What’s the best “greatest hits” album of all time? There are many worthy candidates, but if you’re thinking of a release that presents a perfect portrait of an artist—while clocking in at just over 32 minutes—then there is only one real choice. It’s Patsy Cline‘s Greatest Hits, released by Decca Records on 13 March 1967, just over four years after Cline’s death in an airplane crash.
First, a little “greatest hits” history. Johnny’s Greatest Hits, a compilation of tracks by crooner Johnny Mathis, is generally considered the first greatest hits album. It was released in March of 1958, the same month as Elvis’ Golden Records (often the title of “first rock ‘n’ roll greatest hits collection”). Both the Mathis and Presley LPs were commercially successful, though Johnny’s Greatest Hits proved to be the monster, setting a record for the number of weeks on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. This record would go uncontested until the early 1980s when Pink Floyd finally broke it with The Dark Side of the Moon.
Generally speaking, greatest hits albums are not artistic statements; they are cash cows for record companies, turning old hits into new gold. Compilations of past glories can also serve as convenient escape hatches for artists: they’re contractual obligations that sell big numbers during their first holiday season and then often fade into obscurity if the artist’s popularity wanes.
Some of them sell huge numbers but quickly become outdated if the act in question continues to hit big. For instance, Elton John’s 1974 Greatest Hits was massive, but he’s had dozens of hits since then. As for the Eagles’ Greatest Hits, it rivals Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the biggest-selling record ever, yet it was released before the Hotel California album. In other words, Eagles’ Greatest Hits only tells part of the story and, some may argue, not the most interesting part.
Once in a while, though, a hits set becomes a definitive artistic statement. Bob Marley’s Legend comes to mind. While the reggae icon has a stellar discography to explore, it is this posthumous compilation from 1984 that has become a multi-generational dorm room staple. For as great as the Buzzcocks studio albums might be, could there possibly be a better record than 1979’s tremendous Singles Going Steady? (We named an entire series after it, after all.)
However, the hits collection that has most seriously contributed to an artist’s legacy is undoubtedly Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits.
The original liner notes on the back cover of Greatest Hits state that while many other Cline albums had already been released, “this one has been purposefully designed to be treasured above all the others: this, more than any of those albums which have gone before it, brings you a classic collection of the songs which were unquestionably her greatest”.
You don’t need to hear the rest of Cline’s work to get the feeling that the 12 songs on Greatest Hits are indeed “unquestionably her greatest”. There are several reasons for this:
- The Voice. Patsy Cline’s voice, one of the most expressive in the entire era of recorded sound, could elevate even the most mediocre of songs. Dive deeper into the body of work and you’ll find average tunes that were positively elevated because she applied her voice to them.
- The Songs. From opener “Walking After Midnight” through closing number “Leavin’ on Your Mind“, Greatest Hits is a top-notch collection of songs and a master class in solid songwriting. Foremost among them is the transcendent “Crazy”, a song so iconic that its songwriter, Willie Nelson, still performs it at every show he plays. There ought to be a law requiring every remaining jukebox in the world to contain Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
- The Production. Owen Bradley, Cline’s producer, was one of the pioneers of the “Nashville Sound”. Moving away from what was considered the “hillbilly” elements of country music, Bradley surrounded Cline’s voice with strings and backing vocals. Surely, there were screams of “sellout” but the Nashville Sound proved to be an integral part of country music’s evolution. Time has proven that there will always be an appreciation for “real” country music—whatever that is—but Bradley’s vision has proven to be timeless (see also: k.d. lang’s Shadowland) and it is vividly on display throughout Greatest Hits.
- The Performances. Owen Bradley had the best session musicians in Nashville at his disposal and he used them well. Pianists Floyd Cramer and Hargus “Pig” Robbins, guitarists Hank Garland and Grady Martin—and we can’t forget the Jordanaires on background vocals—among others turn in performances that are understated but crucial in achieving Bradley’s vision. Spin “Crazy” a few more times, focusing on everything except Cline’s vocals, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.
I’m not certain when my family’s copy of Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits showed up in Mom and Dad’s record collection, but it is a 1973 reissue released on MCA. My parents had a couple of the early, budget-priced posthumous Cline albums in their collection, but as I recall, they never made it to the turntable. Greatest Hits got plenty of airplay, though, both long before and long after Cline’s life story was told (inaccurately, according to her family) in the 1985 film Sweet Dreams, which starred Jessica Lange.
Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits was released for the first time on a compact disc in 1988. This digital version is called 12 Greatest Hits, features a different cover, and contains the twangier version of “Walking After Midnight”. Otherwise, it is a straight reissue of Greatest Hits. The album has been given “diamond” status (sales of at least 10 million copies) by the Recording Industry Association of America. While it has charted twice on Billboard’s Country album chart (at #17 in 1967 and at #27 in 1988), Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits is probably the biggest hit album ever not to have made even a dent on Billboard’s general Top 200 album chart.
Cline’s full career was finally given comprehensive treatment in 1991 when the four-disc The Patsy Cline Collection was released. While the reputation of compact discs has withered in recent decades, the Cline collection is a textbook example of how perfectly a box of CDs can encapsulate an artist’s career in a convenient and informative format.
I added The Patsy Cline Collection to our family’s music collection soon after it came out. Everyone liked having the box set around, but I do remember one particular time (at a Sunday dinner) where I suggested playing CDs from the box set, and Mom said, “No, just put on the Greatest Hits. Sometimes, all you need are the greatest hits”.
The truth about Patsy Cline is that if you love Greatest Hits, then you’ll probably love her body of work, especially as it is curated on The Patsy Cline Collection. The live tracks, lesser-known tunes, and various obscurities place the hits in a fresh context. And, of course, we should be thankful for every note of music that Cline recorded in her career.
At the same time, though, the conclusion of the Greatest Hits liner notes presciently describes the impact that this simple 12-song collection was going to have on perpetuating the memory of one of the 20th century’s greatest vocalists, in any genre:
The Patsy Cline enshrined in the hearts of our generation will go on and on gathering tens of thousands of new admirers in the years to come. Many who are too young to have watched her rise to fame will discover Patsy for the first time in this collection of her hits. Here they will hear 12 of the greatest reasons why her name has earned far more than just passing mention in the annals of country blues … why hers is an entire chapter in country music history, all by itself.
I could go on and on about this masterpiece, but instead, I’ll suggest—in the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe’sdvice on reading short stories in one sitting—that you find 32 minutes in your busy life to sit and listen to Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits. You’ll then know more about Patsy Cline than anything else can teach you.
In other words, as Mom once said, “Sometimes, all you need are the greatest hits.”