s marriage to Jessica Simpson, and Newlyweds, the subsequent MTV reality show based around their life together that began in 2003 and ran for four seasons – until they split up. (An unsourced line on the show’s Wikipedia page claims it had initially been dreamed up to feature Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley post-nuptials in 1994, but I can’t find corroborating evidence for that. Needless to say, it would have probably been a better program.) These days, Lachey spends his time investing in a proposal to legalize marijuana in Ohio. His brother, Drew, who was occasionally featured on Newlyweds, made a go of it on Dancing With The Stars with mixed results, and then toured with Spamalot.
Anyway, back to the music. The Collection is, smartly, only 13 songs, which means most of the stuff here is familiar, if not entirely a bona-fide hit. But, of course, this also means there are songs here that don’t really count as hits at all – like “Was It Something I Didn’t Say (Acoustic Version)”, for example. Also included are “Never Let Go” and “Why (Are We Still Friends)”, two previously unreleased tracks, as well as “This Gift”, a mostly terrible semi-Christmassy kind of song that never expressly says the words ‘Christmas’ or, frankly, anything that would prevent it from being used for literally almost any holiday in which gifts are exchanged, which I guess is smart from a marketing perspective, but very annoying from just about any other one.
Standout track: “The Hardest Thing”
There is a Doctor Zhivago reference in this song. Did you know that? “I’ve got to be cruel to be kind/ Like Dr. Zhivago/ All my love I’m sending/ And you will never know/ ‘Cause there can be no happy ending.”
How was this a hit?: “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)”
This is fucking terrible song.
10. S Club 7
Hit rate: 69%
Chune rate: 44%
Overall score: 56%
The brilliant/demonic mind of Simon Fuller is where you can direct your hate and/or love for the existence of S Club 7, the joy-pop children’s television crew who in 1998 decamped from the UK for the beaches of Miami, where hijinks and singing ensued. They went on to release four albums that collectively have sold roughly 10 million copies worldwide, and spawned a shocking 11 singles like, “Bring It All Back”, “S Club Party”, “Reach”, and “Never Had a Dream Come True”. They recently completed a reunion tour, and, shortly afterward, Hannah Spearritt broke it off with her non-S Club alum husband to get back together with S Club alum Paul Cattermole. Yay.
Best – The Greatest Hits (International Version) features all the singles listed above, along with three songs from the group's only release after Paul left the group (when they simply called themselves S Club), Seeing Double, for which there was also a companion movie. Perhaps Paul was really the brains behind the operation, because those three songs (“Alive”, “Love Ain’t Gonna Wait For You” and “Say Goodbye” – the latter two of which were released together a single and b-side) are crap. In fact, everything on this greatest hits collection falls apart after “Have You Ever”, track nine of 13.
Still, nine songs of 13 isn’t a terrible percentage. And if you can withstand the relentless bombardment of happiness on the first half of the record, you might even make it that far in one listen. I dare you to try, though.
Standout track: “Never Had a Dream Come True”
Pretty good pop song, to be quite honest. Perhaps no surprise, though. Simon Ellis, writer for the Spice Girls and Britney Spears, co-scribed this one.
Why was this a hit?: “S Club Party”
Just an awful song. It features: lyrics that describe personal characteristics of each of the members; the phrase “player haters”; that annoying 90s “ooh-ooh” noise; and the lines, “Ghetto boys make some noise/ Hoochie mamas show your nanas” which, in retrospect, seems questionable. It was a simpler time.
The video is equally risible. In it, our S Club friends drive into a time warp that takes them to 1959, and they subsequently argue with, and have a drag race to nowhere against, some random teens they meet in the desert. The drag race scenes are intercut with everyone – S Club 7 and the other teens – dancing together. Are they still arguing or what? Continuity issues everywhere.
9. Take That
Hit rate: 55%
Chune rate: 60%
Overall score: 57.5%
Things that are big in Europe always take a little while to become popular in North America. (Even North American things get big in Europe before they’re taken seriously here.) Case in point: Take That.
Consider this: the Backstreet Boys released their first, self-titled, album in May 1996. In March of that year, Take That released an 18-track greatest hits album that went to number one on the charts in the UK, as well as a handful of other European countries. By that time, they’d already broken up after six years as a group.
All of which means Take That’s influence wasn’t felt directly in North America – that is, they never became household names on this side of the Atlantic. But indirectly, the success of their model – the five-man pop group – is responsible for a handful of the other groups on this list, as well as countless others.
The group’s most notable hits rarely got radio play in North America, but they dominated the airwaves in the UK and Europe. Take That & Party (1992) spawned seven singles, six of which ended up on Greatest Hits, while the other (“Do What U Like”) appears in its remixed form. The rest of the compilation is dominated by tracks from 1993’s Everything Changes, including “Everything Changes”, “Relight My Fire” and “Pray” – all of which went to number one in the UK. Also included are three songs from 1995’s, Nobody Else: “Sure”, “Never Forget” and, the only track to really make any headway in North America – and probably their best – “Back For Good”, which got as high as seventh spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and number one in Canada.
Take That called it quits early thanks in part to the departure of Robbie Williams, who had been dealing with drug abuse issues, and who was the only other strong vocalist apart from Gary Barlow (and Mark Owen, I suppose). As we know, Williams did just fine afterwards. Take That’s final single of their early era (they have since reunited – although, again, only briefly with Williams) was thus a cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love”, which managed to also make it to the top of the UK charts, one suspects primarily because of the outpouring of grief from the fans, and not, one hopes, because of the quality of the cover.
Standout track: “Back For Good”
I mean, come on. Chune. (Still not as good as “Angels” but NEVER MIND.)
How was this a hit?: “Relight My Fire”
This Dan Hartman cover is… just sort of baffling. What compelled them to do this? I also question Britons, generally, who allowed this to go to number one on the charts, and who apparently bought 330,000 copies of it. Then again, 1993 was the year U2 released Zooropa, so everything was a bit strange then, I guess, on that side of the ocean.
8. En Vogue
Hit rate: 56%
Chune rate: 66%
Overall score: 61%
There were two 1990s for En Vogue: the early 90s, when things were going well, and the late 90s when things went rather less so. Given that, is it even fair to put them on this list? Yes. Only a handful of years of success has shown in other cases to produce a number of solid, successful hits. In the early going for En Vogue, there wasn’t much to suggest this wouldn’t be the same for them, too. Their first single, “Hold On”, from their debut album Born to Sing, jumped to eighth spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and number one on the R&B singles chart. It also garnered them one Billboard Music Award, one Soul Train Music Award, and a Grammy nomination. But it was their follow-up record, Funky Divas, that really grabbed attention, spawning three major hit singles, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” and “Free Your Mind”, and “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (a cover version of the Curtis Mayfield song). Approximately a year later, they followed up with “Whatta Man”, a duet with Salt-N-Pepa, which hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100, and number one on the Top 40 chart. If that weren’t enough, En Vogue started to do TV theme songs, too – for Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper and Roc.
The latter half of the decade wasn’t as good. A new contract with their record label brought problems. During the group’s hiatus in 1995, Terry Ellis released a solo record, “Southern Gal” – an album she later said “was supposed to be another En Vogue album.” Then, Dawn Robinson left in 1997, for reasons that remain a bit unclear, but it seems likeliest that it was over their contract. “People think that I left because I wanted to be a diva, and that wasn’t it at all. I was just put into a situation where we weren’t making money,” she later said. Well, perhaps. It seems contractual issues are still causing problems.
Which brings us to The Very Best of En Vogue, released in 2001. Its 16 tracks include some great songs, but they’re mostly lost in the mix. Certainly, we can count those listed above as solid hits. But others? “Whatever”, less memorable now, charted as high as number 16 on the Hot 100, and was certified gold. “Give It Up, Turn It Loose” performed similarly, but garnered a Grammy nomination, and the final single from Funky Divas “Love Don’t Love You” finished just inside the Top 40 on the Hot 100, at number 36 – not bad, but a far cry from their truly major successes.
Standout track: “Free Your Mind”
What would the reaction if this song were released in 2015? I’d wager largely very positive. It feels like no time has passed at all since En Vogue sang “I wear tight clothes, high heeled shoes/ It doesn’t mean that I’m a prostitute”, but I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not.
How was this a hit?: “Give It Up, Turn It Loose”
7. Boyz II Men
Hit rate: 61%
Chune rate: 62.5%
Overall score: 61.75%
The year is 1991. New jack swing is in its heyday. Boyz II Men release Cooleyhighharmoney, with its first single “Motownphilly” later destined to be the opening track on Legacy: The Greatest Hits Collection, the Boyz II Men compilation released in 2001. “Motownphilly” also happens to be the one song least like any of the others on the album, though it probably remains its most entertaining, not least because of a). The harried shout-outs to other, eventually unsuccessful Philadelphia new jack swing groups once affiliated with Boyz II Men – Another Bad Creation and Bell Biv DeVoe (“ABC” and “BBD”) – as well as a brief appearance in the video of Sudden Impact, who never seem to have actually released an album at all, and b). The Questlove cameo in the video. “Mowtownphilly” eventually hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Five more singles followed – three from the original album, and two more from its re-release in 1993. Two of those – “End of the Road” and “It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” – remain in the cultural pantheon as some of Boyz II Men’s greatest songs. That re-release also featured “In the Still of the Night”, a Five Satins cover that made it to number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1993. It, along with LL Cool J’s “Hey Lover”, is also on this collection.
But there are some questionable additions, including the final track, “Pass You By”, the only one from 2000’s Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, and which had virtually no discernable impact when it was released. An argument could be made that “4 Seasons of Loneliness” should be here because of its relatively strong chart finish, but it’s certainly not widely known as a classic. Much the same could be said of “Water Runs Dry”, another song from Boyz II Men's sophomoric release, II, that did well on the charts but has had no serious lasting cultural impact to speak of. Most confusingly of all is “Doin’ Just Fine”, another song from 1997’s Evolution album, that failed entirely to chart at all. Why it’s considered a ‘greatest hit’ is totally beyond me. It’s super boring, also.
The true star of this collection is, of course, “One Sweet Day”, another song that never actually appeared on a Boyz II Men album. It was, instead, what helped propel Mariah Carey’s album Daydream to stratospheric levels (Daydream is one of the highest-selling albums of all time, with somewhere around 25 million copies sold). “One Sweet Day” is a complete and total monster hit. It holds the Billboard record for most consecutive weeks at number one (16) – breaking, by the way, the previous two records set by Boyz II Men (“End of the Road” spent 13 weeks atop the chart, and “I’ll Make Love to You” made it to 14). Somehow, it got shut out of the Grammys. Not like that matters.
Standout track: “Motownphilly”
This has that great new jack swing sound, some nice harmonizing, and all the self-referential lyrics you could ever want. All in all, a classic, and, as stated, different enough from the rest of what Boyz II Men were eventually known for, that it’s a refreshing start to this compilation.
How was this a hit?: “Hey Lover”
It’s interesting how songs about stalkers often do so well on the charts. “Every Breath You Take”, which placed 84th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, is one notorious example. In that instance, anyway, Sting wrote it knowingly, using the subject matter purposefully. Could the same be said for “Hey Lover”? It starts with LL telling a woman, who happens to be in a relationship, “I’ve been watching you from afar/ for as long as I can remember/ You are all a real man can need and ever ask for/ This is love, this is more than a crush.” Yikes. It goes on from there, and ends with LL recounting a fantasy sequence in which he and this girl have sex “but it’s a fantasy that won’t come true/ We never even spoken and your man still love you/ So I’m gonna keep all these feelins inside/ Keep my dreams alive until the right time.” At which point Boyz II Men chime in with: “Hey Lover lover, this is more than a crush.” I’ll say.
At one point LL tells the unknown woman that “I would hold you in my arms and ease your fears/ I can’t believe it, I hadn’t had a crush in years,” which a contributor at Genius argues is LL’s way of saying he “realizes these fantasies he’s having sound a little bit obsessive” so he’s “alluding to the fact he is not a lonely stalker psychopath but just that he haven’t [sic] had a crush in a while.” Yeah, maybe…
Also, for some reason, Shawn Stockman is wearing an Edmonton Oilers jersey in the video.
Hit rate: 55%
Chune rate: 72%
Overall score: 63.5%
Just behind the Spice Girls on the list of all-time top-selling women’s vocal groups is TLC. As successful as they were with their first record, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, which included singles like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “What About Your Friends”, it was their second album, CrazySexyCool that really propelled TLC toward major stardom. Four singles would come from CrazySexyCool, but it was really the third one, “Waterfalls”, that mattered most. The song was progressive and edgy, its lyrics dealing with HIV and drug use. It sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks, and helped propel CrazySexyCool to eventually sell 23 million copies worldwide. What followed could be most favourably described as a creative hiatus, but it was really more troubling than that.
Aside from defining the mid-90s hip hop sound, TLC “mesmerized the record industry”, as the New York Times put it in 1996, by doing something else: declaring bankruptcy. The question of the day was whether it was due to a raw deal in their first contract, or was if it was simply a tool they used to renegotiate elsewhere.
To hear TLC tell it, it was the former. In a VH1 Behind the Music, Lopes explained it this way:
“There are 100 points on an album, TLC has seven. Every point is equal to eight cents. Alright? Seven times eight, 56 cents. That means every time an album gets sold, TLC gets 56 cents. So, 10 million records: $5.6 million. Seems like a lot of money. But it’s not a lot of money when the record company has spent $3 million to record your album. And in the record business, we pay all costs back to the record company. We pay recording costs, studio costs. So now, we have $2.5 million left. Well, guess what? When you have that much money, you’re in about the 47, 48, 49 percent tax bracket, so that immediately gets deducted to $1.3 million. Then, you split the rest three ways. You got about $300,000, if that much. Okay? Three hundred thousand dollars. I can buy a nice house with that. And what am I going to pay my bills with?”
Their bankruptcy filing was upheld (as, for the record, was that of RUN-DMC three years earlier, after they, too, claimed to be broke), and TLC secured a new contract. Notably, part of the settlement was between Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Lloyd’s of London, the insurance firm, over a June 1994 incident where Lopes “gathered the athletic-shoe collection of her boyfriend, the professional football player, Andrea Rison, in a bathtub and set it on fire. The blaze destroyed Mr. Rison’s house.”
Lopes’ personal issues were another unfortunate chapter in the TLC story. Lopes claimed Rison beat her – her lawyer said she was “in fear of her life”. Rison had been arrested in September 1993 “in a supermarket parking lot for allegedly beating Lopes and firing a handgun to discourage others from intervening.” Those charges were later dropped. Rison claimed the night Lopes set fire to his stuff, she’d been “out in the driveway screaming at him” and that he later slapped her – “not to hurt her, but to calm her down”, whatever that meant. (Eight days later, O.J. Simpson took off down a highway in a white Bronco, so the story kind of left the headlines.) The two were engaged at the time of Lopes’ death in a car accident in 2002.
Though TLC was in what seemed like perpetual turmoil, they did manage to release another major album in 1999, Fan Mail, which featured “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty”, the latter of which hit number one on basically every chart on Earth.
A version of “No Scrubs” featuring a rap by Lopes wasn’t initially included on Fan Mail, but is available on Now & Forever: The Hits, TLC’s greatest hits compilation released in 2003. Now & Forever has all the other hits, but at 20 songs, it suffers. “Whoop de Woo”, a previously unreleased track that probably should have stayed that way, is here for some reason. Similarly, all the songs on this collection from TLC’s 2002 album, 3D – “Girl Talk”, “In Your Arms Tonight” and “Turntable” probably don’t really need to be there. The final track on Now & Forever is “I Bet” by R U the Girl, the short-lived configuration of TLC that featured, as a one-song replacement for Lopes, the winner of R U the Girl, a 2005 UPN reality show/ singing contest (O’so Krispie – whose name I love). This, needless to say, also doesn’t need to be on a TLC greatest hits album.
Standout track: “Unpretty”
Beyoncé should cover this song. Oh wait, she basically already did.
How was this a hit?: “Ain’t To Proud to Beg”
This doesn’t fit in this category at all. I get why it was a hit. I just wanted an excuse to link to the video, in which everything is peak 1992.
5. Ace of Base
Greatest Hits (2000)
Hit rate: 45%
Chune rate: 75%
Overall score: 60%
Greatest Hits (2008)
Hit rate: 58%
Chune rate: 85%
Overall score: 71.5%
Composite overall score: 65.75%
Ace of Base developed a tendency throughout their career of releasing albums twice – once everywhere but North America, then, after a spell, again in the U.S. and Canada, only with a slightly different track listing. It therefore seems fitting that they should have two greatest hits compilations for review, the first of which was itself a North American companion to the European compilation, Singles of the 90s.
These double releases, while breaking up the sales totals, don’t obscure the fact that Ace of Base were, for a time, a major global hit. Let’s start with Happy Nation, or The Sign, depending on which part of the world you lived in. Depending on the version of the album you bought, you owned any – or all – of the following tracks: “All That She Wants”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “The Sign”, and “Don’t Turn Around”. The first of those – “All That She Wants” – was Ace of Base’s second single, but out-did “Wheel of Fortune” by hitting number one in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and eventually in the U.S., where it was the group’s first single. The timing of its release was staggered, emerging in early November 1992 in Europe, March 1993 in the UK and not until September 1993 in America.
(For the record, the term 'baby' in “All That She Wants” [“is another baby”] means 'lover', rather than an actual baby – that is, according to Jonas Berggren, the man who wrote it. In an interview with Billboard magazine earlier this year, Berggren said he wrote the song “about a woman he now only vaguely remembers.”)
While “All That She Wants” appeared overseas, “Happy Nation” and “Waiting for Magic” were released in Europe and performed decently (the former hit number one in France and Finland and fifth spot in the Netherlands). Then, in October 1993, only a month after “All That She Wants” came out in the States, Ace of Base released “The Sign” in Europe. This time the lag wasn’t as pronounced, as the U.S. saw its release in December, and it finally hit the UK in early January, 1994. While it didn’t perform to quite the chart level as its predecessor, “The Sign” still went number one in the U.S., Germany, Australia, and Canada, and hit second spot in the UK and Sweden. The cover version by Stephanie Tanner’s band, Girl Talk, failed to chart, as far as I’m aware, perhaps due to that disastrous opening night performance.
While it didn’t get a spot on the European version of Happy Nation, “Don’t Turn Around” – a cover of Albert Hammond’s (father to Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.) 1986 song – appeared on the initial North American version of The Sign. It got a European release eventually, as part of a 2-CD set featuring four different remixes and the B-side “Young and Proud”, and fared okay on the charts there, but did much better in Canada(#1) , the UK (#5), and the U.S. (#1 Top 40 mainstream; #4 Hot 100).
From the mid-1990s onward, Ace of Base faded, and there are perhaps only two notable singles from the latter part of the decade: “Beautiful Life” and “Cruel Summer”. “Beautiful Life” only ever got as high as 15th place on the U.S. charts, but it holds a particular nostalgic cache for those of us who fondly remember A Night at the Roxbury. “Cruel Summer”, a cover of Bananrama’s 1983 single (and staple of the Karate Kid soundtrack) reached about the same level of popularity after its release in 1998, and finished in exactly the same spot on the UK charts (#8) as the original.
All of which means that the 2000 greatest hits compilation, with only 12 songs, is a much stronger collection that its 2008 counterpart, a behemoth weighing in at 20 tracks, and which, for some reason, begins with “Lucky Love 2009”, a remix of “Lucky Love”, which is included anyway. Additionally, the 2008 collection carries with it a few tracks from the 2002 album Da Capo, which were never very good, and one of which – “Beautiful Morning” – could only be considered a hit within the narrowest parameters: it was number one in Romania.
Standout track: “Cruel Summer”
This is a deceptively downer track. “The city is so crowded/ My friends are away and I’m on my own/ It’s too hot to handle/ So I gotta get up and go, and go/ It’s a cruel, cruel summer/ Leaving me here on my own/ It’s a cruel, cruel summer/ Now you’re gone/ You’re not the only one.” Whoa! Lesson: don’t leave town, you will be cheated upon.
How was this a hit?: “The Sign”
What is this song about? Even Berggren doesn’t know. “It can mean something [different] to everybody,” he told Billboard. “It’s individual how you judge it.” Hmm, okay. In other words, it’s about nothing at all. The chorus, for instance: “I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign/ Life is demanding without understanding/ I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign/ No one’s going to drag you up to get into the light where you belong/ But where do you belong?” Individually, I judge this as nonsense.
Hit rate: 56%
Chune rate: 88%
Overall score: 72%
There exists a list of the best-selling boy-bands of all time. One could perhaps quibble with the definition of a boy-band, but assuming this is accurate (or accurate enough, anyway) it shows at a glance that *Nsync is nowhere near as big a band as their direct late-90s competition, the Backstreet Boys. *Nysnc ranks eighth overall on the list, having sold apparently somewhere in the region of 55 million albums. The Backstreet Boys have sold somewhere north of 130 million albums.
And yet, *Nsync managed those sales with only 4 albums over a seven-year run, whereas the Backstreet Boys had double the number of records over a career that’s run – give or take a few down years when they were inactive, though not necessarily broken up – three times longer. Which means *Nsync sold on average 7.8 million albums for every year they existed, versus only 5.9 million per year for the Backstreet Boys. Those one-week totals listed earlier seem to have made a difference. Thus, at their peak, *Nsync were arguably bigger than the Backstreet Boys.
But whatever. Comparing the two groups is so 1999. Can *Nsync’s hits still stand on their own in 2015?
*Nsync: Greatest Hits came out in 2005. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s the absolute official compilation or not, or whether there’s a more complete one around, but this is the one that iTunes has, so it’s official enough. This being the case, we must conclude that, despite the epic sales figures, *Nsync managed around 10 or 11 hits, and three very bad remixes of said hits. But even that’s being generous. “I’ll Never Stop”, and “Thinking of You (I drive myself crazy)” were only released as singles in Europe, and neither of them did exceptionally well – the latter peaked at number four in Spain, the former got as high as thirteenth spot in the UK. Even “Music of My Heart” (featuring Gloria Estefan), which climbed as high as fourth place on the U.S. Billboard adult contemporary chart (note: not the Hot 100), wasn’t really a hit in the way stuff like “Bye Bye Bye” or “Tearn’ Up My Heart” were.
Which means we have here around nine hits on a 16-track album, which doesn’t really inspire a lot of faith that all those albums were sold for any good reason. That being said, as we'll see with the Spice Girls, the hits that were mega were pretty mega, including “It’s Gonna Be Me”, of which we are still perennially reminded every May 1 (Justin Timberlake’s pronunciation of “me” in the title lyric resembles “May” – thus: “It’s gonna be May”. It’s very hilarious.).
Standout track: “Pop”
There is a lot to enjoy about this track. Almost everything you’d ever need to know about the late 90s is here, right down to the stutter edit, the mediocre faux-hip hop rhyming, and the white guy beat-boxing. All from a boy-band. All in under three minutes. It’s delicious.
How was this a hit?: “Gone”
Okay, so this wasn’t necessarily a hit any more than the other two non-hits I talked about earlier. “Gone” peaked at number eight on the Billboard Top 40, and at eleventh spot on its Hot 100. It did really poorly pretty much everywhere else (#24 in the UK, #23 in Canada, #62 in Germany). And yet, according to an un-sourced line in the song’s Wikipedia page, Timberlake claimed "that the song was originally intended for Michael Jackson, but Jackson wanted to record the song as a duet between himself and Timberlake.” Hmm.
Perhaps that pairing would have helped propel it further into hit status, but it’s doubtful. With the benefit of hindsight, the most striking aspect of the song – apart from how generally uninteresting it is – is that it sounds very much like a reject from Timberlake’s first solo record. Perhaps this makes sense: like “Pop”, Timberlake was its co-writer and co-producer.
3. Spice Girls
Hit rate: 66%
Chune rate: 90%
Overall score: 78%
We could thank Heart Management for the Spice Girls – it was they, after all, who set out to form a girl group that could compete with the likes of Take That. But really, the thanks should probably go to Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins, aka Absolute, the writing team who introduced the Girls to Simon Fuller. The rest is Cool Britannia history.
Rehashing the Spice Girls’ insane rise to fame isn’t really worth doing, but we should all take a pause to think back to the first time we heard “Wannabe” or, as in my case, saw the video. Has there been a more addictive song, ever? Actually, no, according to what, for the purposes of this, we’ll call science. Bottom line, it remains a chune of mega proportions, without question. What followed was a series of, if not equally gigantic, quite seriously large hits like “Say You’ll Be There”, “2 Become 1”, “Stop”, and “Viva Forever”.
While the popularity and success of the Spice Girls isn’t really in question, their Greatest Hits is a bit hit and miss. I’d like to think that the disco vibe of “Who Do You Think You Are” might have success now, in the wake of the Mark Ronson-led trumpet-and-saxaphone renaissance, but I’m not sure it would – and I’m not sure why this was a hit nearly twenty years ago, either. But that’s just me. More objectively worse is “Holler”, a painfully early-2000s dance floor jam. It’s like listening to Usher, but sloppier, and auto-tuned needlessly. It’s followed immediately by “Headlines (Friendship Forever)” which features the baffling lyrics: “We fall into the future and through the looking glass/ The light shines over our heads and so it comes to pass.” The rest of the song is similarly utter nonsense.
Other disappointments include “Let Love Lead the Way”, and “Voodoo”. In truth, there are probably ten songs on here of a possible 15 that are really worth labeling as hits, or listening to at all. Still, the strength of those means this is still a decent outing, overall.
Standout track: “Say You’ll Be There”
Three months after “Wannabe” slapped the world awake, this second single landed. It isn’t quite as catchy, but it's equally fun, and was apparently written in about 10 minutes. At the time, it was compared to an Earth, Wind and Fire song, but one with a “penetrating” groove. It’s fairly formulaic, but as a follow-up single to the biggest song in the world, it’s a very fine effort.
How was this a hit?: “Move Over”
This was a totally shit song even before Pepsi appropriated it for their ‘Generation Next’ marketing campaign in 1997. It’s cloyingly eager in its purpose, which seems to have been to simultaneously create an update to The Who’s “My Generation” – as if there needs to be one, ever – and operate as some unity battle cry (“Well sow me the seed/ Every colour, every creed/ Teach never preach/ Listen up take heed/ Take the heat, feel the flow”). Good God.
The rest of the lyrics are equally putrid. At one point they descend into meaningless assonance: “Dedication, celebration, anonimation, good vibration, motivation, domination, baby nation, recreation, imagination, crazy nation.” Fucking lazy.
2. Destiny’s Child
Hit rate: 81%
Chune rate: 76%
Overall score: 78.5%
It's easy to forget how long Destiny's Child was around before they started landing radio hits. By now, thanks to its sampling on Beyoncé’s last record, we’ve all heard the clip from that fateful second-place finish on Star Search Girl’s Tyme, the original team of Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, Támar Davis, and Nikki and Nina Taylor.
By the time Destiny’s Child released their self-titled debut in 1998, eight women had been members of what was by then a quartet. Shortly thereafter, Roberson and LeToya Luckett left, while Farrah Franklin and Michelle Williams joined. Franklin lasted roughly five months on the job, before being let go. Williams stayed on, leaving the trio we’re most familiar with now: Beyoncé, Rowland, and Williams.
Though some of Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits landed post- 2001’s Survivor, its predecessor, The Writing’s On The Wall, spawned songs like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Jumpin, Jumpin” (repetition was a big thing with them). Without the success of these songs, and Destiny’s Child’s popularity going into the new millennium, Survivor would not have been the chart-topper it was – and it definitely was, almost everywhere. A 2013 press release claimed Destiny’s Child had, to that point, sold over 60 million albums in total, worldwide.
#1’s, Destiny’s Child’s 2003 greatest hits compilation is a strong collection – strong enough to overlook its infuriating, grammatically incorrect, title. It includes major tracks like “Survivor”, “No, No, No”, “Say My Name”, “Soldier”, “Lose My Breath” and “Independent Women, Pt. 1” – the latter of which held the number-one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 11 consecutive weeks between November 2000 and February 2001. The most recent track to surpass that record was (sigh) Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” in 2013. (More recently, “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars managed 10 consecutive weeks, starting on January 27 this year.) 1’s also includes three new songs – “Stand Up For Love”, “Feel the Same Way I Do”, and “Check On It”, the latter of which was really just a Beyoncé single and, probably not coincidentally, was the best performing, chart-wise, of the three. (Of note: “Check On It” was originally supposed to appear on the soundtrack for The Pink Panther remake, in which Beyoncé starred, and the existence of which I can guarantee everyone reading this had forgotten until this exact moment.)
Standout track: “Bootylicious”
That Stevie Nicks riff. That bass line. This is the kind of song you could hear from outside the club, easily identify, and feel bad about missing. It was such a step above so much of the other garbage of its time.
How was this a hit?: “Independent Women, Pt. 1”
Taking nothing away from this song, which was an undeniable banger the moment it dropped, it’s curious to note that its ties to Charlie’s Angels did little to affect its sales or its reputation.
The song is exactly as advertised – a track about women getting it done on their own, or, at least as equal partners to men (“Pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills/ Always 50-50 in relationships”). And yet, the movie to which it was attached was based on a show that promoted the opposite kinds of ideas.
Charlie’s Angels, when it premiered in the 1970s was widely seen then, and now, as an overtly sexist (albeit popular) program, in which Charlie effectively standing acts the role of a pimp. As Judith Coburn wrote at the time, “Charlie dispatches his streetwise girls to use their sexual wiles on the world while he reaps the profits.” In fact, far from being a show designed to empower women, its creator, Aaron Spelling, said, “We understood that we needed to exploit the sexuality of the three girls.”
The 2000 film reboot wasn’t quite as galling as that, but all the same, it – and the horrendous follow-up – still featured plenty of T&A. Example: A scene wherein Cameron Diaz wakes up in the morning, dances in her underpants, and then tells the delivery boy, “You know, I signed that release waver, so you can just feel free to stick things in my slot.”
Did we not notice this at the time? Or did we just ignore it? I can’t remember. Anyway, whatever, I guess? Like I said, on its own, the song is still good.
(Related: There’s an interesting difference between this and “Independent Women, Pt. 2”, a bouncy companion that prominently features the shrill squeaks of what sounds like a small recorder-like wind instrument. It’s weird. Not weird-bad, necessarily, just kind of weird.)
 Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right, Dominic Sandbrook, Knopf 2011
1. The Backstreet Boys
Hit rate: 81%
Chune rate: 100%
Overall score: 90.5%
Seriously, these guys: undisputed kings. Even against their late-1980 predecessors, and eventual tour partners, New Kids On The Block, there isn’t much of a contest. As we’ve already seen in a couple places, BSB remain the giants of the genre – both in album sales and overall lasting impact. Their latest tour, which commemorated both their 20th year together as a group and their eighth studio album, grossed $32.8 million. Granted, that was only good for 44th best of 2014, but it still put them ahead of people like Blake Shelton and John Legend, and just behind Ed Sheeran. (Interesting note: the group with the biggest tour in 2014 was One Direction, the heirs to the BSB throne, though they will likely not snatch it away any time soon).
That’s not to say anyone is going to those shows to hear new material. Likely all those folks are there for the same reason you’d buy Greatest Hits: Chapter One, which still lacks a follow-up – though there may never need be one. Practically every song on this compilation (the UK/Asia edition, which, at 16 tracks, is the most complete of the over 10 versions they released) is a total hit parade. Here are the first five songs, along with their peak Billboard position: “I Want It That Way” (#1); “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (#4); “As Long As You Love Me” (#3); “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely” (#1); and “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” (#2). I mean, come on.
Greatest Hits: Chapter One does have some lesser tracks. “More Than That”, for example, was a total dud, getting no higher than 27th on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, and only as high as twelfth in the UK. “The One”, though a decent song, never really caught on with the fans to which the video was dedicated. A new single, “Drowning”, released with the album in 2001, fared better, peaking at number four in the UK and at eleventh overall in Canada, but it still didn’t catch on in the US, where it did no better than 28th spot. Chapter One also features “The Call”, a wonderful trip back to when people actually still used to phone one another, rather than simply texting them smiling poops. “Listen baby, I’m sorry/ Just wanna tell you don’t worry/ I will be late don’t stay up and wait for me/ I’ll say again you’re dropping out my battery is low/ So you know, we’re going to a place nearby/ I gotta go.” Terrific. Let’s go back to calling one another. Singing about texting just gets strange.
Do you own this album? You should really own this. It's the best.
Standout track: “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”
I’ll give it to this song over a few others, mostly because it marks an important point in popular music – namely, when Max Martin started dominating everything. And I do mean everything.
How was this a hit?: “I Want It That Way”
This other Max Martin-penned hit, and arguably the Backstreet Boys’ biggest, is utterly nonsensical.
It starts with Brian and Nick: “You are my fire/ The one desire/ Believe when I say/ I want it that it way/ But we are two worlds apart/ Can’t reach to your heart/ When you say/ That I want it that way/ Tell me why/ Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache/ Tell me why/ Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake/ Tell me why/ I never wanna hear you say/ I want it that way.”
It becomes no clearer as the song goes on, when it’s AJ’s turn: “Am I your fire?/ Your one desire?/ Yes I know/ It’s too late/ But I want it that way.”
And Kevin and Howie provide no serious guidance, either: “Now I can see we’re falling apart/ From the way that it used to be, yeah/ No matter the distance/ I want you to know/ That deep down inside of me/ You are my fire/ The one desire/ You are, you are, you are, you are/ Don’t want to hear you say/ Ain’t nothing but a heartache/ Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake/ I never wanna hear you say/ I want it that way.”
Still kind of great, though.