The onslaught of greatest-hits collections during the holiday season is as inevitable as the wave of hysteria sweeping shopping malls. And the reason record companies release these bulky packages at yuletide is simple: If Aunt Bee doesn't know which Doobie Boys album to buy for her nephew Opie, well, she'll get him the one with all the goodies.
Hits packages are often padded and illconceived, their playing sequence a jumbled disgrace. But there have been collections that will always remain testaments, rather than tombstones, like "Elvis Golden Record" and "Little Richard's Grooviest 17 Orginal Hits."
In general, only a great artist's work can become a first-rate hits collection. Whether or not a greatest-hit LP by a mediocre artist is worth having is determined by the following rule: It must make the artist's other albums completely expendable. Currently riding high in the charts are collections that do just that.
Lavishly packaged by the Robert Stigwood Mob as if it were King Tut's wedding album, the two-record "Bee Gees Greatest" (RSO RS-2-4200) would barely fit into the back of a small pickup.
It proves, finally, that the Bee Gees, despite the critical daggers, are significant pop craftsmen, possessed with the rare knowledge that junk music is its own reward. What the kiddie Doo-Wop of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers was to the '50s and the comical pitch of Alvin and the Chipmunks was to the '60s, the castrato falsetto of the Bee Gees was to the '70s.
Naturally, the album contains only the recordings of the Bee Gees II, bypassing altogether the warbling of those wimpy lads many mistook for the Beatles in the mid-'60s. Its playing sequence alternates so perfectly between hard gloss and soft sap that, from "Jive Talkin" through "Children of the World," one can practically visualize the pearly teeth of this sparkling band, medallions swinging across their hairy chests like copper suns setting off the Florida coast. "Bee Gees Greatest," by trying to be nothing more than a trashy product, is the most esthetically pleasing package since Kiss' "Double Platinum."
Like the Bee Gees, Electric Light Orchestra is rooted in mid-'60s pop (the band's an outgrowth of the psychedelic Move), sharing the Gibb brothers' affinity for jittery choirboy vocals. ELO's records are the quintessence of techno minds infatuated with tape loops. For leader Jeff Lynne, rock's twinkel of creation is symbolized by "a great big reel of virgin tape waiting on the 24-track recorder."
"ELO's Greatest Hits" (Jet FZ 36310) has been so carefully assembled (correct choice of material, proper playing order) that not only is it an economical buy (one's other ELO records can now be tossed under the sink), but it's also loaded with good-morning cheer. Simply slap it on the turntable after the first bowl of Trix, and rise and shine!
Now the bad news. Donna Summer has released her elephantine package, "On the Radio -- Greatest Hits -- Volumes One and Two" "Casablanca Nblp-27191), perhaps a year too early. Like her hot album from last summer, "Bad girls," it would have been more impressive compressed into one record.
As a treasury of hits, it can only be labeled a padded ripoff. Side three includes the '79 gems from "Bad Girls" (which fans have already purchased once this year) plus the drizzly "MacArthur Park." Side four contains only two cuts, "No more Tears (Enough Is Enough)" (a drippy duo with Streisand) and (On the Radio" (a tediously elongated version of the current hit, itself the collection's opening cut).
Although it has been consistently at the top of the chart for months, Summer's collection brazenly ignores the fundamental tenet of a respectable greatest-hits album -- it doesn't eclipse the impace of her earlier releases.