Just How Many Definitive Best-Of Albums Can An Artist Have?

Sometimes it feels less about tribute and more about cash.

Around this time every year, as sure as death and taxes, major labels raid the catalogs of their biggest artists and emerge with a generous helping of best-of albums and box sets.

On the release schedule for, in industry speak, the fourth quarter of 2003 are compilations from Sheryl Crow, No Doubt, Stone Temple Pilots, R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Talking Heads, to name a few.

Considered the ultimate stocking stuffer for casual fans without the desire or dinero to buy an artist’s entire back catalog, the best-of album reduces an artist’s artistry to the bare essentials: the hits.

Usually the artist will go the extra yard and pad a retrospective with one or more new songs — as STP, R.E.M., RHCP (see “Red Hot Chili Peppers To Release ’Live At Slane’ DVD, Best-Of LP” ) and No Doubt all have done this time around — so fans who already own all of that artist’s material will have a reason to buy the collection too.

In rare instances, an obvious hit will be conveniently left off a best-of album — for example, “In Your Eyes” was omitted from Peter Gabriel’s 1990 compilation Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats — so the consumer will have to buy the best-of plus the original album the hit appeared on. One could argue the Chili Peppers have employed this tactic on their forthcoming Greatest Hits album, which leaves off “Warped,” the group’s biggest hit from 1995’s One Hot Minute.

“That’s not typically our approach,” said Kevin Gore, executive vice president for Warner Strategic Marketing. “We try to be as all-encompassing as possible. Sometimes, however, you find that the artist is no longer enamored by a song and it’s by their choice that it’s left off.”

Labels decide upwards of a year in advance which artists they’ll approach — or circumvent — with regards to making a best-of album. After Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame last year, Warner approached the band about putting out its first box set. “There was a period of negotiation because it also involves the re-release of old albums as well after the box set and what our compensation should be,” former Talking Head Chris Frantz said. The group’s four-disc Once in a Lifetime set is out this month.

Once retrospectives were considered a rite of passage or just reward for a lengthy career, but that’s clearly not the case anymore. Consider one-album wonders the Fugees or the Sex Pistols, who have Greatest Hits and Best Of albums, respectively. In these cases, retrospectives are released because the group no longer exists but there’s still demand.

Last year, Nirvana released an eponymous best-of drawing from their three studio albums. Courtney Love and the surviving bandmembers filled out the package with material from the odds-and-sods release Incesticide and MTV Unplugged, plus their Holy Grail final recording, “You Know You’re Right.”

“I think a good best-of is a good thing,” Ataris frontman Kris Roe said. “Granted, I don’t think there have been may best-ofs that do a band justice, but I agree that there are a few that turned me on to a band.”

What, however, turns off the music fan is an artist who repeatedly releases best-of albums. Seven months after Aerosmith released Young Lust: The Aerosmith Anthology in November 2001, the classic rockers came out with O, Yeah! Ultimate Aerosmith Hits, which repeated many of the same songs but was more extensive than the previous compilation. Jimi Hendrix — dead since 1970 — has a new retrospective in stores almost every year.

“The only discernable difference between a bunch of them is the sequence,” laughed Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson. Sometimes it’s worse than that. Three years after Mariah Carey’s #1’s, Sony released the diva’s Greatest Hits, which included all but one song on #1’s plus eleven others.

“A lot of it really depends upon what’s happening in the marketplace,” Warner’s Gore said. “Is there a definitive greatest-hits that’s current enough that would make it hard for you to go out and tell everybody that this is the greatest-hits or best-of you have to have? If that hasn’t been done in a long time it makes a more compelling argument for retailers to carry it and for consumers to buy it.”

In other words, buyer beware.