The thinking goes, if someone ONLY owns The Essential Bruce Springsteen but still calls themselves a Springsteen fan, they’re full of it. That’s only half true, though — there are some great bands where it’s fine to purchase albums with the word “Ultimate” in the title, while others, well, let’s just say please don’t respond to “what’s your favorite Clash song?” with “Rock the Casbah.” I’m not saying you should ONLY own the albums listed below for the eight artists represented — you should most definitely listen to Full Moon Fever, Damn the Torpedoes, and even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new album, Hypnotic Eye — but they’re a great start. Much better than the inessential Essential Bob Dylan.
Honorable mentions: The Very Good Years by Frank Sinatra (too tough to choose only one era of Sinatra — if you pick his Reprise songs, you’re leaving off everything he did with Capitol); The Immaculate Collection by Madonna; and HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I by Michael Jackson (just buy Thriller).
1. Greatest Hits by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Desert Island Song: “Even the Losers”
Reason: No one makes The Perfect Rock Song sound easier than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s easy to take “Refugee” and “Into the Great Wide Open,” songs that will be played on classic rock radio for as long as classic rock radio exists, for granted, because they seem so effortless, like Petty wrote them in real time. Especially here, on their Greatest Hits album, where there’s not a single dud. But try to pretend you’re hearing the triumphant “Even the Losers” with fresh ears — it’s exhilarating.
2. Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Desert Island Song:
Reason: Creedence Clearwater Revival was a band plagued by turmoil, feuds, and egos, and it took John Fogerty decades to get what should have been his in the first place, but none of that matters when you go from “Fortunate Son” to “Travelin’ Band” to “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” It’s all about the music, MAN. (You have to sound like a dad when discussing CCR.) (And call them CCR.)
3. The Ultimate Collection by the Kinks
Desert Island Song: “Waterloo Sunset”
Reason: The Kinks are rarely mentioned in the Greatest Bands of All-Time discussion, because they’re a) a classic rock from the U.K. that isn’t the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and b) not flashy. In fact, “David Watts” and “Till the End of the Day” are nearly too precious for their own good, but like the best Wes Anderson movies (i.e. not The Darjeeling Limited), that preciousness is rivaled by wit and satire, Ray Davies’ specialties. Even “Lola” holds up after listen #32,092.
4. 1 by the Beatles
Desert Island Song: “We Can Work It Out”
Reason: You probably own the albums all 27 of these number-one singles are on, but 1 still works as a nice summation of how far the Beatles evolved in only eight short years, from the scrappy “Love Me Do” to the overly sentimental “The Long and Winding Road.” Those guys are gonna go far.
5. Gold: Greatest Hits by ABBA
Desert Island Song: “Fernando”
Reason: I love Gold because “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “Fernando” are great pop songs, and I learned many years ago to stop applying the “guilty pleasure” tag to ABBA — there’s true beauty in the sad desperation of “S.O.S.”; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But I also hate Gold because it’s the first album in my iTunes (listed alphabetical by band name), and “Dancing Queen” has accidentally started playing countless times. F*ck “Dancing Queen.”
6. Endless Summer by the Beach Boys
Desert Island Song: “Help Me, Rhonda”
Reason: For when you want a non-Pet Sounds Beach Boys album that sounds like childhood.
7. Back to Mono (1958–1969) by Phil Spector
Desert Island: “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”
Reason: Phil Spector is a total sh*thead (not exactly a #HotTake there), but goddamn, he knew what he was doing in the studio. Back to Mono collects his finest work from the late 1950s to 1969, including songs from the Ronettes, Darlene Love, the Crystals, and other artists on the Goodfellas soundtrack. Surround everything you know about Spector with a Wall of Sound, and enjoy “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up.”
8. Greatest Hits by Queen
Desert Island Song: “Don’t Stop Me Now”
Reason: To say that Queen is a superb singles band isn’t a knock on A Night at the Opera and Jazz. It just means that those albums are top-loaded, but lucky for us, the top is “Fat Bottomed Girls.” So while Queen may not have ever put together a complete masterpiece, hey, that’s what Greatest Hits is for.